This Controversial Art Project Aims to Preserve Nothing Less Than the Richness of Humanity Itself

Photographer Jimmy Nelson teams up with JWT

Photographer Jimmy Nelson has spent 30 years shooting the world's indigenous cultures. His work is instantly recognizable: It's aspirational, stylized, romantic, nearly fairy tale caliber. When we examine the images, something inside us thrums. 

Some would say that's just a bunch of euphemisms for fetishism. Nelson acknowledges this reaction, but argues the reasons are more important than the opinions of "anthropologists and purists." For him, this is a celebration of diversity's beauty, and thus its importance. 

"If we let the cultural identity of indigenous people disappear now, it will be lost forever. It's literally a case of blink and they're gone," Nelson says. "If this happens, we will lose one of the most valuable assets we have—our rich human cultural diversity and heritage … This must not happen. Our collective cultural identity is too valuable to be destroyed by homogenization. We must unify and fight to support indigenous cultures, and take personal pride in their myriad cultural traditions, still to be found on the planet today."

It isn't clear what it means to "unify and fight," or what such support would look like. In any event, Nelson partnered with JWT Amsterdam and JWT India to produce "Blink. And They're Gone," a campaign that aspires to bring our shared heritage to vivid life.

The video above is composed of over 1,500 photographs taken by Nelson, handpicked from over 100,000. The film took 90 days to edit, and features the Huli Wigmen from Papua New Guinea, the Kazakhs of Mongolia, the Sadhus of India, and the Wodaabe from Chad, among others. 

It begins as a series of portraits and 'scapes scrolling tranquilly by. Then the cuts speed up and the images blend, faster and faster and closer and closer, until all you see are faces: Pure diversity, then it blurs. Somehow, between the lines, you feel—and thus see—something of yourself. 

Ever been to Epcot Disney? 

Epcot is neat: Hop from one "country" to another. The people who operate the shops and restaurants are natives (often college students on internships). Products and food are local to their home countries. It's a capsule experience in cultural dilettantism, which in its own way is fun: Discover Norway's troll mythology, have baklava in Morocco, and enjoy the prickly character of Parisian waiters in less than the time it takes to pass TSA security. 

The only thing that ruins it is the unavoidable sense that you're patronizing a human zoo. 

For good and ill, Epcot illustrates the prevailing attitude that culture is worth protecting only if we can somehow consume it. (Consider Venice.) Everything else falls to the wayside … and frankly, who cares? If you didn't see it or feel it, if it didn't show up in your 23andMe results, did it ever really exist? Does it matter?

These may seem like facetious, terrible questions, but they're all at the beating heart of "Blink. And They're Gone." With poignant pictures, Nelson's aim is that we develop the kind of strong feelings that compel us to save polar bears or learn our ancestral tongue—a weaponized visual seduction that, if successful, will garner our support because its very remoteness, its intense flames of difference, are what make them relevant to us. We are the end result of countless human dramas that result from mixing and movement. That inheritance is stronger than a tribal mask, Venetian glass or a selfie in a red telephone booth. 

"Blink. And They're Gone" will roll out through 2019, following the release of the video, which happened in mid-December and has already garnered over 1 million views. 

Nelson hopes to start a conversation; to support the effort, he produced a 525-page photography book titled Homage to Humanity, which dives into the stories and traditions of indigenous people. An accompanying free-to-download app adds VR and 360° experiences to the mix. 

Below is an interview that Muse conducted with the team.

Muse: Jimmy, you have a controversial reputation. How do you balance passion and conviction with the perception that your work is exploitative?
Jimmy Nelson, photographer: It could be said that my artistic interpretation of—and my voice for—indigenous cultures has become a catalyst for a dynamic global discussion [about] how different peoples and cultures relate to each other, and judge one another, on their relative material and immaterial values and wealth. 

I balance my passion and conviction with the misconception that my work is exploitative in three different ways: 

Firstly, through the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, a movement I've created to empower cultural expression and validation within Indigenous cultures, to expedite self-expression of worth and cultural significance.

Secondly, by facilitating an ongoing dialogue within the communities. I do this by coming back to the people I have met with the photographs I initially made of them. Showing the results helps create objectivity in perception.  

Thirdly, and most importantly, by deep inner belief. Based on firsthand experience over the last 51 years, I have a conviction that my passion to represent indigenous communities in an iconographic way—and as art—will be of more value to them than it will ever be to me or us. 

I have experienced some striking results from my photography. In Western Mongolia, my portraits of the Kazakhs had a positive effect on their numbers, as many of the original group who left for the city migrated back to their traditional homes out of the Ulaanbaatar and reconnected with their traditions.

Tell us about "Blink. And They're Gone." What's its origin story, and why this approach? 
Senthil Kumar, chief creative officer of JWT India: When we started working with Jimmy Nelson, and looking at the incredible images he shot over the last 30 years, culminating in his book Homage to Humanity, we noticed none of the images had a single closed eye in them. They all show eyes wide open—so we saw what was missing and found the idea right there. 

What if we could make the indigenous people in these images blink? You thought it was a bunch of stunning still images. Think again. Blink and they're gone. Try not to blink when you're watching the film. How long will you last? How long will they last?

The creative leap we took was to connect the dots between the diversity in human cultures and unite their differences in a seamless visual and sound narrative that will blow the mind of every viewer and arrive at a certain similarity between all of them, in spite of their cultural and geographical differences. 

Tell us what the first collabo conversation between Jimmy and JWT was like.
Bas Korsten, global creative lead at JWT: Jimmy and his team reached out after seeing The Next Rembrandt and witnessing the global discussion it started on creativity and the future. That campaign launched in 2016, but the discussion is ongoing; rarely a week goes by without a call from a TV company or writer who wants to reference it or speak to me about it. 

Jimmy wanted to start a global discussion as well, on the preservation of cultural heritage and the importance of respecting indigenous culture. So we started talking. It's hard not to feel engaged when Jimmy starts telling you about his journeys to the far corners of the world, the experiences and hardships he's been through, and his greater vision. It's even harder to refer to Jimmy as "a client"! He's a like-minded creative, who, far from reining us in, pushes us on. 

When my team and I at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam started presenting our first ideas for the wider campaign, his fearlessness was quite something, and very refreshing in this current climate. He runs with ideas and makes them bigger and better. Would you normally expect an ad agency to work for a photographer? No. But in this case it's creativity enhancing creativity. "Blink. And They're Gone" is just the opening shot of what's to come from our collaboration in 2019 and beyond.

Jimmy, having photographed so many people over 30 years, you must have a very specific approach. What's your secret?
Jimmy Nelson: My approach—and the subsequent relationship that comes out of it—is based on a very deeply rooted empathy with "The Other." This is achieved by projecting from the outset an enormous amount of humility and respect, which creates a profound human empathy. 

If this can be achieved, it enables humans to communicate on a deeper level and usurp the need for a common tongue or shared language.

What makes the film special?
Senthil Kumar: While every photograph was stunning in its still form, we believed each of them could move mountains with ... subtle movement within the image, like water flowing under the tribes, leaves falling from trees, mist enveloping the tribe, the goat shaking its head and archers' feet moving over land and water in stealth mode, building the moving point of view and the camera closing in for the capture, only in images that were longer than 12 frames in the edit.

The film craft was elevated with cutting-edge music and sound design, inspired by the rhythm, beats, chants and war cries of the various Indigenous people featured in this film. 

Who is this work talking to?
Bas Korsten: Every human being on the planet. It's important that we all recognize the importance of our cultural identity. It defines who we are as individuals and as a species. 

If that sounds overwrought, it's not. The Sun newspaper in the U.K.—a publication that's not known for culturally diverse viewpoints—ran a very positive article sharing Jimmy's message and images to a whole new audience [that's now] curious about indigenous cultures. 

What do you hope people will do or feel once they're exposed to it?
Bas Korsten: First, we'd like people to become aware of the decay of cultural diversity and of the importance of preserving it. We need to talk to each other about it, be proud of it. We need to celebrate it. And we need to respect each other for it. 

Senthil Kumar: The parallels between [planetary] biodiversity and cultural diversity are very clear. Our ethnodiversity, our "ethnosphere," must also be protected and preserved. It is the sum total and manifestation of all the thoughts, dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations and intuitions produced by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. It is all we have created through our endeavors as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species. In short, it is humanity's greatest legacy. 

We all come from the same source and together are going through an amazing period of cultural evolution. Peoples with unique cultural identities need to be truly and effectively respected, cherished and supported, for them and the future of planet Earth. 

How do we balance supportive consumption of indigenous culture with ideas about appropriation and fetishization? 
Jimmy Nelson: This question begs another question: Why is it so easy to regard these images having an excessive and irrational devotion and commitment to an artistic aesthetic in their appearance—and not use that same observation for the fashion industry in the developed world? 

If we take an honorable, respectful, educated and healthy appreciation and understanding of indigenous culture, we can address this issue of cultural balance and not regard it as a lateral consumption that ends—but rather as a circular consumption that sustains. 

How have the photographs' subjects responded to this work?
Jimmy Nelson: I make a special point of returning to each culture to show them the images I created together with them. The process of taking these photos is very intense and the bonds I create are strong. Upon my return, I have always been welcomed back with overwhelming warmth and appreciation, which makes me believe even more in my approach and the value of what I do. 

The common consensus has been that I was not the first visitor to come and take a picture—but that I am invariably the first one to come back and show them what the photos look like. 

When does the work come out, and where can we find it?
Bas Korsten: Last month we kicked off the campaign with Jimmy Nelson issuing an international warning that the world is at risk of losing its global cultural heritage by squandering the cultural identities of the last indigenous peoples. 

This announcement, which has been picked up by national newspapers globally, is underpinned with the film, made in collaboration with Senthil Kumar and JWT India. This went live on Jimmy Nelson's Facebook and Instagram [in mid-December]. Already the film has had quite an incredible amount of interaction with over a million people engaging with it.

But this is just the start. In the first quarter of 2019, we will launch a wider initiative and a disruptive tech campaign to help preserve global cultural heritage by turning technology against itself.

So watch out for that!

CREDITS 
Client: Jimmy Nelson

Photographer: Jimmy Nelson
PR Manager: Marit de Hoog
Project Manager: Coco Box

Agency: JWT India & J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam

Director: Senthil Kumar
Creative Team: Bas Korsten & Senthil Kumar
PR Director: Jessica Hartley

Production House: Small Fry Productions, Mumbai
Editors: Priyank Premkumar, Dev Nayak & Kevin Menezes
Music Director: Dhruv Ghanekar
Vocal Percussion: Taufiq Qureshi
Sound Engineer: Joseph George
Original Soundscapes: Various Indigenous Artists
Post Producer: Jebastin Anton