MUNICH: I had this wonderful opportunity to talk to Jimmy Nelson, the acclaimed British born photojournalist who lives with his family in Amsterdam, but is basically traveling the world on a mission to find remote and unique cultures to document the beauty and individuality of these people before they dissolve into the world’s community. His book “Before They Pass Away”, photographed with a traditional 50-year-old plate camera, caught the attention of Mr. Ralph Lauren and he asked Mr. Nelson to shoot the 2015 FW campaign for him.
IRMA: When you were young, you had an experience that changed everything for you. What happened?
Jimmy Nelson: When I was 16 I had a stress related reaction to antibiotics and I developed a condition in which all hair falls out. I was in a boarding school in England at this time. And when you are young and in such a closed environment, you start to stand out, be different. You will be looked at differently. So, immediately after finishing school, I went off to Tibet on a journey. To be seen as a person, not an outsider — that experience shaped me profoundly and enabled me to look at people and cultures with a different perspective.
IRMA: Was it photography that excited you?
JL: It’s not photography as such. I see the camera as a tool and medium to connect to people. Surprisingly they are more open and interested in a conversation when you use the camera to engage with them. But I started to learn how to use the camera properly. I like to use a 50-year-old technical plate camera. It’s quite big and imposing, shooting with it takes many hours. But the images are magical, they have a soul.
IRMA: How did your cooperation with Ralph Lauren come about?
JL: Mr. Ralph Lauren saw my book “Before They Pass Away” and called me to ask if I would like to create something for him. He is very good in extracting cultural essences, be it the American Natives or English aristocracy. He is using this quintessence to create his own style, but people see heritage in it. He thought that these cultural essences were very well reflected in my work. So we did this Fall/Winter production in Finland.
IRMA: You are traveling a lot. How does your family cope with that?
JL: My family lives in Amsterdam and I try not be away from home for longer than two months at a time. If possible, I take my oldest children along. It’s an amazing experience. For the Ralph Lauren production, for example, I also hired two family members as assistants: My wife and my oldest daughter. That was not necessarily a purely commercial contract, but rather a collaboration with family members.
IRMA: Where do you go next?
JL: My biggest project so far has been my project “Before They Pass Away,” where I travelled for three years and photographed more than 35 indigenous peoples around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. I will continue that and also use the money I make with my commercial photography to support those tribes. I do not say: “Guys, you have to stand the rest of your life with loincloth and spear and wait for the sun.” That would be very condescending. Instead, I say, “You have something very special. You have a special kind of wealth.” A wealth that is just as much value as the money in our bank accounts, a wealth that comes from the contact with ourselves, with tradition, with the physicality, with nature. That’s worth a lot. We need to encourage people to preserve this in any way. I had discussions with Mr. Lauren about that. We will see.