The many indigenous people from around the globe are often seen as ‘different’, and this comes as no surprise. Known as Tribal Peoples, First Peoples, Native Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples, they constitute about 5% of the world’s population. There are around 370 million Indigenous people in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, scattered among 90 countries worldwide, with approximately 70% of them in Asia. They are the original dwellers of this planet. Before any kind of global migration took place, indigenous people populated the various parts of the world.
It is therefore ignorant, at the very least, to portray these great people as some kind of last vestige of a forgotten race or culture. This is perhaps the reason why photo publications like Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson have struck a discordant note amongst those it seeks to exalt.
The book though visually stunning, has been largely dismissed as “inappropriate” by community leaders and is being called “false and damaging” by the world’s leading advocates of indigenous peoples. The book is likewise said to be patronizing, and plays-up more to people’s pre-conceived ideas and images of what an “indigenous people” should look like.
“The images look like a throwback to a past era, but they’re also a contemporary invention,” wrote Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.
Other indigenous leaders recently weighed in on the debate, noting that Nelson’s images represented neither political nor historical truth. “I saw the photos and I didn’t like them,” remarked Brazilian Yanomami, spiritual leader Davi Kopenawa. “This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. He does whatever he wants with indigenous peoples. It is not true that indigenous peoples are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children.”
Likewise, Nixiwaka Yawanawá, an Amazon Indian from Acre, Brazil, said, “As a tribal person I feel offended by Jimmy Nelson’s work ’Before They Pass Away’. It’s outrageous! We are not passing away but struggling to survive. Industrialized society is trying to destroy us in the name of ‘progress’, but we will keep defending our lands and contributing to the protection of the planet.”
Such a rainstorm of criticism should make many of us be more cognizant of the fact that it would be imprudent and ignorant to think that there is some kind of ‘extinction’ about to take place when it comes to indigenous peoples. They are the most enduring populations of this world and we should learn from their history, rather than treat them as some convenient, fashionable advocacy.