Tommaso Protti – Terra Vermelha


KAYAPO INDIGENOUS LAND, BRAZIL – JUNE 24, 2019: Kayapo indigenous children play at night in the Kubenkrãnken village, southern Pará state. The Kayapo have only been in contact with non-indigenous society since the 1960s. Their land serves as a crucial barrier to deforestation advancing from the south.


I had to take a bit of time to digest this book. I remember receiving it before the end of the year and being genuinely overwhelmed with it for a few different reasons that I will outline here. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed first stemmed from the photographs being of an excellent quality, but that if I were to have to put them into a genre of sorts, it would be photojournalistic, a genre that I have some interest in, but am still learning how the genre becomes formatted in a photobook and for what audience the intention to do so lies. I have this question with a number of Magnum photographer’s books that I cross. I understand the background of the agency and its purpose to a degree, but wonder if, like many of the photobooks produced today, most are intended for the privileged photobook audience, of which I am certainly a part, and not those found within the photographs. With that in mind, I wonder what codes still exist for agencies like Magnum that relate directly to photojournalism and how that is aided or is compromised by producing such books. With Terra Vermelha, the new book by Tommaso Protti, similar questions arose on impact of opening the book.


Terra Vermelha is a big book of photographs, perhaps too big. Many of the images feel strained in their full bleed capacity. They feel larger than life and at the nexus where the image of something important is overshadowed by design choices. There is also quite a bit of repetition implicit in the edit. If we are thinking about the story of Brazil and its current problems of ecocide, right-wing (when it was made) conservative governments, and its continued issues with poverty and crime, then it seems pertinent to discuss when images should be monumentalized and discuss whether or not their containment within a border might ask the viewer to ruminate more whole-heartedly over their nature than viewing the image bleeding off in every direction possible. In fairness, not all of the images are full bleed and there are specific subsections of the sequence that allow for this contemplation, specifically in regards to dead bodies that the photographer, traversing the night, like an Italian Weegee in an environment not his own, stumbles across. I find these images particularly difficult as on one hand, they suggest a reverence for the truncated human life in front of the lens by way of page layout, and on the other, built in their repetition, act as a battering ram without context, suggesting that we, the reader must confront the very real problems of violence in Brazil, but are left without any information to understand more about the severity of the issue. As if to say, “We finally have a dead body, let alone several, to be edgy with.” Its could be argued this passage is insensitive and ill-thought-through and that generally speaking, this is not a book with an actual narrative at its heart, but rather a way in which to flex a bougie edge lord branding exercise.  This is one of my biggest criticisms of the book and its design.


JAMANXIM NATIONAL FOREST, BRAZIL – AUGUST 11, 2020: Destroyed vegetation and burned fields in the Jamaxim National forest, a protected reserve of more than 1.3 million hectares (3 million acres) that is one of the most devastated in Brazil. The Jamanxim National Forest was one of the areas affected by the ‘Fire Day’ last August, when the number of fires tripled in the region. Most of the fires are agricultural, either smallholders burning stubble after harvest, or farmers clearing forest for cropland. Illegal land-grabbers also destroy trees so they can raise the value of the property they seize.


With everything that has been happening with multinational mining and deforestation, as well as Bolsonaro’s reign, we are left with little to no context about what permeates the photographs, thus creating a real issue of how art book publishers handle photojournalism and try to repurpose the fundamental drive of such work to inform, by instead abstracting it. Though there is a pretty great essay by the artist, with a book this book, I expect more. I expect some amount of context outside of auto-biography to pull the subject matter toward a logical and informative conclusion. Yet, I am denied this until the end of the book, which plays out in semi-comical fashion with sensational type and tabloid style press slugs/headlines. This diminishes the images in the book greatly. One could make the argument that this handling of context is meant to be a play on media, on the sensational handling of such important matters, but as a design device, it falls flat and only adds to the insincerity of the lives in the photographs. I believe it is a crucial design misstep in a book that could have otherwise raised more awareness to Brazil, its deforestation, and the plight of its indigenous community. The photographs themselves have the capacity to be activated in a manner that would aid in this dissemination of information, but here, and for the sake of a book design befitting an art community, the cross-purposing fails.


It is a hugely problematic issue here and a bit of a fail for me, no matter how much I would otherwise have loved the design, which is an extension of ground already covered in Void’s excellent book 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes where it worked to great effect. Except here, the needed information is shoehorned into the back, with tabloid-style headlines do little to actually inform or do anything approaching journalism. Instead, we are left with some kind of design porn that limits the people and victims in the book into simple spectacle. I believe the design is not in the service of the subject matter and might even call into question the problems associated with class between the subjects in the book and the market and ultimately the designer’s handling of the material. Whereas I can observe Protti as an outsider looking in, and with all of the problems associated with that position,  the question of the design class to subject class is an important one as it is coming from another Brazilian designer and publisher in Mr. Linneu of VOID, whose criticality one would expect more from given it is his native homeland held to the candle. It puts into questions the very fundamental nature of the problem, namely that the book itself is not thinking of the sensitive subject matter, but is instead, courting the audience and design-pornography by proxy.


LABREA, BRAZIL – JUNE 09, 2022: The stilt houses neighborhood in Labrea on the Purus River, Amazonas state. The neighborhood marks the end of the Transamazonian Highway.


It is of pressing importance to also think about how the mechanical editing and a sequencing of a book plays with ethical responsibility. There are a number of books that this book lies slightly adjacent, in particular, Antoine D’Ágata’s Codex and Mala Noche. I could also suggest Thiago Dezan’s When I Hear That trumpet Sound mixed with Alex Majoli’s palette, if not artificial nature of photographing. Whereas, I do not want to dwell too long with those comparisons, I am left with the fundamental question as to who Terra Vermelha might be for in this format. The images within showcase the devastating effects of environmental pollution, deforestation and poverty. It is published by an art book publisher who often seeks out projects that cater to their own vision, at times at the cost of the individual voice that they are working with, which is discussed in terms of collaboration. One could argue that it is instead, overreach. This is a bigger issue to speak on when considering the photobook as a medium, with artistic subjectivity at the very base of its expression. It calls into question where borders should be outlined between designers, publishers, and the artist, who is often told the collaboration will be part of the experience, then we have to questions whose subjectivity is being expressed on the canvas of the medium. When the combination of elements is working, it produces a great book in which all voices are clear. Fundamentally, I believe design should support the images and artist, not the other way around.


FORDLANDIA, BRAZIL MAY 27, 2019: Henry Ford’s abandoned rubber factory at Fordlândia, Pará state. In 1928, Henry Ford set about founding a city in the Amazon based on the American suburban model. The plan was to utilize Amazonian rubber for the growing production of his cars. From the outset the project was doomed. Workers revolted, rubber plantations failed and the project was abandoned in 1945. Ford never set foot there.


I am used to heaping quite a bit of praise on VOID’s books. I do not think I have penned a critical review in the past, but I have reservations about a few of their more recent books. One wonders about the shift in tact with the publisher and what might be compromising an otherwise exceptionally strong voice. This book, in my opinion has been, next to perhaps Tereza Zelenkova’s book, their most tone deaf book in terms of handling the work in design terms. Protti’s work deserved more coherent choices. The work itself is deep, even if I have a concern about the outsider-in position of the author. Under the right context, and under a more coherent design, this book could have taken its place next to a number of the great photjournalism books by Gilles Peress, Susan Meiselas, or Paolo Pellegrin. Instead, we are left to admire, or confront a number of design choices, where one ponders whether the collaboration was aware of how photojournalism works in the photobook form at best, and are left with concern regarding a grave insensitivity that borders on the abusive, at worst. At least their press kit has the proper attribution.



NOVO PROGRESSO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 17, 2020: Kayapo Mekragnotire Indigenous block a highway near Novo Progresso, Para state. Protesters blocked the highway BR-163 to pressure Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to better shield them from COVID-19, to extend damages payments for road construction near their land, and to consult them on a proposed railway to transport soybeans and corn.


Tomasso Protti

Terra Vermelha




Original Press Information

Winner – Carmignac Photojournalism Award 2019

‘Terra Vermelha,’ which means ‘red earth,’ opens with visions of a paradise lost. Protti’s photographs show rural areas transformed by deforestation, where land conflicts are commonplace between cattle ranchers, landless peasants, and environmental activists. The images in the book journey on to urban areas and shantytowns where Protti was given access following police operations to document the rising violence, mainly related to the drug trade. Further photographs show the hold of evangelical religion on the region, the impact of the COVID pandemic, and the construction of new towns and recently expanded cities such as Altamira, famous for both its hydro-power dam and for being Brazil’s murder capital in 2017.


The Amazon Rainforest—often referred to as ‘Lungs of our Planet—has long been idealised as a dense, green expanse and a pristine sanctuary inhabited by isolated tribes. Terra Vermelha, the culmination of 10-years’ work by photographer Tommaso Protti, presents an alternative portrait of the region. Depicting fields ablaze, the dark river as a conduit for cocaine trafficking and urban areas plagued by violence—the images in the book depict a dystopia, dispelling such romanticised notions.

“As I sat in my hotel room in Marabá, a city in the Amazon state of Parà, Jornal Nacional – Brazil’s flagship news program – transmitted images of the country’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro: “The indigenous in their reservations are like animals in a zoo,” he said. It was November 2018. […] It seemed like a threat, an omen of bad times ahead. I felt that the slow-motion social and environmental breakdown I had seen in the previous years in the Amazon was about to get worse.”

The book eschews a traditional narrative format to present a nightmarish vision of the impacts of intersecting social and environmental crises. Protti’s uncaptioned black and white images often have a sense of movement and imply events unfolding both before and after the frame. Many images were taken fleetingly at night, leading the viewer blindly around the region.

Tommaso Protti is an Italian-born photographer who has been based in Brazil for almost a decade. He has dedicated himself to long-term projects focusing on themes such as crime, the environment, and rural conflict. His work has been featured in global publications and exhibited worldwide.


“Deforestation, unregulated development, pollution. All of these scenarios are driven by the same forces: poverty, weak institutions, corruption, and savage self-interest. More than in other places, in the Amazon region it becomes clear that land is worth more than human life. And on the path towards the destruction of the planet, the first and closest step for mankind is still its own annihilation… The violence consuming the Brazilian Amazon affects us all and sometimes we are even the unknowing perpetrators of it.”

21 x 27,8 cm
224 pages
1500 copies
Softcover with dust jacket

Photograph: Tommaso Protti
Text: Tommaso Protti
Edit, Design: João Linneu, Myrto Steirou

Printing: Jelgavas tipogrāfija
Binding: Jelgavas tipogrāfija

Language: English

Font: ATF Alternate Gothic from American Type Founders Collection, Miller Text Roman by Carter & Cone

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