Jimmy Nelson’s photographic work of indigenous people has been swarming through the social media like a pandemic disease. His beautiful pictures and alluring photographs of native costumes really come out of the picture and speak to us from the most remote zones of the planet. In seeing these photographs and then hearing his Ted Talk, I was quite sickened by the level of cultural misconception and simplistic assumptions he went about this project. To still think that ‘we’ are the ‘evolved’ and ‘developed’ people, while ‘they’ are the ‘last indigenous people’ is not just wrong in itself, but is also a violent narrative that passively accepts the end of ancient cultural traditions and actively distorts their stories.
Cultural romanticization and pseudo-scientific evolutionary perspectives are the two most evident forms of anthropological disillusion that dear Jimmy is speaking of. The most insidious, disorienting and violent processes are not visible at the first sight of the shimmering photographs.
There is little doubt that these are wonderful pictures. But to go beyond this most superficial layer of the aesthetic is to venture into the most skewed perceptions, faulty assumptions and misunderstandings of the western mind. This makes me wonder why Jimmy didn’t seek any expert advice on the topic of culture and indigenous people. Not that anthropologists have the legitimacy to speak for the natives, but that they can bridge cultural realities and help us make more sense about our intricate and power-driven relationship – after all, anthropologists have been studying and making mistakes for more than two hundred years.
Thus, I suggest that he start enriching his perspectival understandings and expand his sensitivity to the real issues of cultural romanticism, and even on the evolutionary perspectives that he is so naively perpetrating.
In the eyes of the depicted natives, I see smiling scared faces of those who have their essence extirpated by the modern eye. In addition, these pictures are so scripted that it seems to take away any dynamism and agency of the natives – thus leaving them fixed before our eyes and with no alternative but passing away.
To have so much success in a topic that you know so little about is alarming in so many ways. It tells me that the key to success in this society is a ‘simple message’, even though reality is very different. The only place of interest that these people seem to have in our society is their predetermined aesthetic poses, but where do we hear them speak? Where do their stories come out? Where is their wisdom in all these pictures? Where are their cries for us to stop destroying the bio-sphere and ethno-sphere being told?… not even in the writing does this happen. I only see the dominating and powerful blank screen of ignorance.
I find this ‘project’ a subtle yet violent and destructive processes of de-culturization and dehumanization. In Silencing and Fixing them I clearly see how these people are being driven out of existance – by people like Jimmy who ignorantly silence their voices, and see for these people only a place of aesthetic consumption in western society. And so we continue down the same desired apocalyptic road, seeing in these feathers our nostalgia for the beautiful simple life, but not really understanding the human stories and wisdom that is being destroyed.
That’s right, Jimmy, its not that these people are simply “passing away”, they are being left no option in front of the moral domination we are subjecting them to by relocating them to the realm of the past, and in doing this we are the ones ending their stories and traditions.
After these deconstructive points, it might be best to jot down some questions that expose the superficially glorifying but lurking racism inherent in Jimmy’s work. Moreover, its for Jimmy to think through his photographic attempt, and for readers to rethink his ways.
So, what has made me shiver about Jimmy’s talk and pictures?
How he doesn’t add anything to our knowledge or view of indigenous people – he offer no alternative to their end, and not even supports nor has sought to give importance to the maintenance of their traditions.
How ignorant he is about these people (and even about himself) and yet how powerful and violent his voice is about who these people are (for him they are all just ‘the last people’).
How he assumes and affirms that these people are doomed to disappear.
How he sees us as “evolved” in relation to them, and sees them as how we were in the past. Rather than seeing humanity as a one directional trajectory, past-to-present : indigenous-to-civilized, these people are in fact existing today in a difficult but sustaining ‘coexistence’ with our civilization, they are constantly changing, dynamic and adaptive and not fixed units of cultural authenticity that are still part of the past.
How he sees indigenous beauty mainly in their aesthetic selves, and is ingenuously speaking of “authenticity” just because they have feathers that make them look like indigenous people, and not because of their maintained traditions, values, language, and their will to continue living their stories.
How he relegates the “indigenous” to the realm of “past”, and our civilization in that of the “future”.
How he is marginalizing the thousands other indigenous people around the world by saying that only these that you have photographed are the “last authentic indigenous people of the world”.
How the success of this simple story line is so popular not only because of the beauty of the pictures, but also because most people think along these simplistic binary views.
How you see ‘authenticity’ only in the aesthetic of the feathers and the indigenous stereotype.
The thought that all the profits of this politically devastating project will go to no other than Jimmy and his team.