Inside Africa

Tribal beauty: Photographer gives snapshot of vanishing way of life

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Jimmy Nelson photographed 35 tribes all over the world for book "'Before They Pass Away"

Nelson photographed tribes in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia

He wanted to create a record of "a fast disappearing world"

CNN  — 

As teenagers, the women of the Ethiopian Mursi tribe pierce their lower lips and put a clay plate in it. They are one of the last tribes in the world who still practice this tradition and the new generation, influenced by the outside world, might decide to abandon it.

That’s why British photographer Jimmy Nelson decided to travel the world for three years, visiting 35 tribes in all five continents, to document their lives and customs before they disappear.

He drank vodka with the Mongolian Tsaatan tribe in freezing conditions and admired the beautiful Himba tribesmen in the Namib Desert. The result of his journey can be found in his new book of photographs, “Before They Pass Away.”

“The whole idea is to make (the tribes) iconic. To give them the attention that we give ourselves in the developed world,” the 45-year-old photographer says.

From a very early age, Nelson was confronted by cultural diversity. He grew up in different African countries before moving to England at the age of seven to attend a catholic Jesuit boarding school. Going back to Africa to meet with nine tribes in four different countries was a special experience for him.

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“Africa is evolving the quickest in my opinion. It has lost the majority of its ethnicity and authenticity,” he says. “I grew up in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gabon and in Cameroon. I’ve been living for 45 years, and what I saw in my childhood is not there anymore.”

Being humble

Nelson and his crew, consisting of an assistant and a cameraman, covered Africa in five trips. They visited five tribes in Ethiopia, and one each in Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia. Nelson says the most challenging part of his African journeys was approaching the tribes in southern Ethiopia.

“There are many small tribes in a small area and everybody is protecting their own turf. So they can be quite intimidating,” he says.