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Photography - Issue #1

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau

Words and photography by Gabriel Uchida

Gabriel Uchida’s photographic exploration led him to the Uru-eu-wau-wau and the heart of the Amazon, where he found a way of life under threat. Illegal logging, burning, and land seizure, often accompanied by death threats, have become part of everyday life for indigenous people living in the Amazonian regions of Brazil.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous land lies in the middle of the Amazon. My first contact with this people, however, happened in the city.Chiefs and village leaders were in Porto Velho, capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, for a meeting with the federal police, to denounce invasions of armed loggers on their lands.Before the meeting I found them gathered in the library of an indigenous organisation, leafing through a series of albums of photographs of themselves. Unfortunately the attacks continued, so more meetings happened in the same place, and I encountered them again. The same scene was repeated each time: the indigenous people focused on the same sets of photographs that they had already seen a number of times.

I wanted to investigate their fascination with photography and try to understand this relation with the image, so I began to travel through the six villages of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, looking for images that they had kept. On my first visit to the Linha 623 village, the elder that greeted me was startled by my arrival and repeatedly struck the bow and arrow on the ground as he spoke loudly. As I don’t understand a word of the Tupi-kawahiba language, it was a moment of apprehension. The tone of his voice was strong and energetic while others were watching me in silence. I did not know whether to move on or to retreat, but soon met with Arikan, the village chief.

Uru-eu-wau-wau warriors looking for signs of loggers and land grabbers in their protected area.

Together we sat on a wooden structure with no walls and a thatched roof, surrounded by the villagers who remained silent. My initial fear was softened by a friendly dialogue in Portuguese and after a few minutes we were talking about family, food, and everyday affairs. The definitive proof of my acceptance was when, in the middle of the conversation, a small child, about three years old, who I later learned was called Tapé, came to me and hugged me. She did not say anything, just smiled and sat down to watch us closely.

While talking to the chief about the armed invaders, I pulled out the camera and showed some pictures to the children, who soon surrounded me and looked at everything very closely. The Uru-eu-wau-wau first encountered the white man's world in 1981. Before that they lived completely isolated in the forest. In those early days, they thought that the camera stole a person's soul, so it was an object of mistrust.

Uru-eu-wau-wau warriors looking for signs of loggers and land grabbers in their protected area.

The tribesmen chasing invaders in the Amazon.

Over time I visited a number of communities and found that they’d collected pages from magazines, books and reports that featured photographs of the Uru-eu-wau-wau. The images were marked with red paint stains from a plant, which in Tupi is called urucum, traditionally used by the natives to paint their bodies. Talking with the elders, I discovered that the stains had been applied to try and hide the identities of the people portrayed, in order to protect them from having their souls stolen by the photograph. More profoundly, this material also represented the disputes of power and territory that historically take place between the worlds - the forest and the city.

My searches were often interrupted by more urgent matters: armed loggers and land thieves invaded the territory and stole from the indigenous people, threatening them with violence. On several occasions the people from the different villages gathered, wielding their bows and arrows to go on expeditions to the middle of the forest to expel the armed invaders.

For indigenous people, deforestation means more than just animals and fruit disappearing: life and forest are connected and depend on each other. The territory is sacred not just because they were born there and buried their ancestors in that soil, but because they can only exist as part of nature, which is like an extension of their bodies. Walking through the forest with the Uru-eu-wau-wau is a trip to another world where everything is different, even time, and it is impossible to return as the person you were before.The air is different, the smells and tastes are new – it's a new universe and having experienced it I don’t know if I can now live without it in my life. Ultimately, I have also become dependent on the forest.

Wood illegally cut by invaders within the indigenous reserve.

In a demonstration of clear intent invaders have shot at a sign placed by FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, that shows the land is designated as protected. The sign is close to the Linha 623 village.

A tribeswoman shows a scar, caused by a gun, from when she was a child. Invaders killed her entire village.

‘For indigenous people, deforestation means more than just animals and fruit disappearing: life and forest are connected and depend on each other.’

Warriors following a path left by invaders.

At the end of each day, after I’d walked for hours through the dense jungle, my friend Tapé, now five years old, would visit me to look at the pictures I had taken – my biggest moment of peace. She and all the children in the village had received death threats from loggers and land invaders. I had also received death threats.

In this context, photography is no longer the thief of souls, but an ally to save the lives of indigenous people. The images of deforestation, burnings and invaders are important evidence in police investigations and denunciations to the government and press, witness to what is happening in the middle of the forest.

Deforestation within the protected Uru-eu-wau-wau reserve.

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