Western Colonialism and Romantics in Africa: A Critique of Jimmy Nelson

“African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.” Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write about Africa

In On Photography, the noted essayist Susan Sontag wrote, “Although there is a sense in which the camera does… capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much as an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.” The Western world’s interpretation of Africa is underpinned by its history of domination in Africa, subscribing Africa to a few narrow narratives. Africa is presented as a “foil” to the West, a place described in Heart of Darkness as “unearthly”, with Africans described as “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent”. Upon reading these descriptions, it becomes apparent that the image of Africa has not changed much since the 1800s.

Jimmy Nelson is a photographer from the U.K. whose project entitled “Before They Pass Away”, is composed of photos of indigenous tribes across the globe. In his process of creating these photos he travels to different countries at the “ends of the Earth”, “observing” the “last tribesmen.”  He claims to photograph them from a “very aesthetic, iconic and romantic point of view.” Traveling to the “ends of the Earth”, Jimmy Nelson takes on the role of Henry Morton Stanley- a European white man traversing unexplored land, camera in place of gun. (This will be further explored later).

If Nelson’s photos are applied to Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay How to Write about Africa, the language of the images become very clear-“Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour.” Nelson directs and places his characters in his frame, set in front of landscapes stereotypically associated with Africa-“There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical- Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.” Nelson’s photos, however romantic and grand, play straight into what the typical Western discourse is on the image of Africa. He dictates where the subjects stand, their poses, and what they wear, imposing upon them his own view of what African “authenticity” should be. His interviews and text surrounding these images also convey the image of the “Noble Savage”, describing the tribes as having a “fierce warrior spirit” and living by the motto “It’s better to die than to live without killing.” The language echoes that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where he describes an African woman-  “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent…. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.” Through his work it becomes apparent that Jimmy Nelson’s interpretation of his photographed subjects are deeply rooted in the typical narrative of Africa as it was, and is written by white Europeans. Furthermore, this narrative tends to be warped and one-sided, at best.

While this discourse in the Western world can be traced back to the early 20th century, the phenomenon we see today regarding Africa’s image seems to have taken a new shape. With the rapid changes caused by colonization, industrialization, and globalization, societies along with environments are changing- for better or for worse. Truthfully, these global trends have altered cultures and the understandings between them. In this context, Nelson makes the very dangerous assumption that the sanctity of a society is reflected in how “unchanged” or primitive it is. He takes ahold of this notion of “purity” and warps it to a Western audience, somehow making it less about the African tribes he is photographing by indulging a Western outlook- how painful it would be for the Western world once they lose this “tribal” sanctity! Nelson even puts a label on what he calls “the loss of authenticity”– as if the image of the “tribal” Africa is the only real image of Africa. But even so, instead of delving deeper and investigating the specificities of the loss of a culture or way of life in its historical context, Nelson settles for a scratch on the surface, blaming globalization as the main cause but never being “too specific.”

Jimmy Nelson also presents himself in the classic image of the European explorer- namely, Henry Morton Stanley. As Stanley’s writings about his travels in the Congo are tinged with the exaggeration of fantastic stories about meeting the “strangers” and glorifies himself as the quintessential intrepid explorer. Jimmy Nelson takes on the role with the same amount of gusto, with an added layer of the White Savior complex. With statements such as “Jimmy Nelson found the last tribesmen and observed them” and “Jimmy Nelson forces us to see, to understand and to remember before they pass away,” Nelson is clearly creating an exaggerated image branded on that of a hero, apparently recording truth and beauty. It becomes disturbing when the message relayed from Nelson’s work is that the tribal “purity” and integrity can only be protected by his words and images.

Nelson’s work, although touted as a celebration of tribal cultures, has ultimately managed to reduce his African subjects to a state of one-dimensionality. Neither his photos nor his explanations delve deep enough to uncover historical or anthropological truths, and he admits his lack of knowledge in understanding the background of his subjects. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated that he “…[is] not an anthropologist… [he has] no education.” Although this perhaps should not stop him creating images, it does come with an imperative for some responsibility. How can one be uneducated about the history of a peoples and yet state with such flagrancy that they are “passing away”?

Unwittingly, Nelson has created a narrative that is as romanticized as it is fictional, but the most striking thing about his work is how much praise it has garnered. Even with this knowledge of a colonialist heritage, it has been celebrated and rarely criticized, and raises questions about the Western world’s obsession with the “other.” It also raises the question of what the Western world, as consumers of these types of images, consider to be knowledge of different cultures. What the most important problem facing us that reveals itself in Jimmy Nelson’s work is the lack of a nuanced approach to understanding. Even the publications of respected educational institutions such as National Geographic freely indulge in this image of Africa that Nelson portrays. In promoting a more multi-faceted view of Africa, Nelson does present an important point. In a response to a critical review written about him, Nelson writes “using the exotic, distant and other… makes it more immediate and attractive to a wider and perhaps originally uninterested new audience.” We only have ourselves to blame in what we seek to inform ourselves about Africa. When the Western audience seeks complexity, perhaps the Jimmy Nelsons of the world will comply.


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.” Massachussets Review 18 (1977): 251-261.

“Before They Pass Away: Q&A with Jimmy Nelson.” Roads Kingdoms. http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2013/before-they-pass-away/ (accessed April 25, 2014).

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of darkness. New York: Dover, 1990.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Nelson, Jimmy. “BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY.” BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY. http://beforethey.com/ (accessed April 25, 2014).

Soffel, Jenny. “Tribal beauty: Photographer gives snapshot of vanishing way of life.” CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/21/world/africa/tribal-beauty-photographer-vanishing/ (accessed April 25, 2014).

Sontag, Susan. “On Photography.” Susan Sontag. http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/books/onPhotographyExerpt.shtml (accessed April 25, 2014).

Trebay, Guy. “Images From the Edges of the Earth.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/fashion/photographer-jimmy-nelson-takes-images-from-the-edges-of-the-earth.html?pagewanted=1&_r=4 (accessed April 25, 2014).

Wainaina, Binyavanga. “How to Write about Africa.” Page 1 | | Granta 92: The View from Africa | Archive | Granta Magazine. http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1 (accessed April 25, 2014).


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