The global language of photography | Jimmy Nelson | TEDxCannes

Translator: Elisabeth Buffard
Reviewer: Ms Buffard’s students Good afternoon everybody. It’s fantastic to be here,
the sun shining, I’ve just come down from Amsterdam where it tends to rain most of the day, so it’s a fantastic beginning. To begin with, I’m terribly sorry,
it’s going to be in English. I feel guilty standing here but on the other hand,
you’re at an advantage because it’s not so much about
what I have to tell you “in se”, it’s perhaps more what these people in
the pictures I’m going to show you are. So please come on a journey, it’s
quite simple, but it’s quite spectacular. I’m going to begin with a quote,
it’s something very simple I wrote or I write in a book I published
one and a half years ago. Essentially, it says: “Be inspired by the world’s last most beautiful
people and places.” It’s extremely simple, and that’s exactly
what I want to communicate to you: be inspired! But where did
my inspiration come from? Oh, to be honest, I copied somebody: a man — if any of you love photography,
this is somebody you have to study, Edward Sheriff Curtis, an icon of mine, somebody I’ve hero-worshipped
for about 30 years. A hundred years ago, he made 30 books
— I’ve only made one — 30 books of the Native American Indian. He put them on a pedestal,
he celebrated them, he screamed, he decorated them, he photographed
them, he presented them, he said: “These people are important,
these people are extraordinary, these people are our
culture and our heritage.” But a hundred years later,
there’s not a lot of them left. So here we are today. I set off
on a journey 5 years ago, essentially, as I just said, copying
Edward Sheriff Curtis, and I chose 35 of the world’s
last indigenous cultures, tribes, I wanted to put them on a pedestal
and I wanted to share them with you. So about one and a half years ago,
I published a book, very exciting, never done that before, and the world being what it is today,
globalized, it spread and it spread and it seemed every magazine on the
planet was publishing something about it. And then something quite
interesting happened, something I’d never
experienced before, all these magazines and people
came to me and said: “Jimmy, who are these people? Where are these people? Who are you? Who do you have the right
to photograph these people?” And ultimately, people started
to wave a finger and said: “Jimmy, we don’t actually
think you’re right!” And it started evolving. And then for
example, we had a Facebook page. A Facebook page
which was banned, because I was accused of
peddling tribal pornography. As you can see, somebody’s mockingly
painted colourful bikinis on it. That was interesting, but
it was taken a stage further. Then online communities started
saying what I had created, and had photographed, was a fantasy
and that it was an obsession. Well, fantasy it is not, and
I will show you in a minute. But obsession it is, and
an obsession that is life-long. It goes back many, many, many years
to my childhood. This is me, I was at the age of about 7. My father worked
for an international oil company. I travelled around the world with him. And at the age of 7, they said, “Off you go to the UK
and back to England, you need to go and have an education.” So I travelled around the world
back and forth to my school, And I got to the age of 16, I was ill
on one of my journeys going back, and somebody accidentally gave me
the wrong medicine to deal with… — I think I had cerebral malaria — and then I woke up, the morning after
I’d taken the medicine, and this is the way I looked. So this is kind of how
the obsession began. If you can imagine going to bed
one morning looking one way and waking up the next morning with
a completely different face. You become absolutely obsessed
by appearance, subsequently obsessed by judgement,
by stigma, by association. And it’s a fascinating journey,
a journey which I started on, and I started on essentially
using a camera, taking that camera with me
initially to Tibet, where I walked across at the age of 17, and eventually further and further
and further afield. Not necessarily to make pictures, but using it as a
catalyst to make that contact to see how people looked at me
and I ultimately looked at them. Let’s go back to the book. The book
was made one and a half years ago,Before They Passed Away,
it’s essentially sort of my iconographic representation
of these people to you. But I think it is also very important
to understand what icons are or were. I mean, they originaly evolved in this sort of painterly figures,
these fantastic… they’re always put on a pedestal,
they’re always glorious, they’re always beautiful,
they’re always powerful, they’re people we aspire to be like,
people we aspire to follow. And then technology evolved. and then the likes of
photography emerged. And we chose our
politicians, our royalty, and eventually it evolved,
we ended up twittering our icons. But all this time I was frustrated! A whole life
having lived in the Third World, what about the icons I know,
what about the people I know? Surely they should be put
on that same pedestal we seem to be putting
everybody else on. It was an enormous frustration. I remember as a child seeing
umpteen images like this and finding them very patronizing,
very demeaning, very colonialistic. So I set out on this journey
to change that. So here we are, a map of the world, all the different corners I went to, they’re like tiny
needles in a haystack, tiny little bits of culture
still left dotted around. You have to look
very hard to find them. But when you do find them, it’s extremely important
that when you arrive, you worship them, you celebrate them,
you put them on a pedestal. So as you can see here, I had this very old… – if any of you
are technically interested – plate film camera using sheet film, it’s very cumbersome,
it never works half the time, you end up going to Papua
New Guinea for 2 months and you have 30 plates with you but it’s through that very handicap
pro test you show your personality, you show your passion, you show
you want to put them on a pedestal. You show you want to see these people
which I’m presenting here to you today. But at their most beautiful, at their
most powerful, at their most celebrate. Look at these, they’re the Huli Wigmen,
miles and miles and miles away, with the most fantastic
appearance and decoration. They shave their heads
when they leave childhood and enter manhood and
they make these celebrated wigs and they decorate these wigs
with these fantastic feathers. Then eventually they end up
in this Avatar-esque landscape. I’m sure all of you,
in one way or another, have seen Avatar, 5 years ago. The most lucrative film ever made
about these digitalized blue characters. disappearing back off to the jungle. But it still exists today!
It still exists today here! Here in Papua New Guinea. They may not be blue,
they’re yellow, but they’re fantastic people, with exactly the same
traditions and values as was represented in Avatar. You take it a stage further: you go to a part of the world
I always dreamed of going to, far northern Siberia,
this is where the Chukchi live. The Chukchi is some of the world’s
last traditional-living, looking Inuits. Absolutely beautiful people!
Extraordinarily powerful people! I told stories before about the choices
and decisions they made: these people choose to live
in this environment, they choose to live together
in this fantastic isolated culture. And they’re wildly beautiful to look at. Or Africa. Africa is a place
traditionally associated with tribes, it’s evolved, it’s changed,
in many ways for the better, but deep deep deep, in Southern parts
of Ethiopia, on the Omo valley, there are people like the Mursi. They have a traditions
which nobody else still have. These ladies, they decorate themselves
with their scars, and they have this tradition of
adding a plate into their lower lip. The larger the plate becomes,
the more powerful and the richer they seem and the more celebrated
a husband they get. A fantastic culture and tradition
to be honoured and looked at. And one of my favourites of all, I’ve told many stories
about them in the past, which I’m not gonna tell today, ’cause
I just want you to look at them, I just want you to celebrate them.
These are the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, in far northwestern Mongolia
in the Altai mountains and they’re truly the sort of
antithesis of the kind of people I’m trying to photograph and
celebrate and show to you. They have this tradition, when a child leaves childhood
and enters manhood. and they’re encouraged to climb
these cliffs, find these baby eagles, train them, and they spend the rest
of their life living with these eagles These eagles are sometimes
30 kilos in weight. They have 5-metre wing spans, they hunt and they glide over
these valleys in the winter months, for the foxes and the rabbits. Truly magnificent people and
in a magnificent environment, Truly very much my icons. Now we go to the Himba.
The Himba are fantastic, I sort of regard them as
the ballerinas of the desert. And it was extremely exciting: whilst I was promoting the book,
I started saying, “I would love to go back, I would
actually love to go back to these people and show them the pictures I made.” They didn’t see the
pictures I made, the majority of the people were unaware
of actually what photography was. So eventually, about two months ago,
I went on a journey, quite a spectacular journey, back to northern Namibia, right up to
the borders, the edge of Angola, I’d say, about 98% of the Himba
have urbanized, have moved to the cities. There are about 2% still left, living in these tracks,
in these fantastic vast deserts, with materially,
they have absolutely nothing. But culturally, they have one
of the richest existences that I’ve ever known or managed
to be able to photograph. I was very excited to travel back, I think I’ve been filmed
and photographed before, I’m not the explorer,
I’m not that original, but I think I was probably the first
person who’d actually honored them, come back to give them what
I’d taken from them in the first place. So they started arriving and
they looked at me it was a bit “shock, horror”,
eventually it was quite emotional and then we started making
some more pictures and filming, and eventually I remember
we sort of sitting down and presenting them with a book,
very very beautiful; and everybody’s still, all the kids are looking over and everybody’s leaning
over your shoulders looking at themselves in the pages. You have no idea what it is like to show people who’ve
never seen pictures, let alone pictures of themselves before, to witness themselves,
to be celebrated in a book like this. So you change from one page to the next, and eventually, you leave
the chapter of the Himbas, you get to the Chukchis and then they’re shocked
and everybody jumps back ’cause they’ve never seen snow before. Then you start telling them stories
about how the Chukchis live and eventually,
there’s this sort of association: we are actually quite special.
We are actually quite unique. We are to be celebrated,
we are fantastic and glorious. And then after Namibia,
I went recently back to Vanuatu. Vanuatu, as you know,
was in the news unfortunately, with the large hurricane. but it is truly spectacular. And we went back to the island of Tana, and you can see it here,
extraordinary place, and we’re taking the books back, again this Avatar-esque existence,
these big Banyan trees, they’re like sorts of cathedrals in the jungle
where they build their houses in, the same process, putting the book in,
giving it to them, showing it to them, answering their questions.
It was all very exciting. And if you could imagine this
room and everybody’s excited, and everybody went quiet, very still and the chief leant over
with the translator. He said: “Jimmy, there’s a problem.”
and I went: “Oh no! I’ve tried so hard, I’ve come all this way
across other side of the world to give you this book and the
pictures back, what have I done?” The chief says, “Yeah. The whole village
is waiting for a copy of that book too!” So I was so proud of having carried
4 books of 10 kilos as excess hand baggage, now I needed to take 80 books with me.
So if anybody’s going that way soon, please get in touch with me ’cause some whole families
are expecting a copy of the book! Next to that, this is
a story very close to home, but it’s as valid as all the other stories
I’ve just told you. Somebody asked me the other day:
“Jimmy, it’s great, you know. you travel to all these places,
you meet all these people, what relevance do
these stories have to us?” Well I’m gonna share with you
the relevance they have to us. Sometimes it comes
in the most simplistic way. And it’s all about observations,
it’s all about humility, and judgement. This is my family. I’ve sort of harrassed them
for the last 18 years, taking pictures, I’m now
banned from photography, (I think banned, I don’t think I
actually exist half the time) it’s OK, but it was beautiful
when they were small, they followed, they perhaps idolized. But times have changed.
This is my son, I love him dearly, he’s amazing, but he is 16. And 16 means, in my case,”you don’t exist!”;
so the communication’s died. And this is only a few months ago. We
were away on a holiday and my wife said, “I’m gonna have a sabatical, you do
all your disappearing, finding yourself, it’s my turn to find myself, you take the kids back home.” I said: “I’m fine, alright,
I can do this!” So we arrived back home, day 3, zero communication,
he disappeared. I’m sort of panicking,
running around the house, my youngest daughter
came up to me and said: “Dad, should we ring mum?”
I said, “No! Don’t ring mum, I’m fine! I’m in control, I’m in control!” She said, “Well if you’re in control,
can I give you a tip?” I said, “Ok, give me a tip.” She said, “Well Naroush said
he wants something new in his room. He’s changed style, he
said something about goth. “I said, “What’s that? ” She said:
“Isn’t it an idea we go to Ikea?” “Ok, what on Earth is Ikea?”
We’ll buy something for his room, we can have supper
with meatballs and chips ’cause your cooking is not
going very well either. And you never know…” “Good
idea!” So off we went to Ikea. Half an hour into Ikea,
it’s a disaster, the hats getting lower, the
music is turning on louder, I got to him and I said:
“What’s wrong?” and he says: “There’s nothing in black,
too much colour.” I’m going “Aaww.” and I’ve given up,
I’m sitting on the floor, My youngest daughter
came up to me and she said: “look what I’ve found, dad!” I said: “What have you found?”
She said: ” Do you remember, when we were small, we used to
play with you in the bathroom, we used to stick things
on your bald head and wind them around.”
I said, “Oh yeah!” ” Well, look what I found!” So she stuck this brush on
my head, and before I know, it’s 3 or 4 other kids and I
had 15 brushes on my head. Not really thinking anything about it,
worrying about ringing my wife, asking for help,
how to communicate with my son. And guess who came out
around the corner: my son! Hat off, headphones off,
he came up to me with a telephone and he made a picture.
Didn’t think anything of it. Three days later, I’m sitting in my study,
and all of a sudden, “Dad! Dad!” There was a panick in the house,
and I was jumping up and down, thinking the dog had been
run over or something. “Dad! I’ve got
one and a half million likes!” And I go, “One and a half million likes?
Where, what, who?” “I took that picture of you
in Ikea and I posted it on 9gag. Do you know 9gag?” and
I’d never heard of 9gag, that international
community of humour. “And one and a half
million people have liked me! And I’ve got letters from everywhere,
from Vancouver to Toronto to Tahiti! It’s amazing! Can I ask you a favour,
please?” and he got down on his knees and I remember looking at him,
going “Oh, yes! Contact! Contact!” So I got down with him, “Tell me
anything, I’ll do anything for you!” He said, “My mates at school,
my class, they want to come for supper tomorrow night
’cause they all want your advice how to also get
one and a half million likes!” “Sure! Bring them! I can’t cook,
but everybody’s welcome.” So instead of letting go and failing, you never know
how through representation and how through photography you can carry on
making contact with each other. And there’s one last picture
I’d like to leave you with: again, it’s an iconic picture,
it’s an extremely important picture, it’s becoming more and more
important for me the more I show it, although I didn’t think so at first. A colleague of mine said: “Jimmy,
when you do a presentation, please show that picture of
the Nenet in northern Yamal in Siberia. I said, “But it’s not my favourite!” She said: “But it’s not about
it being your favourite, there’s something magical and
very very special about it.” I said, “What is it?”
She said, “Look in his eyes! Look deep deep deep
in his eyes! There you are! You’re reflected! You’re reflected
in his eyes. Surely that’s symbolic.” Surely you’re reflected
in his soul.” And I think, to complete this
story, I AM these people. I’m etched in their souls
as they are etched in mine, on this life-long journey of
discovery and communication and sharing of my icons to you. I hope they’ve etched
something in your soul too. Thank you very much. (Applause)

16 Replies to “The global language of photography | Jimmy Nelson | TEDxCannes

  1. Davi Kopenawa, spokesman of the Yanomami tribe in Brazil and known as the “Dalai Lama of the Rainforest”:
    I saw the photos and I didn’t like them. This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. Just like Chagnon, he does whatever he wants with indigenous peoples. It is not true that indigenous peoples are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children.

  2. Jimmy Nelson I'm from India overwhelmed to watch your theatrical speech and loved and respect your journey. I'm 73 leaving my passion(Photography) now just watching the beautiful World in heavenly lights.I'll be honored if you please tell me the film name you mentioned in your speech.
    Manash Mitra

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