A Trap of Art

Maori man of New Zealand. Image by J Nelson, from beforethey.com

Maori man of New Zealand. Image by J Nelson, from beforethey.com

Currently on display at Fotografiska in Stockholm is British photojournalist Jimmy Nelson’s exhibition Before They Pass Away (closing 1 February, 2015). The series of photos displayed in the exhibition shows indigenous people (a concept left undefined) across the globe, arrayed in front of the camera in all their beauty and diversity. Mesmerized but also discomforted, I left the museum feeling conflicted.

I felt appreciative of Nelson’s ambition to capture people when they are their most beautiful selves – but felt that the exhibition lacked agency and a critical eye. I loved the project for celebrating the beauty of humanity. However, I could not but question the motive as well as the object of Nelson’s work. Before They Pass Away as title bothered me since it implies that indigenous people have stayed preserved, untouched by time. We (who are we?), have to act now in order to catch them (who are they?). I also felt that the use of nature as scenery, although amazingly beautiful, was over explicit in the way that it connected tribes as closer to earth than the absent modern man. I discussed with my friend whom I had seen the exhibition with that it was clearly not global diversity that was on display, but Nelson’s view of global diversity seen through a soft and beautifying lens.

A few days later, when visiting Nelson’s webpage, I learned that my reactions were part of the intention with the project: (…) ”Before they pass away’ is intended to be a controversial catalyst for further discussion as to the authenticity of these fragile disappearing cultures”. (quote from www.beforethey.com)

Woman of the Ethiopian Mursi clan. Image by J Nelson, from beforethey.com

Woman of the Ethiopian Mursi clan. Image by J Nelson, from beforethey.com

Problem is that this intention was nowhere communicated in the exhibition. Had I not visited Nelson’s webpage this would have been lost to me. Perhaps I should have understood that it was more of an art project than a documentary, but no one appreciates to be trapped. Further, Nelson takes no responsibility that the analytical discussions he hopes for actually takes place. Culture is constantly changing, and there exists no such thing as a scale of authenticity to measure this. In the end, although the objective might have been the opposite, Nelson’s work reproduces the idea of the good wilder, believing in the idea of preservation for the sake of it.