People of The Rainforest

Vicki Goldberg

Intrepid is to photographer as wise to philosopher and dark to night. From the early days of photography men (and much later women) braved daunting obstacles to record the world. The Bisson Freres hauled their glass plates up the icy slopes of the Alps, Timothy O’Sullivan plunged through uncharted rapids in the American West, John Thompson risked stoning at the hand of angry Chinese, all to document little-known places and people.

Valdir Cruz is of this lineage, having ventured several times deep into the Amazonian rainforest in Venezuela and northern Brazil. Panther and poisonous snakes, malaria and hostile tribes are plentiful there, and native porters have been known to rob white men and leave them to their luck in the wild. Cruz brings back a surprise from his treks, not just because his pictures of the Yanomamo and Yanomami Indians show people still largely untouched by modern technology and commerce but because these images are placid, informal, relaxed and often unposed. The subjects may be exotic to us, and according to the photographer they are generally extremely reluctant to be photographed, but they obviously trust this outsider in their midst and react with a generous ease.

These photographs lie half way between anthropology and art. Halfway between may be the safest place to be today, when conflicted feelings about interest in tribal people run so deep that even curiosity about their appearance can be read as exploitation. Anthropologists themselves, aware of photography’s (and anthropologists’) subjectivity, now criticize their own visual histories, once thought to be honest, flat-footed scientific documents: people posed stiffly in rows or glumly displaying their crafts and finery.

On the other hand, art photographers have been known to remove their subjects from all context and photograph them like pre-Columbian ritual objects isolated on pedestals in a museum. Most notable here is Irving Penn’s 1974 Worlds in a Small Room, images of natives all over the world posed in studios, before paper backdrops, as abstractly and elegantly as fashion models.

Cruz claims that he is just trying to be an observer, to register things as he sees them.1 Documentation, then, but happily not without art. He finds the play of sunlight irresistible as it filters unpredictably over the backs of two women digging for crabs or glints on a man’s legs as he stands in the shade. Though Cruz says he does not want to make the print speak more insistently than the subject, he will not neglect his craft, and these selenium toned black-and-whites have a lovely color and quality.

Despite the current distrust of photography, the certainty that it not only can lie but does so willfully, some of these pictures encourage the old-fashioned assumption that they are instant exemplars of truth. Their very casualness and matter-of-factness, a reluctance in some cases to make something too studied or too beautiful, invite us to consider them as evidence. The family intent on cutting up an animal and the groups that sit around painting bodies or waiting for rituals to begin do not notice the photographer, who has not stolen up on them but borrowed a moment once he became so familiar they could ignore him.

A boy unthinkingly making a face, two boys with mouths distorted by tobacco plugs they chew on, and the children who flirt or cover their mouths present themselves as unrehearsed documents, sweet, faithful accounts of simple facts. Images like these, never haphazard, sometimes spontaneous, always deliberate, calm, and coherent, suggest a society that is relatively ordered, unrushed, and heavily invested in ritual tradition.

In one major respect the formal means mirror and support the images’ content: the close-valued scale of grays without high contrasts promotes a subtle affinity between forest and humans, a subdued sense of uniformity over everything. The leader posing in his regalia, the men emerging from vegetation are tonally all of a piece with their surroundings – a kind of glancing metaphor for the Indian feeling of oneness with the rainforest.

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Born in 1954 in southern Brazil, Cruz emigrated to America in the late 1970s but only discovered his interest in photography in the l980s. In the mid’80s he took a course with George Tice, who is known for his superb printing, and eventually assisted Tice in printing two portfolios of work by Edward Steichen.

Cruz’s interest in his home town and his native land has grown with his distance from them in space and time, as often happens to emigrés wrenched for whatever reason from surroundings so familiar they are essentially unseen. In 1994 he photographed several rainforest leaders from the Amazon who had come to New York to plead the cause of the rainforest to the U. N. The following year he went into the forest on his own with the assistance of two of those men.

It is no easier to get permission to travel in these areas than it is to journey through them, but he went in again with Patrick Tierney, who was writing a book about the Yanomami, and then again with the help of a Guggenheim grant, assistance from Leica, and the support of a priest who had worked extensively with the Indians. “In the last years,” he says, the rainforest has become “all I live, all I eat, all I drink.”2

After the first trip, he traveled with a nurse, a microscopist, medicines, gifts, and a commitment to bring back a report on the medical condition of the Indians. Cruz has, in fact, spent more time writing down this medical information than photographing, but the benefits of the medicine the travelers bring with them account for much of the trust and cooperativeness so evident in his photographs.

The posed portraits, and even the unposed pictures, evoke complicated responses of a more political than aesthetic cast. Our attitudes toward this kind of picture making have always been complex, and the edge of our self-consciousness has been sharpened in recent years. The subjects are sometimes handsome, the approach respectful, but after that is said we are left to sort out our reactions to the subject matter and the history of its portrayal.

Pictures of Indians made in the last couple of centuries fall into several types. Before photography, images of the native tribes of the Americas looked astonishingly like Europeans in peculiar states of undress. Before and after photography the same people were seen as savages, noble savages, and, as time went on, “primitive” people from the childhood of human evolution, or as proud warriors, oppressed people, dignified examples of dying races, and, in endless variations, exotica, human oddities, the “other.”

Cruz’s images represent dying races, or at least dying cultures – because of what we know, not what the photographs show. In effect that puts his pictures into the same category as Edward S. Curtis’s, if only because the Indian situation in South America today is similar to that of North American Indians early in the century when Curtis photographed them.

In Curtis’s time, when the Indians of the American West had been vanquished and no longer posed a threat to settlers, it was generally agreed that the cultures, and quite possibly the people themselves, were doomed to extinction. This thought made liberal thinkers cringe but did not prevent continued damage and newly hostile laws. Curtis set out to document cultures he considered both worthy and noble before they disappeared. His massive photographic campaign covered a vast territory; the multi volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. For his part, Cruz plans to document as many of Brazil’s indigenous tribes as he can; they number well over 150.

The South American Indians had been conquered and decimated even earlier than the North American, and soon the rubber boom and coffee plantations encroached on their lands to the point where Indian survival was in doubt.3 They survived nonetheless, partially through the efforts of European settlers to protect them, but history has repeated itself in the last decade.

The gold rush that began in 1987 in northern Brazil is estimated to have killed 15% of the Yanomami, most from disease they had no resistance to, many from violent conflict as well.4 The mines severely degraded the environment, polluting the water systems with mercury, and the miners destroyed game and game lands, an ecology that Indian societies depend on and are organized through custom, ritual and myth to preserve.5 Between 1990 and 1992 the Brazilian government moved to recognize Indian claims on the land and to restrict mining, but though the depredations have been slowed they have not been halted.

Some of the Yanomami whom Cruz has photographed have adopted many of the new invaders’ customs and materials, eating foreign food and incorporating discarded plastics into their buildings. Other tribes have nearly forgotten their ceramic craft, their music, their body painting patterns and in effect their selves, and are only now reclaiming their own traditions – they have lost aa identity without being equipped to take on a new one. Some think this is the fate of all the native tribes, who cannot exist as they are outside the lands they have hunted and farmed for generations, whose culture may be erased by settler commerce, greed, and diseases, and who are almost wholly unprepared for contemporary Brazilian life.

So Cruz presents these people less lavishly and sentimentally than Curtis did other threatened natives but with a similar regard for their beauty (and in Cruz’s case, some of their daily awkwardness) and a similar call on our serious attention. Curtis carried costumes and props with him and dressed some subjects in other tribes’ clothes. Today he is reviled as a falsifier, but the descendants of his subjects often consult his images because they are the only historical information that is left.

It will be one of the terrible ironies of our time if we preserve the image of the rainforest and destroy the thing itself and its inhabitants. While that possibility hangs in the balance, here they are, forest and people – images to arrest the eye and, however calm and lovely they may be, provoke the mind’s unease.

1.Interview with Valdir Cruz, July 7, 1997.
2.Interview with Valdir Cruz, July 7, 1997.
3.See John Hemming, Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian Indians (London: MacMillan, 1987), pp. 466-73.
4.Gordon MacMillan, At the End of the Rainbow? Gold, Land and People in the Brazilian Amazon (London: Earthscan, 1995), p. 48.
5.See Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, The Forest Within (Dartington, Totnes, Devon: Themis Books, 1996), passim.