“I wanted to put these people on a pedestal. I wanted to put them on a pedestal like they’d never been seen before. So, I chose about 35 different groups, tribes, indigenous cultures. They were chosen purely because of their aesthetic. I had to choose the most beautiful people on the planet in the most beautiful environment that they lived in, and put the two together and present them to you.” – Nelson
Dutch photographer Jimmy Nelson takes stunning photos of indigenous people in their traditional splendor. He travels to all ends of the Earth to find and capture these native people at their proudest moments. The images are intended to show you their heart and soul; and they really do show the people at, and in, their best. His work successfully places the world’s rarest people and their rich traditions front and center.
As the world is continually changing all the time these old traditions and customs can simply vanish in a flash of an instant. The people that he photographs are truly a rarity. Nelson feels compelled to make sure he documents them before (in the case that) they disappear. He doesn’t just go find them, take some pictures of them, then leave. He actually spends months immersing himself in their remote communities, connecting with people and really learning about their lives.
“An extremely important part of this project was about how I photograph these extraordinary people. And it’s basically beauty. I think beauty matters. We spend the whole of our existence revolving around beauty: beautiful places, beautiful things, and ultimately, beautiful people. It’s very, very, very significant.” – Nelson
The Huli are proud people who live in the Papua New Guinean highlands. They are known as the Huli wigmen. They are some of the most extraordinarily beautiful people on the planet but there’s not many of them left. The reason they are so proud is because they have a very unique ritual. When they’re teenagers, becoming a man, they have to shave their heads, and they spend the rest of their life shaving their heads every single day. They save all the hair and turn it into a very personal creation – a special Huli wig. Then they decorate that wig with the feathers of the birds of paradise. They spend the rest of their life recreating these hats and getting further and further.
“The forest in which we live is essential to us. It provides for all our needs, it is sacred, and I would do anything in my power to protect it,” writes Mundiya Kepanga, a 53-year-old Huli Wigman, in the foreword to Homage to Humanity. “I hope that by helping people to better understand my culture, they will also respect our environment.”
In the next valley over there is another amazing group of people, a tribe called the Kalam. They might be neighbors but they speak a completely different language and they look completely different. They also wear something handmade on their head but it’s a hat instead of a wig. It is built out of these fantastic emerald-green little scarabs. Sometimes there are 5,000 or 6,000 scarabs in a hat, and they spend the whole of their life collecting these scarabs to build these hats.
“Do I have to go around the world photographing, excuse me, women between the age of 25 and 30? Is that what beauty is going to be? Is everything before and after that utterly irrelevant?” – Nelson
The answer came to him in Chukotka with the Chukchis, the last indigenous Inuits of Siberia. They are a fantastic tribe of only about 40 people left. It took months of traveling across the ice to finally reach them. Here is where he discovered true beauty like he’d never seen before.
“And only then…I saw a respect. They had zero judgment. They observed one another, from the youth, from the middle-aged to the old. They need each other…there’s this fantastic community of respect. And they adore and admire one another, and they truly taught me what beauty was.” – Nelson
The nomadic Dolgan people roam the tundra of the northern Anabar Republic of Yakutia in Siberia where it is so brutally cold that the temperature may even drop to -76 degrees Fahrenheit some days. Nelson explains, “Dolgan means ‘people who live close to water’ — or, in this case, ice. They live on icy white plains that stretch out as far as the eye can see.” They travel with their homes on skis, which are called Balok, and more than 1,500 animals, including packs of herding dogs and herds of reindeer.
“We Dolgan have been the envy of many people. During perestroika in the 1990s, the reindeer herders were the only ones who were well-fed because the tundra always keeps providing,” says Roman Dimitruvik Tupirin, a 44-year-old Dolgan who was interviewed by Nelson and his team. “Now we’re fearful of losing our connection to nature because people are coming here to hunt for diamonds and oil.”
The Ngalop people of Bhutan hold a special place in their country. Buddhism is the national religion there and these people are known as the people who brought Tibetan Buddhism to Bhutan when they migrated there in the ninth century. The word Ngalop translated means ‘the first risen’.
These people perform in these amazing masks that symbolize different deities, demons and animals. They wear them and act out spiritual stories from their collective past at festivals. Nelson says, “Religious gatherings such as the Tschechu festival are an important way to promote and share cultural heritage between the people from remote villages.”
The Marquesan people from the Marquesas Islands, Polynesia use tattoos to communicate their status and their genealogy. Tattoos are such an important part of their identity that right after a child is born, the parents begin saving money to pay for their child’s tattoos in adulthood. Every shape and symbol has a given meaning and each is earned as people acquire wealth and achieve higher status in their community.
Back in the late 1700s when Captain Cook and his crew arrived at the Marquesas Islands they were amazed by the appearance of the inhabitants. One of the crew members said they were “the most beautiful … people I ever beheld.”
The Q’ero people of Peru’s Andes Mountains are thought to be direct descendants of the Inca. They live in and around the community of Qochamoqo which is located over 14,000 feet above sea level. Nelson explains, “They are known for their weaving techniques, with which they make the colorful unkuña carrying cloths. The cloth is made from a blend of alpaca, sheep and llama wool, and the fabrics’ designs communicate their people’s history and mythology.”
“We still believe there should always be equal exchange, a sacred reciprocity we call ayni: I do something for you today; you do something for me tomorrow… We Q’eros live close to nature and we sleep close to the earth. I want to protect it like it protects us. That is ayni.” says Fredy Flores Machacca, 30, the youngest-ever president of the Q’ero nation.
The semi-nomadic Muchimba people of the Kaokoveld Plateau in Angola and Namibia, Africa spend much of their time along the Cunene River, which is an important resource for them and their herds of cattle and goats. Even though they stay by a river the water is scarce so they reserve it for livestock. To keep clean, says Nelson, “the women cover their skin and hair in a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment known as otjize, which also protects them from the sun.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who looks like us or does things the way we do,” says Mucathalepa Tchombo, a 32-year-old Muchimba woman from southwestern Africa, that was one of the subjects of Nelson’s work. “I’m very proud of my culture, but the world is changing fast, and we’re part of that too.”
The Kazakh people are the largest ethnic minority group in Mongolia. They are known as eagle hunters. They have these powerful birds of prey as pets that assist them in hunting red foxes, rabbits and wolves. When a hunter kills an animal they are careful to use every piece of it — for utility and as a sign of respect to the creature.
“Hunters usually keep their eagles for around 10 years, which is about a third of their lifespan. We can feel when it’s time to give them back to the wild,” Boskay tells Nelson. “We only use female eagles, and it’s important to release them so they can have offspring and keep the natural balance.”
The Miao people live along the mountainous province of Guizhou in southwest China. Not all Miao people are the same; they’re split among distinct groups. The Longhorn Miao traditionally wear these impressive headpieces (made by wrapping wool around a horn-shaped wooden comb) during their spiritual rituals. “They’re named for their impressive headpieces, which were originally made from the hair of their ancestors in order to keep them close,” says Nelson. “Nowadays most headpieces are made of wool. Their shape is derived from the oxen and water buffalo that play such an important part in their agricultural life.”
You can learn about many more different people and their traditions in Nelson’s new book, Jimmy Nelson: Homage to Humanity. “The idea is that the whole world can get access to what’s going on behind the pictures, see who these people really are, and dispel myths about them,” he says. “I want to show you the soul of these people.”
Watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED talk here: