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Parenting Lessons From Tribes Around The World

By Michelle Henning

A conversation with photographer Jimmy Nelson.

Last year, while heavily pregnant, I attended a talk by acclaimed photographer Jimmy Nelson in our local café here in Amsterdam. He was speaking about his new book, Before They Pass Away, and showing spectacular images of the indigenous tribes from all over the world that he had spent time with.

A year later, I have a crawling, climbing, energetic baby on my hands, and the constant bombardment of parenting advice sometimes makes me question my own choices. My desire for a natural parenting style—home birth, co-sleeping, and baby wearing—reignited my curiosity about how these indigenous people raise their children. I recalled Jimmy saying that he lived nearby, so I reached out to him. He agreed to come over for tea, and with my daughter happily sitting on the kitchen table between us and bashing Jimmy’s phone, he shared with me how the indigenous tribes have influenced his own parenting methods.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into photography in the first place?

I was a very creative kid. I went to a Jesuit boarding school, but I was not academic—I’m dyslexic. Then, at the age of 16, my hair fell out in one day. I was given the wrong antibiotics. I woke up and looked in the mirror, and I was bald. Now it’s irrelevant, because I’m in my mid-40s, but when you’re a 16-year-old teenager, it’s quite heavy, especially in the mid-1980s in northern England; everybody’s judging you.

I left school at 17, and I disappeared off to the one country in the world where everybody else was bald, and that was Tibet. I thought, “I’m going to find myself amongst a lot of monks.” So I walked the length of Tibet, by accident. I took a few pictures to document the journey. They were published, and that’s how I started, at 17.

That’s amazing. Now, for Before They Pass Away, you spent time with tribes all over the world and took stunning pictures of them. In your observations of the tribes, what are you focusing on initially?

The aesthetic. These tribes are some of the world’s last traditional cultures. They have not been presented in an iconographic way, a way in which we could look at them with far more praise and respect, and realize they perhaps have something that we don’t have anymore, and we’re on the edge of losing it forever. The only way to do that is to put them on a pedestal, to celebrate them. The only way to do that is to make them into icons, into art.

Once you make pretty pictures, people go, “What pretty pictures!” Then they look beyond the pretty pictures and go, “Wow, who are the pictures of? Aren’t they amazing? Who is this?” They start asking questions which we’ve not asked before. And if we don’t find answers soon, these people will go.

If that happens, the world will go upside down, because these tribes give us the balance of culture, of knowledge of the world’s last natural environments, traditions, languages. The world can’t be all about progress and material wealth. It must also be about consolidation of what we already have, which is a natural, spiritual, mental, cultural wealth. We’ve kept ourselves busy for many, many generations, believing material wealth was the only way forward. We have to regain that balance. That’s all the book is about—it’s about putting these tribes on a pedestal, to start that discussion.

When you were with them, did you notice anything that made you think, “This aspect is so important to their life and their existence and their identity,” but they themselves didn’t feel that it was anything special?

The majority of them know how significant the natural setting is that they live in, and how pure that is, because they’re the last of their groups. Ninety-nine percent of their people have already moved away to the cities, and live in boxes under bridges. Some of them have returned and told them what city life is like, so they are aware.

Then again, I think they still don’t truly understand how important it is. You know, 100 years ago, an American photographer called Edward Curtis photographed the Native Americans. You may know those sepia pictures, of Chief Sitting Bull.


He spent 30 years traveling around America, photographing the last Indians. Everybody laughed at him. Everybody said, “This is a waste of time. These people are dirty. They’re covered in leather, and they’ve got feathers in their hair, and they sing silly songs. It’s far more important we get rid of them, or they get rid of their cultures, and we move on.”

One hundred years later, look at America. In my opinion, it’s one of the most culturally impoverished and socially sick places on the planet. They all have the biggest cars, but also the biggest bellies and the biggest guns. That, I would argue, is because they’ve lost their cultural roots. Who am I? Where am I from?

I don’t want us to lose that cultural history on an international scale. I’m being very melodramatic and of course it’s not as black-and-white as this, but just to illustrate what I’m trying to do with my work.

Regarding health, how do the tribes look after themselves? They don’t have access to medicine like we do.

It’s a survival of the fittest. If you’re not healthy when you’re born, you die; it’s as harsh and simple as that. Those who are born healthy, functioning, they live, and they live a healthy life.

A lot of the illnesses we suffer from here are selfinflicted. They’re self-inflicted from food, sugars, salts, all the synthetic aspects. They’re self-inflicted through our lifestyle. We believe we have to live for happiness. None of these people have the term “happiness,” because they don’t worry about the future, or when they’re going to be happy. They just are.

They don’t think about goals, or “This will make me happy if I do this”?

No, it’s about today. It’s about what matters now, about what I feel now. It’s about today, and this evening when we eat. We, on the other hand, worry about 20 years from now, our pension. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

I’m particularly interested in their child-rearing practices. Here, everybody talks about routine, about sleep training, about when to give solid foods. In the tribes, did you see any small infants being fed solid food?

No, they’re all fed by the breast. They feed them until they’re 4 or 5 years old.

Really, that old?

Why not? It’s 10 times healthier, coming out of your breast, because it’s clean. It builds their whole immune system. And there’s no structure to it. It’s just when they’re hungry, they eat. There’s none of this, “They should eat, they shouldn’t eat, it’s now bedtime, we’re going to have to wean them off.” All these communities, the best food comes out of your breasts.