Thursday, 23 January 2014

POV: Neo-Colonialism vs Commercialism vs Envy?

Photo © Jimmy Nelson-All Rights Reserved

Much as been written, praised, lauded, criticized and bloviated about Jimmy Nelson's Before They Pass Away ethnography photographs and books....and yet, it seems that the photographer, his publisher, his PR machinery and his angel investor are adopting the adage that goes: "les chiens aboient, la caravane passe," which essentially means letting people say what they will...or in this case, means they're laughing all the way to the bank.

Through Facebook, I've read posts from bloggers who are angered by the rhetoric used by the photographer to describe his work, and view it as condescending at best, or as neo-colonialism at worst.

I'm not going to go through the pedantry and mealy-mouthed criticisms, because they may have indeed been caused by a genuine unease with the over-the-top PR promotions, and aggrandizement tactics adopted by Jimmy Nelson and his entourage. I am also made somewhat uneasy, and have some ambivalence with these photographs...because I have yet to read whether or not the photographer has given back some of his material gains from this project to the communities he has depicted...and how they were treated and compensated during or after the photo shoots.

Another point: Jimmy Nelson is a white man...nothing he can do about that. Are the critics throwing stones at this guy because he's white and he photographed indigenous people? What if he had been a black man? What if he had been a woman? Let's think about that for moment.

Is Jimmy Nelson another Sebastiao Salgado (noting that even he was criticized for his corporate associations)? No, he's not. Steve McCurry (a patron saint for some travel photographers) photographed for Louis Vuitton in India and elsewhere and probably made a bundle...Annie Leibowitz (not really a patron saint for travel photographers) makes a ton of money shooting celebrities in exotic places.

But not a peep from the same critics.

What I'd like to know before I pass a final judgement on Before They Pass Away and on the photographer's ethics is whether some of the revenue generated by the books' sale will go the the indigenous communities in the photographed...and were his "models" adequately compensated? That's my more no less.

In the meantime, I reserve my right to admire the photographs he made...some are very well made, some are over-the-top for my taste, some are awful, and some are said to have been ripped off (idea-wise) from another talented photographer I know.

Would I, given the chance to photograph these communities, have photographed them in the same way? Of course not. Would I have posed the Mursi in the Omo Valley with such fantastical headgear? No...not my style. So would my"un-fantastical" but perhaps politically-correct/non neo-colonialist photographs end up in a limited edition book priced at over $8000? Nope.

Finally, I segue to the question of envy. I wonder how much of the bloviating is directly or indirectly motivated by envy? It seems Jimmy Nelson managed to convince an wealthy investor to fund this project to the tune of $500,000....yes, half a million.

Show me a photographer who would turn down a project like that and with that sort of funding because it could be considered as "neo-colonialism" by some of his/her peers or by some segments of the public, and I'd show you a drunken fool.

As for the price of the books; as I said, the limited edition is priced at $8750, while the pedestrian version is $150. I wager that the decision for such high prices was made to generate some sort of reasonable return for the investor and the photographer. I doubt the investor will recoup his investment at all...but what I hope for is that a portion of whatever revenue is made is channeled back to the indigenous communities in a meaningful and targeted way.

Yes,'s a commercial project, aimed at selling the most books as possible, and one that is employing a powerful PR machinery that may even dictate what Jimmy Nelson can say or cannot say, and one that managed to convince CNN, TIME, and a shitload of other international and national dailies and magazines to feature Nelson's work.

Get over it.

And when you do...go find an investor with $500,00 willing to fund your pet project.

Good luck with that.