Sunday 4 May 2014

“An Irreplaceable Ethnographic Record”?; A Takedown of Jimmy Nelson’s 'Before They Pass Away'.

On the 6th of March 2014 when Tarapuhi and I (Hollie) were getting our morning coffee at one of our fave coffee places (which also happens to be a book store) we noticed something gleaming at us from the display table – Jimmy Nelson’s Before they Pass AwayIt probably doesn’t help that the book is humungous, but what really drew us in was the front cover:

Immediately we let out disgruntled sighs, ‘why was it that people continue to promote the idea that indigenous peoples are all going to die soon?!’ But it wasn’t until we stumbled across a section on Māori that our gears were truly grinded. Highly aware of the idea, encouraged during settler colonialism, that Māori were a dying race we were deeply offended that this recently published book (2013) was still going along with the idea, especially since Māori had proven those settlers wrong (yes, we’re still here). Now, don’t get us wrong, the photos are absolutely stunning, and all credit to Nelson’s photography skills, but his aim to create an “irreplaceable ethnographic account” was not, in our opinion, fulfilled.

Back at anthsisters HQ we thought about what we were gonna do about this book, that as far as we could tell, was a subtle reminder of the everyday task indigenous peoples face to be considered living and thriving in today’s world. Our first step, we decided, would be to email said coffee shop/book store and let them know how we felt. Below is a copy of the emails:


Kia ora

I noticed you have a copy of the book Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson. I just thought I would let you know that many indigenous people find this highly offensive as it fetishizes indigenous peoples and represents many groups, including Maori, as primitive and as a homogenised ‘dying race’.

Perhaps it would be appropriate for it to be removed, or to be gifted to the Visual Anthropology department as an example of ethnocentric and offensive photography.

Personally I was really saddened to see it displayed at one of my favourite coffee places.

Tarapuhi Bryers-Brown



I'm a student at Kelburn campus and I noticed today that you're selling Jimmy Nelson's 'Before they pass away' book. I don't know if you guys have actually looked at the book beyond the beautiful photos but it's actually super offensive.

Referring to these cultures as dying is fucking ridiculous! If you just look around you Maori (who are depicted in the book) are thriving and I think it's bullshit that this guy is passing my people off as some sort of primitive people that you have to see, like some 'quick before they're gone' deal at Godfrey's vacuum place.

That's a link to Matika Wilbur's project which is aiming to dismantle the ridiculous ideas this book promotes, which I recommend you guys check out.

I would really appreciate it, as a Maori, as a student, and as a customer, if you would sort your shit and remove this racist and colonial propaganda from your store.



After a week of no reply to our emails, we decided to take it to Twitter, tweeting at Jimmy Nelson directly, and Pita Sharples (NZ MP) who was featured in the book.

Again, no reply. But we had come across some articles that shed some light on a few things, most notably this one which garnered a response from Nelson. Then said coffee place/book store emailed us back:


Hello Hollie,

We have decided after consideration to keep 'Before They Pass Away' in the store. 

We understand your concern, and agree that the book is clumsily titled. When we received your email we removed it from the shelf to have a look. We read the introduction to the Maori chapter and it describes Maori culture as far from dying out. The photographer also himself stated in interviews that many of his photographs were staged, meant as celebrations of the cultures photographed rather than accurate, everyday depictions of those cultures.

Once we'd had a thorough look at the book, we took it to the Maori Studies department at Vic to take a look, and they agreed with us - that while the title was unfortunate, the book itself was not offensive.

We hope this helps you understand our decision to keep the book in our stock.

Kind regards,

[Said bookshop]


We were shocked, angry, but mostly disheartened with their response. We felt as if our feelings and arguments were delegitimised in one short and quite vague email (e.g. who did they speak to from the Māori department?). As well as this discouraging email, we also had our study to deal with - research proposals due, tutorials to plan, and ethics applications to fill out – so we put it on the back-burner for a couple of weeks.

Then we brought it up with one of our lecturers. She listened and agreed but reminded us about a little thing called freedom of speech. And she was right. Although it sucks, Jimmy Nelson is free to say what he wants, publishers are free to publish want they want , and bookshops are free to stock what they want, as long as it doesn’t promote hate speech. And technically Nelson’s book doesn’t. So, what could we do then? That’s when we came up with the idea to do a blog post about the book (because we have freedom of speech too J).

Now although it may sometimes seem we are personally attacking Jimmy Nelson, we don’t necessarily intend to. Rather, we think of it as an attempt to question and criticize the structures in society that allow this idea to flourish, and which encourage people to see Nelson’s book as anything other than a promotion of colonial ideas:

 But not all hope is lost, there are still some sane people in the world of Amazon:

So yeah, over the next few days (perhaps weeks depending on our procrastination levels) we are going to be posting a three-part series on why each of us thinks this book sucks. We hope you enjoy it and please feel free to leave some comments down below which we’ll endeavour to reply to (again, according to our procrastination levels).

Anthsisters out!


  1. Well said Hollie/Anthsisters!!!!!!!! Beautiful photos but some serious ignorant comments in the book..... Lets see what happens....

  2. Kia ora e aku hoa!

    If I'm not mistaken (and I so often am), that photo of Pita was taken inside a booth Jimmy (or Jimmy & co, or Jimmy's co, not sure which) had set up during the Te Matatini festival 2011. Te Matatini, a cultural performance highlight, where just about everybody is dressed up in traditional clothing, where the ethos and atmosphere is unequivocally Maori. The usual guards are let down and naivety is non-existent - it can't exist in a space where there is an absolute mutual acceptance of what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour. Apparently. So in comes this fullah taking photos, like everybody else is, and 'yep, alright then, I'm dressed to the nines, I'll get in on that!'

    As but one Maori, what irks me about this kaupapa is not that Pita had his photo taken for the book but that Jimmy was even allowed to be there. This is us in our most excited and most vulnerable position - we need and deserve to be in that state but we deserve safety. If a guy is there taking photos I shouldn't have to second guess why he's there in that space. That's my space, he's there with me, and for me. Kāti. I complained to the Te Matatini Committee on the 11/8/13 that while I accepted the right of outsiders to come into the festival to research, to study, to learn and to take photos, the Committee should have vetted Jimmy properly. Doing so would have raised questions about the intent of his work and the benefit his being there would have for Maori people. Which amounts to, of course, nothing - the same weight of response I got from the Committee all those months ago.

    It is frustrating that in this day and age we are still being subjected to voyeuristic research, and even more frustrating that we are so ready to engage in it and be party to it ourselves.

    As an Indigenous person, I'm not saddened by the book, but its intent. Jimmy preys like Willie plays - there's apparently a message in there somewhere but it's tarnished by they stuff they're high on. Messages that might have permeated through the book would have shown how Indigenous groups have carried on living their lives, despite the pressure of a world that is waiting (eager?) for them to pass away ('and quickly I need a sales jump!'). It might have tried to shed light on some of the experiences they have to offer the world, share knowledge, forge ideas, even save some languages - before those language actually do pass away. He tāutuutu te mātauranga, knowledge is a give-and-take process. If you aren't playing that game, you haven't learnt a thing. That's how ignorance, and history, repeats itself.

    The antithesis of Jimmy's project of course, is Soldiers Rd Portraits ( This kaupapa, is Maori-led (not that I'm saying everything ought to be), with Maori objectives that aim to use photography to bring tradition and the contemporary together. There is excitement about it, there is passion in those two artists. The art form is similar, but the message is positive and uplifting for our people.

    I'm so stoked you guys have created this space, and I hope you don't mind me weighing in from time-to-time.

    Heoi anō tāku,

  3. Kia ora Vini,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read our piece and engage in discussion. You're right that Pita's photo was taken at Te Matatini, so were some of the other portrait ones, at a booth he had set up at the festival. I totally agree that more research should have been done regarding his presence and I'm saddened by the response you got to your complaint - I feel the book stores response was similar, vague and dismissive.

    I also agree that the book has a lot of potential - the people are beautiful and so are a lot of the photos, but the message behind it ruins what could be uplifting and actually informative book.

    Thanks again for 'weighing in' haha feel free to come guest blog for us anytime!


  4. Yep, I reckon vague and dismissive is almost a default response especially when issues are binary-related (which I feel this is at its core). I'd love to do a project similar to Jimmy's but properly - you know, with morals and shit. Just to show how the choice to do something positive or not is just that, a choice!

    I'd love to guest blog, thanks heaps for the offer! But, I also recognise my dudeness (I have dudeness btw haha). For me, the responsibility that comes with that is to not impose on any space that might not be meant to service and broadcast what I think it should or what I'm interested in. If you're okay with me doing that though, obviously I'd love to. I like exploring binaries/ identity/ language/ mana tāne and mana wahine compliments and things like that, if those are things you guys would like to read :)

    Or, I'd love to co-write something too if anyone was keen and had a topic they'd like to collaborate on.

    Ngā mihi nui!


    1. Aroha mai Vini! Totally just saw this. Still trying to figure out the whole blog thing!

      Your cautiousness is truly appreciated, however this space is intended to be very open- the Anthsisters name is mostly for added sass.

      We would absolutely love to have you write a post for us if you are still keen. If there is something you feel like you would like to put out there, but is to long for a Facey post haha, then thats certainly our jam! Just email it through whenever suits.


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