A Photographic Mission to Make an Amazonian Tribe Known

Andujar prepared for that shoot by papering over the windows of her São Paulo apartment and experimenting with lighting techniques, exposure lengths, and camera movements that would produce the oneiric effects she desired. In her images, jittery trails of light skitter around the bodies of the participants like drunken, turbocharged fireflies, figures are blurred, and ghostly doppelgängers are produced through double exposures. An infrared image of a deceased tribe member’s body—encased in a funerary cocoon made of branches and palm leaves and, according to custom, allowed to decompose—glows an eerie orange. Through such effects, Andujar brings us nearer to the ecstatic experience of tribal ceremony, but she also evokes a sense that she is photographing across a chasm of cultural difference that can never fully be bridged. Now ninety-one years old, she told me recently, from São Paulo, “I spent my life trying to understand the Yanomami, and to try and transmit what I understood.” She added, “To understand people is to understand life.”

A funerary bundle in the forest. Catrimani region, 1976.

After Yanomami people die and are memorialized, all traces of them are erased: their possessions are broken and burned, their names no longer uttered. Their ties to this world are severed so that their spirits can move on to the next. This could have put the tribe’s culture at odds with the medium of photography, whose goal is to capture and preserve. But, according to the anthropologist Bruce Albert, the Yanomami grew to love and trust Andujar, and to view her pictures as powerful documentation of their existence to the outside world. In 1973, the Brazilian government began construction on a highway through Yanomami territory. The project was soon abandoned, but not before bringing novel diseases, ecological destruction, and cultural dislocation to the tribe. At the end of 1977, a measles outbreak ripped through the Yanomami population, killing scores. Andujar emerged as one of the tribe’s fiercest defenders, co-founding, with Albert and the missionary Carlo Zacquini, an N.G.O. with the goal of providing legal protection for Yanomami territory.

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