Jimmy Nelson: Gorgeous Portraits Of The World's Vanishing People
Syndicated from ted.com, Jun 28, 2015

16 minute read


When Jimmy Nelson traveled to Siberia to photograph the Chukchi people, elders told him: "You cannot photograph us. You have to wait, you have to wait until you get to know us, you have to wait until you understand us." In this gorgeously photo-filled talk, join Nelson's quest to understand - the world, other people, himself - by making astonishing portraits of the world's vanishing tribes and cultures.


0:11      Now, I've been making pictures for quite a long time, and normally speaking, a picture like this, for me, should be straightforward. I'm in southern Ethiopia. I'm with the Daasanach. There's a big family, there's a very beautiful tree, and I make these pictures with this very large, extremely cumbersome, very awkward technical plate film camera. Does anybody know 4x5 and 10x8 sheets of film, and you're setting it up, putting it on the tripod. I've got the family, spent the better part of a day talking with them. They sort of understand what I'm on about. They think I'm a bit crazy, but that's another story. And what's most important for me is the beauty and the aesthetic, and that's based on the light. So the light's setting on my left-hand side, and there's a balance in the communication with the Daasanach, the family of 30, all ages. There's babies and there's grandparents, I'm getting them in the tree and waiting for the light to set, and it's going, going, and I've got one sheet of film left, and I think, I'm okay, I'm in control, I'm in control. I'm setting it up and I'm setting up, and the light's just about to go, and I want it to be golden, I want it to be beautiful. I want it to be hanging on the horizon so it lights these people, in all the potential glory that they could be presented. And it's about to go and it's about to go, and I put my sheet in the camera, it's all focused, and all of a sudden there's a massive "whack," and I'm looking around, and in the top corner of the tree, one of the girls slaps the girl next to her, and the girl next to her pulls her hair, and all hell breaks loose, and I'm standing there going, "But the light, the light. Wait, I need the light. Stay still! Stay still!" And they start screaming, and then one of the men turns around and starts screaming, shouting, and the whole tree collapses, not the tree, but the people in the tree. They're all running around screaming, and they run back off into the village in this sort of cloud of smoke, and I'm left there standing behind my tripod. I've got my sheet, and the light's gone, and I can't make the picture. Where have they all gone? I had no idea.

2:03      It took me a week, it took me a week to make the picture which you see here today, and I'll tell you why. (Applause) It's very, very, very simple -- I spent a week going around the village, and I went to every single one: "Hello, can you meet at the tree? What's your story? Who are you?" And it all turned out to be about a boyfriend, for crying out loud. I mean, I have teenage kids. I should know. It was about a boyfriend. The girl on the top, she'd kissed the wrong boy, and they'd started having a fight. And there was a very, very beautiful lesson for me in that: If I was going to photograph these people in the dignified, respectful way that I had intended, and put them on a pedestal, I had to understand them. It wasn't just about turning up. It wasn't just about shaking a hand. It wasn't about just saying, "I'm Jimmy, I'm a photographer." I had to get to know every single one of them, right down to whose boyfriend is who and who is allowed to kiss who.

2:51      So in the end, a week later, and I was absolutely exhausted, I mean on my knees going, "Please get back up in that tree. It's a picture I need to make." They all came back. I put them all back up in the tree. I made sure the girls were in the right position, and the ones that slapped, one was over there. They did look at each other. If you look at it later, they're staring at each other very angrily, and I've got the tree and everything, and then at the last minute, I go, "The goat, the goat! I need something for the eye to look at. I need a white goat in the middle." So I swapped all the goats around. I put the goats in. But even then I got it wrong, because if you can see on the left-hand side, another little boy storms off because I didn't choose his goat. So the moral being I have to learn to speak Goat as well as Daasanach.

3:31      But anyway, the effort that goes into that picture and the story that I've just related to you, as you can imagine, there are hundreds of other bizarre, eccentric stories of hundreds of other people around the world. And this was about four years ago, and I set off on a journey, to be honest, a very indulgent journey. I'm a real romantic. I'm an idealist, perhaps in some ways naive. But I truly believe that there are people on the planet that are beautiful. It's very, very simple. It's not rocket science. I wanted to put these people on a pedestal. I wanted to put them on a pedestal like they'd never been seen before. So, I chose about 35 different groups, tribes, indigenous cultures. They were chosen purely because of their aesthetic, and I'll talk more about that later. I'm not an anthropologist, I have no technical study with the subject, but I do have a very, very, very deep passion, and I believe that I had to choose the most beautiful people on the planet in the most beautiful environment that they lived in, and put the two together and present them to you.

4:30      About a year ago, I published the first pictures, and something extraordinarily exciting happened. The whole world came running, and it was a bizarre experience, because everybody, from everywhere: "Who are they? What are they? How many are they? Where did you find them? Are they real? You faked it. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me." Millions of questions for which, to be honest, I don't have the answers. I really didn't have the answers, and I could sort of understand, okay, they're beautiful, that was my intention, but the questions that I was being fired at, I could not answer them.

5:03      Until, it was quite amusing, about a year ago somebody said, "You've been invited to do a TED Talk." And I said, "Ted? Ted? Who's Ted? I haven't met Ted before." He said, "No, a TED Talk." I said, "But who's Ted? Do I have to talk to him or do we sit with each other on the stage?" And, "No, no, the TED group. You must know about it." And I said, "I've been in a teepee and in a yurt for the last five years. How do I know who Ted is? Introduce me to him." Anyway, to cut a long story short, he said, "We have to do a TED Talk." Researched. Oh, exciting. That's great! And then eventually you're going to go to TEDGlobal. Even more exciting. But what you need to do, you need to teach the people lessons, lessons that you've learned on your travels around the world with these tribes. I thought, lessons, okay, well, what did I learn? Good question. Three. You need three lessons, and they need to be terribly profound. (Laughter) And I thought, three lessons, well, I'm going to think about it. (Applause)

6:00      So I thought long and hard, and I stood here two days ago, and I had my test run, and I had my cards and my clicker in my hands and my pictures were on the screen, and I had my three lessons, and I started presenting them, and I had this very odd out-of-body experience. I sort of looked at myself standing there, going, "Oh, Jimmy, this is complete loads of codswallop. All these people sitting here, they've had more of these talks, they've heard more lessons in their life. Who are you to tell them what you've learned? Who are you to guide them and who are you to show them what is right, what is wrong, what these people have to say?" And I had a little bit of a, it was very private, a little bit of a meltdown. I went back, and a little bit like the boy walking away from the tree with his goats, very disgruntled, going, that didn't work, It wasn't what I wanted to communicate. And I thought long and hard about it, and I thought, well, the only thing I can communicate is very, very basic. You have to turn it all the way around. There's only one person I know here, and that's me. I'm still getting to know myself, and it's a lifelong journey, and I probably won't have all the answers, but I did learn some extraordinary things on this journey.

7:04      So what I'm going to do is share with you my lessons. It's a very, as I explained at the beginning, very indulgent, very personal, how and why I made these pictures, and I leave it to you as the audience to interpret what these lessons have meant to me, what they could perhaps mean to you.

7:21      I traveled enormously as a child. I was very nomadic. It was actually very exciting. All around the world, and I had this feeling that I was pushed off at great speed to become somebody, become that individual, Jimmy. Go off into the planet, and so I ran, and I ran, and my wife sometimes kids me, "Jimmy, you look a bit like Forrest Gump," but I'm, "No, it's all about something, trust me." So I kept running and I kept running, and I sort of got somewhere and I sort of stood there and looked around me and I thought, well, where do I belong? Where do I fit? What am I? Where am I from? I had no idea. So I hope there aren't too many psychologists in this audience. Perhaps part of this journey is about me trying to find out where I belonged. So whilst going, and don't worry, I didn't when I arrived with these tribes, I didn't paint myself yellow and run around with these spears and loincloths.

8:09      But what I did find were people that belonged themselves, and they inspired me, some extraordinary people, and I'd like to introduce you to some heroes of mine. They're the Huli.

8:20      Now, the Huli are some of the most extraordinarily beautiful people on the planet. They're proud. They live in the Papua New Guinean highlands. There's not many of them left, and they're called the Huli wigmen. And images like this, I mean, this is what it's all about for me. And you've spent weeks and months there talking with them, getting there, and I want to put them on a pedestal, and I said, "You have something that many people have not seen. You sit in this stunning nature." And it really does look like this, and they really do look like this. This is the real thing. And you know why they're proud? You know why they look like this, and why I broke my back literally to photograph them and present them to you? It's because they have these extraordinary rituals.

8:59      And the Huli have this ritual: When they're teenagers, becoming a man, they have to shave their heads, and they spend the rest of their life shaving their heads every single day, and what they do with that hair, they make it into a creation, a creation that's a very personal creation. It's their creation. It's their Huli creation. So they're called the Huli wigmen. That's a wig on his head. It's all made out of his human hair. And then they decorate that wig with the feathers of the birds of paradise, and don't worry, there are many birds there. There's very few people living, so nothing to get too upset about, and they spend the rest of their life recreating these hats and getting further and further, and it's extraordinary, and there's another group, they're called the Kalang, and they live in the next valley, but they speak a completely different language, they look completely different, and they wear a hat, and it's built out of scarabs, these fantastic emerald green little scarabs, and sometimes there are 5,000 or 6,000 scarabs in this hat, and they spend the whole of their life collecting these scarabs to build these hats.

9:57      So the Huli inspired me in that they belong. Perhaps I have to work harder at finding a ritual which matters for me and going back into my past to see where I actually fit.

10:09      An extremely important part of this project was about how I photograph these extraordinary people. And it's basically beauty. I think beauty matters. We spend the whole of our existence revolving around beauty: beautiful places, beautiful things, and ultimately, beautiful people. It's very, very, very significant. I've spent all of my life analyzing what do I look like? Am I perceived as beautiful? Does it matter if I'm a beautiful person or not, or is it purely based on my aesthetic? And then when I went off, I came to a very narrow conclusion. Do I have to go around the world photographing, excuse me, women between the age of 25 and 30? Is that what beauty is going to be? Is everything before and after that utterly irrelevant?

10:53      And it was only until I went on a journey, a journey that was so extreme, I still get shivers when I think about it. I went to a part of the world, and I don't know whether any of you have ever heard of Chukotka. Has anybody ever heard of Chukotka? Chukotka probably is, technically, as far as one can go and still be on the living planet. It's 13 hours' flight from Moscow. First you've got to get to Moscow, and then 13 hours' flight nonstop from Moscow. And that's if you get there. As you can see, some people sort of miss the runway.

11:26      And then when you land there, in Chukotka are the Chukchis. Now, the Chukchis are the last indigenous Inuits of Siberia, and they're people I'd heard about, I'd hardly seen any images of, but I knew they were there, and I'd been in touch with this guide, and this guide said, "There's this fantastic tribe. There's only about 40 of them. You'll be okay. We'll find them." So off we went on this journey. When we arrived there, after a month of traveling across the ice, and we'd got to them, but then I was not allowed to photograph them. They said, "You cannot photograph us. You have to wait. You have to wait until you get to know us. You have to wait until you understand us. You have to wait until you see how we interact with one another." And only then, it was many, many weeks later, I saw a respect. They had zero judgment. They observed one another, from the youth, from the middle aged to the old. They need each other. The children need to chew the meat all day because the adults don't have any teeth, but at the same time, the children take the old aged people out to the toilet because they're infirm, so there's this fantastic community of respect. And they adore and admire one another, and they truly taught me what beauty was. (Applause)

12:33      Now I'm going to ask for a little bit of audience interaction. This is extremely important for the end of my talk. If you could look at somebody left to the right of you, and I want you to observe them, and I want you to give them a compliment. This is very important. Now, it may be their nose or their hair or even their aura, I don't mind, but please look at each other, give them a compliment. You have to be quick, because I'm running out of time. And you have to remember it.

13:00      Okay, thank you, thank you, thank you, you've given each other compliments. Hold that compliment very, very tightly. Hold it for later.

13:08      And the last thing, it was extraordinarily profound, and it happened only two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I went back to the Himba. Now, the Himba live in northern Namibia on the border of Angola, and I'd been there a few times before, and I'd gone back to present this book I'd made, to show them the pictures, to get into a discussion with them, to say, "This is how I saw you. This is how I love you. This is how I respect you. What do you think? Am I right? Am I wrong?" So I wanted this debate. It was very, very, very emotional, and one night we were sitting around the campfire, and I have to be honest, I think I'd had a little bit too much to drink, and I was sort of sitting under the stars going, "This is great, you've seen my pictures, we love each other." (Laughter) And I'm a little bit slow, and I looked around me, and I said, I thought, maybe, the fence is missing. Wasn't there a fence here last time I came? You know, this big protective fence around the village, and they sort of looked at me and go, "Yeah, chief die." And I thought, okay, chief dying, right, you know, look up at the stars again, look at the campfire. Chief die. What on Earth does chief die have to do with the fence? "Chief die. First we destroy, yeah? Then we reflect. Then we rebuild. Then we respect." And I burst out in tears, because my father had only just died prior to this journey, and I didn't ever acknowledge him, I didn't ever appreciate him for the fact that I'm probably standing here today because of him. These people taught me that we are only who we are because of our parents and our grandparents and our forefathers going on and on and on before that, and I, no matter how romantic or how idealistic I am on this journey, I did not know that until two weeks ago. I did not know that until two weeks ago.

14:53      So what's this all about? Well, there's an image I'd like to show you, quite a special image, and it wasn't essentially the image I wanted to choose. I was sitting there the other day, and I have to finish on a strong image. And somebody said, "You have to show them the picture of the Nanev. The Nanev." I was like, yeah, but that's not my favorite picture. She went, "No no no no no no no. It's an amazing picture. You're in his eyes." I said, "What do you mean I'm in his eyes? It's a picture of the Nanev." She said, "No, look, look closely, you're in his eyes." And when you look closely at this picture, there is a reflection of me in his eyes, so I think perhaps he has my soul, and I'm in his soul, and whilst these pictures look at you, I ask you to look at them. You may not be reflected in his eyes, but there is something extraordinarily important about these people. I don't ultimately have the answers, as I've just shared with you, but you must do. There must be something there. So if you can briefly reflect on what I was discussing about beauty and about belonging and about our ancestors and our roots, and I need you all to stand for me, please. (Laughter) Now you have no excuse. It's almost lunchtime, and this is not a standing ovation, so don't worry, I'm not fishing for compliments. But you were given a compliment a few minutes ago. Now I want you to stand tall. I want you to breathe in. This is what I say. I'm not going to get on my knees for two weeks. I'm not going to ask you to carry a goat, and I know you don't have any camels. Photography's extraordinarily powerful. It's this language which we now all understand. We truly do all understand it, and we have this global digital fireplace, don't we, but I want to share you with the world, because you are also a tribe. You are the TED tribe, yeah? But you have to remember that compliment. You have to stand tall, breathe in through your nose, and I'm going to photograph you. Okay? I need to do a panoramic shot, so it's going to take a minute, so you have to concentrate, okay? Breathe in, stand tall, no laughing. Shh, breathe through your nose. I'm going to photograph.

16:49      (Clicks)

16:58      Thank you.

17:00      (Applause)


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