Meeting Jimmy Nelson

Rabari Women from Jimmy Nelson's book Before They Pass Away

I stumbled upon this image (shot by Jimmy) on Facebook some months ago. It was the portrait of Rabari women, in all their finery. Since the image perfectly exemplifies the colourful Rabari people, whose work we offer on RoadsWellTraveled, I dug deeper into the image, finally reaching Jimmy’s exquisite website and images. I was impressed and inspired with his work the moment I laid my eyes on those images. That the message they convey is the same as RoadsWellTraveled’s, made it even more important for me to meet Jimmy and talk about his stunning project Before They Pass Away.

So when I found out that Jimmy and the publishers of the book TeNeues would be holding the project's international opening in Berlin, I knew I had to go! And I had to talk to him.

Meeting Jimmy was a lot easier than I had imagined. I’d assumed I would have to exchange many emails with an assistant before I would get an appointment with him. The real experience couldn’t have been more different. I received an email directly from him within 24 hours of writing to the general email address on his website. You know the ‘info@xxx’ found on contact pages of websites? He asked me to call him the next day around lunch. When I did, at 1315, he asked me if I could meet him at 1500, less than 2 hours from then. I jumped at the opportunity, hopped on a tram and was on my way to Soho House. And there he was, sitting in the hotel lobby, waiting for them to ready his room. Given the short notice, I did not have interview questions prepared for him. So we just decided to chat. And chatting, it was! Talking to him was like finding the support of a parent, the encouragement of a friend, the guidance of a mentor and the listening ear of a confidante. Not only did he eagerly look though with me, he gave me advice through his own personal examples, ones you’ll never hear him talk about on a TED talk.

Jimmy is someone who clearly wears his heart on his sleeve. He is animated, humble, brutally honest, and extremely down-to-earth. He has an ability to connect with people and you can imagine that this quality of his must have helped him a great deal while interacting with the elusive tribes he has photographed for his project. We discussed at length the conditions of these tribes and the rapidity with which they are leaving their traditional ways, lured by visuals of the modern life that reach them through TV and particularly the internet. We both exchanged notes on the tribes that we've met, some of whom have displayed exceptional wisdom in staying true to their ancient ways, even scoffing at the new ways of the city dwellers (you'll soon hear that story in my second post on the Emberaa of Panama). Jimmy also told me his opinion about the necessity to show to these indigenous people how important their ways of living are, and how they are increasingly coveted by the 'modern' creatures of the cities and their lives that these tribes often aspire to achieve for themselves. Since I didn’t document this conversation (and am somewhat glad I didn't), I now only remain with a warm fuzzy feeling and not quite the sound bytes (or a publishable interview) that you might want to see. However, I can tell you about the one thing that I learnt from Jimmy was the importance of passion (there were other lessons too, but those were on a more personal, individual level, from one crazy person to another). It is passion that sets you apart, makes you work hard, get out of your comfort zone and do things that are of a significance beyond your individual being and aspirations. And it is this passion, sometimes combined with a desperation, that makes you scale heights that you never believed you were capable of. He emphasised not only on that passion, but also that desperation- be it desperation to be noticed and heard in a world of innumerable voices and an ensuing cacophony, desperation to feed yourself and a family, or desperation to continue on a path that has always brought you happiness. We discovered that each of the above was relevant to us, especially the latter- the desperation to keep doing that one thing that brings us immeasurable happiness- getting lost in unfamiliar corners of the world, discovering them in our own way, and finding safety and comfort in that unfamiliarity. Profound much? :)

One word for that afternoon- inspiring! Sebastian and I saw Jimmy at the Before They Pass Away vernissage, and then at his talkat Soho House. I am now eagerly plotting a project on which RoadsWellTraveled could collaborate with Jimmy! I hope you get to see it sooner than later.

Much love,


Jimmy Nelson
Jimmy Nelson