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.