Over the last three years, British photographer Jimmy Nelson traveled around the world–from Namibia to Papua New Guinea to Mongolia–documenting 31 remote cultures that may soon disappear, for a new book called Before They Pass Away.
It wasn’t easy; it sometimes took him weeks to reach a community, and there usually wasn’t any way to verbally communicate, since no matter how many translators he used, they didn’t speak the right dialect. Instead, he ended up connecting in other ways.
“One of my favorite moments was on top of the mountain in Kazahkstan,” Nelson says. “It was a cold, early morning, and the sun was rising. I took off my gloves to take a photo of this cinematic, spectacular sunrise when my hands froze to the camera. I started crying as I couldn’t move to take the photograph. Two Kazakhstani women came over, took their gloves off, and put their warm hands on my hand.” He was able to take the shot.
“When one is vulnerable and desperate and people see you this way, they are willing to break down their values to help you,” Nelson says, explaining that the women who helped him were Muslim and had broken taboos to touch him. “By being vulnerable, you can make contact on a deep level.”
Though he didn’t specifically choose the most threatened cultures (he selected them “not on vulnerability, not on significance anthropologically, but on geographical location and aesthetic beauty”), he says he doesn’t think the communities he met will last long in their present state.
“I can’t give a time span, but it will happen quickly,” Nelson says. “No matter how remote I was, the Internet was two days away. Most had access to mobile phones. When they have smartphones, they’ll be presented with images of the developed world. They risk abandoning their authenticity and go towards the material world.”
Physical access is getting easier, too. “Five years ago, it took three weeks to reach the Omo Valley in Ethiopia,” Nelson explains. “Four years ago, it took a week, and now it takes two days to reach the Omo Valley due to all of the new infrastructure.”
As everything changes, he hopes the book will stand as a record of a disappearing world.