Sharples as the world will see him

Pita Sharples in full tribal regalia. Photo / Jimmy Nelson
Pita Sharples in full tribal regalia. Photo / Jimmy Nelson

It wasn't until after he had taken the photo for his new book featuring people from 35 tribes from the Siberian Arctic to New Zealand that British photographer Jimmy Nelson realised who Pita Sharples was.

Nelson's photographic book, Before They Pass Away, was published two months ago. The Maori Affairs Minister is among those pictured.

Nelson says he visited New Zealand twice to get the material he needed. The second visit was for Te Matatini national kapa haka festival in Gisborne in 2011, where he set up a makeshift photographic studio for three or four days and took portraits of anyone who entered.

Dr Sharples - in full kapa haka dress with a temporary ta moko - was among them. "I met him at the festival and we got talking and he introduced me to others. But I have to be very honest: at the time, I didn't really know who he was or the significance of who he was."

He chose to use Dr Sharples' photo from among the hundreds taken because of its power and imagery.

The visits to New Zealand were part of three years Nelson spent travelling the world to photograph indigenous people from 35 tribes.

He took his large plate field camera from Africa to Tibet, the Siberian Arctic, Mongolia, and Jammu and Kashmir. From the Pacific, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea also feature.

He said New Zealand differed from the other countries visited, which were predominantly developing nations where many tribespeople still lived traditional lives. He chose to include Maori because he saw them as an example of a people who had ensured their tradition survived development because it was nurtured.

"The project was looking for the last 'untouched' people. For the Maori, that's not the case, but their traditions and ta moko are still very much part of their daily existence," Nelson said.

"Maybe I'm wrong, but the way I saw and felt it, the more contemporary generation of Maori are really starting to get a grip on their history and identity, but they're bringing that in a balanced way into the contemporary world.

"In a lot of parts of the world, such as America, they've lost all identity."

The photographs are deliberately highly staged and directed. Nelson describes them as "romantic" and stylised, inspired partly by the photographs of native Americans by Edward S. Curtis in the early 20th century.

"By using an old camera, the sitter has to be very patient and still. It gives an intensity and stillness to the portrait."

It was a deliberate contrast to the documentary style in which tribespeople were usually photographed. "They are usually photographed going about their normal lives - how they live, how they crawl through the mud, and often not with respect. I wanted to give them the respect we give ourselves."

Nelson plans to revisit many of his subjects, this time with the BBC after it contacted him wanting to do a documentary on cultural identity.

- NZ Herald

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