Bob on the Rock of Rah


Image copyright Chris Rainier

An image of a warrior native with a bow and arrow is not a new idea. I was inspired by a photo of a Papuan man atop a hill (right) made by a well-known photographer of disappearing cultures Chris Rainier. I've probably seen similar images elsewhere too, but, this is the specific photograph that I stuck in my memory. I took an element from his photo - the warrior ready to fire away and appropriated it to my situation with my model Bob from Rah Island in Vanuatu. 

I thought I ended up with a pretty iconic image. I wanted to simply talk about it and let you in on how I created it, as I have done with the other images in the Tips and Inspiration section, but I realised that things are a little different in this case. I can't really talk about this photograph without mentioning a whole other story. 

Photograph of Bob on the Rock of Rah by Jimmy Nelson

I guess the image turned out to be so iconic that it would soon be ripped off by another photographer – Jimmy Nelson. You can see his incredibly similar photograph on the left.

His photograph is part of his now infamous "Beforethey" project. The work angered several "vanishing tribes" and several peoples who didn't even know they were considered tribes.  Survival International even went so far as to publish a whole article citing different sources criticising Jimmy's work

I offered my services in exchange for the opportunity to photograph their wonderful culture. The problem is that much of their culture no longer looks the way it’s depicted in photos.

I'll talk more about Jimmy's plagiarism later in the post. For now, back to the story behind my image. Bob and I became friends over countless rounds of kava – Vanuatu's national drink that tastes like mud and makes life seem too wonderful to lift a muscle. When I visited Rah I was on a bit of a mission. I found that my interests to create iconic images coincided with the desires of the locals who wanted to develop their tourism industry. I offered my services in exchange for the opportunity to photograph their wonderful culture. The problem is that much of their culture no longer looks the way it’s depicted in photos.

With a few except islands, the Ni-Vanuatu (that's what the people of Vanuatu call themselves) rarely dress in traditional costumes or perform activities that require a bow and arrow. That stuff is reserved for festivals and special occasions. A photo shoot for a local tourism campaign was a special enough occasion for some of the more enthusiastic islanders. So, off we went – my wife, me, Bob and a couple of other local friends. To play dress-up and to create exotic images of what once was.

Young, my friend acting as a stand-in for Bob.

I came up with the idea to photograph Bob on the Rock of Rah when Young, the owner of our bungalow hotel took me and Tanya (my wife) to show us the spectacular view from there. I thought - Wow! Now, wouldn’t it be even better with someone atop the rock? And then Chris Rainier’s photograph flashed through my mind. 

I immediately thought of Bob. We decided to shoot in the golden light the next morning, but, Bob slept in. Young felt bad and wanted to help anyway he could, so, he got atop the rock. I think most would agree that Young did not look quite as impressive.

In the afternoon clouds covered the sun. To make the kind of hero shot that I envisioned I really wanted, I needed the golden light. Next day I passed up on the idea of the morning shoot and thankfully the afternoon conditions were in our favour. This time Bob was around too.

Enthusiastically we all went up to the Rock of Rah. Bob fooled around (see the video above) and we experimented with a few angles. I've embedded the video to show a bit of Bob's personality. My wife Tanya, who is speaking Russian in the video (subtitled) wasn't aware of how loud the voice of the person behind the camera would be, but hey, we were all friends, she was worried.

I had my doubts about the bow and arrow, so I asked Bob if there would be any reason at all for anyone to ever carry a bow and arrow to the Rock of Rah. Yes! We can shoot flying foxes from here, said Bob. Ok. Good enough reason!

The main reasons it works

The main reason the image works is because it depicts the sort of idyllic, exotic, almost surreal sight that one might imagine when thinking of destinations too far away and too unknown to even point out on a map.

The image was constructed to be idyllic. While the vast majority of my work (particularly recent work) is not set up, this photograph of Bob is very much the opposite. It’s this construction that makes it work – the idea behind the image – the combination of the spectacular backdrop and the muscular warrior with a bow and arrow dressed in nothing more than a pair of traditionally woven undies. 

Main Tip

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea and it isn’t acceptable in certain genres of photography, but – at times the best way to make a photograph that really works is to set one up.

Sometimes idea is king. You visualise or construct an image in your mind, then you construct it in life. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea and it isn’t acceptable in certain genres of photography, but – at times the best way to make a photograph that really works is to set one up. In this case, the image would not have existed outside of my imagination if I didn’t.

There’s no reason, no way in the world that I would ever spontaneously come across Bob or anyone standing on The Rock of Rah with a bow and arrow. I had to scout the location, to imagine a scenario, to cast my model, think of what props to use and then to wait for the sort of light that would help me create the kind of feel that I wanted. It was like a commercial shoot. A lot of thought and planning went into making this photo happen.

So, develop your idea and then find ways to execute it. If circumstances permit and you're not claiming your work to be reportage, don't be afraid to completely set up your photograph to make it truly communicate what you need to communicate. 

How Jimmy Nelson ripped off my idea

Now to that other story. Photographers do copy each other in some shape or form all the time, but, there’s a difference between being influenced, taking an idea and building on it or just blatantly copying it. I pride myself on not blatantly copying. Sure I’ve been influenced by the greats and I’ve heard the “compliment” oh wow, your photo looks just like Steve Mccurry’s. It was incredibly flattering in the beginning, but, after you evolve, you don’t really want to hear that, at least not if you value originality and creativity.

I mentioned the importance of idea. Sometimes the idea is 90% of the photo, especially if it’s a set up photo. If you take someone else’s idea, cast the same person, use the same location, you’re inevitably taking out the larger part of the work. All you have to do is click the button. 

Jimmy did very slightly variate from what I did. There are two people in his image and they have some silly face paint on as well. But, other than that… same thing. Pretty much down to the framing. It’s like a made-in-China knock off of the original. There are so many other angles that this scene could have been shot from too, but, for some reason Jimmy liked my one.

I never got the point of going to the same places as others and copying. I suppose it makes more sense here because Jimmy's work was made easier by my idea. He didn't have to think much, saved time and he got paid.

Did he really copy it?

I don't know where Jimmy saw my image first, but it was most likely before he even went to Rah. He probably got "inspired" by it and thought - this will work great for my project. It seems that the same happened with some other series in his project too, as they look very similar to work of photographers I know.

I get inspired by photos  all the time. Eric Lafforgue 's pictures of Vanuatu made me want to go, but, they never made me want to seek out the exact same people. 

Is there a chance that things just fell into place for Jimmy and he ended up with such a similar image by chance? A phone call to a friend on the island confirmed that Jimmy was after a particular shot with a particular "model".

The bottom line is – Vanuatu is still one of the least known nations in the world. If you're doing a photo project on somewhere as remote as Rah Island (which used to get about 20-40 visitors per year), you don't go there without at least Googling it. If you Google it, you'll see my images right away. 

This is kinda ridiculous

I don't like calling out photographers. In general, I respect photographers. There's a sort of kinship among us, especially those that do similar stuff. But, sometimes a photographer crosses the line... Someone sent me a link to Jimmy's behind the scenes documentary in Vanuatu and it made me say "Really? Are you kidding me?" 

At 14:50 Jimmy right out lies about the locals fishing in the shallows of the bay with bows and arrows. They do use this technique, but only during a special festival. You'll certainly never see men dressed up in traditional outfits doing such things on a regular day. Never. Unless they're dressing up to be filmed or photographed that is. 

You probably wouldn't even know it happens, because it looks very different during the festival, which of course again suggests that Jimmy probably just got the idea from my Vanuatu images too.

Bob and his son fishing with a bow and arrow

Jimmy's version of men fishing with a bow and arrow

I get that he's exoticising the tribes, that he's glamourising them, but; why lie that obviously? He says that after the shoot the men told him "Piss off, we're going to continue our fishing now!" Sure they did... :) The story about how he got the photo on the rock also seems like nonsense. People are not so scared of the rock, they just don't like taking elderly foreigners up there for the fear that they might slip.

When a man clearly lies about things in front of the camera, you really have to question the validity of anything he says from that point forward. 

Intellectual property

Over the last couple of years someone would write to me - Oh, did you see this great project? Did you copy him or he copy you? Thankfully, much of these questions don't get asked any more, as the noise from the project has died down quite a bit.

When I'd mention the story to the people who asked, they suggested that I sue Jimmy, that I expose him. I guess I have exposed what happened to the extent that I know. But suing, it requires too much energy, all negative energy at that. There’s too much in the world to enjoy, too many new ideas to bring to life.

I’ve finally managed to put this story into writing, while having nothing to do in a hotel. It's a little late, but, I think it needed to be put out there. If anyone asks me about the images, I can send them here and hopefully this will be the last that I speak of the topic. 

So, that’s it. A behind the scenes of a different kind. :) 

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