Slo Mo: A Podcast with Mo Gawdat

Jimmy Nelson - The Lifelong Journey to Find Yourself

May 20, 2020 Mo Gawdat Season 1 Episode 10
Slo Mo: A Podcast with Mo Gawdat
Jimmy Nelson - The Lifelong Journey to Find Yourself
Chapters
Slo Mo: A Podcast with Mo Gawdat
Jimmy Nelson - The Lifelong Journey to Find Yourself
May 20, 2020 Season 1 Episode 10
Mo Gawdat

Nothing I write here will capture the emotional magnitude of the conversation I had with world renowned photographer and artist, Jimmy Nelson. The world knows him as a storyteller primarily via his gorgeous photography, but here is proof that listening to Jimmy tell his story as a guest on a podcast is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Jimmy Nelson has hauled his camera to the world's most remote corners in order to create a living document of vanishing tribes and indigenous cultures. His first large-format book, "Literary Portraits of China", was a worldwide hit, culled from over 40 months of traveling through China. A collection of Jimmy’s photos, "Before They Pass Away", was published in 2013. In 2016, he and his team launched the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, which aims to foster appreciation for cultural diversity and celebrate polychromatic cultural identity.

Listen as Jimmy gifts us with stories of:

  •  His incredible journey from a childhood living like Mowgli from "The Jungle Book" to a traumatizing education at an abusive boarding school
  • His struggles with hating his own brain and body
  • The period as a reportage photographer or "a broken man disappearing into other people's pain"
  • His now legendary expeditions into uncharted territories befriending and photographing indigenous populations with his analog camera
  • Pondering how quarantine has reinforced his gratitude for the adventures already had and those to come, even if at a small park across the street from his home in Amsterdam

Instagram: @solve.for.happy, @onebillionhappy, @mo_gawdat
Facebook: /solveforhappy, /onebillionhappy
LinkedIn: /in/mogawdat
Connect with Jimmy Nelson on Facebook @jimmy.nelson.official, on Instagram @jimmy.nelson.official , on Twitter @jimmy_p_nelson, and jimmynelson.com

Don't forget to subscribe to Slo Mo for new episodes every Monday and Thursday. Only with your help can we reach One Billion Happy #onebillionhappy.

Show Notes Transcript

Nothing I write here will capture the emotional magnitude of the conversation I had with world renowned photographer and artist, Jimmy Nelson. The world knows him as a storyteller primarily via his gorgeous photography, but here is proof that listening to Jimmy tell his story as a guest on a podcast is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Jimmy Nelson has hauled his camera to the world's most remote corners in order to create a living document of vanishing tribes and indigenous cultures. His first large-format book, "Literary Portraits of China", was a worldwide hit, culled from over 40 months of traveling through China. A collection of Jimmy’s photos, "Before They Pass Away", was published in 2013. In 2016, he and his team launched the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, which aims to foster appreciation for cultural diversity and celebrate polychromatic cultural identity.

Listen as Jimmy gifts us with stories of:

  •  His incredible journey from a childhood living like Mowgli from "The Jungle Book" to a traumatizing education at an abusive boarding school
  • His struggles with hating his own brain and body
  • The period as a reportage photographer or "a broken man disappearing into other people's pain"
  • His now legendary expeditions into uncharted territories befriending and photographing indigenous populations with his analog camera
  • Pondering how quarantine has reinforced his gratitude for the adventures already had and those to come, even if at a small park across the street from his home in Amsterdam

Instagram: @solve.for.happy, @onebillionhappy, @mo_gawdat
Facebook: /solveforhappy, /onebillionhappy
LinkedIn: /in/mogawdat
Connect with Jimmy Nelson on Facebook @jimmy.nelson.official, on Instagram @jimmy.nelson.official , on Twitter @jimmy_p_nelson, and jimmynelson.com

Don't forget to subscribe to Slo Mo for new episodes every Monday and Thursday. Only with your help can we reach One Billion Happy #onebillionhappy.

Mo Gawdat :

I am so glad you could join us. I'm your host, Mo Gawdat. This podcast is nothing more than a conversation between two good friends, sharing inspiring life stories and perhaps some nuggets of wisdom along the way. This is your invitation to slow down with us. Welcome to Slo Mo. My guest today is someone who has hauled his camera to the furthest corners of the world to give you and I a glimpse into the lives of vanishing tribes and indigenous cultures. Jimmy Nelson has dedicated his life to finding beauty. Although if you ask him, his journeys were all about finding something that was always with him - himself. It took him over 40 months of traveling through China to produce his first large format book, "Literary Portraits of China", a book that became a worldwide hit. A collection of Jimmy's photos, "Before They Pass Away", was then published in 2013. And in 2016, he and his team launched the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, a foundation that aims to foster appreciation for cultural diversity and to connect people from all over the world. I am a huge fan of Jimmy's work, and I can't tell you how long I have been waiting for this conversation. Jimmy, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jimmy Nelson :

Thank you for that very grand introduction.

Mo Gawdat :

So Jimmy, when we were preparing for this, I told you about so many questions that I wanted to ask. But somehow, knowing you, I feel I'd do better for everyone if I just stay quiet, and let you tell your story, as you would wish to tell it. I mean, pick a starting point, any starting point that you like, and just tell us what made Jimmy Nelson.

Jimmy Nelson :

You introduced me in the beginning as a photographer. I have difficulty with that. Again, not to contradict you - I use a camera; I have done it since I'm 17. Well nowadays I use a multitude of mediums. Let's say me and my team use a multitude of mediums - that makes me sound very advanced and technologically proficient. I'm not. I have a group of very loving, yet far younger people around me who facilitate me on this journey. It came out of using these mediums to deep curiosity; goes beyond a curiosity - it's a need to find a sort of a lifesource of blood, of flow, to feel alive. A desperate need. I use these mediums with myself and my team to lovingly, indulgently, romantically respect, cherish and present the world's last indigenous cultures on the grandest, most celebratory stage imaginable. This causes a lot of discussion. But there's a reason for it. And I stand so strongly behind that reason, because what I've experienced and I've seen, and I've shared and I've managed to become part of, is a treasure that goes beyond most people's wildest imagination. I went so deep to connect with it, that it wasn't about making the pitch; it was about being seen. It was about being alive. And it was about being, not being judged... at that, being accepted... and I think in my case, about being loved, very simply about being loved.

Mo Gawdat :

We're very deep very quickly.

Jimmy Nelson :

I will take you there. And it was introduced with photography. The photograph is that, let's say I'm building a cake. The photograph is the cherry on top. It has to be the shiniest, roundest, richest, sweetest cherry that you could ever imagine, but it's sitting on top of a cake of 50 layers of sponge and cream and jam. The life journey is creating that cake. And until all the layers of experience are there, do I understand why I put that cherry on top? It's looking to create the definitive cherry. But having all those experiences of being alive, alive in the truest sense of the word, and alive - brings it into context of your question - is happiness. It's interesting, I was online the other day and I was listening - and I know you've worked with and next to the Dalai Lama - this sort of idea that we in the developed world have become overly obsessed, we've kind of lost the plot and believe happiness is this external existence. And that in actual fact, it has nothing to do with how big the car, the house, the camera is. It is it has to do with this deep, deep, deep discovery of one's own wealth. I by default have had the weirdest, the most painful but at the same time, the most wonderful life you can imagine for the last 52 years, because I was pushed into a journey, into a place to discover the potential of what happiness could be like no other. And I'll take you back a little bit in time now. I spent the first seven years of my life living in the developing world. My father was a very weird, autistic geologist who spoke about 10 languages, previously lived for 10 years in the Antarctic with Husky dogs because he can communicate with animals better than he can hang with human beings. He never actually touched me, said he loved me, but he was very knowledgeable of the worlds of structure. He loved the planet. I remember him telling me that he wanted to understand all its layers, if I can use the metaphor of the cake again, as regards the people who lived in and on it. You have no idea, let alone himself. But anyway, he took me with him. I lived, and this is an overly romanticized way of referring to it, like Mowgli for the first seven years of my life.

Mo Gawdat :

(Laughs) Okay. He took me every year to a different developing country - West Africa, South America, Papa New Guinea, Central Asia, Pakistan. And before the age of seven - and again, this is not to be in any way self-congratulatory - I think I've seen more countries than most people ever will do in a lifetime. It was a very rich, extraordinary experience for a child. Very open, and using that sort of Mowgli metaphor, I sort of ran around the world around the world, embracing it with big open eyes, and I was accepted. Everywhere I went. At the age of 7, in a very classic way, my parents said, well, you have to learn to read and write. So they, in all their wisdom, sent me to the UK, which is where I had an English passport from. And I went to a boarding school for the next 10 years in northern England on the border of Scotland. It was a Catholic Jesuit boarding school, there were 1000 children from the age of six, going up until 18, and 400 priests. It was an institution, a classic institution, there were a number of them. But it was essentially a prison - prison/seminary, disguising itself as a school. And within that environment - this is obviously the 70s; I was born in '67 - there were a number of the priests who could essentially get away with whatever they wanted. They had every year a ripe selection of very naive, pure, innocent, young children who came in, who were very quickly - and I have to be careful how far I go into detail - abused to the worst imaginable way possible. They used the authority of religion as fear on top of us, so that we were intimidated to the fact that we would never communicate, we would never share it. And we lived in fear, extreme fear. And it wasn't the acts that they imposed on us which themselves were bad. But it was this idea as a seven or an eight-year-old child, you never knew when you would be chosen. And you lay in these rooms late at night, and randomly they would come and take you out and perform rituals, all under the guise of religion. And it was terrifying. You didn't understand what was happening. You didn't share it. I tried very briefly with my parents at the beginning, but I couldn't put it into context. So you close down as a human being. Physically you survive, but you have no emotions. You feel nothing. And I always use when we're talking - so I'm trying to visualize it - it's a bit like, most of us have our fingers plugged into the wall. That's the electricity. You take your fingers out, you feel nothing. You function as a human being, but you don't develop emotion because you don't have emotions. You cannot feel! You have to block them, yea?

Jimmy Nelson :

Let it feel what you went through and try to put it into context - you couldn't survive. Quite simply. Then I was told I was stupid because I hadn't been to school for seven years prior to that. I'm quite dyslexic, very creative, somewhat androgynous - so you name it, lots of labels. So I was quite sort of radically ostracized within this environment. You're alone. So you go from this very pure, open, trusting existence in the world, to this lockdown, to use a sort of contemporary phrase. Utter, utter, utter lockdown as a child. I survived, as a lot of people do when they're in trauma. And I got to the age of 16. And also, I find it also very interesting in the context of what I do workwise, because of lots of traditions and the cultures I go to, they're very, very heavily connected to rituals. And these rituals are the transition from childhood to adulthood. And I remember when I was slowly becoming an adult, and I was 16, and I'd gone to my parents in West Africa. I was sick with cerebral malaria, and I remember telling them, "Keep me here, don't send me back to that hell." And again, they sent me back. And I arrived traumatized, ill with cerebral malaria, temperature 41 degrees centigrade, and utterly destroyed and they kindly gave me this pot of the wrong antibiotic. I went to bed, woke up in the morning, and I woke up with no hair. At the age of 16. So I'd already decided I hated my body. And I'll be very frank. I'd even considered cutting off my genitalia. That's how bad it was.

Mo Gawdat :

Oh wow...

Jimmy Nelson :

I hated my head. Because I'd been told that I was stupid. Then you'd go and look in the mirror, and you visit - you see an alien. I mean, a 16-year-old child who's already broken, is confronted by a bald face in one night. It is called "alopecia totalis"; it's complete hair loss. Utter shock and trauma. So the trauma of the medicine, the temperature, the malaria and -

Mo Gawdat :

The fear of being there. - the big drama of being alone. So you're confronted. You look into the mirror and you go, "Oh, Jesus!", again, icing on the cake. Now that's all I need. Now I'm ugly. And I felt ugly. I - they treated me as ugly. But what happened was actually quite interesting. Instead of suddenly, well, I'm on my own. I knew I was on my own, but I'm now treated by everybody - my peers ostracized me because I look different. This is, again, in the 70s in the UK. And I was kicked out of this institution because they said I'd shaved my head because I was being rebellious and I lived with my blind grandmother for two weeks, went back to the institution, took my clothes off in the room of the high priest, as he called himself, and said, "Well, look, I've got no hair. You know, I haven't shaved off anything. It's fallen out because of stress." I remember him looking at me and said, "Well, you know, you've got a bit of catching up to do." He didn't ask why it's fallen out. He didn't apologize. There was no explanation, just carry on. I completed my A-levels at the age of 17. And I thought, well I've got to solve this because I don't want to live. I so don't like my self in existence. And as a child, I had an avatar. And that was Tintin. And Tintin - Kuifje we call him in Holland - and I knew Tintin's journeys inside and out. And as kids do today, who are sort of locked online in their sort of digital fantasy, my fantasy was Tintin. I think the Professor even looked a little bit like my father with sort of tufts of hair... and I had my imaginary dog Snowy with me. And I knew his journeys. And I thought Tintin was my savior. He saved me throughout my childhood because at night when we went to bed in fear, I'd close my eyes and dream I was on - Tintin on an adventure. Because he was the only person I could empathize with, and connect with similar to my childhood. And I literally, when I was 17, I left school. I didn't tell anybody. I worked on a building site for two months mixing cement, and I bought a one-way ticket to China, and went up to Northwest China to the border of Tibet and started to walk. And I decided that the only place on the planet that maybe there was some salvation; maybe there was a way to really feel something as a human being in Tibet because Tintin had been in Tibet, and he played with a lot of bald children. I remember that.

Jimmy Nelson :

I didn't know anything about Buddhism. I didn't really know where Tibet was. Again, this is the sort of mid 80s, so there was no internet, no guidebooks. Tibet had been shut for 30 years. And as a kid, a crying kid, I disappeared off and started walking. And I walked and I walked and I walked. By default I spent two years in Tibet, between the ages of 17 and 19. And I arrived and Tibet was in a war. It had 660 functioning monasteries prior to my arrival. When I arrived in 1986, there were three leftover. They had lived in a war zone for 30 years. The rest of the world closed their eyes to them, because, for economic reasons and there's no need to go into that. And because of my naivety, I managed to get into a place nobody had been to for years. And I found a group of people who were kinder, softer, gentler, richer, more humble, more beautiful aesthetically than I'd ever met in my life, and they saw me. Now I didn't learn Tibetan. They picked me up. They fed me, they guided me, they talked to me. I became one of them. And in those two years, I sort of started to breathe again. They didn't judge me for my appearance. They didn't poke me. They didn't laugh at me. They didn't tell me I was stupid, they didn't hurt me in any way. They spoke to me. And I'd taken a very old camera with me. My father had given it to me; it was his only gesture. It was a little old Russian camera called the Zenit B, with four apertures and four shutter speeds. I'd never taken a picture in my life, on four rolls of Kodacolor Gold film, for those of you who are listening, who know what that is. That's a five millimeter roll film. I had no idea. And I remember halfway through the journey, I really want to remember these human beings because they've given me my life back - or they've given me the beginning of my life back. I don't want to make a happy snap with them. I don't want to make a selfie with them. I don't want to make a reportage for any journalistic... I want to paint their face in the kindest, most gentlest - the goal was the softest light that I can imagine, because that's how I felt I want to remember them. So in those two years, I rationed myself to those four rolls of film. So I didn't photograph myself, I didn't photograph the Potala Palace, it was just the people I met on the way. And I remember spending two, three weeks - the first cover of a magazine I got was of a girl I fell deeply in love with. I don't think she fell in love with me. And it took me a month to gain the courage to ask to make that one image of her. But it's still today a stunningly beautiful picture because it's made with so much compassion, so much love, so much adoration. And I came back at the age of 19, much to everybody's disbelief - I've been in contact with nobody, because I was punishing everybody for the pain. And I had a few pictures. And they were subsequently published and somebody said, "Well, you know what, you can become a photographer." This was 1988. And I thought, well, you know what? I raised two fingers, I said, "that's what I'll do." So I disappeared. And I disappeared with a camera, but it wasn't the camera that interested me. It was "Wow, I can connect with human beings." And then I went even further. I was obviously still in stress and trauma. So I spent the next four or five years in war zones. You described me at the beginning as a photojournalist. I wasn't a photojournalist. I was a broken human being with a camera disappearing into other people's pain to alleviate my own. I'm sitting in a bunker in Afghanistan for a year or disappearing off into Yugoslavia surrounded by death. It alleviated that of mine, and I justified it by making a picture. And that's how the journey began. And in a weird way today - I'm 52 - I'm still in that process of trying to dare to look into a mirror and love myself... dare to look in the mirror and accept myself, everything that I've felt. And I'm slowly getting there. But it's the obsession of using a camera and I now use a 10x8 plate film camera, the old cameras Ansel Adams used to use, because it's not about the quantity of pictures, it's about the quality. And if I make that one picture, that one definitive connection with another human being who is at the other end of the world, who is presented as such glory and power and might, but has nothing material. It has a richness that goes beyond your or my wildest imagination. I can hang that on the wall and I can touch somebody in the developed world and make them cry and make them feel what I felt, then that's a life worth living. And that's why I do what I do. So it's all about survival, my survival... it's all about the survival - I'm about to start crying - of human beings. When you've been the living dead, and you've done everything to feel validity, you have no idea the effort you put into it. So it's not about photography. It's about dignity. It's about feeling valued, and about respect. So people come up to me and they go, "Oh Jimmy, it's amazing! You make contact with these people. It's the easiest thing since sliced bread if you put yourself naked and vulnerable with each other and say, "help me". I'm six foot two, white and bald. Wherever I go to these communities, all they do is pick me up and hold me because I take myself there as nobody. I have relatively - I mean, we will have an ego, but - I sit on the ground... and I say, I look up to you with more respect than you have no idea. And there's no language involved. It's all physicality and emotion. And there's not one community anywhere that doesn't look after me and take me in. Then you make a connection, a connection of respect, through empathy, and vulnerability. And then you get out the camera and you say, "I need to paint you, I need to remember you, because I want to share how beautiful you are with the rest of the world." And that's the journey.

Mo Gawdat :

That's an amazing, amazing journey. Isn't this the journey that we are all about? I mean, isn't this what, why we're here?

Jimmy Nelson :

In a weird, weird way. Yes. And I often struggle with this. I have three kids and they're in their early 20s. They live this very pampered life here in Amsterdam. And I often say that you have to make that journey rich, to make that journey profound, to touch. It's not a fact, it's not a finite, but to touch on very privileged occasions that feeling of happiness, you have to go to the darkest end of the spectrum, to understand this, to put it into context. That's so sweet, and to feel the fragility of life, the privilege that we have as human beings for this millisecond of time as a piece of dust in the history of the universe and this planet, and that - that's the journey. By being pushed so far off the human spectrum for what it is to feel alive and struggling so hard to get back to it, there are occasions when you resonate - I resonate - with utter bliss. And that is being in the worlds last, relatively untouched natural surroundings with the human beings who live there in harmony with themselves, with one another, with their culture, with their traditions, with their natural environment. They are not under the illusion that they're any better than anything around them - they're part of Mother Nature. They're part of the planet. They worship; they're all animists. And to experience that and stand there with them in this cathedral of Mother Nature, culture, and tradition is utter bliss. It's utter bliss.

Mo Gawdat :

Why then are we living here? Why have we created our own prison?

Jimmy Nelson :

Why? Because we are terrified to listen to the silence. We're terrified to be in the present. We're terrified to, in the Buddhist context, to go within. That's extremely hard work. I was forced to go there. I'm not overly intelligent or overly capable. But I was forced by the choice of wanting to live, to investigate myself in the most extreme way imaginable. I think most of us, we mollycoddle ourselves with cotton wool, we surround everything with concrete so we feel nothing. And we're under this delusion that we're in control; we're in control of nothing. Absolutely nothing. Look what's happening around the world at the moment. It has nothing to do with all due respect a virus, which is appalling and tragic for those who have suffered from it. It has to do with fear. It has to do with a realization as developed human beings, we're not in control. We're not in control.

Mo Gawdat :

Have you ever had any resistance when you went to the furthest corners of the world? Has it always been acceptance?

Jimmy Nelson :

It's always been acceptance.

Mo Gawdat :

Amazing.

Jimmy Nelson :

There's an enormous amount of time, an enormous amount of patience, an enormous amount of humility, vulnerability, fragility, in that process. But if you invest enough upfront, you always make that connection. This is a very childish story. Again, we're talking so I want to sort of visualize it. I was asked this question by a couple of thousand teenagers not so long ago in the states in a school in Brooklyn. And they asked me the same question: have you ever been rejected? And why do you make your life so complicated by using such a big, old-fashioned analog camera when you can run in using an iPhone? And somebody shouted, "spray and pray". Why make it so difficult? And I said, "Well, I make it difficult because I want to make an investment. I want to make an investment of a human connection. It's not about the picture. They didn't quite get it. So I asked the class, it was a large auditorium and I said, "Okay, come on, kids. You know, what's the most important thing for you? Let's take it out of context." Somebody shouted out "I want a girlfriend. I'm obsessed with..." And I said, "Okay, let's look upon this. Okay, I'm going to give you, tomorrow, two options for that girlfriend. The one option is you can run on to your school's square, and you can kiss everybody, the whole of the school square, within that lunch break. There'll be no rejection. There'll be nothing. Whatever you want is possible. It's a free-for-all, total acceptance. The other option is you're only allowed to kiss one person for one second on the cheek in the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the week. Which option you choose?" And he laughed and he said, "Well, obviously I go for one." And the whole auditorium laughed and they all said, "Yeah, we choose one." And then they pointed at me and said, you're obviously going to go for two because you're old and slow. And I said well I'm not that old and I'm not slow at all; I'm very fit. But you are right. I do go for option two. And you know why I go for option two? Because it's not the kiss that matters. It's the journey. It's the hunt. It's the foreplay. It's the seduction. It's the potential rejections. The focus is the choice. It's being chosen. And if after all of those emotions are complete, that kaleidoscope of experiences align, and you manage to kiss that one second on that one cheek, you explode emotion...beyond your wildest imaginations. And that always happens. It always happens. But you invest, you invest and you go right down to the troughs of everything that you feel and live on the plate in front of you.

Mo Gawdat :

And when you do, it's one second that is the joy of life itself.

Jimmy Nelson :

I take it a stage further. I'm in Papua New Guinea. I'm with a community that has never been photographed before. I've been invited there, which is the biggest privilege that you get ever... so I hadn't received any awards, but I've had some outrageously humble invitations. I'm with the Kaluli, deep in the jungle in Papua New Guinea. It's taken me two weeks to walk there. You arrive in this village of one of the most untouched, beautiful, rich communities you could ever... I mean, they have these headdresses that are one and a half meters tall and they paint their bodies and it's really like arriving in Shangri La. You arrive in these sort of patios in the jungle and they're cleared and there's mist and there's toucans flying over your head and out come this community. And the Papua New Guineans are celebrated for their aesthetic beauty. You spend two weeks sitting on the floor waiting, slowly connecting, eating worms, laughing, becoming one. One week taking a portrait because you sort of make this a one-on-one contact. You use the whole community to hold reflectors. So you sort of create this sort of natural studio of light, but everybody's involved. And then you're one in a way. It's all about celebration. Then it gets very exciting because all the other villagers hear there's this crazy guy with some legs and a bald head who sits behind the box worshiping us all day, saying you're amazing, you're amazing, you're amazing. And then you get carried away thinking everybody kind of understands me now. I have this grand vision. If you can imagine a composer. I want to go into the jungle. It's a two day walk. I know there's a waterfall over in the other valley and I want to take five of this community with me and I want to present them in front of this waterfall, like you've never seen before. This alignment of light, nature, human beings, aesthetic. And you get there; it takes you two days to walk there. Then it takes another day to build planks or logs, put them in the river, so they can all stand in a safe and in an aesthetic manner. They're ready at three o'clock in the afternoon. The light is very harsh in the jungles. So you need to wait until just before dusk, those five minutes before it goes dark and everything's aligned and they're all standing in front of you. And using a big old analog plate film camera, I need a shutter speed of three seconds, because the light is very low. It's very beautiful, very painted. And there's mist rising from the river. Because we've been doing this for weeks now, they stand still. It's incredible the focus they have. They are utterly in the moment. They don't know what I'm doing with the camera, but they feel seen, they feel acknowledged, they're even worshipped by me. And you stand there and everything's aligned, and you put the film in the camera, and you press the shutter for three seconds 1...2...3... and the water flows and it paints the picture and they're standing sharp. You cannot see the picture because it's on an analog camera in a plate. I have to wait until I get back to Amsterdam. But I know. I know because I felt it. It's there. Because it's that one picture. I explode. Because I know I've created a score. If you imagine a music, you know, you can take a picture on an iPhone with just one violin. I've used the most complicated camera imaginable. It's like 1000 violins and a choir in a visual context... and it's aligned. And I know one day I will be able to put that score, that orchestra on the wall, and people will see it and will feel what I felt. But that reaction also has to be delayed, because it'll be a number of years before it's in a museum. But in the meantime, I'm in the moment. I'm there. I'm connected. I'm deep in the jungle, on my own in the middle of Papua New Guinea, with people who I can't speak their language, but we see each other. We respect each other. We can't walk back to the village because it's dark. There are snakes everywhere. So we collapse on the rocks by the river. They light a fire. There are no beds, there are no pillows, there's no official food. There's just the Kaluli, me, the stars, the jungle and singing the crackling of the fire. And I promise you, and I'm not exaggerating, the sleep I have there is one of the deepest sleeps I've ever had in my life. Because I feel safe. I've invested everything into that experience. I put my life, my soul, my dignity, everything on the line, and it connects - you get that kiss. And in that place, you fall into the deepest sleep that's imaginable. And technically speaking, there's no protections: there's no house, there's no bed, there's no tent, there's no pillow. There's no packed lunch. There's nothing. But what there is, is everything. And then you're alive. And that's what being happy is.

Mo Gawdat :

Have you ever gone through all of this and then the picture didn't work out?

Jimmy Nelson :

You always get a picture. Whether it's to the aesthetic standards that you're aspiring to - not. I'd say I still haven't made it.

Mo Gawdat :

Does it devastate you if you go back to Amsterdam...

Jimmy Nelson :

No! No, no, no, it's the opposite! It gives me an excuse to go back again.

Mo Gawdat :

(Laughs)

Jimmy Nelson :

No, but it's a little bit you know, if you're talking about... we're using metaphors and I talk a lot to kids and I'm trying to find ways to explain. It's about: we often look into the river. The river is the reference to flow. I've jumped into the river. I'm full on in it now. And I come across rapids and meanders and waterfalls, and I'm hurtling down the mountains. I will never reach the coast. There is no coast. There is no end to where this river's going to take you. And that's the thrill. The day you realize that you won't arrive on a beach and have a pina colada and have a palm tree waiting for you...the journey's on; it will remain on. So I will never make the definitive picture. But that's the thrill: knowing the search for it is the happiness - in the moment. That is so exciting. There won't be enough time for me to fulfill the curiosity and experiences that I'm trying to achieve.

Mo Gawdat :

You know where I disagree with you, Jimmy? One thing that you say... yeah, I mean, and I'll tell you this, and I'll tell you it with a whole heart. You sometimes refer to yourself and say, "I'm not that intelligent or capable to do this or to do that. I have had to go through it as a young teenager," and so on and so forth. I'll tell you openly and please don't take this... I am giving you a compliment. I'm just saying the truth. I think you're one of the most capable people I have ever met. I think what you've just described is the level of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, believe it or not. Because the journey of life is not about getting that high school degree and then rushing through life to get that MBA and then making the external - acquiring those external stimuli in an attempt to find your path, your journey, your happiness. It's the journey inward. And to start that journey on your own... on your own, Jimmy, this is...

Jimmy Nelson :

I'm still on my own. And I think that's also the realization: you're always on your own. You arrive on your own and go, you gather things, people, objects, experiences around you. But you have to be, accept you're on your own. And I also think if you put it into context with what's happening now in the world, it's by default... Let's run that parallel to what happened to me as a kid: locked down, extreme abuse, fear beyond your wildest imagination. But the choice in that time: I want to live. I really want to live because I saw the light for the first seven years of my life. I saw the beauty. I saw the dignity. I saw the compassion. I was six, seven, didn't really understand it. So I know it's there. I know it's there. I'm going to do everything, everything in my power to get back to it. Everything! You look at where we are now here today, and we're all in lockdown. We're all in fear. We have no idea what's going to happen. But that is beautiful. Because maybe....maybe... and I really scream from the top of every mountain that sort of maybe human beings will wake up and realize where we are what we've done. If every single young person now doesn't make it, their task in life - whoever they are and whatever they do, whether they become the next astronaut, or they spend their life collecting rubbish from the street - it has to be with the purpose of loving what we already have; consolidating what we already have; cherishing this planet that was around here a long time before us, and many other species, and will be around here a long time after we're gone. And the weird thing is, when one goes on that journey - and by default, I'm on it - and reinvests in a reciprocal kind of way, a love back to what there already is, it is one of the most richest experiences you can ever have and ways of being. Materially, it's not. But believe you me - and the compliment you just gave me, I cherish and I say thank you - but the life I have is wonderfully rich. But it's rich in the most profound way possible. And the pictures I make, I'm trying to use them as a catalyst for people to wake up. So in a strange way, what's happened now... great! Maybe, maybe, maybe people will feel the fear. People will feel the pain. And in the developed world, we have so much! Oh, please. We have so much - too much! We don't need a fraction of this. We just need to be happy and healthy. We can be that way.

Mo Gawdat :

Yeah, because we don't need the kisses to every child, to every girl in the schoolyard.

Jimmy Nelson :

You just need that one! And that may take a lifetime to find, but you just need that one. There's another story. It's an extremely important story. I want to share if you can indulge me. I'm looking at a picture I have on my studio over here of the Mundari in South Sudan. Now the Mundari are tall, elegant, powerful, naked. They run around the desert. They've been living in a bubble for the last 50 years because there's a civil war going on between North and South. I got there by default a few years ago. And I first arrived and I - again, I judged. Typical. Naked people, they don't have anything to eat, they're just sitting in the dust. And I stayed, and I stayed, and I went through that process of one and a half months. Halfway through that - I have a lot of difficulties still with men, because of what happened to me as a child - they would come up to me, they told me to take my clothes off, and they took me into the river, and they started to wash me. So these big, tall, one-meter-nine to two-meter men scrubbing me clean because they could see I was suffering from the sun. Then they took me into the sand, they rubbed this ash into my body for an hour and a half, and then they started to feed me. Now, we'd run out of food. All they eat is the blood and milk of the cows they have. They ritually slaughter them once a year. So they don't actually have any food - substantial food as you and I can imagine it. They have no clothes. They live in the desert. But these people - the kindness, the gentleness, the sincerity that they shared with me... And then after you've been with them one and a half months, and you end up walking around naked, drinking cow's milk and blood, and being washed by these men every morning in a river, and you start going to a place of... I started to feel stronger. I started to feel so connected. I started to realize there's so little that I need to be happy... also to be healthy, to be loved, to laugh, to share. And that was a very radical experience. Because, perhaps, of my whole existence, it needs to be radical. But you have no idea the minimalism they exist in but how rich they were. It's a wonderful experience. And then you feel happiness. Because you connect with other human beings in the most extraordinary way.

Mo Gawdat :

By disconnecting from all that we forcefully believe is going to make us happy and connecting with the reality of who we are as humans.

Jimmy Nelson :

Yeah, yeah. And what's happening the moment - we have to wake up, and we will move on, but it's how we move on. And it could be beautiful. And this whole idea that the whole world is suffering in one way or another, strangely, by default, the majority of the indigenous communities are fine. And they're laughing and they're saying, "You know, we are healthy."

Mo Gawdat :

Yeah.

Jimmy Nelson :

"We have the strong bodies. We've survived everything from HIV to ebola to you name it." The ones who are like, "We're strong. We're not all 150 kilos with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other and stuffed full of sugar, and all of a sudden upset: we're all dying in great numbers, because we're unhealthy. The only thing that's unhealthy for us is our governments naively shutting down borders so we can't get food to our markets. But technically, we're actually fine. You're the ones who are now suffering. You're the ones who are now rats in the cages, which you created."

Mo Gawdat :

Do you feel that you have reached the target of your journey?

Jimmy Nelson :

Good question. I've on occasions touched pure happiness. I know it. Weirdly, I have never done any narcotics. I don't smoke. I don't drink any alcohol. But I'm looking for a high. I'm looking for that high we're all looking for, that true, true connection with something. And I've touched it on occasions. I remember as a child I was terrified because I thought if I ever do manage to get there I want to know how I got there. And if it's only once or twice in my life, I'm willing to spend 40 or 50 years getting to that feeling because at least I'll have earned it. And I'll know how to understand when I see the light, referring to a Beatles song, "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds". Is it sustainable? I don't know. Is there a finite end to it, or a beginning to it? I don't think so either. It's just certain moments in time that resonate. I often describe it, people say to me, "Oh, Jimmy, but if you've come across the most wonderful people and places on the planet, why don't you stay?" I say, "Well, there isn't one place. It's a passage of time. And every now and again, I touch on that place. But that place is often, strangely, high up in the sky, at night, on a 13-hour flight in silence with no Wi-Fi. And I've just left Papua New Guinea where I've been living for two months, I'm arriving back in Holland. And I'm reminiscing and reflecting on the adventures I've had, and cannot wait to get back to my home base, which is here. And it's that ultimate moment of objectivity, that moment where you're sitting in the middle of the seesaw, the fulcrum, the two extremes of my continual bipolar existence, and I see both as clear as the light of day. And I love both, and I cherish both for everything that's good about them, and unfortunately everything that's bad about them - in both worlds. It's not all a bed of roses in South Sudan or in the Marquesas Islands or in Papua New Guinea. But there are aspects of it which are golden. And those have, if it's possible, to be aligned with parts of our world, which are also golden. Look at the way we're now communicating. It's wonderful. We're talking potentially with the world here. That's marvelous. But it's what we're talking about. And that should be from the other world. And it's about this realignment. And that's the place of happiness. You sit there in the silence - I'm often crying because I've watched "Out Of Africa" for the 85th time, watched Meryl Streep lift her hand up to hold Robert Redford and hope that one day I find true love... so maybe that's also part of the journey. And in that moment of true, true vulnerability and emotion, I'm often in the middle of the night and stewardesses will come up to me and sort of, you know, "Do we need to contact the pilot?", because I'm sobbing. But I'm actually sobbing out of happiness, because I feel something. Aren't I privileged? Aren't I lucky? Isn't this the most wonderful existence briefly to have as a human being, and everything about my existence? And I feel, I see I have to share. And that's the expression. And that's when one photographer becomes, in a humble way - please forgive - an artist. It's this utter urge to show something to wake, to change other people's lives.

Mo Gawdat :

I take my word back, Jimmy, you're not a photographer. I think you're a true gem. You're a true gem. I think I have invested a lifetime in the topic of happiness and contentment and finding peace. I have learned so much from you today. I will tell everyone here, listening to us: roll this back and listen to it again. This has been one of the most profound lessons I have ever received. It's not about the number of kisses, it's about the journey that we find to the kiss.

Jimmy Nelson :

Thank you for the compliment. I'll take it into another context. A question I'm often asked, "Jimmy, what camera should I buy?". Oh, please don't ask me that again. The question you should be asking is "Jimmy, how do I learn to feel?"

Mo Gawdat :

How do I learn to feel?

Jimmy Nelson :

How do I learn to feel. Obviously I've had to learn in the hardest way imaginable. But believe you me, I feel it.

Mo Gawdat :

Yeah.

Jimmy Nelson :

I feel it.

Mo Gawdat :

And it's not the photo.

Jimmy Nelson :

I'm so alive, and it's not the photo. But forget the camera. It's go on that journey of discovery and discover what you have and what you've felt and what you want to share. Then you will come across a medium or a multitude of mediums. And that's when it'll become interesting for other people, because it will be so authentic. Talking about all these communities, and it's rituals, it's beautiful rituals, and it's this is transition. And weirdly, one of the most beautiful rituals, which has resonated with me the last few weeks ago was, again, it's about both worlds. It's my world here in Amsterdam, and Papua New Guinea. And I was there a few years ago with a group called the Huli Wigmen. They have yellow faces. You can see them online on my website, and they paint their faces yellow and they have these magnificent hats made out of their hair. They're Melanesian. Their hats are these afros. How they get to acquiring these hats is wonderful. When they're teenagers, they get taken into the jungle by a shaman with nothing - no clothes, no food, no nothing - as a group and for one and a half years, they have to learn to connect with the jungle, respect it, live from it, love it, and protect one another and grow their hair into these magnificent sort of bowl-shaped forms. So they’re grooming each other 24/7, but these forms protrude to the left and right of the head some 30 centimeters. So how do you sleep on the floor of the jungle for one and a half years, with hair protrusions 30 centimeters out. So you create these structures. It's about feeling, it's about growing, it's about adapting and helping each other. Then after one and a half years, the shaman checks out all these hairdos and says, “Part one is achieved. Back to the village.” They go back, they ritualistically shave off this hair, and make them into wigs, hats. Then the shaman says go back into the jungle and spend the next half month on your own - six months - no group, no nothing. But you have to decorate your wig, your hat with your authenticity, with your story. Who are you? What do you feel? What's your authenticity? Then you come back. So you've become a man or a woman. You've got the wig, you've developed, and then we'll paint your face yellow and now you're now Huli. Now you're one of us, and now you’re yourself, and now you're truly connected to Mother Earth, that you have to spend the rest of your life worshiping because she's the one you have to protect. Two or three weeks ago, being here and locked down in Amsterdam, and I have a son of 20. Two daughters. And my son, he’s my only son, and he's been a little bit reticent to the fact that I've been away a lot and we're trying to reconnect and he's becoming a man and I was struggling with - I’m a very physical person - not finding enough outlets for my energy. So I said “Sweetie, can we go into the park every morning and do some pilates, stretching - I run a lot. He was a bit grumpy at first. Three weeks ago we started this. Every morning at seven o'clock we're in the local park, the Vondelpark, which you may know about here in Amsterdam. At seven o'clock in the morning, one and a half hours together. You know how we end? Lying on the grass holding each other's hands. Looking up into the trees. Listening to the birds. Seeing the leaves grow, which they have done over the last three weeks. Feeling the rain if it rains. Stroking each other's hands. Me thanking him for his youth and keeping me alive. Him thanking me for being around and teaching him about who I am. I thought, wow isn't this beautiful? In a weird way, because of the lockdown, I'm going (I'm not the shaman), but I'm going with my son - he's becoming a man - back into nature and we’re listening to it, feeling it, reconnecting to it. And I thought, “This is the happiness. These are the moments of balance.” That's why it's as beautiful here as it is there. *Dutch expression*. You've got to be present in where you are and what you're doing. And then it can be wildly beautiful. And he was saying, “I never knew the park was this beautiful, dad.” And I said, “But sweetie, we've been living next to it for the last 20 years.” And he says, “Isn't it wonderful?” I said, “Yes. Thanks to the lockdown, you can finally appreciate it.”

Mo Gawdat :

Are you saying after all of your trips around the world, you can still find that moment, you can still find that kiss, you can find that cherry on the cake in the park…

Jimmy Nelson :

If you listen to what matters to you, yes. And if it's here in Amsterdam, yes. But it's a continual process. But it's about being so awake, it's about being so alert. It's about being forced, as we have done for the last two months, to be quiet, to listen, to think, to look into the mirror, to feel your body, not run away from it, not run out from it. All these things which were painful, and this fear. “Jimmy, you’re not in control. You have no idea where this is going to take you so enjoy this moment in time. Be grateful that you've seen the world. And if you never travel again, Jimmy, don't you dare be grumpy. What you've received is the most beautiful thing in life, and you have to do everything with every single picture made - and believe you me, I've had a couple of kisses over the last few years, as in the cherry on the cake - to share and show. And if you never make a picture again, in the environment that you so love being in, do your very best to have - find those scenes in your own environment here."

Mo Gawdat :

You know what I call this Jimmy? I call this being alive. I'm so grateful for your presence. I'm so grateful for your inspiration. I think you've taught all of us quite a bit today.

Jimmy Nelson :

Thank you for giving me the podium to indulge, share, talk, cry, and I hope it wasn't too personal but as I said, I obviously have a chip on my shoulder from what I experienced in my youth. And if you compare the Dutch - and I mean this with all due respect - to the English, because my mother and my sister still live in the UK, but when there's anything that's painful in the UK, I always experienced, they tend to shut the curtains, have a cup of tea, and talk about the weather. In Holland, especially in Amsterdam, when there's anything painful, they open the curtains, they don't drink tea, they smoke a joint, they often tend to put on their knickers and a red light bulb and they say, "Well, this is life. It can be very painful, but it's reality. So let's find a way to deal with it."

Mo Gawdat :

Thank you so much. And for all of you who joined us, thank you so much for listening. Be sure to follow me on social media. Search for Mo Gawdat, Slo Mo, Solve For Happy, or One Billion Happy. I know you've got a lot going on. But remember, there is always time to slow down. Until next time, stay happy. Transcribed by https://otter.ai