IIt was 1971 when I photographed the Yanomami tribe of Brazil for the first time. I knew it would take time to build our relationship, but I wanted to see if we could become friends. For me, the best photographers are those who are really interested in their subjects.
The Yanomami are a large indigenous population living in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela; several thousand live in Brazil alone. A small village can have as few as 40 people, or a large one up to 200. When I first went to the Yanomami villages, the tribe was completely isolated; some still are today. At that time, 50 years ago, they hadn’t seen a camera and didn’t even know what photography was.
Before meeting the Yanomami, I had already traveled to indigenous territories closer to my home in São Paulo; my first big self-assigned project was photographing the Karajá people. But living in the Amazon jungle with the Yanomami was a completely different life than anything he had ever experienced before. His is a truly unique place in the world. The first time I went, I spent three weeks with them, and on my second visit, a few months. This time I brought my own hammock and a lot of insect cream, there are so many mosquitoes in the jungle, but you have to get used to it. Of course, in that environment, you also have to take good care of your equipment. All my other belongings I kept in my hammock, but I carried my cameras everywhere with me.
Some people say the yanomami are violentbut I had no problems and I was never afraid. When I arrived in their villages, I was very well received and felt welcomed from the beginning. We respected each other.
Every Yanomami village is full of small round huts. That’s where this particular photograph was taken, in 1974, near the Catrimani River, in the state of Roraima. My hammock hung very close to those of this child and his parents, so I almost felt like part of their family. And even though I didn’t speak the language, I learned enough to understand what was going on. We get along really well, my little friend and I here. He was always around, helping me. When I look at this photograph, that friendship is what it represents to me.
One day, I asked the boy to go to the middle of the hut and come out directly into the light, and that is why the photo seems quite magical. You could say it looks like an angel – that’s a good interpretation. At the time, I was working with two Nikon cameras and I got the effect you see in this photo by putting petroleum jelly on the lens.
My photography was only part of my commitment to the Yanomami. He wanted to understand everything – their language, their habits, their beliefs, their family life – and he wanted to help them gain more recognition and respect – the Brazilian government does not want to know about the Yanomami. Yanomami culture is very different from that of most Brazilians. The men go hunting in the forest in groups, while the women stay in the village to prepare what they bring. In every town, there is a garden where they grow vegetables. They share everything. Singing is also very important to the community.
I have not taken pictures for several years. But through my photography and my campaign, I have tried to make the Brazilian government understand that these are people who have their own way of life that is important to respect. The only thing that interests the government is the gold that has been found in the tribe’s territory and how they can exploit it. When it comes to the issue of health care, the coronavirus pandemic has also been a big problem, because these types of diseases spread rapidly throughout the Yanomami population. There are some volunteer doctors who work with indigenous peoples in Brazil, but the government does not give them any real support. That is not just the Yanomami, it is the indigenous peoples in general.
But their land has now been recognized as Yanomami territory within Brazil, and in a way, I feel like I helped make that happen.
Claudia Andujar CV
Was born: Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 1931.
Influences: Minor White, Paul Caponigro, Duane Michals.
Decisive point: “When I decided to dedicate my work to the Yanomami.”
Low point: “Try to make people understand that my photographs are just part of my job.”
Better advice: “My advice is not only to photograph, but also to be friends with the people you photograph.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism