“Photography is the process of discovering the other and, through the other, oneself. Intrinsically, that is why the photographer seeks and discovers new worlds but in the end always shows what is inside himself.” —Claudia Andujar
As a child, Claudia Andujar laid awake and listened silently for the spirits the servants were certain inhabited the house at midnight. She was born Claudine Haas in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and grew up in Transylvania—a slurry of superstition and political upheaval—in a city that one day would be Oradea, Romania, and Nagyvárad, Hungary, the next, and then under Nazi occupation. In 1944, Siegfried Haas, her Hungarian Jewish father (from whom her Swiss mother was divorced) arrived unexpectedly to say goodbye; he was then sent to Dachau. Her father’s relatives, her friends, and her first love all met similar fate. After her father was deported, Andujar got the keys to his house. The lunch he had been eating was still on the table. She was 13 years old.
As a woman in her 20s, Andujar taught herself to photograph. She would commit herself and her camera to preserving Brazil’s Yanomami, whose own world was undergoing seismic shifts, and the spirit world they immersed themselves in—and which her childhood had prepared her to see. This woman who had witnessed the extermination of her own people would dedicate five decades to fighting for this endangered indigenous people, through photographs that are at once poetry, record, and resistance.
Andujar’s art and activism are being celebrated in an extensive retrospective, Claudia Andujar: La Lutte Yanomami (“The Yanomami Struggle”), of more than 350 of her still and moving images, at Paris’s Fondation Cartier, curated by Thyago Nogueira, head of contemporary photography for Brazil’s Instituto Moreira Salles. The show, which opened January 30, was preempted by COVID-19, which not only shut down Paris but now threatens to wipe out the Yanomami people—and which casts Andujar’s art in a new context and increasing urgency. The dense, two-floor retrospective moved to a mini-site on the organization’s website; it has recently reopened and has been extended until September 13, when it heads to Milan.
Malnourished, politically under-represented, and exposed to disease, drugs, and lawlessness, indigenous people—the Yanomami, the most well known among them—remain among Brazil’s most vulnerable. The Yanomami inhabit almost 10 million hectares, mostly in the Amazon, in an area that has been torn asunder by greedy politicians, opportunists, and garimpeiros, or illegal gold miners. They brought with them not only the contamination of industrial culture but also of the indigenous peoples’ water supply and fisheries, disease, and a perpetual dependency on cash in a community that was once entirely self-reliant. They have also destroyed a good portion of the environment that has sustained the Yanomami for millenia.
Yanomami land rights, which Andujar was significant in securing, are slowly being whittled away by Brazil’s Joao Bolsonaro government, and that president’s outright disdain for, and some say persecution of, indigenous people. “Indians should not continue to be poor living above rich land,” Bolsonaro has said. Rampant deforestation threatens not only their habitat and shelter, but also the more than 500 plants they rely on for food and medicine. In February, Bolsonaro made mining and commercial farming legal in Yanomami land, exploiting and displacing the community for capital gain in an exchange they would have no say in nor see a percentage of. In March 2020, the Arns Commission, a human rights organization, accused the Bolsonaro government of ethnocide: of deliberate and systematic efforts to destroy indigenous culture. The pending disaster was predicted more than six decades earlier. In February 1969, Norman Lewis published “Genocide” in London’s Sunday Times Magazine, detailing the annihilation of Brazil’s Indian tribes through disease, “poison, dynamite, machine guns, and torture.” COVID-19 can now be added to that list.
“Yanomami land rights, which Andujar was significant in securing, are slowly being whittled away by Brazil’s Joao Bolsonaro government, and that president’s outright disdain for, and some say persecution of, indigenous people”
The Yanomami have fueled popular imagination and classic Anthropology 101 case studies since the 1960s, often through accounts by colonial-minded anthropologists like Napoleon A. Chagnon, and spun with a focus on their ferocity, primitiveness, and exotic otherness. In 1968, Chagnon published Yanomamö: The Fierce People; the moniker remained with them for decades, and the book, based on his first-person “observations,” was held up as an acme of ethnographic fieldwork. In it, Chagnon detailed “the importance of aggression to their culture” and their “collective bellicosity.” He noted, “The fact that the Yanomamo live in a state of chronic warfare is reflected in their mythology, values, settlement pattern, political behavior, and marriage practices.” He relayed his initial arrival in a Yanomami village in an aluminum boat: “I was about to meet my first Yanomamo, my first primitive man…. Would they like me? This was important to me.” Chagnon described his entry into the village: “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!”
Andujar is the anti-Chagnon. Her photos, shot less than five years after the anthropologist’s fieldwork, and a departure from the mostly straightforward documentary work of the time, remain a visual retort to Chagnon’s judgement-laden, self-centered observations, and are woven with a spirituality, mysticism, poetry, and wonder absent in anthropology annals. Not one depicts warring—nor does aggression appear in her firsthand accounts. Instead, her images arose from an almost organic feeling for the Yanomami and her subsequent self-immersion in Yanomami life. She would return to the community many times, often as a lone woman, and at length.
World War II made Andujar and her mother refugees in Nazi-held Europe. She was finally found by her father’s only surviving relative, his brother Marczel Haas, and brought to his home in New York in 1946. Claudine changed her name to Claudia and attended Hunter College for humanities. She briefly married Julio Andujar, a high school friend and a Spanish refugee who had fled the Spanish Civil War, and took his surname. She ended the marriage in 1953 but kept his name, she said, to conceal her Jewish origins. She worked at the United Nations while studying abstract painting. (The abstract expressionist movement, a reaction to the Depression and the horrors of World War II, was in its naissance at the time, with New York a driving force.) Andujar was particularly drawn to the impasto and layered geometrics of Nicolas de Staël, whose art simultaneously incorporated both the representational and the abstract (and whose influence later appears in some of her more abstract photos).
In 1955, just days before her 24th birthday, Andujar left New York to join her mother, who had settled in Sao Paulo, in Brazil, then a military dictatorship. Andujar, at the time, didn’t speak Portuguese. She picked up a camera as a means to communicate, understand, and engage with her new country. She never put it down. Andujar crossed Brazil, creating several photo albums. Her trips expanded, to Bolivia, to Peru, and her albums became more complex, including notes and sketches of indigenous cultures she encountered. She was most drawn to the native population, to the common person. Her “first self-assigned project” was the indigenous Karaja, whose families took her in. “My photography grew alongside the interest, involvement, and affinity I felt for the Indian. It was never a curiosity like I feel people have for exotic places. It was never that. From the beginning, for me, it was a relation of man to man,” said Andujar. Brazilian magazines, however, did not embrace the photographer, or her work—she was a foreigner and a woman. She was told by publications, she recalled, “There’s no place for women here. A woman can’t be a photographer.”
She turned to the U.S., and to Life magazine. She left a portfolio with Edward Steichen, who headed the photo department at MoMA, which acquired two of her photos. In 1960, she had an exhibit at the Limelight gallery in New York, and also participated in MoMA’s Photographs for Collectors, a show that included work by Robert Frank and Henry Cartier Bresson. In April 1961, she produced a documentary with Lew Parella on a Catholic bishop who worked in Rio’s favelas, and she also had a show at the George Eastman House. Back in Brazil, she shot for Look and Esquire, and developed projects, including her Famílias Brasileiras series (1962–64), traveling on her own to photograph, among others, a farming family in Bahia and a religious family in Minas Gerais. Her work was often rejected because it wasn’t uplifting. It was a time when other Latin American photographers were training their cameras on the political and social issues and undercurrents of the era. Andujar was among their few female photographers, who included Argentines Alicia D’Amico and Sara Facio, who had focused together on psychiatric institutions.
Andujar photographed Brazil’s Bororo people and returned to the States with a portfolio of more than 40 images. In New York, she met African-American photographer George Leary Love, in 1965. Leary Love, who was part of the Association of Heliographers, which included Paul Caponigro, encouraged Andujar to experiment with her images, arguing that a photograph could never fully capture reality. He also explored sound, which Andujar then adopted into her work. Andujar and Leary Love, whom she married in 1968, collaborated on projects in Brazil and produced films on Colombia, Chile, and Argentina for Braniff Airlines. She traveled to photograph Brazil’s Xikrin people, landing a cover on The New York Times Magazine. For a photo assignment for Setenta magazine, she posed a leggy white model amid intricately tattooed Xikrin tribe members, an image for which she was criticized for cultural insensitivity. She responded that rather than highlighting the cultures’ inequalities or exoticness, she sought to depict their legitimate parallels.
In 1966, Andujar began to shoot, along with Leary Love, for the Brazilian magazine Realidade, which was against the country’s military dictatorship. She had been drawn to oppressed people, and the magazine was a good fit for her and her work. She photographed prostitutes and in erotic theaters. “I always sought out people on the margins. I wanted to get into people’s souls,” she told Nogueira, in a 2014 interview for Aperture. She connected with the spiritualist Chico Xavier. She began photographing in color. She experimented with infrared film, new angles, and rephotographed slides. Her pictures were published in Life and, in 1971, in Aperture (then edited by Minor White). From 1970–71, she also worked as a photo editor for the magazine O Bondinho.
“In 1966, Andujar began to shoot, along with Leary Love, for the Brazilian magazine Realidade, which was against the country’s military dictatorship. She had been drawn to oppressed people, and the magazine was a good fit for her and her work”
In 1971, Andujar was on assignment for Realidade in the Amazon, where a trans-Amazonian highway was being built. A priest had died, and she traveled to the Yanomami to explore why. She had been asked not to photograph the indigenous people because the country had been mistreating them. “The Indian is something they didn’t want to touch,” Andujar said. She photographed the Yanomami anyway.
The Yanomami are a communal hunter-gatherer society who live in circular yanos, which can provide a home for up to 400 people. (Andujar described the yano like “the uterus of a pregnant woman.”) They believe in the equality of people and in making decisions according to consensus, not via chiefs, and after long debate. Hunting is the responsibility of men and makes up 10 percent of their diet. Women grow the gardens, which provide 80 percent of their diet. The remainder is gathered: nuts, shellfish, honey. When Andujar met the Yanomami, they were considered little contacted. They didn’t know if she was a man or a woman. The women came forward to touch her body to verify she was female; the men did not approach her. Andujar didn’t photograph right away, especially as the Yanomami were entirely unfamiliar with picture making. They spent weeks getting to know each other, building trust.
In her second piece for Realidade, in 10 pages of her images and text from this early trip, Andujar wrote of Portuguese efforts to colonize and enslave the indigenous; characterized their encounters with the West as a genocide, detailing the slaughter and cruelty; and warned against the construction of the Trans-Perimetral Highway, which would begin in 1973, and one of several that would cut through Brazil’s Roraima state and the territory of the Yanomami, who had no legal protection. But Realidade’s photo edit of tranquil, content indigenous people failed to convey the impoverishment, urgency, and catastrophe that awaited them. The experience left Andujar disillusioned with photojournalism.
In the meantime, Andujar had been looking to dedicate herself to more independent projects, and specifically, a body of work on indigenous people without time restriction. She initially had intended to focus on the Xikrin, another imperiled Amazonian people. She applied for, and was awarded, a Guggenheim grant. It was her friend René Fuerst, a Swiss ethnologist who had already spent some time with theYanomami, who had suggested Andujar concentrate on the Yanomami instead. Fuerst also introduced Andujar to Carlo Zacquini, an Italian missionary with the Catholic mission in the Catrimani River basin in Roraima; he would become a lifelong ally in her fight to save the Yanomami.
Funded by the Guggenheim grant, Andujar made a brief trip to the Yanomami with Leary Love in 1971. She returned alone in 1972 for a month-long stay. She immersed herself in their hunting, rituals, and life. The language, for her, was incomprehensible. But the absence of a shared verbal language became a help and not a hindrance to her work. The true language for Andujar was in the gesture and in the eyes. “At the time, not understanding the Yanomami language didn’t bother me…. I wanted to observe, absorb, in order to recreate in the form of images what I was feeling,” said Andujar. She wanted to understand the Yanomami, their beliefs, mythology, culture, and their shamanism in order to photograph them. It would take her about two years.
“The true language for Andujar was in the gesture and in the eyes. “At the time, not understanding the Yanomami language didn’t bother me…. I wanted to observe, absorb, in order to recreate in the form of images what I was feeling,”
The world of the Yanomami is multidimensional: simultaneously physical and spiritual. Andujar set about developing a visual language that could capture its layers. She alternated between an ethnographic style of photography and a more expressive one. She experimented aesthetically to find a visual style that she felt true to the Yanomami and that captured their subjective experience. Photographing became a process of invention and discovery, trying to arrive at a visual representation of a spiritual world, of something abstract, immaterial, and often invisible, in a medium that tends to be seen as more representational, especially in black-and-white.
Back in Sao Paulo, Andujar recovered from the malaria she developed on that trip. She rephotographed her work using colored lenses, and put together an exhibition for Museu de Arte de São Paulo, or MASP, in 1973, O Homem da Hiléia (“The Man of the Hileia”).She returned to the Yanomami in 1974, after planning for two years, and bolstered by hundreds of rolls of film, sound-recording equipment, and antimalaria pills that left her with fevers.
Andujar photographed using Vaseline, colored filters, infrared film, slow shutter speeds (⅛ and 1/15 of a second), multiple exposures, varied angles, and oil lamps. The jungle surrounded her. The air was thick with mosquitos and moisture. The film would fog. Lights couldn’t be sustained. The smoke from the fires—for warmth, for preserving meat—was everywhere. Said Andujar, “The light meter stopped working because of the humidity. I had to photograph with a wide-angle lens and 3200 ASA film all day. Normally, the forest is already dark, but when it’s foggy and it rains, it’s even darker.”
In the beginning Andujar was propelled, as an artist and social documentarian, by the work of photographers like Eugene Smith, and through her own personal, ethical, and humanistic view. She arrived not knowing what she was going to do, but her expression evolved along with her relationship to the Yanomami. She came increasingly to feel she belonged with them. Over time, her work with the Yanomami grew more collaborative and activist.
The world that Andujar depicted, shot mostly from 1971 through 1974, grew increasingly abstract and is shimmering with highlights and thick with shadows. She incorporated chiaroscuro; fogged, flared, and streaked film; grain; reflections; reticulations; and multiple exposures to convey the simultaneous dimensions and spirits of Yanomami life. Her images were unique and didn’t neatly fit within photojournalism, ethnographic photography, or anthropology. In one black-and-white photo, a young boy stands bathed in an otherworldly glow, leaking light twinkling around him like stardust; his yano appears empty but, as the sparkling indicates, it is filled with spirits. In another picture, a young man, his body painted with decorative designs, seems to dream in a hammock that appears suspended amid clouds but that is really smoke and the enlarged grain of the photo. A black line encircles his face and extends upward. Above his hand a repetitive pattern (perhaps the woven yano) appears faint in the background.
Boys lay on hammocks interlaced with the jungle’s leaves, or inside the yano, blurred by longer exposures and surrounded by beams of almost extraterrestrial light. In an exterior shot, a boy holds a branch intersected by lean-tos and that bifurcates the bottom third of the photo. Behind him, tree trunks burn, smoking game, while in the background a man straddles a tree. In another black-and-white photo, light pierces the jungle canopy and spills and swoops through leaves overhead, as though the image were somehow flying beneath, while two young women clean their red-billed curassow, the bird’s feathered wings flared between them, to be used for arrows.
Later images are steeped in color. A boy’s head bobs in the river, awash in an alive-seeming turquoise the consistency of milk. In an aerial view, a rounded yano sits like an enormous mushroom amid a mosslike magenta forest. (Leary Love would also shoot several aerial images.) In another photo, a yano burns—the Yanomami set their homes alight when they leave them behind permanently—in a picture awash in blazing red orange. Elsewhere, a woman lays across her hammock, which slices through the middle of the frame in a black swoop. Her body and bare breast are suffused with hot pink.
“Later images are steeped in color. A boy’s head bobs in the river, awash in an alive-seeming turquoise the consistency of milk”
The beauty of Andujar’s photos can sometimes be deceptive: A Yanomami youth appears to dream in a postcard-ready closeup doused with magenta pink. Splayed leaves surround his face and along with a sort of blanket, divide the photo on the diagonal, with the black moon of his hair filling the upper left. The triangle that forms the opposite right corner of the photo is filled with a blur of pink vegetation. The young man is actually suffering from measles, a recurrent scourge that threatens to eliminate the Yanomami.
Andujar’s molten color feels a Brazilian influence, and its expression, along with her images, recalls Brazil’s late-sixties Tropicalismo movement—with its colors, sociopolitical agenda, its emphasis on multiculturalism, and its embrace of new forms, languages, and influences to arrive at something entirely new, unique, and authentic. Her incantatory images combine the hypnotic with the hallucinogenic, especially as enhanced by her use of gels, infrared, and available light—and her own belief in spirits. It’s a world in which plant life, spirit life, and human life carry equal weight, and each has a palpable physicality and ripe sensuousness and sensuality. The spiritual, material, and natural world fuse.
But in 1974, the Trans-Amazonian Highway began penetrating the jungle, rupturing the Yanomami communities and bringing along with it new diseases. Andujar witnessed hundreds dying. She decided to dedicate herself to the Yanomami people. Said Andujar, “When I grew up my family was all deported by the Germans…. I became attached to the Yanomami. I decided I wanted to save these people. They became part of me. Part of my story. They became my family.”
Andujar made visits to the Yanomami between 1974 and 1976, producing portraits that incorporate abstraction and might take an entire roll of film. Some Yanomami wear adornments that represent their identification with the world of the spirits. A Yanomami female, in a chiaroscuro medium shot, tilts her head down, toward center frame, a pearl-like necklace draped about her neck. Her face, contemplative, is bifurcated by shadow, and appears against a black background. The right third of the frame appears unexposed and imageless. Another medium shot of the same woman is more classic. In it she sits center frame, holding her baby. The planes of her face are illuminated by three-point lighting, her right eye framed by a triangle of light. Her back recedes into velvety blackness.
One image is simply of a woman’s torso, from its pendulous breasts to its perfectly rounded pregnant belly and wrapped in her elongated arms, the sensuous texture of her skin intermingled with the grain of the photo. A photo of a boy’s torso is abstracted, almost to the point of landscape, the lighting accentuating its curves and skin yet also heightening its beauty. In a medium shot, against a black background, a girl’s septum and lower lip are being pierced. Light illuminates her eyelids, feathery lashes, and nose, and the hands of the unseen man enacting this puberty rite. Elsewhere, a man tilts his feathered head toward a burst of flowerlike feathers.
Andujar saw shamanism was essential to Yanomami culture and incorporated it, or the feel of it, into her images, and into the spirit of her work. She extensively pictured the Yanomami reahu—shamanic community-alliance feasts that consist of a complex sequence of rituals. Reahus are an opportunity to honor the dead, as well as introduce future marriage partners, exchange news, restructure and renew intercommunity ties, and connect with and be counseled by the xapiri, the spirit guides.
For the Yanomami, there is the world of trees, men, and animals, and the world of the xapiri. The spirit world is the foundation of Yanomami life, and the xapiri inhabit every creature, rock, tree, plant, and river. The Yanomami also believe there is no separation between the mortal and spiritual world. Guided by shamans, the men access xapiri through trances achieved through the hallucinogen yakoana, which is also said to ward off misfortunes.
Andujar’s reahu images are steeped in deep blacks. Representation gives way to abstraction, and some photos are merely shadows and reflections, blurs, and multiple exposures. In one, men gather for a shamanic ceremony while water seems to roil over them. In another, the men, seen only from their torso up, scatter across the bottom of the frame, while multiple squiggles of light dance and spark between them. In a sepia image, a man under the influence of yakoana lays splayed across the frame, which is segmented into three by an abstract, Franz Kline–like brushstroke of light, as a hand emerges from the photo’s left edge. Shamans appear from the darkness with heads of downy feathers, like human dandelions, surrounded by tracers of light. At the bottom of one frame, a shaman with red vulture and hawk plumage, photographed from the nose up and with hands held high, seems to dive up against the yano, leaving behind wriggling light. Men and women are depicted in multiple exposures and surrounded by confettied light and current—references to the xapiri, which are said to crisscross the world on spider-web thin trails of light and are visible in multiple tiny mirror-like reflections as they play and dance across the forest.
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a Yanomami leader, activist, and shaman who would also become a lifelong comrade in Andujar’s fight for the Yanomami, described the xapiri as “luminous flecks of dust…. Only shamans can see them.” The xapiri, he said, “are like the images in the mirrors I saw in one of your hotels. I was alone before them, but at the same time they showed a lot of identical images of me.”
From 1974 to 1977, the photographer also gave paper and felt-tip pens to the Yanomami and asked them to illustrate themselves and their world, daily life, rituals, and mythology. After, she asked them to describe these drawings, which are also on view at Fondation Cartier. She drew on these illustrations to inform and inspire her own work.Through them, Andujar came to see and better understand the Yanomami’s unique way of perceiving their world, and themselves within it: with past and present interwoven and with great imagination.
Yet Andujar began to realize her art wouldn’t save anyone. Her photography shifted to capturing the deteriorating social and health conditions the Yanomami faced. The vegetation in her images gave way to cars, trucks, the road, Western underwear, prostitution, pornography, alcohol, and newly appearing single-family structures. Prostitution resulted in, among other things, never before experienced sexually transmitted diseases; donated western clothes introduced scabies. To sum up French ethnologist Bruce Albert, who would join Andujar in her work to save the community: The Yanomami, the “people of the forest,” were falling prey to the “people of merchandise.”
The Yanomami attracted to the Perimetral Norte Highway, and to the mines, sawmills, and later, military bases nearby, came to live as “ragamuffins” on their periphery, leaving them in a constant state of vulnerability and want. Noted Marcello Tassara’s documentary People of the Moon, People of Blood, on which Andujar was screenwriter and cinematographer, and which is included in the Fondation Cartier exhibit, many Yanomami were killed or died because of the road. It was “like pest control.” If Andujar’s earlier photos seem Edenic, these later images depict a descent into hell.
Between 1975 and 1980 tuberculosis began to spread through the region. Andujar returned to the Yanomomi not only to make images but also to assist during epidemics, often introduced by outsiders. In 1976, she drove thousands of kilometers with Zacquini into Roraima, making photos, taking note, bearing witness. In 1977, on another Guggenheim grant and after a measles outbreak, she spent two months with the Yanomami to help treat the survivors.
It was at this time she met Kopenawa, who had been working for FUNAI, the government arm entrusted with overseeing and policy-making for Brazil’s indigenous people. Growing up, Kopenawa had “endured” the proselytizing of the American New Missionary Church, which taught him to read and write and gave him his Biblical name, Davi. He had lost his parents and most of his close relatives to measles in 1967. He was at first warned not to speak with Andujar, that she was in favor of foreign rights.
Meanwhile, fallout had grown over the criticism Andujar had published in 1975, pointing to the government’s mistreatment of the Yanomami and the industrial world that was being thrust on them, and declaring that they had a right to self-determination: “Even if a society, like that of the Indians, is fated to be absorbed by the technological world, each individual in that culture has the right to self-development to achieve the moral and intellectual level to allow him to choose the values he desires to attain,” Andujar had said. A government worker accused her of “corrupting” the Yanomami and seeking “easy money.” Andujar was banned from Yanomami lands. By 1977, construction on the Trans-Amazonian Highway had been halted. Said the exhibit catalog, it left behind “225 kilometers and millions of dollars in asphalt, along with a trail of disease and violence.”
Andujar returned to Sao Paulo. She participated in public protest. In 1978, with Kopenawa, Zacquini, and Albert, who had worked in Yanomami territory since 1975, she created the NGO Comissão Pela Criação do Parque Yanomami, or CCPY, to support the demarcation of indigenous land. The organization, which Andujar coordinated for 22 years, was a source of mobilization, health, and education initiatives for the indigenous, as well as a conduit for financial aid. Andujar came to be watched and threatened by governmental forces in Brazil.
In 1978, Andujar published three books, including Amazonia—its title designed as two words: Ama (“love”) and Zonia—with her ex-husband Leary Love. Much of the work appears in color and was rephotographed by Andujar to abstract it farther. Infrared seems to set the world afire, and represents the destruction of the photographic image, as well. The margins and ends of film are included; text is not. Andujar’s intent was to call attention to both the reality and her reconstruction of it.
She received readmittance to Yanomami lands in August 1978. The photographer who was expelled from Yanomami territory in 1977 returned as an activist. Her photography became a tool in the fight. The Yanomami also began to see Andujar’s work as an instrument of empowerment, and one through which the world might come to know them. Her first book on the community, Yanomami: Frente o Eterno, was published November 1978. It was dedicated to the memory of her father.
In the 1980s, more than 40,000 illegal gold miners invaded Yanomami territory, and 15 to 20 percent of the population was lost to disease. From 1980–81, Andujar traveled with CCPY and with the participation of doctors, Médecins du Monde, and other NGOs to help oversee the administering of vaccines, to train the Yanomami to act as their own health agents, and to push for Yanomami autonomy. Said Andujar, “We arrived in January 1981. Three habitation out of eight were empty.” There were no doctors or emergency services in reach. “Entire villages became ill and were found dead.”
She traveled through Yanomami territory, detailing in nearly 220 pages medical records; testimony from priests and healthcare workers; and the catastrophe contact had wrought on the Yanomami. Andujar photographed the individuals with numbers: Yanomami names change over time and were never spoken in front of the person. The images, many of them 3 inches by 4 inches, were initially made with the jungle as backdrop, then systematized with consistent backgrounds. They were intended as part of a vaccination campaign and to be used for health records and identity cards—to save lives.
They eventually evolved into a collective body of images: Marcados. There are numerous single portraits of subjects with number tags around their neck. Their gaze is at ease and connected, if not sometimes amused. Some wear display tribal markings and beads. A few laugh. In 17, a young child reaches up to the naked torso of a Yanomami woman. Striations of flared film frame the eyes of subject 66, leaving them abstracted and haunting, as her baby cries beneath. Some have numbers written onto their skin. Other Marcados are more ominous: The body and/or number is illuminated, but a dark shadow descends across the subject’s face like an executioner’s hood.
Marcados’ most powerful images are rife with ambiguous visual metaphors. Double-exposed portraits are situated amid a tangle of fragmented bodies and earth. Some seem to reflect hovering spirits, or appear as if an epitaph. In one, 29, a young person is eclipsed—buried—by the leaves and terrain. Their head appears in one frame, and their body in yet another. Twenty-six is a multiple-exposure, a sort of triptych: To the left, a man in a workers-type pith helmet and Western T-shirt and shorts (with a partially visible man in Western attire crouching before him) addresses a group of Yanomami. Superimposed over a dark panel just right of center frame is the face of an adult male wearing a wooden number tag, 26; visible beneath, in the panel to the right, a mother holds her child close to her breast, her hand wrapped around his head as though shielding him from an unseen threat. To the right of her, young Yanomami crouch and laugh. A group of Yanomami share another triptych with a child in medium shot superimposed with 68, while a flare in the film shoots upward from his face like a flame. A dark center panel extends vertically from top to bottom, followed by earth, and a child’s partially obscured face. The photo is wide-open to interpretation. To the Yanomami, the earth is life-giving; to an outsider, the barren dirt is suggestive of death. The specter of death hangs over subsequent multiple-exposure images, with hands seeming to clasp a bottle of medicine, floating eyes, and feet sprinkled with earth. In another image, multiple panels reveal bodies entangled in earth, and a boy with 52 superimposed. Another image more directly deals with the threat of Western contamination, with open cartons strewn before the gathered Yanomami.
In a multiple exposure with 15, a hand holding a medicine bottle-type object is flush left with the frame, while the face of a young boy in the center seems to dissolve into another with tribal markings and quills surrounding his mouth, giving him a catlike appearance. The boy’s arm disappears into the forest frame right, representing both the Yanomami oneness with the forest, and the threat posed to them. In the extensive catalog for the exhibit, this image is juxtaposed, chillingly, with another image with 15, with a similarly positioned, though more transparent subject, who seems to deliquesce into the earth, the number 15 appearing as though a grave marker. The disquieting Marcados seem to emphasize the anonymity of the Yanomami in the eyes of the outsider and also to portend the community’s future, to give us a sense of simultaneously looking back and forward.
Similarly, Marcados, of all Andujar’s work, most closely depicts the connection between the artist’s past and the Yamomami’s destiny. Years later when Andujar looked back at the numbered images, they recalled to her the tattooed numbers of the Holocaust. The Yanomami, too, were a marked people. Said Andujar, “It is that ambiguous sentiment that leads me, 60 years later, to transform the simple registry of the Yanomami into the condition of ‘people’—marked to live—in a work that questions the method of labeling beings for diverse ends.” In total, she made approximately 1,000 of these portraits.
Andujar harnessed CCPY and the entirety of her archive to create, in 1989, Genocídio do Yanomami: Morte do Brasil (“Genocide of the Yanomami: Death of Brazil”), to protest the demarcation of indigenous land into discrete parcels that would in effect contain and “suffocate” the nomadic Yanomami. A powerful wraparound multiscreen audiovisual installation relying on multiple projects and mirrors, Genocido recreates the Yanomami universe to immerse you within it visually and aurally, and at the center of the confrontation between the Yanomami and the greed of the industrial world. The installation, which concludes the Fondation Cartier exhibit, repurposes thousands of Andujar’s images—earlier and later pictures, Marcados, landscapes, and reahu trances—rephotographed with color film and filters and increased grain and contrast. The soundtrack includes Yanomami chants, Japanese instrumentals, and compositions by musicians Steve Reich and Glen Velez. Series of images build, from striking landscapes and scenes of daily life set amid the forest or yano to the reahu to the Yanomami’s encounter with the West, when puckish faces give way to sadness; dense forest becomes barren earth; and rich community life evolves into isolated individuals, cigarettes, porn, and impoverishment. Andujar continues with her manipulation of metaphors, particularly with her Marcados: The Yanomami are a marked people; their days are numbered. Dark shadows envelop their faces. Gorgeous bare faces are buried beneath makeup. A woman in lipstick and carefully applied eyeliner appears in closeup, her eyebrows heavily tweezed. A young child, 23, has a squiggle on his face that appears like a question mark. Later, Andujar intercuts images with headlines and words cut from newspapers: Marcados para morrer: “Marked for death.” As Genocido ends, Morrer repeats several times across the screens.
In the early 1990s, Andujar and Kopenawa crossed the world for international support, even appearing before the United Nations, and after a long battle, Yanomami territory received demarcation from the Brazilian government in 1992. But the spread of disease there continued, and opportunists and illegal invaders increased. Sixteen Yanomami were killed by garimpeiros in 1993, in what became known as the Haximu massacre, considered a genocide. In late August 2012, a Yanomami village of 80 people in Amazonas, Venezuela, was firebombed from the air by garimpeiros from neighboring Brazil, who flew over in a helicopter, opening fire and dropping explosives. They poisoned the rivers with mercury.
In the 2000s, Andujar concentrated on visibility for the Yanomami and often returned to her archive to repurpose her art, particularly as political statement. In 2004, at 73 years old, the artist got her first gallery. There were also several awards. She received a Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize for her Yanomami images and aid in 2004. In 2008, Andujar was awarded the Brazilian Ordem do Mérito Cultural. She received a Goethe Medal, for outstanding service in international cultural relations, in 2018.
In 2020, the Brazilian government continues to take an increasingly militaristic stance toward the indigenous. An influx of Venezuelan refugees has heightened the peril for the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples along the border. Insatiable capitalism threatens to consume the jungle. Younger indigenous people have begun coveting mobile phones.
At the time of writing, Brazil has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the world. A disease for which there are now no vaccines is bearing down upon the Yanomami, who have been infected by healthcare workers as well as by the illegal miners, who currently number more than 20,000 to the Yanomami’s approximately 27,000. On June 9, National Geographic reported that the deaths of indigenous peoples due to COVID-19 were at least double that of average Brazilians’. Treatment has been hampered by government infighting, negligence, confusion, and geography. Community patriarchs have been lost. For the indigenous, it is said, “losing an elder is like burning a library.”
According to the World Economic Organization, an estimated 90 percent of the original inhabitants of the Americas died simply as a result of European colonization. The Yanomami, a previously uncontacted culture, now faces extinction. So does the Amazon. Noted Albert, “Rainforest destruction throughout the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated, with deforestation alerts for the first three months of 2020 increasing 51 percent over the same period last year.”“Our president pretends that we are useless, that we have too much land, that we are not enough to deserve to live on our territory…and it enrages me,” said Kopenawa.
Andujar is now 89. She has made more than 40,000 images of the Yanomami. The imaging/imagining of indigenous people, of any marginal community, especially by an outsider, can highlight the inherent imbalance of power between the maker and the subject, and the subject and the Westerner viewer—who is often both part of the problem but also a possible solution. It’s a constant dance, and negotiating the space between ethnography, insight, and art, a space in which power has been traditionally held unequally, can be a balancing act without balance and a debate without answer. The one who possesses the camera, whether insider or outsider, will always wield greater might. Included with Andujar’s images are videos of little-seen reahu ceremonies by Yanomami director Morzaniel Iramari that collected substantial crowds. They could feel simultaneously fascinating and uncomfortable for a Western viewer, who can never fully, and perhaps only intellectually, step inside the experience, and is condemned to be a perpetual spectator or voyeur.
The videos were also reminders of the challenges imagemakers, even ones as intimate as Iramari and Andujar, face to transcend more-literal leaning mediums like film and video to capture and convey the multidimensionality, spirituality, and intricate belief system of the Yanomami, and in particular their shamanism—to transport the viewer into a realm (an astral plane, even) that exists entirely beyond one’s own. Western words can also fall short when sharing the content or the depth of the experience beyond the descriptive—a naked man writhes on the ground…another foams at the mouth…—without sounding patronizing or exoticizing and/or falling back on colonial constructs. Even “indigenous people” has colonial origins.
I return to the power of Andujar’s more metaphoric work and her installation Genocido, in which she lets go of a strict reality in favor of an immersive, interpretive experience—and one that is both true to the Yanomami yet uniquely her own. Poetry can often transport us to a place mere recording cannot. It’s here where Andujar’s images succeed, and in locating the sweet spot between documentation, art, the aesthetic, and the experiential.
Andujar was able to step inside the Yanomami world as an artist and as a survivor, while at the same time consciously brokering and mediating on their behalf through her position as a white outsider. The inherent asymmetry in the relationship was countered by her sustained engagement, integrity, and advocacy on their behalf. She urged the Yanomami to share their images to gain respect: “If I show people your picture, they’ll respect you a little.” Said Kopenawa, “Claudia came to warn us so that I can learn to defend myself.” She showed the Yanomami how to fight foreigners and politicians, not only on a local level but internationally. She succeeded in securing land for the Yanomami, and along with it helped protect not only a people but also their habitat, its plants, and its creatures.
The Yanomami are slowly taking the helm. In 2019, the Yanomami posted a video decrying illegal mining and commercial farming on their land. In it they state: “The Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples do not live in poverty, as has also been said. Our wealth is not being able to sell the land, taking the gold. Our wealth is to live well in our land, the forest, to have clean rivers, the health of the people.” This June, the Yanomami announced the launch of campaign to expel the illegal gold miners from their land: #MinersOutCovidOut.
And what of Chagnon’s “fierce people”? They don’t appear in Andujar’s images, and it’s not clear if she witnessed them. The Yanomami in fact refer to white people as “the angry ones.” But Kopenawa and Albert’s book The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman did note revenge raids—though nothing near the extent of Chagnon’s. (The Falling Sky also captured the Yanomami sense of humor: On seeing the many white people in Brazil’s cities, Kopenawa commented, “I told myself they must never stop copulating to be so numerous and this was probably why they must be coming to live in our forest.”)
Andujar said that the Yanomami never entirely understood photography, which was said to steal a person’s soul. If a person died, everything connected to their lives, all of their belongings, were destroyed and their images were burned. Noted the catalog: “Andujar’s portraits have been spared destruction because the Yanomami have agreed to their circulation, in order to make themselves and their plight known to the outside world.” The outsider/insider debate will remain—but so will Andujar’s images and the memory of the Yanomami.
Memory and bearing witness are intrinsic to the Jewish people, most especially to those who survived the Holocaust. The concepts are deeply woven into Jewish ritual and prayer. “May their memory be a blessing,” is a phrase said by Jews upon mention of the dead. For Andujar, for the Jewish people—for the Yanomami—the past is always present.
Andujar’s lush images indelibly preserve the memory of a people and their paradise—yet are also evidence of our complicity in their destruction. Said Andujar: “Why must I think that the images captured and reproduced in this book will only exist in my memory and in that of the few who will see them in print? Why are their cultural values dying in contact with our civilization? All of us are responsible for this fact. My work is good, but it’s not enough. All of us have to do more than appreciate it and put it away on a shelf.”
“Claudia Andujar came to Brazil, passed through Sao Paulo, then Brasilia, then Boa Vista, and then to the Yanomami lands….” said Kopenawa, now known as “the Dalai Lama of the rainforest.” “She explained things to me like my own mother would. I did not know how to fight against politicians, against the non-indigenous people…. It is very important for all of you to see the work she did. There are many photos of Yanomami who have already died, but these photos are important for you to get to know and to respect my people. Those who do not know the Yanomami will know them through these images. My people are in them. You have never visited them, but their images are here.” And in those images, the Yanomami would also say, live their souls.
Yanomami director Mariana Lacerda’s documentary Gyuri, featuring Andujar, also accompanies the Fondation Cartier exhibit. Its title is the name of the Jewish boy with whom the young Andujar was in love and with whom she shared her first kiss, before he disappeared in Auschwitz. “The first kiss was the last,” said Andujar. In a thimble-size locket never far from her, Andujar carries a small fading image of Gyuri, along with one of her father. “There are things I keep safe,” she said. Those “things,” notably, are photographs.
In the documentary, an octogenarian Andujar visits the Yanomami and reunites with Kopenawa, who refers to her as their mother. She is transported through the jungle in a wheelchair, facilitated by her longtime ally and friend Zacquini. At the end of her stay, she partakes in an emotional group photo and with Zacquini she returns to the small plane that carried them across the jungle and that will return them home. Inside, the air hangs heavy, despite the seeming weightlessness of the plane. The moment is a reminder of mortality—both the Yanomami’s and Andujar’s. She must realize her goodbye might be a final one, much as it once was to her father.
The view outside the plane’s window, high above the Amazon, recalls the aerial images of Andujar’s and of Leary Love’s. It abstracts the Yanomami world below, as well as gives us a sense of its vastness. It’s a reminder, too, that it’s a world that can never be fully seen or revealed. Andujar and Zaquini sit silently for endless minutes, until the film’s final image, suspended above the sprawling rainforest: between the technological world of the plane and the natural world of the Yanomami, between the heavens and the Earth—and with the spirits.