Photographer Claudia Andujar’s past images continue to fight for Brazil’s Yanomami people

Claudia Andujar sits near her collection of ceramics, most of them made by indigenous peoples. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAO PAULO – Every night at 7pm, renowned photographer Claudia Andujar sits down at her desk, puts on her headphones and switches on the computer in her apartment overlooking Sao Paulo’s famous Avenida Paulista.

She has a standing Skype date with Carlo Zacquini, a missionary she met almost 50 years ago, when she started her ground-breaking work with the Yanomami people of the Brazilian Amazon. The two, along with anthropologist Bruce Albert, worked for decades to help the indigenous group, some 38,000 strong, protect their land.

There, in 1978, the trio sat at the light table next to the wall-to-wall windows in Andujar’s stark white living room and made a plan.

Strewn with negatives for her upcoming photo books, it became the home base for their work with the Yanomami that, 14 years later, would lead to the demarcation of the indigenous territory on the border between Venezuela and Brazil, and its official protection under federal law.

At 91, Andujar can no longer make the arduous trip to Yanomami land, so it is her nightly chats with Zacquini, who still lives and works alongside them, that keep her informed about the obstacles the community faces today.

For some time, she wanted to find a way to continue to stand by them in their fight, despite the thousands of kilometres that now separate them.

And she did.

The photos she made decades ago have once again been touring the world, this time alongside works made by Yanomami artists, in The Yanomami Struggle, an exhibition organised by the Cartier Foundation in Paris, the Moreira Salles Institute in Sao Paulo and the Shed in Manhattan, in partnership with Brazilian non-governmental organisations Hutukara Associacao Yanomami and Instituto Socioambiental.

It runs at the Shed, a centre for the arts, from Feb 3 to April 16, and Andujar hopes it will amplify Yanomami voices and move others to take action against the tragedy still unfolding on their land.

“I think my photos helped back then,” Andujar said, “but they didn’t resolve anything. We still need to fight.”

Born Claudine Haas, Andujar was raised in Transylvania on the Romania-Hungary border from age nine, when her parents, a Hungarian Jew and a Swiss Protestant, separated.

When she was 13, she and her mother fled the Holocaust, returning to her native Switzerland.

Andujar’s father and most of her paternal family were sent to the Oradea Ghetto in Transylvania before being deported to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany, where they were all killed. It was a moment that would mould her point of view and steer the rest of her life.

After stops in Switzerland and New York City, Andujar settled in Brazil in 1955, where she first picked up a camera.

Unable to speak Portuguese – her first language is French – she used photography to communicate with those around her, and her photos were published in national and international magazines, including Life, Aperture and Realidade.

It was not until the 1970s that she took her first trip to Yanomami land, a territory twice the size of Switzerland.

She decided in 1974 to spend a year living in the Catrimani region. But it would be an unorthodox year for a photographer.

Claudia Andujar analyses some of her 35mm negatives from the Catrimani River in 1974 at her apartment in Sao Paulo. PHOTO: NYTIMES

During those 365 days, she would not photograph. She first wanted to get to know the Yanomami and for them to get to know her.

During the same period, Brazil was in the middle of a 21-year military dictatorship. In the early 1970s, the country began a programme that opened up the Amazon to mining, logging and ranching with the construction of a vast network of roads, including one that sliced through Yanomami territory.

The programme brought not only environmental destruction, but also a slew of deadly diseases the Yanomami had never been exposed to.

Andujar would return with Zacquini in 1977 to take care of survivors of a measles epidemic that swept through communities in Catrimani. Her photographs of the Yanomami would become a powerful tool against the exploitation of their land.

So powerful, in fact, that the military would expel her.

With Albert – whom she met two years prior in Catrimani – and Zacquini in tow, she returned to her Sao Paulo apartment to work at the light table. There, they created the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (now known as the Pro-Yanomami Commission, or CCPY), a non-profit that would head the fight for the protection of Yanomami land.

Her work as a photographer had now become more activism than aesthetic.

For government officials, Andujar’s name spelt trouble. Davi Kopenawa, a respected Yanomani leader and shaman, wanted to know why. So in the early 1980s, he headed to the commission’s headquarters.

“She told me the story of the war on her land, where her family was killed with so many others,” he said in an interview. “It was just like what was happening here in Brazil, on our land. She understood. It made me trust her.”

That first talk led to a lifelong friendship. The two set off together on a worldwide campaign against the destruction of Yanomami land before a presidential decree declared the territory’s demarcation in 1992, seven years after the end of the military dictatorship.

Now, decades later, they are on another journey together, this time through The Yanomami Struggle.

The travelling exhibition comprises more than 200 of Andujar’s photos and some 80 drawings and paintings by Yanomami artists, including Kopenawa, Ehuana Yaira, Joseca Mokahesi, Andre Taniki, Orlando Naki Uxima, Poraco Hiko, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe and Vital Warasi, as well as new video works by contemporary Yanomami film-makers.

“I hope that spreading our pen strokes, our brush strokes, all over the world will, maybe, make people want to protect us,” said Yaira, whose work focuses on women caring for children, harvesting yuca and washing items like pots and hammocks.

“It was Claudia Andujar who helped us gain visibility,” Yaira added. “She is a great artist. That’s what makes the partnership between us so good. If it was only the Yanomami artists doing this, it wouldn’t be the same.”

But Andujar said it is the Yanomami who need to be heard, not her.

And with a new government starting to make positive changes for indigenous peoples, she is cautiously optimistic. If things go well, maybe one day soon, people will stop turning to her and start listening to the Yanomami. NYTIMES

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