A man who needs no introduction, as I sat down to Skype Jimmy Nelson, his stunning, world famous photographs precedes him. ‘Before they Pass Away’, one of his most renowned collections of 35 indigenous tribes, took him three years to photograph across the world. As we talk photography, travel and, well, Mr Bean, Jimmy tells me ‘this is not something that requires you to spend three years in university, it’s an applied study, it’s a lifelong study, its never-ending’. Down to earth, humble and passionate, Jimmy is every part the expert. If there’s ever an interview to persuade you it’s never too late to take that course and follow your dreams, it’s this one.
So Jimmy, where did this interest in photography come from?
I’ve got to start by saying it’s not the interest in photography that fascinates me, it’s the curiosity in other people. The camera has just become one of the mediums I use to enable me to carry on answering those questions. The camera has become part of that journey and part of that communication process – in my formative years as a way of earning a living as a commercial photographer, but now I use it as a way to communicate how I feel. So it has much more to do with the theme than just photography itself – photography has very much become the medium that I use, but my true passion and interest is the people that I meet.
What is it that you try and communicate when visiting the tribes and cultures you go to?
What I feel is that how we look at each other, either as your neighbour or a cannibal in Papa New Guinea must be subjective. If you put someone on a pedestal, whoever they are, you look at them in a very different way than is usually perceived. Thematically in the last few years I’ve been concentrating on valuable and sensitive indigenous cultures and tribes – people who have been photographed a thousand times before, but putting them in what I consider to be an iconographic light. The way I do it is very subjective – it’s romantic, it’s idealistic, it’s directed, but there’s a deeper meaning behind it. If you look at these people as a cover of Vogue magazine for example, you will treat them as more important and perhaps look beyond the colour of their skin and the bangles and jewellery they wear and ask what they represent and who they stand for.
You’ve taken some stunning images, what are the secrets to taking the perfect portrait?
There is the method, but it’s not a secret. The simplest way to visualise taking the perfect portrait and this is a bit of a childish visualisation, but is Mr Bean. On every aircraft I have ever sat on travelling round the world, no matter how obscure or how many engines it has, Mr Bean is on that little screen in front of you. Everybody, no matter what their religion, race or how many knives they are carrying, ends up laughing and it’s for one very particular reason – he uses no language, but we all emphasise with his fragility and vulnerability. He’s done that extremely successfully, not only from a commercial point of view but as a means of expressing what we are as human beings.
In the developed world we’ve become very much focused on not showing our fragility – we try our best not to show our ticks, our warts. When you go to these places the more fallible you become, the more vulnerable, the more childish, the easier you have connecting to people. If you arrive as an empowering force with a 300mm lens, helicopters and jeeps, you will never make contact. If you go and essentially and metaphorically take your clothes off, you will find a way of making contact.
How many photos do you typically take on a shoot?
I often communicate to people if you want to go travelling or you want to take pictures, rather than taking a million and one low resolution jpegs of everything that you see, choose one subject, maybe even one person and get to know them personally before you ever bring out your camera. Often on the journeys I go on I take very few pictures; most of the pictures I show are made at the end of the journey because I have finally decided on what I want to say and what I want to communicate. Remember a few very powerful pictures are far more empowering than a load of digital happy snaps.
What is the biggest challenge for photographers today?
I started taking pictures when I was 17, so that’s 31 years ago and the challenge is not so different as it was then. When I first started, it was extraordinarily difficult to earn a living from it, I would say that’s probably the same today – it’s nigh on impossible to earn a living directly as a photographer, that’s the most difficult challenge. Not that this should in any way be a handicap or stumbling block however!
How do you overcome this?
What has to happen is you need to decide on what you are trying to communicate and what you want to share, then find a variety of mediums to do that. In my particular case, I have decided to show endangered and indigenous cultures and tribes and put them on a pedestal, because I believe they have a wider message – that’s the story in one sentence, no more and no less.
So I often advise younger people (I’ve sort of become a bit of a parrot) that it’s not how you photograph or what you photograph with, it’s why you are photographing or what you want to say. As soon as you sort that out, you won’t become one of the seven and a half billion people on the planet with a camera, you will become one of the selective few where people are interested in seeing the images you create, because you have a message to communicate.
Looking back at your career, do you have a photo or series of photos you are particularly proud of, if so, why?
I think the standout moments for me, and this is very tacky, are the pictures that I’ve made of my family. They haven’t been published yet and because they’re sensitive, they may never be published, but I think they are the most valuable pictures to me because they are the pictures and the people I most adore. The irony is, they may be the pictures that nobody will ever see, but this is what it should be all about –I’ll never earn a living doing that, but having that camera and medium to observe them through the passage of time was the most enlightening and enriching experience. So my favourite pictures might remain a secret.
I like that answer a lot! Finally then, what’s next for you?
I am actually returning to some of the places I have filmed and photographed, presenting the images and going to 35 new destinations, tribes and indigenous cultures, most of which are places I had gone to before but I was incapable to or unable to. Now, indirectly people are inviting me to go, so I am carrying on the same theme. In a way, I have produced the skeleton and am now going back and adding the muscle, meat and flesh to it.
Thanks Jimmy, it’s been an honour.
If you dream of following in Jimmy’s footsteps, take a look at the portrait photography courses listed on the site. Who knows where your work might end up...?