Dressing up mobile phone users in traditional garb then hauling out the 4×5 view camera…

Some photographs from Before They Pass Away are on display in Manhattan right now (Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery). I went with an 11-year-old friend and pointed to the first image and said “It’s terrible that some people are so poor that they can’t shop at LL Bean. Also, I’m sure that it was tough to convince these native people to put down their iPhones and pose for half a day.” If you’ve been spoiled by our digital era, that Jimmy Nelson hauled a 4×5 (sheet film) view camera around is impressive. That he has been accused of “staging” images is hardly surprising. One is unlikely to get a surprise candid of a person, indigenous or otherwise, with a view camera (about the size of a toaster oven… plus tripod).

What do readers think of the protests around this work? (example; example) Are readers smart enough to know that modern tribal people are more likely to be found in a T-shirt and talking on a Nokia phone? That the complicated outfits in the book were more likely once-a-year celebration attire rather than everyday garments, even back in the old days?

What if the photographer had refrained from talking about how these groups are “passing away”? Just told tribal folks to get the fanciest old-style clothes that they could find, posed them, and presented the photos to speak for themselves? Would the criticism have been less intense?

More: see Jimmy Nelson’s web site.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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