Tuesday 6 May 2014

"An Irreplaceable Ethnographic Record"?; More Like Diary of a ColonialPhotographer!

In this post, Tayla introduces the three-part takedown of Jimmy Nelson's Before they Pass Away by looking at colonial photography, and the danger of reading photographs as 'truth'. 

It took the Anthsisters a while to decide exactly what we were going to do about ol' Jimmy. The whiteboard in Anthsisters HQ was filled with comments, quotes, ideas and points to make in our post, we had a few meetings where we took notes and discussed what we were going to write, and we read endless reviews and articles on the book. Tarapuhi and I even watched Jimmy Nelson's TED talk (our favourite part was when Jimmy referred to Inuit as Eskimos. So anthropological). After working ourselves up, and feeling every kind of emotion possible, we decided the best bet was to each write a piece focusing on one aspect we were passionate about. I've decided to use this takedown to discuss the introduction of photography and how it became a source of scientific truth, the danger in reading photographs as truth, and how Jimmy Nelson's Before they Pass Away is in my mind, a modern-day diary of a colonial photographer. 
[1] Malinowski 1974                                                                          [2] Nelson 2013
Maybe Jimmy Nelson's wife might publish his diary one day?

In 1904, Dudley Kidd published The Essential Kafir which presented Africans in South Africa as a variegated but single ‘race’. In the text in these treatments, racial and ethnic hallmarks were expressed as departures from a familiar Western norm – from the white, male and middle-class self, and as a reflection of colonial interests, registering the difficulty or usefulness of a population.
In 2013, Jimmy Nelson published Before they Pass Away which presented 31 tribes across the globe, each a ‘visually unique’ race. In the text at the beginning of this book, racial and ethnic hallmarks were expressed as departures from the Western norm – from the white, male and middle-class self, to a reflection of the ‘purity of humanity’ and the ‘last resorts of natural authenticity’.
What do these two books, from two different eras have in common? Photographs and observations by two white men that we are encouraged to believe represent ‘truthful’ insights into the nature of native people.

Seriously Jimmy, it’s the 21st century! Have you not realised we have moved past salvage ethnography? The myth of the ‘noble savage’ is dated. It’s unoriginal. And you know what? It’s racist.
I'm over the Noble Savage myth Jimmy.
The photograph is considered to be a process of scientific truth. As a society, the West are driven, even obsessed with the concept of truth – ideas of science, biology and fact are principle to the functioning of Western culture. Photography contributed to this need for fact and truth when it emerged in the mid-18th century and became a popular method of portraiture. Ever since, it has served as a tool throughout history to depict individuals and document key moments all over the world. Photography was the by-product of the European technological revolution - the period in which scientific facts began to rule Western society. Because it was mechanical, photography was believed by many in this period, and has continued to be, a direct reflection of nature and reality: evidence in support of facts. The immobile perspective of the photograph cements the viewer in a single position, it holds the eye “static, unblinking and fixated” (Landau 2002:159). What we see in the image, we see as the truth.
With colonialism in the 19th century, came an interest in indigenous people – and at the same time, Darwin’s theory of evolution joined the power of photography. Colonial photography thus emerged as a ‘scientific’ mode of representing human types: white men at the top, indigenous at the bottom. Accordingly, photography at this time became a way to measure and classify the lives of indigenous people. The British public soon became interested in indigenous people and photography became the medium that satisfied this curiosity, while at the same time providing an authentic, scientific document of native life. During this period, photographs provided Western audiences with a variety of images depicting the bodily dimensions of individuals as they were photographed as specimens in highly controlled environments. The native subject’s identity was suppressed in the interests of “representing the whole” (Grimshaw 2008:296).  Before they Pass Away presents a scary similarity to photographs and the use of photography in this period - just as a photograph of an African man in the 19th century represented all African men, Jimmy Nelson’s 10 photographs of Tibetan people serve to represent the whole of Tibet. 
[4]                                                                                     [5]
If we compare figure [4] which was taken in 1890, with figure [5] - one of Nelson’s photos, we see a blatant comparison – physical appearance becomes the basis by which we assume knowledge of their culture, intelligence and evolution. Both these photographs have the subjects unclothed with their genitalia exposed and the are positioned against a neutral context, so as to enhance the 'appreciation' of physical characteristics.
The issue with photographs representing ‘truth’ is that Nelson’s photography places the power onto two people – himself, and the viewer; he has placed the individuals in his book into his own administrative categories by which we, as the viewer make our own assumptions. We ‘read’ these photographs as documents and extract historical information that offers insight into the time, context and place of the original production of the image. What is so dangerous here is that the viewer (taking into account the historical factuality and truth of the photographic image) see these images as a factual account of how these people live. Nelson’s photography does not preserve their culture as he claims, it preserves how he has constructed their culture to be - he is essentially writing their culture and history for them. The camera is aimed from his point of view, employing a white male perspective, while the people photographed are made to stand for cultural difference. What are we learning of these people? We are learning what they look like from Nelson's point of view. That culture is physical, it is war paint, weapons, tattoos, nudity and suffering. 
Can everybody please understand the danger in outsiders making assumptions of culture for others! Of Nelson creating his own idea of culture!??

Can you just imagine what he's saying right now? "Okay stand there, don't smile, look savage".
In his article on colonial photography in Africa, Paul Landau explains how photographs of colonies in Africa were shipped to large cities and the centres of empire, where they were turned into postcards by specialised firms in Europe or big companies in the United States and shipped across the world so Westerners could buy them. Ultimately, the role of photography in the colonial era emerged not from who made the images, or who were in the images themselves, but rather in the appropriation of tribal images into structures of distribution to Western audiences. It is precisely this appropriation that characterised mechanically reproduced images of Africans (Landau 2002:161). And it is precisely this appropriation and curiosity of the tribal image that has resulted in Nelson’s ridiculously priced coffee table book (it was printed by a company that specifically specialises in coffee table books) with his XXL limited edition offered in a clamshell book, showcased on a custom-made transparent book holder containing three autographed prints.

The price of this book is just one of the hundreds of reasons why I think this book sucks. But in all seriousness, all I see is commodification. Nelson started working as a photographer in 1987, his first visual diary based on a year long trip to Tibet was published to wide international acclaim and soon after, he was commissioned to cover a variety of culturally newsworthy themes. From 1997 onwards, he began to undertake commercial advertising assignments for many of the world's leading brands. When he started to successfully and internationally exhibit and sell his images, he initiated Before they Pass Away. Now what does this tell us? Jimmy Nelson is a photographer who sells his images. Because no one featured in the book would be able to buy it, and because he is selling it for ridiculous amounts of money, all I can see is that he completely took advantage of these people to:

1. Make money
2. Satisfy the 'needs' of Western folk who wish to become more 'cultured' and fulfill their curiosity of the native world. 

Sounds a little like colonial photography to me.

Buy this deluxe limited edition! Only NZ$12,779.72 (I'm not joking, that's how much it costs). 
Colonial photography did not accommodate space for the opinions, names or consent of the subjects, thus creating images and representations of a generalised figure. Though we will never know the process by which Nelson gained consent from the people photographed in this book, the names of the individuals are at the back of the book (and to be honest, who is going to look at a photograph, then flick to the back of the book to check the name? Also – a photograph of prominent Maori politician Pita Sharples is incorrectly named which just goes to show how much interaction good old’ Jimmy had with the ‘tribal’ people). 
Additionally, there is no context to his photographs, no names accommodating the pictures, no quotes from the individuals – there is no context to their lives, their life is simply framed by Nelson’s power – composed in the way he views these people and how he wants his reader to view them. Africans’ in 19th century colonial photography were similarly de-individualised and nameless, framed within the ‘honorific’ paradigm of portraiture, but homogenised by photography’s repressive function – that of possession or control (Landau 2002:151). 
Are you starting to sense some similarities here?
[9] "Shakuntala actor" 1890.                                                            [10] Karsang 2013.
Both people in the images are de-inidividualised with their face covered - they instead become representative of the 'whole' - a symbolic image of their respective tribe.

So what we come to, with Nelson’s book is a piece of work inspired by colonial power, his camera is simply a tool that reinforces colonial authority. As much as Jimmy Nelson believes he is the saviour of these tribes, in his own words a “collector of truth” (omg what?) he is ignorantly taking advantage of indigenous groups so privileged outsiders can serve their own gain and curiosity, just as the British did in the 19th century. The anthropological assumptions of Nelson’s book and his claim that it is an “irreplaceable ethnographic record” are just, ugh, so wrong. But – ironically, Nelson has created an anthropological piece of work – one that we can use to analyse modern day photography. 

Instead of being tricked and deceived into thinking it is a piece of work from which we can gain ‘knowledge’ and 'appreciation’ of indigenous tribes around the world, I  encourage you to look at this book and interpret it as a discourse that generates, communicates and reaffirms a constructed set of values and beliefs about indigenous people – a regime of truth governed by colonial power. I ask you to take a look at this book, or go on the website and start to think about the way we view photography and images. Take time to look into the meanings and intentions of photographs, or at least understand that what we see isn't always reality, and let what happens beyond the beautiful image play a part in our understanding of the world around us.

And that Jimmy, is why I think your book sucks. But hey, it's not all bad, I've found a positive use for it - it now remains a valuable resource for my third-year visual anthropology students – we had a great time discussing everything that was wrong with it. 
With love,


Grimshaw, A.
2001 The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of seeing in modern anthropology. Cambridge University Press. 

Landau, P. S.
2002 Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa. In Images and Empires, Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa. P.S. Landau and D.D. Kaspin eds. Pp. 141-171. 


[1] http://www.civilization.org.uk/conclusion/malinowski-and-polanyi
[2],[3],[5],[6],[7],[8],[10] http://www.beforethey.com/
[4],[9] http://www.sleek-mag.com/special-features/2012/07/colonial-eye/


  1. thank you for an excellent post, you inspired me to write this article. I would love to know what you think! https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/julia-lagoutte/tribal-peoples-aren%27t-passing-away-they-are-fighting-against-brutal-oppres

  2. "Seriously Jimmy, it’s the 21st century! Have you not realised we have moved past salvage ethnography? The myth of the ‘noble savage’ is dated. It’s unoriginal. And you know what? It’s racist."

    I imagine you saying that in a preppy snobbish nasal voice, and then the whole article makes absolute sense.

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