The Native Camera

Liviana Martin

Before They Pass Away

‘As a photographer, my journey revolves around the subject of my artwork: indigenous people … my work aims to connect with people of different cultures and to inspire others to embrace the beauty of humanity, recognizing that we are all one people.’

The words of the English photographer Jimmy Nelson, author of the shots on display at Palazzo Reale in Milan, are the best introduction to this interesting exhibition.
Through 65 large photographs (some measuring 2 by 3 metres), the Humanity exhibition documents the creative evolution of Nelson, who spent his life traveling from Africa to Asia to Oceania to photograph indigenous cultures considered at risk of disappearing. In an increasingly globalized planet the photographer recounts the traditions, rites and richness of the culture of peoples with ancient wisdom.
The cultural diversity of the most remote communities in Papua, Tibet or Mongolia push us to put ourselves in a different perspective and to consider the others, the strangers to our world, as an integral part of the human family. More than ever, in these times of renewed barbarism, wars, immigration and rejections, consideration and respect for others should be the compass that guides us. Otherwise, the famous prediction contained in the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ phrase ‘homo homini lupus est’ will be fully realized and will make us blind and immune to the needs of others.
Nelson establishes a bond of friendship with people who live in the most distant corners of the earth, gaining their trust and sympathy. In various photos the photographer is seen being welcomed and considered almost a member of the group. Thanks to this empathy, he manages to portray elderly people, women, men, boys and girls with absolute clarity and involvement. In the folds of the face of an elderly Inuit woman we see the beauty of life; in the proud portrait of a Kazakh girl female emancipation stands out.
His images represent people engaged in rituals, playing instruments, riding horses, moving with their scarce goods, including houses (like the reindeer herders of Siberia, who live fifteen hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, a group that was among the most welcoming and warmest towards Nelson).
An unusual shot of several Dani from West Papua (Indonesia) shows them advancing in a sort of triumphal march, in a contamination between traditional elements and aspects of globalized society: some are wearing sunglasses and carrying a framed diploma on their arm. Here Nelson wants to show us the interaction between tradition and modernity. A criticism made of his work concerns considering these people outside of our times, as if they were untouched by the contemporary. In reality, explains Nelson, he clearly wanted to pose his characters, in an almost theatrical way, not to mummify them, but to delve into the different aspects of their culture. The photographer immortalizes an instant, prepares it with poses that require physical effort, patience and at the same time the speed of a few seconds of the final shot.
Another dominant theme is man’s relationship with nature: the landscape is not just a backdrop on which people act, but constitutes a profound relationship between human beings and the environment. Very high peaks, waterfalls, deserts, snowy panoramas tell us about the lives of men who have adapted here without transforming, disfiguring or violating what surrounds them.

Brigade Migrating with the Baloks, Dolgans | Anabar district, Yakutia | Siberia 2018

And here, in the Omo valley, in Ethiopia, gathered in front of a large tree, a group of women, men and children, who almost seem to have sprung from the roots of the centuries-old plant. A
wonderful Maasai warrior from Serengeti, Tanzania, one of the most beautiful young men Nelson has ever met, is portrayed against the backdrop of an arid landscape and under a leaden sky, with his flame red robe and shield.
Nelson uses a large format analog camera, 10×18, because it offers exceptional image quality. The use of large plates facilitates the capture of details and gives depth to images. As Nelson says, when he photographs he is documenting the essence of the human soul. The resulting photos are similar to paintings, like those displayed in the last room of the exhibition. The author says he drew inspiration from the paintings of medieval altars to create the polyptychs: the central scene attracts the eye, like a focal point, while the side panels offer details of the various subjects. The photos of the Kazakh eagle hunters of the Altai mountains, in Mongolia, immersed in a spectacular mountainous landscape, are flanked by portraits of two hunters holding a stick on which the eagles are perched, which appear to be talking to the men.
‘I firmly believe in the transformative power of beauty. I have personally witnessed how recognizing and celebrating beauty can lead to positive changes in individuals and communities… Mine is a journey to discover the beauty of humanity.’
The author’s words can bring to the end the journey of this magnificent installation, where the breath of humanity can be felt.

Jimmy Nelson. Humanity
Palazzo Reale, Milano
20 September 2023- 21 January 2024 , ticket 15 euro