Representing Amazonia

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Even though Amazonia is now the focus of much international attention, and is often considered in a metaphorical sense as the embodiment of humanities assault on the natural world as part of the globalisation frenzy, it is fair to say it remains pretty much off-limits to all but the most committed of travellers. Lingering metaphors of “green hell,” including rampant caricatures of wild Indians and apocalyptic images of environmental devastation are such that whilst there is a greater interest in the region than there has probably ever been it is still a place few people would endeavour to spend much time in.

Amazonia is of course much written about in both specialist and non-specialist publications but much of how people perceive the Amazon is as a direct consequence of the imagery that has emanated from the region during the past century or so. This blog post aims to briefly discuss the history of such imagery, including some key examples from the realms of anthropology, photojournalism, travel, and the fine arts.

Probably the earliest serious attempts to render the Amazon visually came via mid-19th century Victorian naturalists such as Bates, Wallace, and Spruce, independent explorers and commercial scientists focused on the regions flora and fauna. Bates’s 1863 publication, The Naturalist on the River Amazons contained “…a record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life and aspects of nature under the Equator during eleven years of travel.” Based upon their extended periods in the field, such naturalists provided the first systematic and widely disseminated accounts of “green hell” the legacy of which remains popular.


It is worth highlighting that the Amazonia experienced by the likes of Bates was not an ahistorical, primordial space. It was very much a ‘colonial landscape’, the product of nearly 300 years of European expansion and exploitation of the region. There is significant evidence that pre-Colombian Amazon populations were great in number and socio-politically complex. By the time the naturalists and ethnographers arrived in the region these societies had been pretty much exterminated and what remained – the tribal isolates, small and mobile in their living habits – was the result of a devastating set of historical transformations.

Aside from efforts by merchants and engineers such as Karl Blattman and H. C. Pearson to record colonial societies in their commercial exploitation of the Amazon, primarily through the rubber trade, the gaze of photography remained extremely narrow up until the developmental exploitation of the region commenced in the 1970s.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had rendered Amerindians more sympathetically focusing on the highly social nature of the Nambikwara, and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes’s documentation of indigenous peoples and their plant use (more specifically hallucinogens) offered an insight into their inner worlds. However, the Amazon as portrayed up until this point was a curiously ahistorical place, fundamentally devoid of non-native societies and anything resembling modernity. Quite why this is so is not clear – presumably mestizos and Indians wearing western clothes conflicted with the cliché.

The growth of the environmental movement and the development of pan-Indian indigenous organizations throughout the Americas from the 1970s onwards gave birth to new kinds of investigations and depictions of Amazonia. The savage Indian was gradually displaced by a new kind of cliché – the wise forest manager – and as people became aware of the environmental problems afflicting the region there was an increasing interest in non-tribal societies. Such societies have formed the majority-population of the Amazon for over a hundred years yet until fairly recently were absent from the photographic record.

Arguably the most popular contemporary depiction of Amazonia was produced by Sebastião Salgado at the Serra Pelada goldmine in the Brazilian state of Pará during the mid-1980s. The images, which have become some of the most celebrated in the history of photojournalism, show upwards of 100,000 gold miners working a pre-industrial landscape in an orgy of exploitation. The photos are often said to have strong Christian iconographic references (a common observation and criticism of much of Salgado’s work) and are undeniably remarkable, not simply because of the hellish scenes they depict, but also in their intimacy. One can almost smell the earth that dominates every frame and there is an astonishing tension across some of images, such as the dispute between a miner and rifle wielding security guard.

One of the few notable independent photographic travel accounts of the Amazon was produced by the Frenchman Henry Ray who in 1980, on the back of some serious travel within Ivory Coast, bought a boat and spent ten years sailing around the Brazilian interior. Not much is known about Ray – his book Amazonia that I found at a bookshop in the South of France has little in the way of a biography. However, his beautiful and highly evocative black and white depictions of Brazilian cabocolo culture provided a timely alternative to much of the imagery that had gone before.

Alex Webb has provided some of the most popular ‘fine art’ documentary imagery of the region within his book Amazon: From the Floodplain to the Clouds. Produced under the auspice of the National Geographic Society it’s one of the few serious attempts to look at Amazonian culture beyond the clichés (though it is not in itself free of them). Webb spent much of his time in the larger cities or travelling on riverboats between them (point of note – there are cities of up to to two million inhabitants in the Amazon and several that number in the hundreds of thousands) and produced the work over ten separate visits. Webb famously shoots without an agenda (only last night I heard Webb speak here in London and he described himself as a street photographer), but his poetical depiction of the Amazon is arguably one of the most real, certainly from the perspective of non-native societies.

A personal favourite of mine is the work of the Peruvian artist Javier Silva-Meinel whose intriguing photos explore native relationships with the natural world on cultural, mythic, symbolic, and utilitarian levels. Meinel plays with tropes from anthropology and western art and the complex issues of depicting non-native cultures through expectant and pre-conditioned western eyes. There’s an absurdity to some of the images, but the joke is not on Meinel or his subjects, it’s on the much of the canon of Amazonian representation that has gone before him.

In 2005 I decided to make an attempt at depicting Amazonia. On the back of postgraduate studies specialising in the inter-dependency of biological and cultural diversity within the humid neotropics, I wanted to produce a more ‘authentic’ view of the region than had maybe gone before. This included of course my own take on the stereotypes but also representation of other aspects of Amazonian culture that were outside the traditional frames of reference – non-native societies, modernity, non-exotic variants of the Indian, etc. I worked in Bolivia and Brazil for about six months, eventually leaving when most of my equipment had failed in the high humidity. The work eventually manifested itself in book form with an essay by the eminent anthropologist Stephen Nugent.

And so to the present were the ‘noble savage’ characterisation is as strong as it’s probably ever been in public culture. The popular imagery emanating from Amazonia nowadays veers between the primordial Indian stereotype of old and scenes of environmental apocalypse with little in the way of middle ground or contextualisation (for example, depictions of the non-indigenous majority; drivers of environmental problems).

Indigenous groups in the Amazon such as the Brazilian Kayapo, in partnership with international NGOs, have become adept at playing the indigenous card through careful visual strategies. The Indians are at once portrayed as both wise forest custodians, representative of their predecessors, with millennia of expertise of sustainable land management practices and also trustworthy citizens of society, politically organised – in short, models of the honourable, incorruptible westerner. The paradox within their vision of course is that in order to gain credibility, political foothold, access to land tenure, etc. they need to simultaneously evoke and reject the ‘primitive’ depictions to secure the space to pursue their own modernities.

Survival International (where I was involved as a researcher for a couple of years) provide an interesting example of this (see image immediately below). Working closely with national indigenous organisations such as the Peruvian AIDESEP and Brazils FUNAI they place great emphasis on dramatic and evocative images such as this as part of the campaign strategies. The stereotype is evoked to gain international attention, but will inevitably have to be renounced further down the line to escape the ‘primitivist’ Indian tag.

So on a visual level perhaps we’re little beyond the point we were in the late-nineteenth century. The Amazon is still a green hell, is still fundamentally peopled by pre-modern native societies, is still a place to be exploited. The image politics now differ and are filtered through a new set of self-interests, as does the scale of the environmental change which is on a level unprecedented in human history. But the clichés of Amazonian photography have proved remarkably durable over the years and seem set to remain so.

So why does any of this matter? It does so because poor understanding and appreciation of Amazonian realities inhibits appropriate responses to interventions that have implications for human rights and ecological justice. If we want to save the Amazon, a revolution in understanding is probably required, which includes a sea change in the way the place is visualised.

Anyone interested to read more about Amazonian ethnography should check out Stephen Nugent’s excellent monograph, Scoping the Amazon: Image, Icon, Ethnography.

See also Alcida Rita Ramos’s paper, The Hyperreal Indian.

All images © the original authors. Roll over each photograph for copyright and caption information.

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