When it came to cameras, Claudia Andujar always carried two small, unobtrusive Nikons, so as not to intimidate the Yanomami Indians, whose lives she chronicled for nearly half a century. “I tried not to be noticed when I took my pictures,” Andujar tells me on the telephone from her home, in São Paulo. “I was very motivated to understand the Yanomami, and, through them, to understand myself.”
The 88-year-old photographer’s pictures of the Yanomami, who inhabit the Amazon rain forests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, are the subject of an entrancing retrospective on at the Fondation Cartier, in Paris, until May 10, before traveling to Milan, Winterthur, and Madrid. The largest European exhibition yet of Andujar’s work, “Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle” displays more than 300 images, a re-creation of the photographer’s deeply unsettling audiovisual installation “Genocide of the Yanomami: Death in Brazil,” and drawings by the Yanomami themselves.
The show comes at a time of increased threat for indigenous populations under Jair Bolsonaro. Since his election last year, the Brazilian president has turned a blind eye to the illegal deforestation of tribal lands, while a spate of targeted killings have resulted in the deaths of at least three tribal leaders. In January, Bolsonaro’s sneering brand of racism came to the fore: “The Indians are evolving,” he said during a live broadcast on Facebook, his preferred means of mass communication. “More and more they are becoming human beings like us.”
Included in the exhibition are photographs of Andujar’s first encounters with the Yanomami, which began in 1971 when the Swiss-born photographer traveled to the Roraima state, in northern Brazil, on a Guggenheim grant to chronicle the indigenous tribe’s culture. Andujar says that she chose the Yanomami after a friend, the Swiss ethnographer René Fuerst, told her they would let her work freely and for as long as she wished. “I was always very interested in penetrating a person’s soul with my photography,” Andujar says. “I wanted to understand the inner lives of the Yanomami, so it wasn’t just documentary photography but something more expressionistic.”
This is particularly true of Andujar’s mostly black-and-white pictures of the Yanomami reahu, the funeral feasts which took place in communal houses called yano. She spent weeks observing the tribe’s shamanistic rituals, where participants would inhale the powder of the hallucinogenic yakoana plant through long tubes in order to commune with spirits.
“I wanted to understand the inner lives of the Yanomami, so it wasn’t just documentary photography.”
The self-taught photographer was 40 when she first encountered the Yanomami. At this point Andujar was already well known for her depictions of social discrimination of prostitutes, homosexuals, and migrants, and one of her photographs—a stunning portrait of a Xikrin tribesman of Brazil—had made the cover of The New York Times Magazine a few years earlier.
But photographing the Yanomami presented Andujar with physical and technical challenges she had not faced before; she often walked for many miles to accompany the Yanomami on their nomadic hunting expeditions. (She says she never witnessed anything of the brutal warrior culture the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon alleged in his million-copy-selling 1968 book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People.) To overcome the very-low-light conditions in the yano and beneath the forest canopy, the photographer employed slow shutter speeds, flashes, and oil lamps to create glowing streaks of light. At other times she shook her camera to capture the blur of bodies in frenetic movement.
“You can almost see what’s invisible in these pictures,” says the exhibition’s Brazilian curator, Thyago Nogueira, who spent four years going through Andujar’s archive of more than 100,000 photographs. “Before Claudia, indigenous populations were mostly portrayed in an ethnographic way or a very neutral photojournalistic fashion. Very few photographers not only experiment but also deeply understand the culture of indigenous populations, and try to create representations intrinsically related to that.”
Clear and Present Danger
Andujar first began to witness the decimation of dozens of Yanomami communities in 1973, when the Brazilian government ordered the construction of the Perimetral Norte highway in the far-northern part of the Amazon. Not only did the road, which was never finished, cross through Yanomami lands, its construction required the manpower of hundreds of itinerant workers who brought with them measles and malaria. “There were Yanomami villages that just disappeared,” Andujar says. “My photography is part of my work, but trying to save the Yanomami became a more important part for me.”
Other photographs in the exhibition trace Andujar’s evolution into activism in addition to her camerawork, spurred by a passionate altruism that evolved from an early age. During W.W. II, Andujar, who was born Claudine Haas in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, lost her Hungarian-Jewish father and several other relatives to the Holocaust. “That is something that has obviously marked me,” she says. Andujar, who kept her Spanish first husband’s name, and took Brazilian citizenship in 1976, grew up angry and isolated in the wake of the war’s tragedies. “She talked to me a lot about the guilt of not having been able to prevent the genocide of her people,” Nogueira says. “When she chose to live with the Yanomami, and realized that they could be the subject of another genocide, she decided that she would do anything … to stop it.”
“The Indians are evolving,” said Bolsonaro on Facebook. “More and more they are becoming human beings like us.”
In the late 1970s, Andujar helped to start the Commission for Creation of the Yanomami Park, which finally bore fruit in 1992 when Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello signed off on a demarcation area for the Yanomami comprising nearly 10 million contiguous hectares. Andujar produced some of her most indelible work during this period, including the installation on display at the Fondation Cartier—a sort of illustrated time line, accompanied by a haunting mix of Yanomami chants, that lays out the gradual degradation of Yanomami culture caused by the stress of Western meddling.
The Yanomami’s situation has only worsened since Bolsonaro acceded to the Brazilian presidency last year. His latest gambit has been to introduce a new law which will open up indigenous lands, many of them in the Amazon, to mining, agriculture, and hydraulic-energy production. “The actual government in Brazil has no interest in indigenous people,” Andujar says. “I don’t know [Bolsonaro] personally, but he has probably heard of me … and he’ll probably try to get rid of me.”
Andujar laughs. She has no intention of going quietly.
Tobias Grey is a writer and book critic based in Gloucestershire