At the RLC in September 2019, world-renowned photographer Jimmy Nelson blew the audience away with his impassioned story of finding a way to reconnect with humanity. Jimmy’s photographic work across the planet has not only received critical acclaim but has also opened the eyes of the modern world to remote tribes and their beauty. Following his presentation, Hearts & Wallets was given the opportunity to delve deeper into the man behind the lens.
Jimmy, how did you start out in your life's journey to get to where you are today?
For the first seven years of my life, I grew up in various places in the developing world due to my father’s career, living wild and free – a bit like Mowgli. Then when I was seven, I was sent to boarding school in England. The abuse and fear that I suffered there for years numbed me, and then to make it worse, I suddenly turned bald overnight at the age of 16. It was alopecia totalis – I lost all the hair on my head and body.
Was this what caused you to want to get away?
Yes – I felt ugly and worthless. Without hair, I was perceived as being an aggressive skinhead, or as having cancer. I had no more respect or love for myself. And so after finishing school, I worked for six months on a building site and used the money to buy myself a one-way ticket to Beijing. From there, I aimed to get into Tibet, which had been shut to foreigners for 32 years. Being a fan of the Tintin books, I knew that lots of Tibetan people had shaven heads. They were the only people on earth who looked like me.
How did you feel, taking this leap into the unknown? It seems an incredibly brave thing to do.
It had nothing to do with bravery – I just felt I had nothing more to lose. I had no dignity, no aspirations – I just jumped. Looking back, this seems to have been an ongoing theme running through my life. I was fearless because I didn’t care any more, and I just had the curiosity to connect with other human beings. I was searching for empathy. In hindsight, it was just a cry for help and looking to find a way to survive.
When did you realise that photographing faraway tribes was what you were meant to do with your life?
It was a gradual process. I had only four rolls of film and an old camera with me that first time. I took a picture of the people who were nicest to me, as a memory. It wasn’t so much about photographing indigenous tribes as connecting with people. When I came back, these pictures were published, and then I went off again to other strange places. I use photography as a way to communicate about faraway people and places without using a language. The more remote they were, the more I had to invest in trying to establish a connection, and the greater the reward.
Do you have a favourite place or tribe?
No – it’s more about an ongoing process; a cumulative gathering of experiences. I keep returning to places, because each time you come back they are different, and I want to keep learning. I have an unending curiosity, and I also want to keep raising the creative bar. Having said that, perhaps my favourite time and place is the quiet hours high up in the sky in the dark when travelling to or returning from a destination, when I am in transit between two different worlds.
What are the advantages of bringing gamification elements into your work?
The app is free, which adds to the attraction of the book. It’s a way of making the whole experience more emotionally involving and visually exciting. The app lets us bring a whole new generation to see and participate in different experiences. It cost a fortune to develop, but it’s fuelled the sales of the book. Actually, you don’t even first have to buy the book –that’s one way we can reach out to more people. And all of this allows us to keep going, and to give something back.
Talking of giving back, can you tell us a little more about the Jimmy Nelson foundation?
I decided to set it up because I take something from these people’s cultures, and I wanted to return an element of that wealth. My aim is to do this in the form of a threefold investment. One part is to encourage each community to build a centre in which to gather their traditions and their culture. Another is to send curious young souls from the developed world to document this; and a third is to inspire the indigenous cultures to realise how wealthy they are in terms of their relatively harmonious connections with themselves and their natural surroundings. The ultimate feeling of wealth is to feel valuable and needed. It gives me a sense of purpose, too.
What strikes you most when looking back over the years?
What I went through at boarding school isn’t something you would wish on anyone’s child, but it was these extreme experiences that led me to the life that I’m leading. Every now and then you hit a few walls and form a few scars, and that makes you who you are. And it’s led me to some very interesting places.
Hearts & Wallets is the official magazine of BrandLoyalty. It is a magazine for people working at the highest levels of the food retail industry. The goal of Hearts & Wallets is to come up with real insights on - and answers to - current issues, while offering its own individual interpretation as food for thought.
Published in January 2020.
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