In the bio photo on his website, English photographer Jimmy Nelson drills into the viewer with his ice-blue stare. Behind him, Buddhist monks stand, soft and out of focus. Jimmy's eyes tell us that the prognosis for their survival is dire, that these monks in their crimson and saffron splendor are as sure to vanish as the legendary Shangri-La. And it's not just his eyes that are doing the talking; the title of his three year long international photography project, which documents indigenous people around the globe, reflects the same sentiment.
Before They Pass Away posits with polite, British euphemism, that indigenous peoples are doomed and it invites us to gaze at them as they lie in their caskets, elaborately made up and posed, so that we can at least have a pretty picture by which to remember them. And so that Jimmy can make a pretty penny off the funeral proceedings.
Do the subjects of Jimmy's project believe they're in the midst of their demise? Likely not. It's probable they apprehend what's happening to them far better than Jimmy appears to: that their world is merely changing and they are changing with it. That Jimmy's "noble savage" is already dead, because he never really lived at all.
Far from being frozen in some mystical state of harmony with an idyllic natural world as the antiquated term suggests, indigenous peoples are and always have been dynamic and adaptable in a world rife with challenges. In fact, more than anyone else, they have an understanding of how to cope with an ever changing environment without being vanquished by it because this state of flux has defined their existence from the start.
Maybe if Jimmy had spent more than two weeks "going native" with each group, he would've understood this. Maybe Jimmy should meet Matika Wilbur.
Like Jimmy, Matika takes breathtaking and iconic photographs of indigenous peoples as part of her own odyssey, Project 562. When it is complete, Matika will have documented individuals from all 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Unlike Jimmy, Matika doesn't merely live among indigenous peoples as she photographs them, she is one.
Hailing from the Swinomish and Tulalip nations of the Pacific Northwest, Matika has firsthand experience when it comes to comprehending how the forces of colonization and globalization affect native communities. Matika is also acutely aware that, thanks to popular culture and woefully inadequate textbooks, most non-indigenous people see the indigenous inhabitants of this country and of the world much like Jimmy does: as vanishing, romantic relics doomed to be lost in the fray of what non-indigenous people call civilization.
This understanding was a clarion call for Matika to take it upon herself to alter this erroneous perception. By showcasing artists, activists, community leaders, elders and youth and sharing their stories, Matika demonstrates that indigenous communities are also contemporary communities that are forging ways to assert identity and agency despite external challenges.
If Jimmy met Matika, perhaps he would consider that depicting indigenous people in a modern context neither detracts from their beauty nor robs them of their unique identities. He might observe, through her work, that the accoutrements of colonization like T-shirts, cell phones and laptops don't sound the death knell for indigenous people. Rather, he might learn they offer new canvases on which to display traditional art and new means by which to connect and empower communities and unite them against agents that would see their sacred grounds and ancestral lands usurped and their myriad tongues silenced.
If Jimmy met Matika, he might see, to his horror, that he is part of the problem. That he is selling Manifest Destiny Lite by implying that indigenous beliefs, values and traditions are untenable in the face of progress and thus must die. He offers no examples to the contrary -- of which there are many, from progressive hip hop enclaves on reservations to traditional villages in Amazonia where Kayapo chiefs tweet against injustice -- showing how indigenous people have syncretized and evolved whilst maintaining and fighting for their unique identities despite colonial pressure. In fact, he conceals the evidence of their ability to thrive in the post-industrial era by ensuring his subjects are clad in leather and feathers, evoking images of yore and reinforcing their deathly timelessness.
If Jimmy met Matika, he might understand that indigenous peoples are not doomed to fade into the background behind him, but are instead standing right alongside him: Alive, vibrant and gazing ahead into the future.
Rachel Waters is a former newspaper columnist for The Metro Spirit currently working as a freelance writer and nonprofit development associate.