Powerful Portraits of Secluded Cultures on the Brink of Extinction

Before They Pass Away is a powerful documentary series by photographer Jimmy Nelson featuring dozens of cultures around the world whose people live in seclusion and are at risk of fading away. Traveling across five continents, the English photographer manages to embrace the various cultures he has encountered and highlights each of the 35 tribes' unique beauty.

Above: Huli in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea


From Ethiopia and Nepal to Papua New Guinea and Siberia, Nelson exhibits a wide array of environments that these diverse tribes inhabit.The refreshing project goes beyond exhibiting humans across the globe, though, documenting their culturally rich lifestyles and appearances. Each community displays their own means of survival while retaining their distinct spirituality and exhibiting their diverse decorative adornments.

There is a very human appeal to viewing Nelson's series. Though modern civilizations are equipped with technology and an abundance of unnecessary possessions, the photographer digs deep into the remote tribes of the world, finding something far greater than gadgets and gizmos–a sense of humanity.

We were lucky enough to get in contact with the photographer and ask him a few questions. Jimmy kindly shares his insight and experiences with us, below.

Also, Before They Pass Away is a book that is available to purchase directly through the publisher's website.

Your photo project is a beautiful record of secluded and endangered cultures. Was it difficult to be accepted into the different communities as a guest?
After arriving at the locations, I always made sure they never saw any cameras. I also made myself small–in both a physical and metaphorical sense. I'm quite tall and imposing, but when you make yourself small, you give them the feeling that they are in control, even if it means spending 4 days crouched in the dirt. I would then try to communicate, usually with the help of translators. In places like Papua New Guinea, where there are thousands of languages, I had to use hand gestures and touching. Another important point is that I always stayed in their accommodation, whether it be a teepee or the ground, because I didn't want to give the impression that I was better than them.

Goroka in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

You refer to your subjects as “visually unique tribes.” How do they compare in terms of practices? What are their similarities?
These tribes were all chosen for aesthetic beauty, geographical location, and the diversity of the nature they live in. I originally wanted to photograph 70 tribes, but several were eliminated because they were physically inaccessible or there were bureaucratic barriers in some countries, especially in Africa and the Amazon. Overall, I strived to make the subject accessible to individuals who wouldn't normally be interested in these tribes. Their similarities lie in how they live in balance with the environment, and how they have achieved the perfect harmony that everyone in the West dreams of.

Karo in the Omo Valley of Africa's Great Rift Valley

Can you please explain, from your firsthand experience, how global changes (in terms of technology and urbanization) have directly affected the indigenous cultures you've photographed?
Although they will always exist, what is happening is that they are abandoning their culture. Affluence is taking over the undeveloped world and–in my opinion–there should be a balance somewhere in between. I want to show these tribes that they are already rich, that they have something money can't buy. What I want to achieve is bring attention to these people by showing that they are beautiful.

Kalam in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

Is there an especially memorable story from your travels for this project that you can share?
There's a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took 4 days to make, because each morning there wasn't enough light. On the fourth morning, it was about minus 20 degrees on top of the mountain and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and they literally froze to the camera. I began crying and turned around and saw that 2 women had followed us there. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of shots. What I didn't know was that these women were actually strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all codes of modesty to aid me. They saw my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for.

Kazakh in Eastern Europe and northern parts of Central Asia

What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
Tribes and forgotten cultures teach us about aspects of humanity such as love, respect, peace, survival and sharing. There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. Whether in Papua New Guinea or in Kazakhstan, in Ethiopia or in Siberia, tribes are the last resorts of natural simplicity.

Tsaatan in the remote subarctic taiga of Mongolia

Ladakhi in the Northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir

Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania

Maori in New Zealand

Mursi in Ethiopia

Nenet in the Yamal peninsula

Before They Pass Away website
Before They Pass Away on Facebook


Pinar Noorata is the Managing Editor at My Modern Met. She is a writer, editor, and content creator based in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her BA in Film and Media Studies from CUNY Hunter College and is an alumni of the Center for Arts Education’s Career Development Program in NYC. She has worked at major TV, film, and publishing companies as well as other independent media businesses. When she isn’t writing, editing, or creating videos herself, Pinar enjoys watching movies, reading, crafting, drawing, and volunteering at her local animal shelter.
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