Faces of The Rainforest

A question underlies this project about the Yanomamo and Yanomami of the Amazonian rainforests in Brazil and Venezuela: Are these peoples – whom The New York Times has described as “the last tribes in the Americas still untouched by modern civilization” better or worse off because Valdir Cruz has produced this long-term study of their present-day way of life?

‍Though Brazilian-born, Cruz – now based in New York City – is not of the tribes he’s investigating, but instead a sympathetic outside observer. He’s also not a trained anthropologist, but rather a self-taught (and largely self-sponsored) ethnographer, drawn to the crisis of an embattled microculture. Paradoxically, photography functions as one of the quintessential, transformative invasions of dominant first-world culture. Thus it exemplifies the problem that physicists call perturbation -the inevitable fact that the act of observation changes the situation observed.

In both anthropology and photography, arguments over the outsider-insider polarity and the power inherent in the act of representation began in the 1960s and have expanded greatly since then. Thoughtful experiments in photographic modes of representation, such as Cruz’s, can’t help but serve as useful instances to contemplate. Meanwhile, we face some blunt, hard truths. Indigenous peoples everywhere today confront the intrusion into their worlds of not just photographers and anthropologists but the entire globalized, multi-national new world order. Inexorably, these encounters will change them forever. Logging companies, mining firms, pharmaceutical corporations, real-estate developers, like some relentless force of first-world culture, press into and invade the remaining enclaves of the aboriginal everywhere on the planet.

What, then, of cultures in which no one knows how or cares to document from within? Should we simply let their present slip into oblivion, unrecorded, leaving it to them to begin any permanent visual accounting of their ethos? Will they thank us for that tact and reticence?

The “debunking” of the project of Edward Sherriff Curtis does not stop present-day Native Americans from turning to the enormous archive of images and accompanying texts Curtis generated, in search of information about the appearances and lives of their forebears. Those who inhabit the future – including the descendants of the disrupted indigenous peoples – may find invaluable for many purposes the accounts of their forced adaptation to post-modern life provided by their presumptuous invaders.

Though it had its beginnings just recently, in 1994, Cruz himself senses that this rainforest document has epic implications and will turn into “a lifetime project” like that of Curtis. Cruz himself acknowledges a debt to Curtis, and it’s evident especially in his sense of the ultimate scope of his venture, which he intends to encompass this entire network of tribes. Yet his images differ from his predecessor’s in significant ways. The lush density of his subjects’ jungle habitat precludes the sweeping vistas and broad scapes found so often in Curtis’s imagery. There’s no directorial tendency in Cruz, no staging of past events. And the less imposing, more flexible small-format instruments available to Cruz allow and encourage a more spontaneous response to human situations and a looser interaction between himself and those before his lens.

Yet, like Curtis, Cruz is a devoted portraitist. He spends time with the people he photographs before taking out his cameras, allowing them to indicate his point of entry into their lives. He also comes to them not only with photography’s tools but with medicine and health workers, and labors alongside the latter in attempts to cure malaria, parasitic infections and other ills as debilitating as gold-mining and more immediately life-threatening. Hence, when he shows the Yanomamo to us it is not as exotics but as specifics.

That the Yanomamo and Yanomami and their related tribes will die out or be absorbed during the coming century appears inevitable. If so, Valdir Cruz’s archive will serve as an account of a phase in that destruction, and an elegy. Then again, perhaps it will turn out otherwise – in which case Cruz’s photographs of them will record a triumphant passage in their saga, one in which they faced a devouring enemy and found ways to survive.

However the story develops, I think that we who are complicit in this purging of the aboriginal have much to learn from Valdir Cruz’s chronicling of it. The Yanomamo are much like us, yet very different, with every right to remain so if they choose. Our cultural tendencies may condemn them to extinction, but our extinguishing of them will condemn us in turn to the irremediable loss of connection to who and what we all once were.

A. D. Coleman/2000