The message found there is this: let us, the tainted citizens of modernity, bask in the beautiful simplicity and cultural purity of these exotic people of color before they become corrupted beyond redemption by the burdensome complexity of our lives. While you’re at it, make sure to take special note of the photographer’s unique ability to tame these mysterious and wonderful tribes with his inexhaustible charm. -Zachary Rosen, Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage
I’m disappointed I missed this post by Zachary Rosen at the excellent Africa is a Country blog when it was published in late 2013, just as photographer Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away project was getting a lot of press. The work shows members of tribes from around the world in unspoiled landscapes decked out in their traditional garb. CNN lamented the disappearance of “tribal beauty.” The Daily Mail was worried about people “disappearing forever.” Time Lightbox introduced the work with the odd phrase “Portraits of Authentics.” If those headlines don’t scream postcolonial gaze or white guy photography to you, the project website certainly will.
Rosen’s critique of the work, titled Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage, is a strong and well reasoned indictment of the project and its approach. Referencing the “noble savage” and salvage ethnogography, Rosen argues that the work doesn’t show the people of these tribes but rather the photographer’s (and the West’s) vision of what they should look like. The people are presented as exotic; they’re pure and uncorrupted by modernity. There’s an argument to be made for photographing all sorts of people and cultures around the world, but an unquestioned romanticizing of “the natives” is an approach long since written off as specious and condescending. Rosen also points out the breathless praise of Nelson’s work as it was published around the world late last year. It’s surprising that this idea of the exotic “other,” which seems to be the impetus for Before They Pass Away as presented by a photographer qua explorer and reality TV star, was so widely accepted and acclaimed.
By the way, keep your eye on Africa is a Country, the blog that is not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama, if you’re interested in a critical look at the way the African continent is represented in contemporary media and culture.