Dying life of the tribe: Spectacular pictures by British photographer capture the people who are in danger of disappearing forever
It wasn’t that they were unfriendly – they had repeatedly offered him of vodka, which, not being much of a drinker, he’d refused. But after failing to persuade them to pose for him, he decided to put his camera away and play the grateful guest.
The result was that in no time at all he got steaming drunk and slumped into an alcoholic stupor. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a teepee tent surrounded by about 30 people with a bladder fit to burst.
Wrapped up in about eight layers of clothes and with the temperature minus 40 outside, British photographer Jimmy Nelson had no option than to pee in his pants and drift back off to sleep.
The next thing he knew was that the tent had collapsed under a stampede of reindeer – animals who, unbeknown to him, are attracted to the salt in urine. Soon the beasts had surrounded him trying to lick his clothes .
‘At the beginning the Tsaatan people were absolutely livid. But by making a complete plonker of myself and becoming the laughing stock of the group, they finally began to open up.’
The Tsaatan (reindeer people) of northern Mongolia are a nomadic tribe who depend on reindeer for nearly all aspects of their survival.
Inhabiting the remotest subarctic taiga, where winter temperatures can drop to minus 50°C, the Tsaatan are Mongolia’s last surviving reindeer herders
Gaining the acceptance of people has been the key to Jimmy’s work.
Jimmy, who travelled widely as a young man before becoming a successful commercial photographer, has spent the last three years photographing 35 of the most aesthetically beautiful and remote tribes in all corners of the world.
His new book Before They Pass Away is a snapshot of these tribes as they are now and stands as both a piece of art and an historical document.
His journey took him across all five continents, visiting such far flung places as mountainous region of Bayan Olgii in Mongolia, the Baliem Valley of Papua New Guinea and the wildest parts of southern Ethiopia.
One of the tribes was the Mursi in Ethiopia, where the women wear clay plates in their lower lips. At the age of 15, girls get pierced, after which their lips are stretched out to create enough space to place the lip plate.
Life has changed very little for the tribes since the turn of the first millennium. They live a simple life of hunting, gathering, raising cattle and growing sorghum along the banks of the River Omo
The lip plates are believed to have been invented to make women less attractive to slave traders. The Mursi are one of the last tribes to wear the plates and if the latest generation, increasingly influenced by the modern world, choose not to practice the tradition it may soon die out altogether.
While he is careful to point out that the book is primarily a commercial project as opposed to some grandoise political statement, Jimmy hopes it will create a greater awareness of the beauty and individuality of the people he has encountered and encourage a positive dialogue between the tribes and the modern world.
He said: ‘The essence of the project is to make people aware of how scarce their individuality is. Not to be patronising, but to say this is what you are and to show them they have a value that is precious.
‘The world is changing and we’re not going to stop it, but I hope in my own way, to encourage them not to abandon everything that makes them so individual.’
The Kazakhs of Mongolia are a Turkic people originating from the northern parts of Central Asia. They live mainly in the westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii and are dependent on domestic animals for their livelihood. They have roamed the mountains and valleys of western Mongolia with their herds since the 19th century. In recent decades, the Mongolian Kazakhs have been able to hold on to their traditions and skills much more than their brothers in neighbouring Kazakhstan
Mr Nelson travelled the world for three years, visiting 35 tribes in all five continents
The people of Ladakh live in very high mountain valleys between the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Ladakhi share the beliefs of their Tibetan neighbours. Tibetan Buddhism, mixed with images of ferocious demons from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, has been the principal religion in Ladakh for more than a thousand years
While all the tribes he encountered were completely different in terms of appearance, the similarities were obvious.
‘From a social perspective they were the same’, Jimmy says. ‘The further you get away from civilisation, the more people work as a family unit, the greater respect they have for the older generations and for each other. The further away you get, the kinder people are.’
Growing up in Africa, Asia and South America, British photographer Jimmy Nelson developed a deep fascination for the indigenous cultures he encountered and has seen first hand how the world has changed.
But it is the pace of change in the past five or six years, due to the internet and improved roads, that he has found most startling.
When he visited the tribes in southern Ethiopia, for example, the journey from the airport took him three weeks. Today after new roads have been built to the area it would only take a couple of days.
The next step is to return to all the tribes he photographed and show them the completed book. Then he intends to photograph a further 35 tribes in more politically unstable areas of the world where he would require special permission from authorities’ help to get access.
Further information about the project can be found on Jimmy’s website. His book Before they Pass Away can be ordered from Amazon.
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The semi-nomadic Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the semi-arid and arid lands of the Great Rift Valley. Their nomadic way of life follows patterns of rainfall over vast land in search of food and water for their large herds of cattle. All of the Maasai’s needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk and on occasion, drink the blood
The Dani and the Yali tribes inhabit the Baliem Valley in the Jayawijaya mountain range of Papua in Indonesia, on a plateau situated 1,600 metres above sea level
The Nenets people, right, of the Siberian arctic are a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders while right, around 2,500 Dropkas live in three small villages in a disputed territory between India and Pakistan