The first trip we went on was to Papua New Guinea. It had been at the top of my list for a long time, but I never had the chance to go there. For all the remote places I had travelled to in my life, with Papua New Guinea, I was stepping into the unknown. But as it was the first time the three of us went on an expedition together, we were also stepping into the unknown with ourselves. I had deliberately chosen to go on a challenging trip right at the beginning. I figured jumping in the deep end was the best and fastest way to get to know each other. And sure enough, the pressure cooker of difficult circumstances on a two-month journey did what I had expected it to do. We had the inevitable personality clashes, but with our differences out of the way so early in the project, the road was cleared for our future journeys.
While the circumstances in the mountain swamps were physically very arduous, they weren’t particularly dangerous. So unchallenging, actually, that we were lulled into a sense of false security. We did know Papua New Guinea was a ferocious place, with inherently wild people. Only sixty to fifty years ago, some of the local tribes were still cannibals. More recently, western colonialism and mining has pushed them into a corner, and they are now fighting back. As a result, parts of their old character are remerging and, in some cases, their frustration is projected towards westerners. We were aware of the situation, but not of how intense it really was.
We only started hearing stories later on. People who came from the main cities had all had bad experiences, some quite serious. Because we had decided to travel over land into Papua New Guinea, avoiding the capital, we started out very relaxed. But the closer we got to politically tensed Port Moresby on our journey, the more nervous and even paranoid we became. I’ve experienced much stress in conflict areas in the past, but in Papua New Guinea, I realised how fragile our presence was. This I actually found quite upsetting because individually, the people are all extremely warm.
At the same time, our naivety got us access to so many beautiful pictures. When I was younger, I felt, as we all do, the infallibility of youth, and ended up doing many things that verged on the irresponsible. During our trip to Papua New Guinea, I regressed back to that mentality of the inexhaustible youth. If we’d gone in the measured way – the sensible way – we wouldn’t have acquired a fraction of the extraordinary images we came across. As such, Papua New Guinea set the precedent for how we would approach the journeys still to come. – Jimmy Nelson
Centering on active tribal cultures found across the world, this is an excerpt from Nelson’s new book of more than 400 full color photographs, “Before They Pass Away”, published by TeNeues and available now. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.BeforeThey.com. Follow Nelson on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.