Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get into photography in the first place?
I was a very creative kid. I went to a Jesuit boarding school, but I was not academic – I’m dyslexic. Then, at the age of 16, my hair fell out in one day. I was given the wrong antibiotics. I woke up and looked in the mirror, and I was bald. Now it’s irrelevant, because I’m in my mid-40s, but when you’re a 16-year-old teenager, it’s quite heavy, especially in the mid-1980s in northern England; everybody’s judging you.
I left school at 17, and I disappeared off to the one country in the world where everybody else was bald, and that was Tibet. I thought, “I’m going to find myself amongst a lot of monks.” So I walked the length of Tibet, by accident. I took a few pictures to document the journey. They were published, and that’s how I started, at 17.
That’s amazing. Now, for “Before They Pass Away”, you spent time with tribes all over the world and took stunning pictures of them. In your observations of the tribes, what are you focusing on initially?
The aesthetic. These tribes are some of the world’s last traditional cultures. They have not been presented in an iconographic way, a way in which we could look at them with far more praise and respect, and realize they perhaps have something that we don’t have anymore, and we’re on the edge of losing it forever. The only way to do that is to put them on a pedestal, to celebrate them. The only way to do that is to make them into icons, into art.
Once you make pretty pictures, people go, “What pretty pictures”! Then they look beyond the pretty pictures and go, “Wow, who are the pictures of? Aren’t they amazing? Who is this?” They start asking questions which we’ve not asked before. And if we don’t find answers soon, these people will go.
If that happens, the world will go upside-down, because these tribes give us the balance of culture, of knowledge of the world’s last natural environments, traditions, languages. The world can’t be all about progress and material wealth. It must also be about consolidation of what we already have, which is a natural, spiritual, mental, cultural wealth. We’ve kept ourselves busy for many, many generations, believing material wealth was the only way forward. We have to regain that balance. That’s all the book is about – it’s about putting these tribes on a pedestal, to start that discussion.