Notes from Anna: Brazil -- Migration, Nature, and the Documenting Lens
This week is the last in which my black-and-white headshot with the palms of Rio-de-Janeiro's Botanical Garden in the background will accompany this column. Boston photographer Mark Ostow has generously offered to take a new photo of me. Before the old one is retired, here are a few words on the forest I saw behind those palm trees. Brazil kept me in a perpetual state of arrest, by the jarring sight of the economic division among its people, set against the backdrop of their supernaturally beautiful land. Brazil's ecological challenges have everything to do with this economic strife, and the people's attempts to reach prosperity, against the odds.
Novelist Milan Kundera wrote that globalization is when, if you don't like something, you have nowhere to go, because we are all in the same boat. Kundera writes from France, his books are translated into English, and in the United States his readers, like me, chuckle, compulsively turning page after page of his novels, where, page after page, he revels in his post-modern alienation.
Days ago, a sobering e-mail arrived in my mailbox, reminding me to curb my complacent cynicism. A friend of mine, who lives in the comparatively prosperous Southern part of Brazil, wrote that she has graduated from the University of Florianópolis, and now does graphic design for a PR agency. "It's really a lot of fun, but I am dying to go to the United States, to feel more valuable as a professional," she wrote. We may all be in the same global boat, but if that's the case, that boat is surely rocking from the huge economic inequality aboard.
After my initial few months of living in São Paulo's pristine Vila Nova Conceição, I had moved to the Centro. Centro retained the turn-of-the-century charm of its buildings, but yielded its former prestige to the newer Vila Nova and Moema, becoming over-run by crime and corruption. While reading Claude Lévi-Strauss' description of my new neighborhood as it had been in its glory days of the 1930s, in his Tristes Tropiques, I was once startled by the gunshots beneath my window. The following morning, the street was bustling, as always. But there had to be a tear somewhere in the social fabric, I thought. Someone, not far from me, was bound to get enough, and would look for a way to leave -- perhaps to London, perhaps to Miami, or Boston -- or perhaps seek fortune in the Northeast and the Amazons.
Amazônas: O Povo das Aguas (The Amazons: People of the Water), a book of photographs by photojournalist Pedro Martinelli released by Terra Virgem, São Paulo, in 2000, delved into the life of the indigenous people of the Amazonian basin, and showed how the pursuit of economic opportunities by the outsiders slowly erodes their fragile niche in the world. Last November, Martinelli published a new book, Mulheres da Amazônia (Women of the Amazon), which focuses on the lives of women in the precarious world that the basin has become. Whereas Martinelli's site does not have an English section, the large photo gallery speaks for itself.
Another Brazilian, photographer Sebastião Salgado, has photographed 39 countries in 7 years, in his monumental project of documenting the human and environmental aspects of migration. Salgado's work illuminates the connection of people to their land, and what happens when that connection is severed. "My hope is that, as individuals, as groups, as societies, we can pause and reflect on the human condition at the turn of the millennium. In its rawest form, individualism remains a prescription for catastrophe. We have to create a new regimen of coexistence," says Salgado. I truly believe that Salgado is one of the most important photographers who helps us acquire a more complete vision of the world we inhabit together.
Among the recent films, Amarelo Manga (Mango Yellow) by Claudio Assis, depicts with deep humanistic passion the struggle of Brazilians to overcome economic disadvantages, as the characters of the film pursue each his own personal happiness. Most of the country's population, as justly noted by the Graffiti Networks, belongs to the underclass, whose lives are virtually unimaginable to those of us in the more economically privileged parts of the world. The film is now beginning to screen in the U.S. theaters.
After I'd sent my editor what I thought to be the final draft of this column, an e-mail arrived from Sam Nelson, at Greenbase, an environmental consulting group based in Australia. I'd like to thank Sam for his thoughts, and quote his opinion here:
"My wife and I just finished watching the 'Motorcycle Diaries' about a journey upthe length of South America taken by a youthful Che Guevara and his best mate. The idea that was transformative for the young Che was the dispossession ofpeasant farmers from their land and how this made them vulnerable toexploitation from Global Capitalism. The environment was more than a pleasantview for these people, it was their home. This sentiment should now bewidespread on our small planet as during the last twenty years the largestmigrations in human history have occurred by dispossessed country folk to thehugely swelling cities of the Third World."
As always, I invite your opinion about where and how culture bears effect on the environment, and vice versa. Please e-mail me your thoughts! Your input will be very important for the development and scope of the discussion on this page.
All my best,