It is more than 50 years since Claudia Andujar began photographing the Yanomami, the people of the Amazon rainforest near Brazil’s border with Venezuela. Adesso 89, she is using her archive to increase their visibility, at a time when their survival is under renewed threat.
“The question of indigenous people should be more respected, more widely known. This is very important as it’s the only way the present [Brazilian] government will come to recognise their rights as human beings to occupy their land,” says Andujar, speaking from São Paulo. “This government isn’t interested in their rights.”
After being shown in São Paulo, Paris and, currently, Barcelona, a retrospective of her work is coming to the Barbican Centre in London in June. “I spent so many years learning about the Yanomami and this is what my archive contains. It is important to show this way of life now or these people will disappear,” says Andujar, whose campaigning helped to achieve the demarcation of Yanomami territory in 1992. In Brazil about 27,000 Yanomami people now live in 360 villages in a 9.6m hectare (37,000 sq mile) reserve, an area slightly larger than Portugal.
An exhibition of hundreds of the Swiss-born Brazilian photographer’s images now seems prescient. The show opened in Brazil in 2018, coinciding with the election of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.
His expressed support for miners, farmers and loggers, plus moves to weaken Brazil’s environment agency, encouraged the subsequent setting of extensive deliberate fires in the Amazon nel 2019. Together with the intensifying climate crisis and the Covid pandemic, recent years have taken a disproportionate toll on Brazil’s vulnerable indigenous communities.
“Claudia’s work is so dense that the meaning of the exhibition keeps changing,” says Thyago Nogueira, head of contemporary photography at Brazil’s Moreira Salles Institute. “It started as a homage … a wish to connect the younger generation with the political dimension of her work. Now it is reconnecting to current issues.”
Andujar spent her early years in Oradea, now a Romanian city that was then in Hungary. Nel 1944, as the German army closed in, her mother left with her for Switzerland. Her estranged husband, Andujar’s father, stayed behind and he and all of his Jewish extended family were killed in Dachau and Auschwitz. Nel 1946, Andujar emigrated to the US and then in 1955 to Brazil. She has said the vulnerability of the Yanomami recalled for her the relatives she had been unable to save.
“She is unique in that she became an insider – a white woman who spent extended periods living with the Yanomami over five or six decades,” says Alona Pardo,curator of photography at the Barbican Art Gallery. “She did it in a very personal way. She started off discovering and learning about the Yanomami and about herself as a woman – a woman of the Holocaust, which is fundamental to her relationship with them.”
Andujar experimented with techniques such as infrared photography, shaking her camera or covering the lens with grease, giving an almost surreal dimension to her images, including some of shamanistic rituals.
She also captured everyday life, families relaxing together and children immersed in nature. “There is an openness, generosity and tenderness in these images that shows how comfortable they were with her, even though as a people the Yanomami did not like to be photographed,” says Pardo.
Andujar’s expulsion from Yanomami territory in 1977 by Brazil’s military regime, after she spoke out against settlers encroaching on indigenous lands, was a turning point and Andujar increasingly used her camera “as a political weapon”, says Nogueira. “She really submitted her aesthetics to a commitment to understand people and defend them. It doesn’t matter whether through photography or political activity.”
Returning in the 1980s with an immunisation team during a measles outbreak, she spent three years photographing individuals for their health cards. They wore numbers because the Yanomami do not use names. Nogueira says: “They were racing to save the Yanomami with a vaccination campaign in the 1980s. And now we are racing again to vaccinate people against a new threat.”
Covid-19 is just part of the current menace to the Yanomami, says Fiona Watson, of Survival International, which defends indigenous peoples. “The Yanomami are facing one of the biggest crises they have faced since they started to have contact with the outside world.”
Citing Bolsonaro’s opening of protected territory to mining, lei dice: “If you take the definition [of genocide] as a failure to act – enabling policies that lead to the devastation of a people, this is genocide. Particularly with uncontacted tribes, where there is no evidence or witnesses, then genocide is not an exaggeration.”
“We need to shift the conversation about climate change to one about protecting the people who inhabit these spaces,” says Nogueira. “We have overlooked the human dimension. Why protect the rainforest and not the people who live there?"