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Photography: Jimmy Nelson’s Piece of Art Term Paper

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020


The subject of this analytical paper is a photograph of a warrior from a tribe in East Africa, the Maasai, which photographer Jimmy Nelson took as part of his collection of photographs in the book, Before They Pass Away. The photograph, which features on the book’s cover, possesses certain features that make it stand out. This analysis reveals details on the features and it aims at creating a better understanding of the photograph.

Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away” photo

Photograph by Jimmy Nelson


The main theme in this photograph is culture. According to Nelson, the Maasai are part of the few tribes in the world that are quickly fading due to civilization and the increasing need for the world to form a global community (453). The author mentions uniqueness as one of the merits of maintaining a culture and he expresses his fear that such singularity is quickly fading for most cultures around the world.

Therefore, he undertook the task of highlighting some of the tribes that still exhibit unique cultural traits in every aspect of their lives including mode of dressing, language, food, and religion (Nelson 453). In the picture, the man’s attire, demeanor, and environment attract the audience’s immediate attention.

Nelson’s description of the man in the picture as a warrior is evident from the tools he holds in his hands. The man clutches a spear in his left hand and a shield on his right. The long cloth wrapped around his body is also unique given that most people prefer modern clothing such as shirts and trousers to a plain sheet of cloth. The design in which the cloth falls around his body is intricate and attractive.

Although the human figure forms the key feature in the photograph, the background, according to Nelson (454), forms part of the warrior’s culture and is thus relevant when conducting an analysis. He explains that the Maasai tribe is nomadic in nature and it often roams expansive lands in search of pasture (454). The expansive arid land that forms the background, thus serves to complete the picture and create a holistic view of the tribe’s cultural practices.


A medium describes the material in which a work of art exists and materials that an artist uses in its creation. For instance, for paintings, the term medium refers to types of paint that artists use to generate their works as well as the surface on which they display such works. Some artists prefer oil paintings while others opt for acrylics (Kemp 56).

The same principle of description applies to drawings, photographs, and other forms of art requiring description. The portrait that forms the subject of discussion currently exists in print in the author’s book and in softcopy over the Internet for easy access and better distribution to a global audience. The softcopy version allows audiences to print the image as part of their personal collection or store it as an e-file in their computer databases for future reference.

The photograph is the result of a project that Nelson undertook in the year 2009 using a 4×5 field plate camera, which uses film to store images. His camera, which is more than fifty years old, generates images with a higher resolution since the image does not require resizing in order to increase its surface area during the printing process. Although the camera is not presently a common choice for professional photographers today, the few that appreciate its advantages brand it a valuable tool.

For instance, the makers of the camera specifically designed it to solve depth of field problems using the Scheimplug principle. The camera’s features allow the front and the back to move accordingly to achieve the photographer’s desired position using shifting movements – up, down, sideways, and tilting movements that go out of parallel.

The use of this feature is evident in the photograph and notable in the depth difference between the foreground and background. It creates a realistic three-dimensional feel to the features in the portrait .


In art, form is the part of a formal analysis that incorporates depth, width, and height as the result of interactions between lines, shapes, texture, color, space, and light among other elements. Although the piece of art in question for this analysis is not a painting or drawing, the same principles apply when conducting such analysis (Andrews and Langford 71). For instance, the horizon in the background forms a horizontal line that creates a sense of stability and calmness in the picture.

It also draws the observer’s attention to the center of the portrait coupled with facilitating a view of every element that the photographer included in his masterpiece. The warrior, the rocks, and the trees under him create vertical linear movement that evokes a sense of depth in the portrait, which is necessary in three-dimensional images. The presence of light and darkness in different sections of the portraits generate texture (Gurney 44) and bring out the roughness in the shrubs and smoothness of the warrior’s skin and clothes.

In art, color conveys various messages regardless of whether they come from the subject or the artist. One of the uses of color is drawing attention to certain aspects of the subject (Gurney 62). In this case, the warrior’s outfit and shield draw attention to him and separate him from the rest of the elements in the portrait. Red signifies boldness and beauty, both of which form messages that Nelson wanted to convey.

The “use of negative space in the photograph is indicative of the expansive environments” (Winters 29) in which the Maasai community lives in, while the harshness of the terrain brings out some of the hardships that the community faces. The fact that Nelson took the photograph in the community’s natural environment brings out a realistic perspective of the community’s culture through the photographer’s eyes.


According to Jimmy Nelson, the photograph exhibits the culture of the Maasai community in their natural environment, without the interference of civilization.

In his opinion, the culture of the Maasai community is one of the few left in the world that remains untainted by influences from other cultures or altered by civilization. In his book, Nelson notes that although the culture has managed to remain intact for centuries, the community might find it difficult to maintain the status quo for much longer, thus igniting his need to document the present situation before such change occurs (453).

In the book, some of the unique traits that the author noted from his short stay with the community include the mode of dressing the warrior showcases in the photograph, the nomadic way of life that the society ascribes to, strict adherence to religion, and traditional gender roles as well as a nomadic lifestyle involving survival on cattle.

Historical context

Jimmy Nelson took the photograph in November 2010 while on his three-year journey to document the cultures of vanishing tribes around the world that he considered unique and interesting.

Nelson’s aim was to document the cultures before they changed due various reasons including increasing populations and the need to adopt practices common in civilization (Nelson 209). In the book, Nelson explains that the Maasai tribe is indigenous to East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania, and they practice a culture, which is passed on from one generation to another since the fifteenth century.

They live in remote areas away from towns and they practice a nomadic way of life. He states that the tribe depends on cattle for all its dietary needs through consumption of meat, milk, and sometimes blood (Nelson 455). Their attire entails sheets of cloth of different colors depending on the occasion, which are often bright. The men serve as the guardians and providers of the community while the women take on the role of homemakers.

The community allows its male members to have as many wives as they can afford to support, thus creating a hierarchy for the wives in the homestead where the first wife holds the most power and control over the running of the home. Boys learn their role as warriors of the community from a young age while girls learn the art of kraal construction and home management from the women folk.

The official rite of passage from childhood to adulthood involves circumcision for both genders (Nelson 460). However, the author notes that female circumcision is illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania. Some of the elements of this culture visible in the portrait include the community’s mode of dressing, the environment in which they live in, and the role that male members play in society.


The photograph exhibits a modern style with classical aspects owing to the equipment that the photographer chose for the project. This aspect creates a unique style that adds to the beauty and peculiar nature of the photograph, thus separating it from most modern works. The modern aspect of the photographs is visible in the composition, while the classical aspect is evident in the hues of the photograph.

Works Cited

Andrews, Philip, and Michael Langford. Langford’s Starting Photography: The Guide to Creating Great Images, Oxford: Focal Press, 2008. Print.

Gurney, James. Color and Light: A Guide for the Realistic Painter, Kansas: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2010. Print.

Kemp, Linda. Simplifying Design and Color for Artists: Positive results using negative painting techniques, Rohnert Park: North Light Books, 2013. Print.

Nelson, Jimmy. Before They Pass Away, New York: teNeues Publishing, 2013. Print.

Winters, Dan. Road to Seeing, San Francisco: New Riders, 2014. Print.

This term paper on Photography: Jimmy Nelson’s Piece of Art was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
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IvyPanda. 2020. "Photography: Jimmy Nelson’s Piece of Art." January 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/photography-jimmy-nelsons-piece-of-art/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Photography: Jimmy Nelson’s Piece of Art'. 12 January.

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