The last of the Yanomami

Alex Bellos
Wednesday July 31, 2002
The Guardian

This northern Amazonian tribe still live much as they have for thousands of years, but since they came into contact with outsiders, their numbers have been dwindling and their traditions are under threat. Photographer Valdir Cruz spent six months living among them.

The Yanomami still live, for the most part, as they have for thousands of years. They number about 26,000, and inhabit an area the size of Portugal between the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon. In the mid- to late 1990s, the Brazilian photographer Valdir Cruz travelled four times to Yanomami land, spending a total of eight months living with them. The result, now to be published in a book, is the most intimate set of pictures taken of the Indian community since the 1970s.

Between 1987 and 1990, about 40,000 wildcat miners entered the area looking for gold. Some estimate that the number of Yanomami who died - the result of polluted streams, lost hunting land and disease - was 15% of their total population.

Cruz, aged 48, says that he hoped to show the effects of the outside world on the Indians. "The pictures are an update of what is going on. They also show the closeness that I had with the Yanomami. I feel that the pictures work more like a documentary than strict photojournalism. The Yanomami allowed me to photograph those who were sick, which they normally don't allow."

He says that even though he did not see any miners when he was there, there was ample evidence that they are still in the area. "You would see Yanomami villages with, for example, a new plastic sheet. The Yanomami know that they profit from the miners by gaining gifts."

During his eight months with the Yanomami, Cruz slept in a hammock and went trekking, hunting and fishing with his hosts. "The hardest part of taking their picture is not pointing the camera, it's the noise of the release when you take the shot. It bothers them. It takes a long time for them to be natural." 

Despite the images, which prove that the Yanomami still retain much of their traditional culture, Cruz was shocked by what he saw. "The Yanomami are in big trouble. Some of the communities were devastated. You don't see any elderly Yanomami. They all die. It's just young people."

He was left with a feeling of sadness and powerlessness. "In the long term they will be changed completely. There is no way out."
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