Six Lessons from A Tribal Photographer

By Aubrey Marcus February 14, 2017

Homer Simpson said it best. “Doh”. I played back what was intended to be a skype podcast with Jimmy Nelson, author of the photographic masterpiece Before They Pass Away, and it sounded like we were speaking in a manhole. My first non-local podcast was a bust from a technical standpoint. I refuse to let this go to waste, so here are 6 lessons I learned from the amazing stories he was able to share from his 2 year journey to some of the remotest places on Earth.

If you haven’t seen Jimmy’s work, gives a preview of this incredible catalog of photos, capturing the spirit of the last remaining native people, still in touch with their ancient traditions. It is a masterpiece born of our world, captured by a master.

The interview began with a story that illustrates an important principle in life. At 16 years old Jimmy contracted malaria, and after a medication debacle was rendered permanently bald. The ensuing identity shock led Jimmy down a path of self discovery. At 18, he grabbed a camera and set out to walk across the length of Tibet, capturing moments on 6 rolls of Kodak gold film. His photo collection was published, and that propelled him on the path to be a photographer. What would have happened if Jimmy hadn’t contracted Malaria, and been given the wrong medication? Would he ever have achieved this level of mastery? Maybe, maybe not. But it illustrates a lesson that Castaneda’s philosophy is so good at hammering home.

Lesson (1): Nothing is inherently a blessing or a curse. There are only challenges, and it is up to you to decide what to do with those challenges.

In 2007 when his industry hit a low point due to the economy, Jimmy provided a local restaurant he enjoyed in London with some photos pro-bono for the walls. He had the idea to create a photographic collection of the tribal peoples of the world, but this would require funding, and before he could get funding he needed a publisher. One day the restaurant owner called and urgently asked him to join him at the restaurant for a party. There were apparently some influential people going to be in attendance. At the party, Jimmy made a connection with one of the top publishers in Germany. They were interested and went on to publish his book.

Lesson (2) - Be generous with your resources. You never know when someone you helped along the path will be able to return the favor.

With the financing squared away, Jimmy was off on his journey. I was quite interested in some anthropological questions, particularly after reading Dr. Chris Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, and there was one story involving the Himba, a tribe of herdsmen in Namibia that seemed to confirm many of the good doctor’s hypotheses. With the grassland sparse, the men of the tribe drive their cattle out on extended walks deep into the bush, often lasting weeks. On a rotating schedule, one man remains with all the women of the tribe, and it is his duty to satisfy any sexual needs that might arise.

Lesson (3) - Where the good of the tribe is held above the good of the individual, different morals and cultural conditions apply.

Another very moving story for Jimmy involved the Kazakh of Mongolia. The famous Kazakh Eagle Hunters provide some of the most iconic images ever captured on film. The Kazakh are a Muslim people who carve out an existence on the craggy steppes of Mongolia, using birds of prey to help them capture small game. Three days running at 2:30am Jimmy marched up the mountain with the hunters and a few of the wives, hoping to catch a sunrise. Finally on the third day that glorious orb rose unobstructed from the East. Jimmy removed his gloves to set up the plates in his camera. As he grabbed onto the anodized steel, his fingers stuck. In a panic, exhausted from the biting cold and the fruitless night-hikes up the mountain, he yanked his fingers from the plates. His hands were freed, but the skin on his fingers remained like the residue on a cheap price tag. Jimmy lost it. In full panic, tears streaming from his face, blood gushing from his freezing fingers he wailed his agony into the predawn sky. The Kazakh eagle hunters never flinched. Calmly the wives corralled him, grabbed his hands, and placed his bloody fingers under their heavy clothes, right on their warm skin. With one in front of him and one in back, his fingers slowly warming up, they hummed and rocked Jimmy like a child.

It is not permitted in the Kazakh Muslim culture for a woman to have this kind of contact with another non-Muslim man. But in these harsh conditions something else, something deeper was more important than their religious mores. Call it something tribal.

Lesson (4): Love, compassion, and kindness should always trump religious or social dogma.

The Chukchi people of Siberia have one of the most rugged existences in the world. The icy cold relentlessly bears down on them and resources are scarce at best. At one point the Russian government offered them housing in a nearby town. Intrigued by the proposition of easy food, warm beds, and of course vodka the tribe moved into the housing for a while. Every day they grew less and less happy, spending more time apart, drinking and watching television, until finally one morning they all left the housing. They returned to the frozen steppe, to live as their people always have.

Lesson (5): Comfort and technology do not necessarily equate to happiness. Happiness is more consistently found in meeting daily challenges and maintaining close contact with those who you love. Your tribe.

One question I was curious about, was how Jimmy got these tribes to pose for all these pictures. In my Western mind, I assumed there was some kind of barter - Either they got prints of the pictures or some kind of food. But that was not the case. For the most part they were just excited to help this crazy Englishman get excited! And of course, with gesture, voice and smile Jimmy was great at lavishing on the compliments.

Lesson 6: No matter where you are, everyone loves a compliment.

On that note, thanks for reading you sexy, knowledge seeking, go-getter you!

Interview below has an Echo like Narcissus. But it is included for the brave of ear!

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