Sunday, February 9, 2014

Opposing Perspectives on Jimmy Nelson's Project, Before They Pass Away

Image Credit:  The Maori, New Zealand. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues. (Sourced from feature shoot)
I came across an article extolling the power of Jimmy Nelson's portrait series, Before They Pass Away, on the blog feature shoot last week.  I have mixed feelings about this work, and was immediately a bit put off by the overly slick, commercial feel of the images.  But, I was more bothered by the assertion that this work served to "document the last remaining indigenous people of the world." (See the article, Powerful Photos of Vanishing Indigenous People Across the Globe, by clicking HERE.)

I had a suspicion that it wouldn't be hard to find an article that was critical of Nelson's approach, and came across a thoughtful essay on Salon by Elissa Washuta, "The Wrongheaded Obsession with 'Vanishing' Indigenous People." Washuta makes a number of strong points about the work and rightly questions the romanticized aesthetic in relation to the artists "predefined notion of indigenous authenticity, which doesn't align with the realities that have faced indigenous communities since time immemorial" (Washuta).  

I encourage those interested in this work, or in representations of indigenous communities in general, to read over both articles and think carefully about Washuta's suggestion that, 

"Nelson’s evaluation of communities during his lifetime fails to account for the flux experienced over thousands of years. Too often, onlookers expect indigenous peoples to remain static for the entirety of their existence, failing to consider their long histories of change before contact with outsiders."

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