Q1. The passion with which you create your work, where would you say your journey started for the appreciation of the remote communities, and where is it leading?
I must admit, it didn’t directly begin, or I wasn’t aware of its beginning either with it being influenced by indigenous communities or by being a journey in itself. I was very young and spent the first seven years of my life living in the developing world. My father was a geologist. He took me to every continent; we lived in West Africa, South Africa, South America, Central Asia, Papua new guinea, the pacific, and he tried to discover the beauty of the world’s geology as a geo-physicist. He introduced me to the world’s people and its variety of cultures; I was deeply connected to it at a very early age. Then at the age of seven, I was sent to an institution in a traditional English boarding school from the age of seven till seventeen. I lived there for ten months and traveled to him on vacation wherever he lived. The complete opposite happened when I was in that environment. All the trust I had for the world and its people until the age of seven was destroyed by this institution and by a gay catholic priest. As a result of that, I went into a sort of contemporary term of lockdown for many years, right up until my puberty, because of what I suffered at the hands of these priests. Then at the age of sixteen, as I was entering manhood, puberty starting to feel aspects of my evolving sexuality loathing it, and as a result of that, with an enormous amount of stress and a combination of cerebral malaria, which I caught on West Africa my hair fell out in one night. So one morning, I woke up and looked in the mirror at the age of sixteen and saw a bald face. The bald face was very naked; I perceived it to be very ugly, I felt very vulnerable, and it kind of showed the ugliness and vulnerability I felt inside so that I couldn’t hide anymore. So I ran away, I ran away to the only place in the world where I believed I could find another human being that would see me as jimmy not judge me for the way I looked or how I felt or I came from or what I had experienced and Tintin inspired that, Tintin from Herge and Tintin went on a journey to Tibet with a lot of Buddhist monks. Those Buddhist monks were shaved, not bald. Hence, between the age of seventeen and nineteen I spent the better part of three years traversing across Tibet in the early 1980s, Tibet had been shot for thirty years, the outside world had not seen most of the atrocities which should have been imposed on it by the Chinese, and I was one of the first who naively witnessed it on my journey of rediscovery of self. I was reconnected to my entity by the Tibetans by their beauty, by their kindness, by their belief as Buddhists despite their suffering, they saw me, and in their kindness, they began to love me. As a consolidation of that love, I wanted to take a picture to record what I had felt and whom I have seen and whom I have met.
I had a very old camera with me, a Russian Zenit-b, a few rolls of the coded color gold 35mm film, and those are the only pictures that I make. That was the beginning of my journey, this idea of using a camera as a metaphor for reconnection. Still, I think an actual fact is that the camera is a mirror, a mirror to ultimately see myself to understand myself to become a happy, healthy, sustainable human being despite my previous life experiences. As the years have evolved and I am now fifty-three, I was born in 1967, I’ve come to realize that majority of the world’s indigenous communities are some of the purest, most connected human beings to what it is to humanity, themselves, one another, their culture, their natural world that they live in. So the lightning-enriching experience of my journey of reconnection, rediscovery tended to be with these communities. It’s very difficult to find that connection here in the developed world, where there are so many layers of judgment, concrete, etc. So that’s how the journey started. Where is it leading? It’s unending. I think, like all journeys, there is no destination, it’s a process, but the process is happiness, the process is utter contentment, this wealth of knowledge and appreciation of others and ultimately of myself has become addictive. Perhaps one could say a healthy obsession. To provide for the remaining days that I live on this planet. Hopefully, I am halfway through this extremely colorful kaleidoscopic journey. The journey will continue to get richer, I will get closer, and I will try as an artist to raise the standard of my skill to wake up to the world of their beauty and evaluate it.
Q2.You want to acquaint people with our world’s cultural heritage, what challenges you have faced while enlightening the world, and how you overcome them?
The very few challenges on location with these communities, wherever I go, If you arrive vulnerable If you arrive humble If you arrive loving If you arrive curiously. If you arrive totally in content with yourself, you find a way to connect despite not speaking their language. The most difficult challenge is waking up the developed world to their importance, what they stand for, what they understand, and what they know. We and the developed world and the developing world have this set of eagerness and arrogance to believe that we are far more advanced, we are far richer, we are far more developed but, I genuinely believe that despite this extraordinary technology that we now have one of which is the way we are communicating, human beings have left the source of who they are and the indigenous communities to have that.
The journey that I am on is trying very hard to as an artist visually, iconically, romantically, subjectively represent these cultures and the nature that they live in to wake us up. To wake us up in a way as we have never woken up before. We, especially in the last year with the pandemic, this idea that we have to lock ourselves away I think is extremely harmful, we have to wake ourselves up, accept why and how we have created this by disconnecting from who we are as human beings with how we live with the actual world. Up until recently, I think people would find it very easy to make a noise around the natural changes in the world but what we forget is that we as human beings are the ones who have changed it and are changing it and are subsequently destroying it. So the sooner we go back to the source of who we are, the better we understand who we are, then we can understand why we have been destroying it and how we can perhaps repair it. It’s extremely difficult next to that the challenges of I am a small company; I don’t have any sponsorship, work with ten colleagues, create books, installations at museums, shows, television, and become a self-sustaining business. To make sure that we don’t believe in any way abuse the honor and the respect for that being given with the connection that I have had to document for communities by monetizing so, we are also building a foundation to make sure reciprocity and everything is kept in balance that’s also extremely difficult, but I’ll come to that later.
Q3.You travel to different parts of the world, encounter new people with diversified cultures. How do you get to gain the trust of the communities?. What’s the process behind it?
Interestingly and this sounds a little bit sort of self-righteous, but the process is extremely simple. If you dare to go to a stranger, put yourself at their feet, metaphorically so don’t get me wrong, metaphorically take your clothes off, become as vulnerable as possible but show within that vulnerability a massive amount of curiosity and respect. It’s a wonderful insight as to how to be enveloped into communities. I think how I organically managed to find this form of communication was having lost everything as a child. This process of having trust in the world until the age of seven after seven or eight, nine after these priests and I decided not to trust anybody. Next to that, I didn’t have any self-worth and self-esteem; I had no self-respect. So when I went to ask for help, I really, genuinely asked for help, and maybe that wasn’t necessarily used in words, but you can show that through vulnerability, emotions, through tears. This is how you connect, and you have to have an enormous amount of patience. So you travel, you sit, and you wait, and you show through tears vulnerability why you are there to honor and respect and learn and ultimately be loved.
Q4.While working with people of various communities, how do you overcome the language barrier and apprise them of what you want them to do?
An enormous amount of communication can be achieved by emotion, by hands, by feet, by dance, by music, by eyes, by sounds, by body language, by the vulnerability. You have to essentially turn on every single tap of your human emotion to show who you are. If you arrive in these communities and are there just to take and, let’s say, just take a picture, they will feel instinctive that you are there for the wrong reasons. If you arrive and show your emotions, show your deep-seated curiosity, love, and respect for them, there is a wonderful way to connect. This is the initial connection. Then I am trying to return to everybody I have photographed and met; then, I take a translator once the initial communication has been made. Then, the conversation gets further and more profound.
Q5.What steps have you taken to empower the communities you talk about through your work, and what part does Jimmy Nelson Foundation play in it?
Good question. The foundation is extremely important, and it probably plays the most important part. It’s giving back and reinvesting and the best way to describe reinvestment in education. We are not investing in digging holes in water or building houses. It’s in this global education; we are not saving any indigenous communities. We are trying to reawaken human beings as the source of who they are, both there and here. And we will be doing that through education; we are creating an online free global language translator cultural platform for children, and because they are the future generation and then if everything goes to plan, we are creating a computer game; a game of affirmation, a game of building through respect by more that one invests in a culture. This process enables educational platforms within the communities themselves as often they are dubious to the value of their ethnic heritage and the precipice of throwing it all way and putting up a dirty t-shirt. It is a rather childish analogy, but you know what I mean. We are trying to encourage them to hold on to their precious heritage that they have adapted applied to the modern world and not deny them any of the privileges we have. At the same time, hold on to what they have because it’s needed for them and us.
Q6.The work you do entail criticism, how do you handle that? What part your personal and professional life plays in managing the negativity magnified during these challenging times?
To be honest, when the project 1st came to air in 2013-14, there was an element of criticism, there was an element of surprise, ultimately, there was an element of confrontation of who am I? Am I a valid person to have this point of view? Am I an Anthropologist, Ethnologist, Journalist? I am none of those. I’ve no education within this field whatsoever other than life experience and fifty-three years of living with indigenous communities. The criticism at the beginning was from several sources, but it was primarily based on the fact that the images were extremely confronting. Confronting not in their aesthetic, in their beauty and in this idea that these places & these people can’t be so empowered, enthralled and proud. The argument that I began to use was that when we present ourselves in magazines and the media, we also present an aspirational self that is far beyond our daily beauty. Still, we never question that, but we are allowed to do that as we believe we are worthy and righteous. If one enables or dignifies indigenous communities, the voice is perceived as materially poor to have the same light, then it hurts! I think that’s where the criticism came from. I now began to understand it, the media began to understand it, and the criticism is essentially dissipated. Obviously, the 1st voices were recorded online, and they will remain there forever, but ultimately it made the project a lot stronger and empowered, and when you genuinely believe in something, and you get unfairly criticized, you fight, you fight like nothing before, and the fight I’ve imposed on the project is what has manifested and sustained today. So I say bring the criticism on. The more, the merrier, the stronger we will become.
Q7.As for the communities you’ve photographed, What can be done to save the heritage, the culture from becoming extinct?
You’ve to re-return to these communities, explain to them their dignity, value, importance, and heritage, explain what we have lost, explain who we’ve become, and explain how impoverished in many ways is the developed world. It is overdeveloped, and it’s consuming and eating itself. By manifesting their culture for them, this will come through the foundation and through educational platforms.
Q8.How do you define the style with which you create your photographs?
Very good question! The style is extremely artistic. I’ve three images I tend to make. I tend to make this very large iconic posed dignified landscape, then portraits and then reportage, and those tend to be pictures which aren’t necessarily for exhibitions but to provide rhythm and pace within a book, the signature pictures have signatures deliberately on them as I’m trying to sustain this project. I’ve to become an artist images have to be purchased and collected by museums and collectors, and they have to have a visual signature on them. Hence, wherever I go in the world, I’m trying to impose my vision of how I see it; that is subjective. Still, hopefully, it is unique. It is very unapologetically romantic and beautiful and ultimately how and what I feel when I’m with these communities, so I don’t apologize for it in the slightest. And now I’m working with a 10×8 analog camera, so its a sheet film, not digital, so I’m trying to go back to the art of analog photography to differentiate between the ease with which everybody can use an iPhone, so there is a skill that is required to make these images.
Q9.You engage with people to show the profundity for the majority to learn through various media. Does it get exhausting?
Good question! Does it get exhausting? No! That’s the beauty of life. The more you connect with what you love, the more energy you get. I can honestly say that the age of fifty-three hasn’t felt happier, healthier throughout my life because the project gets richer the understanding of who I am myself and why I do the appreciation of thereof, so the days are long. Still, they are wonderful. Not one day is the same, and I genuinely feel providing I’m healthy, I can spend the rest of my life traveling and connecting. So it is the complete opposite of exhausting. When one is encumbered with work that is not one’s passion, then it can become exhausting. The art of life is to find what one loves.
Q10.What are your plans for the future, and what is your thought process for planning a new project?
The plan for the future is last year I spent the majority of the year here in the Netherlands, so we are doing a book and a project on the dutch traditions and culture to resonate and run parallel with their indigenous culture for the world is very exciting and running parallel to that I’m creating these unique art pieces within the theme of the pride and dignity of the indigenous culture for museums using this 10×8 camera. So a book on the Dutch culture will come out next year, and then in 4 years’ time, another book will come out that is basically digging deeper within this theme. I have many exhibitions and digital exhibitions trying to access as many people as possible to the beauty and wealth of this content.
Q11.Looking at the world’s changing Fashion trends, from Indigenous to Contemporary, you have showcased diverse and colorful fashion styles of different communities through your work, which was not known to most of us until now. Would you care to give a piece of advice to our budding photographers that you have learned from your experience around the world?
A little bit I’ve already touched upon is don’t be interested in the camera, don’t be interested in lenses tripods bags dig very deep into your soul, stare as hard as you can into the mirror ask the question who are you why are you here why are you put on this planet and what is your purpose, running parallel to that what makes you happy what do you want to communicate through your experiences so ask these big questions, then once you start to hear your truth find a medium or variety of medium to communicate that truth the closer the truth is to the source the more original and more authentic it will be and then ultimately you will have a signature. If one does the opposite and just picks up a camera and wants to take pictures, you will only be 1 of 3 or 4 billion people on the planet who have a camera, so nobody will ever see your pictures. I’ll tell a nice story. Briefly, I’ve been asked this question by a student in school, and they were in their teenage years, and they were very bored to join the talk, and they asked, why are you using a big old analog camera? Is that because you don’t understand digital? It’s far easier to use an iPhone. It’s far quicker, and I said it’s not about the picture. It’s about the process. He didn’t understand this, and I said, well, it’s about looking to connect and feel an emotion. Obviously, at the age of 50 and they were 16, we were in a sort of different time scales, so I asked the audience what the most important emotion they want to feel tomorrow is? And one cheeky 16 years old put up his hand and said, there’s this girl I want to kiss. I thought, ah-ha, that’s interesting. Let’s talk about kissing. All of a sudden, all of the audience started to listen. I said I’m going to give you two metaphors for choice of kissing, which will run parallel with analog and digital. One is digital, tomorrow morning you can go on to the school square and every single student you see you can kiss, nobody will say no, and everybody will hold their arms welcoming open it will be as easy as possible all day long for as long as you want that’s option 1. That is the equivalent of digital photography with an iPhone where you can spray and pray for as long as your heart’s content. Option 2 is, now, it’s not a guarantee. It’s all about a kiss; it’s about one kiss that may; as I said, it’s not a guarantee it last only 1 second, but if you get it its the 1 second of the end of the last minute of the last hour of the last day after a two-month wait. But in that two-month wait in that process, you invest everything, your emotion, your search, your seduction, your flirt, your rejection, your pain, your discovery of yourself and others, and you search and search and if you push yourself to the limit and you have the privilege to see and ultimately meet then you may get that 1-second kiss and when get that 1 second kiss its explosive. It goes beyond your wildest dreams as it was the end of a 2-month investment, and that’s the difference between analog and digital. So I strongly recommend to all your budding photographers that they start the journey. The journey is much more important than the medium and the end result. Start the journey of the discovery then they will come across their own unique answers.