Before They - Photography Project by Jimmy Nelson

Vanuatu

All tribes Kazakh Himba Huli Asaro Kalam Goroka Chukchi Maori Mustang Gauchos Samburu Tsaatan Rabari Mursi Ladakhi Vanuatu Tibetans Huaorani Drokpa Dassanech Banna Karo Hamar Arbore Dani Yali Korowai Nenets Maasai Marken Terschelling China Samui Boxers Miao Mundari Marquesans Chincha Wodaabe
Vanuatu
Settlement in the 85 Vanuatu islands dates back to around 500 BC. There is evidence that Melanesian navigators from Papua New Guinea were the first to colonise Vanuatu. Over centuries, other migrations followed. Nowadays, all the inhabited islands have their own languages, customs and traditions.
“A girl is like a branch of nettle tree – whatever ground you plant it in, it will grow”
Many Vanuatu believe that wealth can be obtained through ceremonies. Dance is an important part of their culture; many villages have dancing grounds called Nasara. A significant traditional event is the Toka festival on Tanna Island, a symbol of alliance and friendship between different indigenous groups.
Artprint available

"Often the risks we took sent us far over the edge of our comfort zones."

- Jimmy Nelson

Rock of Rah, Rah Lava Island, Torba Province

September 2011

Rah Lava is one of two small, remote islands that belong to the Banks Islands group of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Their isolation from the rest of the world and the pristine, resource-abundant surrounding natural environment have led to the emergence of a unique culture and lifestyle.


Artprint available

"We would physically position ourselves lower than them to shoot in an upward angle."

- Jimmy Nelson

Rah Lava Island, Torba Province

September 2011

Some Ni-Vanuatu practice male initiation, which usually involves circumcision. Following the ritual, a young man wears a cover of braided fibres over his genitals. People of the northern islands of Vanuatu pass through a series of status levels during adulthood.

Artprint available

- Jimmy Nelson

Coming Back

Jimmy returned in 2014 to the Vanuatu Islands together with Bill Weir from the CNN, to show the people the book' Before They Pass Away'. This is one of the images he took while being back. 

"We were often met with scepticism and recalcitrance."

- Jimmy Nelson

Snake Dancers

September 2011

Man's snake dance is very famous in Vanuatu. They color their bodies in black and white stripes like sea snakes, and use vines as head gear and a leaf in their mouth, lip tight. 

Artprint available

"When the villagers saw us struggling, they figured they had to do their best too."

- Jimmy Nelson

Ni

September 2011

Ni-Vanuatu combine traditional south Pacific cuisine with introduced elements. Before contact with the West, staple foods included yams,
taros, bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, nuts, greens, pigs, fowl and seafood. After contact, other tropical crops (cassavas, plantains, sweet potatoes, papayas, mangoes) and temperate crops (cabbage, beans, corn, pepper, carrots, pumpkins) were added to the diet.

Ni Vanuatu men

September 2011

Archaeological remains found indicate that settlement in Vanuatu dates back to around 500BC. There is a growing evidence that Melanesian navigators from Papua New Guinea were the first to colonise Vanuatu. Over the centuries, other migrations followed. Nowadays, all the inhabited islands have their own languages (over one hundred distinct languages are spoken) and their own customs and traditions.

Artprint available

"These majestic Banyan trees are like cathedrals made out of branches and roots."

- Jimmy Nelson

Majestic Banyan on Tanna Island

September 2011

Many Ni-Vanuatu still practice traditional native religions. These include cargo cults, which believe that wealth can be obtained through religious ceremonies, the best known of which is the John Frum movement. This group holds on to some traditional practices, including ritual dancing and the drinking of Kava.

"Our passion, our perfectionism and our teamwork seemed to be contagious."

- Jimmy Nelson

Yakel villagers on Tanna Island

September 2010

The three-day Toka Festival on the island of Tanna is one of the most significant traditional celebrations of Vanuatu. The event, which used to mark the end of a tribal war, is nowadays a symbol of alliance and friendship between different indigenous groups. During this gift-exchanging ceremony, up to 2,000 participants attempt to outdo each other with their lavish gifts, dancing skills and ornate make-up.  Women wear grass skirts, using leaves, woven mats or the fibres of the hibiscus.

"We would always take the people we shot with enormous dignity."

- Jimmy Nelson

Rom Dancers on Ambrym Island

September 2011

The island of Ambrym is famous for its magnificent tam-tams sculpted from tree trunks. These slit gongs, which are several metres tall, are used to beat the rhythm for the singing and dancing during ceremonial rituals.

The more striking dance is the Rom dance, held every year in Northern Ambrym. It is exclusively a male event and kept very secret. The outfits worn for the dance are destroyed immediately after the event so the spirits won’t haunt the dancers.

"Had we still been there, things would have ended in catastrophe."

- Jimmy Nelson

Mount Yasur, Tanna Island

September 2011

The Mount Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island is one of the world’s few active volcanoes you can get close to. We were on the island to shoot the Yakel people, but unfortunately they don’t live on the rim of the mountain. It might make for a sensational photographic backdrop, but living there is just far too hazardous. 

Ni Yakel villagers on Mount Yasur

September 2011

The Ni-Vanuatu are the Melanesian people that make up the population of the Republic of Vanuatu. This chain of 83 islands in the south-west
Pacific Ocean, formerly the New Hebrides, gained independence from Britain and France in 1980.

Espiritu Santo is the largest island. The capital Port Vila lies on the south-central island of Efate.

The total population of Vanuatu is approximately 170,000.

Kava

September 2011

Kava has a long history in Vanuatu. It is a drink made from the pepper plant that contains a mildly intoxicating drug. A nakamal is an area
where the men from a village gather to drink kava after a working day. Held under a large tree or ‘lean to’, the men from the village gather to talk about current issues.


Big Nambas

September 2011

A nambas is a traditional penis sheath made from bark or the leaf of the pandanus. Two indigenous groups on the island of Malakula, the Big
Nambas and the Smol (Small) Nambas are named for the size of their nambas. Nambas are characteristic of central Vanuatu.

On the northern islands, long mats wrapped around the waist are worn instead. To this basic form of dress, the Ni-Vanuatu add masks, headdresses and various ornaments for different ceremonies.

Ni Yakel villagers

September 2011

The national ceremonial dish is laplap, which is a pudding made of grated root crops or plantains mixed with coconut milk, greens and meats,
wrapped in leaves and baked for hours in a traditional earth oven.

Artprint available

- Jimmy Nelson

Mount Yasur

September 2011

A person gains entry to each stage by purchasing the symbols associated with it and by making a large sacrifice of animals, usually pigs. Men mainly pass through the status levels, but women may also participate. The role of women varies among the Ni- Vanuatu. In some areas, men are in charge. In others, especially in parts of the islands of Espiritu Santo and Efate, women have more power.  In these societies, descent is traced through the female side of the family. For the rural Ni-Vanuatu, the choice of a marriage partner is determined by family and descent. The marriage itself is usually accompanied by an exchange of gifts, including woven mats and pigs.

Tanna Island

September 2011

Vanuatu is still a rural country. Most Ni- Vanuatu live on their home islands and are subsistence farmers who do cash cropping on the side. 
The method of production is ‘slash-and-burn’ horticulture, with farmers clearing and then burning new forest plots each season.

Rom Dancers

September 2011

Ceremonies typically involve an exchange of food, such as traditional taros and yams, kava, fowl, pigs and chicken, as well as feasts. Dancing is an important part of Ni-Vanuatan culture, and many villages have dancing grounds called nasara.

Wintua Village

September 2011

Crops are sold at local markets. With a growing tourist industry, there is a small market for traditional handicrafts. Customs are involved in every single major event in daily village life (marriage, death, circumcision, initiation, rites of passage etc.) and they also ensure that law and order is maintained. If disputes arise, they are resolved peacefully by exchanging gifts.

Rom dancers

September 2011

Often, the chief will use this time to mediate and/or make judgement on village disputes. This method of mediation and reconciliation - if an issue has reached a high level of conflict - has led to Vanuatu being very peaceful, especially compared to its Melanesian neighbours.