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Photographing the Amazon: An Interview with Eliseu Cavalcante

By Words Without Borders

We spoke with Brazilian photographer Eliseu Cavalcante—whose work focuses on marginalized groups, environmental issues, and social change—about his photo series documenting life in the Amazon, the recent Amazon rainforest fires, and the possibility of effecting change through art.


Words Without Borders: Eliseu, you’re originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and though you’ve lived in New York for a over a decade now, your work as a photographer has largely focused on issues—social, political, cultural—in Brazil (one notable exception being your photos of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011). This includes work on the sanitation issues facing the Rio favela of Rocinha, Latin America’s largest slum, and the struggles of the Terena indigenous tribe to regain their ancestral lands in Brazil’s midwest region (Mato Grosso do Sul). Then, in 2014, you made the trip by boat down the entire length of the Amazon river, documenting the vibrant human communities that rely on the Amazon for their survival. Can you tell us the motivation for that project?

Eliseu Cavalcante (EC): I believe my work reflects my childhood. I was born in Rio Grande do Sul, in a small town called Santiago, and moved to Rio de Janeiro when I was one-and-a-half years old. Most of my photography is focused on social, political, and cultural issues, as well as the environment. More than that, it’s concerned with the parts of society that most people don’t pay attention to—and I would add the word “injustice” here. If I see something, or experience a moment, that represents part of my life, I will photograph it. My work is a combination of everything I have lived.

I was raised in the suburbs, in a neighborhood called Realengo. It was a wonderful but problematic neighborhood. On the one hand, you had this typical childhood where you would play soccer barefoot in the streets with your friends, but on the other hand, you would, perhaps, see bodies covered up with dark plastic on your way to school.

I also experienced all the problems that any teenager in Realengo would, including being rejected by people of a higher social class. To be asked to use the service elevator just because of the way you look. To watch a public bus drive past you without stopping when you were heading to school. To lose friends who got involved with drug trafficking or, perhaps, walked in the wrong place at the wrong time. To run back inside the school building because of gunshots nearby. I mention this because all these problems that I lived through and witnessed are directly involved with social and political issues and the way I observe everything around me. After working with the natives in their fight to regain their ancestral lands, I started to realize what I wanted to do with my work and what direction it would take.

All of this contributed to my motivation to travel down the Amazon River. You always see the Amazon—and depictions of nature and indigenous people—in movies and on TV shows, but you hardly ever see how tough the Ribeirinhos [those who live along the river] have it. They depend entirely on the river and the forest for their survival. So this trip was basically a research journey to learn about a part of Brazil that also needs attention.

Image: Many communities on the Amazon River live on floating houses like this one with no sanitation system.

WWB: At risk of perpetuating commonplaces, it’s worth remembering Brazil—like the United States—is a country of continental proportions. Consequently, the challenges it faces are myriad. How do you, as an artist who seeks to bring about social and cultural change through your medium, choose your projects?

EC: The way I work is to show the reality of “forgotten” people and places through my images and ensure that the message is delivered to the right recipient. For example, while working on the project involving the Terena people in Mato Grosso do Sul, I came back to New York and met with the Brazilian Mission to the UN to talk about the issue. I also had an exhibition at the Brazilian consulate in New York about problems in Brazil. I believe small actions like that can help achieve greater results. 


WWB: Can you tell us a little bit about that exhibition? What problems, specifically, were you seeking to draw attention to?

EC: Development—especially as the population grows in the Amazon region—is an important reality, and one that cannot be ignored in conservation efforts. I believe my work about the Amazon isn’t done, especially after this turbulent year for Brazil’s government and its environmental policies. I have a lot to show to the world so we can seek help.


Millions of people live in the Amazon region and they are the ones who can lead us in the right direction toward conservation.


WWB: Since you’re from Rio, can you tell us a bit more about your projects there? What subjects did you focus on? Did your familiarity with Rio change the way you worked at all in comparison to other projects?

EC: I never really worked on Rio issues aside from an article regarding the sewage problems that I collaborated with my wife, Rachel, on right before the Olympic Games in 2016. I believe the reason for that is because I got my first camera after I moved to the United States. Also, I believe my work evolved over the years, from focusing only on nature to focusing on humans and nature combined. I do have a folder on my drive with ideas about Rio but I haven’t pursued those yet.

The way I see it, Rio Janeiro and other places that I’ve photographed have a lot in common. Social issues don’t differ much from one place to the other—they only change proportionally according to size. Some places receive more attention than others. I believe I can work anywhere because I feel comfortable connecting with people and I am sensitive to people’s problems. Also, before embarking on a project, I spend months studying the issues and the communities. For example, I am working on a new project that I’ve been reading about and researching for two years.


Image: Men at the port of Yurimaguas carry 220 pounds of salt and sugar on their backs.


WWB: Returning to recent events: one of the things that strikes me about the conversation we’re seeing today in newspapers and across social media regarding the Amazon is that the focus is almost exclusively on the preservation of the Amazon as “the lungs of the world.” Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is well known for his declarations about the Amazon, which include advocating for opening up large swaths to mining activities—including on indigenous reservations—and his comparison of indigenous peoples to animals in the zoo. I wonder if these ideas—one having its origins in a nominally more progressive camp seeking to put the brakes on climate change, the other originating with far-right groups seeking to take indigenous lands for agribusiness—aren’t in some way symptoms of the same problem, namely, our misconception of the Amazon as solely a natural habitat and not a human one?

EC: After these recent fires, the world’s eyes are on us again. But all the focus is on the animals, the forest, and the natives. Millions of people live in the Amazon region and they are the ones who can lead us in the right direction toward conservation.

There are so many issues in that region that clash directly with conservation efforts. We have domestic violence, drug trafficking, illegal mining, poor health and education systems, and insufficient sanitation and infrastructure. If we don’t focus on fixing all those problems as well, we won’t move an inch toward a solution. 


WWB: In your series Natutama, which formed the basis of a 2017 New York exhibition, you depict the lives of those who live and work in the Amazon. Can you tell us a little bit about these groups? What did you discover about their lives?

EC: The people in the Amazon region want to work and bring food back home. They want to have their children in school, just like anyone else in the world. In the end, the only thing that differs is their zip code. Like us, most of the Amazonian people just want to live a decent and normal life that makes them feel safe, both socially and economically. They need attention before all their problems reach a tipping point.


Image: A man carries his relative on his back.

WWB: Have you spoken to those you photographed in 2017 since August’s “Day of Fire” and the illegal fires that gave rise to an international outcry?

EC: Yes, I kept in contact with some of them. We are friends on Facebook. Most of the fires have been in the southwestern and eastern parts of the Amazon, closer to rural areas. During the dry season, agribusiness owners set fires in the jungle to create space for cattle. Regular families in the Amazon region do the same, but in their case it’s to plant potatoes and other vegetables. Trash is also a problem in that region and it leads to wildfires as well. 

The “Day of Fire” is an example of how a president who can’t temper his words in public has had a tremendous impact on society. This is especially true now, with social media reaching everywhere. Right after the news of the fires hit the international media, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, attacked foreign NGOs with bases in the Amazon and cast doubt on their intentions toward the jungle. That had the immediate effect of shifting his supporters’ attention away from a more crucial issue—dealing with the fires. Regardless of the causes, the government should always have a plan for preventing and dealing with fires in the Amazon region, whether they are set intentionally or not. Also, his constant attacks on scientific data don’t help at all.


WWB: From your point of view, what is missing from the global discussion around the preservation of the Amazon? What are some of the challenges facing the communities who make their home in the Amazon, beyond these fires?

EC: The global discussion is focused on the jungle and on native people, but often neglects the millions of others who live in the region. And not only in Brazil, but in all the other countries that share the Amazon forest. I believe we do have to talk about the jungle itself to hook the world’s attention for now. People who live in the Amazon will be the key to conservation. How can you tell a father who wants to give his family food and a better life that he shouldn’t work in the mining or logging business without giving him another plausible solution? We have to learn about people’s real and immediate needs if we want to save their (and our) future.


Image: Many people in the Amazon use palm leaves to build thatched roofs. Mr Alcides, resident of Iquitos, is arranging the leaves on the river shore to dry them off.


WWB: Do you have plans to return the Amazon now?

EC: I do have plans to go back to the region to tackle different issues that I believe need attention, like the poor health and education systems and the insufficient sanitation and infrastructure. If anyone wants to talk to me about my projects, I am more than happy to share some ideas, because right now we need to join forces to tackle all of these issues. 


Eliseu Cavalcante is a Brazilian photographer based in New York. His work focuses on different cultures, environmental issues, and social change. He believes in the power of photography to change lives. What most fascinates him as a photographer is to have the power to show people something they have never seen before for the first time. He often find these things in life’s simple moments. The way he captures moments represents the way he was raised, learning to respect nature and its magnitude. Being raised in this environment gave him the power to see life in a different way, and it empowered his photography with the beauty of simplicity. The art of capturing moments has the power to transport people to a different place and time. It’s about bringing the unknown to those who could not be part of that specific time in space.


View Eliseu Cavalcante’s “Esperança Terena”

Read WWB’s July 2016 issue, Brazil Beyond Rio 

Published Sep 27, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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