Finding Art, and a Cause, in the Forest

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once wondered ruefully whether “pictures could offer something substantial to readers who have never been there.” The Brazilian photographer Valdir Cruz believes they can. Over the last six years he has traveled the Amazon, photographing people who live in some of the remotest regions of the rain forest, especially the so-called Fierce People, the Yanomami, of northern Brazil and Venezuela. Captured in his current exhibition, at Throckmorton in Manhattan, and a comprehensive book of his photographs, “Faces of the Rainforest,” by Mr. Cruz, Kenneth R. Good and Vicki Goldberg (PowerHouse), the “something substantial” he has brought back is art. In the process, he has become an aid worker and a political activist, found himself a partner in controversy and discovered someone thought to be dead. And his adventures didn’t end when he returned to civilization.

“I didn’t become interested in photographing in the rain forest until long after I had left Brazil,” Mr. Cruz said recently in his neat apartment in the West Village. “I grew up in a small town in the south, and like many places in Brazil, we never thought much about the Indians. To this day, in Brasilia and São Paulo, people aren’t interested in these pictures.” Mr. Cruz came to the United States in the late 1970’s and learned photography with George Tice at the New School in Manhattan. “All I really cared about was making beautiful images,” he said.

In 1994, he photographed a Yanomami leader, Davi Kopenawa, who had come to New York to speak at the United Nations about the danger posed by incursions of gold miners and loggers. While posing in Mr. Cruz’s apartment, Mr. Kopenawa invited him to visit his village. Mr. Cruz might even be able to stay, he said, provided other villagers approved of him. Hardly a guarantee of hospitality, but Mr. Cruz took Mr. Kopenawa up on the offer and made a journey into the jungle from Caracas to find him.

Despite his rural Brazilian roots, Mr. Cruz joined that long line of “outsiders” who have pointed their cameras at the Amazon natives — a lineage that includes Mr. Lévi-Strauss himself, Cornell Capa, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who coined the term Fierce People, and Tony D’Urso, whose 1976 photos of a meeting between the Yanomami and the avant-garde Odin Theater troupe from Denmark depicts a fascinating ritual interchange.

But Mr. Cruz likens himself more to Edward S. Curtis, who used art to glorify an American Indian world on the wane. The photographs in the exhibition, meticulously printed in black and white, suggest the pictorialist tradition of Curtis and Edward Steichen, whose work Mr. Cruz once printed with Mr. Tice.

There is little of the violence, warring and drug snorting that spiced earlier visual accounts of the Yanomami and seemed to confirm Mr. Chagnon’s label. In Mr. Cruz’s rain forest, the people are an extension of nature’s creative force. He focuses on decoration and adornment — body painting, women’s pierced noses and cheeks, and feathered headdresses that look like snow in warriors’ hair. “These are very theatrical people,” he said, “and natural artists. As they walk through the jungle, they will pick flowers and make earrings. When they paint each other, no two decorations are exactly alike.”

When Mr. Lévi-Strauss studied the Bororo of central Brazil in the 1930’s, he was fascinated by the sheer excess of their body painting, seeing it as the remnant of a vast vanished civilization. Mr. Cruz reacts not as an anthropologist but as an artist. He has experienced firsthand the results of encroaching civilization, most recently the building of Brazilian military bases on the Venezuelan border. In his photographs, what’s on the wane is an exemplary relation between art, daily life and human contentment.

There appears to be no turning back the clock. The reverse side of Mr. Cruz’s jungle paradise is his graphic presentation of the ravages of disease on the people of the rain forest, all across the Amazon. The primary threat is malaria, but tuberculosis, flu and measles take a toll. So devastating is disease that the Yanomami do not name their children until they are 3 or 4 years old, and never speak the name of a dead person, Mr. Cruz said.

Mr. Cruz was often guided on his journeys by missionaries and aid workers delivering medicines and making bacterial studies, and he makes a point of carrying medicines when he travels to outlying villages. On his second expedition, in 1996, he accompanied the writer Patrick Tierney, who was gathering evidence for his controversial thesis that anthropologists, including Mr. Chagnon himself, had infected the Yanomami with measles in testing a vaccine, with devastating consequences. “Anthropologists have done as much damage here as anyone,” Mr. Cruz insisted.

But he does not demonize all anthropologists. His current volume, in fact, has an essay by one, Mr. Good, who has been a strong supporter of Mr. Cruz’s work. Mr. Good spent 12 years in the rain forest and married a Yanomami woman, Yarima. They had three children, and she lived for a time in New Jersey. Yarima became intensely homesick and eventually left the family and returned to her village. Mr. Good lost touch with her and feared she might be dead. Mr. Cruz discovered otherwise. “I walked into a village and there she was,” he said. She had married again and had two more children.

Mr. Cruz photographed her. “One day, she hopes to meet her first three children in the forest,” said Mr. Cruz.

The photographs proved a mixed blessing. Mr. Cruz was contacted by a Brazilian journalist who wanted to use the pictures to dramatize the plight of the Yanomami. Just as he was about to make his third trip into the rain forest, Mr. Cruz found out that the photographs had been published in an exposé of a supposed plot by American anthropologists to coerce Yarima back with recordings of her children’s voices. The story was picked up by the world press. Mr. Cruz lost his own innocence in the process of documenting a people’s losing theirs.

In a politically charged world, Mr. Cruz noted, photographers must attend not only to the frame they put around other people but also to the frames put around their work. “The real jungle isn’t in the rain forest, it’s in the marketplace,” he said.