Capturing souls

May 12, 2011

From the very first photograph I took of the Kayapo tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, I knew it would be a difficult nine days. They were nine days during which doctors and nurses from the humanitarian Health Expeditions carried out more than one thousand medical exams and dozens of operations on a people known for their qualities as warriors, strong and suspicious of outsiders. Few of the Kayapos understood that they were receiving aid in their benefit, for which nobody would charge them.

The field hospital was in a school annexed to the village, and on my first stroll toward their houses a mother asked for a gift in exchange for the photo I had just taken of her son. As she spoke to me in her language, translated by a man who happened to be walking past. Later I learned that even the native women who do speak Portuguese will not use that foreign tongue if their husbands are not with them.

Absolutely decided not to negotiate or “buy” their permission to photograph, I just shrugged off her demand saying that I understood. I continued on my way, only to run into her again in a short time. During the first hours there I found it impossible to recognize anyone who I had already met earlier, and suddenly I found the same woman confronting me with a “bill” for each picture I took of her, her son or any of her other children. She was aggressive and I had no resource other than to show her my ignorance of the language, even though she repeated in Portuguese, “Money, must pay.”

The Kayapos hate to be photographed after having seen so many strangers arrive, take pictures of them and their children, and then disappear without leaving any photos behind. In these terms, their anger is understandable. Even in the hospital waiting room many of the Kayapos reacted aggressively to my presence, many pointing to their palms in search of compensation for my photos.

Several times I began to cross into the village but turned back, noticing how much I made them uncomfortable. The first time I did finally enter was with a doctor who also wanted to photograph. We found a Kayapo man walking with a pastor’s cane and traditional headdress, but raising my camera just didn’t seem like a good idea.  As we approached he asked for money. The doctor explained that he didn’t have any but that he needed to photograph the people who would be receiving medical care. That same man later appeared for an eye exam at the hospital, where I took better shots of him.

In spite of this and other successes, my biggest problem came to be with most of the beautiful scenes of children painted with traditional colors. Their mothers confronted me and I had no way of presenting an argument in Kayapo. They were decided and fearless.

As time passed I began to present myself with greater calm, smiling, and showing my camera for them to give me their approval before beginning to photograph. Sometimes it worked. The worst part of asking for permission was the unavoidable interference in the natural scene, and it made capturing the image I wanted very difficult. In the end it was a necessary practice, and I even learned to ask permission in Kayapo.

“Akaron kaba? (Take a picture?) “Nã” (Yes)? “Ket” (No)?”
“Mecomre” (Thank you)

I had always heard that native people believe that photographs steal their souls, and here I learned that in Kayapo, “akaron kaba” not only means “to take a photo” but that it also means “to steal a soul.”

Little by little my story began to form. The medical team was on its 18th expedition. Their work had begun long before the first day with difficult negotiations. The natives were fearful and mistrustful of the doctors’ intentions. My surprise was to learn of the medium that in the end helped convince the Kayapos to accept the mission – photographs. The nurse who headed the meetings used photographs of previous expeditions, of other natives who had been operated on, to gain their trust.

The expedition ended with some impressive numbers: 1,134 consultations, including dental procedures and gynecological, pediatric, eye and general exams. They performed 73 operations. Many members of the tribe lost their fear of having their eyes either pulled out or changed for horse’s eyes, as ghastly rumors had circulated beforehand. The work to convince them of the good intentions and the improvement on their lives was intense, mostly using radio communication to spread the word between tribal leaders.

The delight of those who had cataracts removed was obvious, and it was they who convinced others to have it done as well. They were nine days of intense work, a great lesson in indigenous culture, and many images both missed and captured. I felt exhausted by the effort required to establish human relations, from which I learned a great deal.

I returned to the big city with thousands of images. I only hope that what I’ve brought are photographs with soul, and not souls in my photographs.

(View Ricardo’s images on Full Focus here)

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