“Someone once told me, following Sartre, that ‘beauty won’t save what it shows,’ but my instincts told me the whole time that it was urgent and necessary to go out and photograph. To photograph all that I could. To return and return as often as possible. Show others what my eyes had seen. To somehow create a warning, even if for history. To fight the terrifying sensation of irreversibility, of silent and unpunished crimes. And at the same time be capable of understanding motivations and giving voice to the anonymous characters of that saga.” —João Farkas
“Someone once told me, following Sartre, that ‘beauty won’t save what it shows,’ but my instincts told me the whole time that it was urgent and necessary to go out and photograph. To photograph all that I could. To return and return as often as possible. Show others what my eyes had seen. To somehow create a warning, even if for history. To fight the terrifying sensation of irreversibility, of silent and unpunished crimes. And at the same time be capable of understanding motivations and giving voice to the anonymous characters of that saga.”
It is an honor to present the work João Farkas, one of Brazil’s most renowned documentary photographers, at The Latin American Library. The Library’s Image Archive is committed to acquiring, preserving and making accessible for scholarship works by major Latin American photographers, past and present, that document transformative moments in the history of the region. Such is the case of Farkas’ remarkable series Amazônia Ocupada, which captures the human and environmental drama of Brazil’s gold rush in the 1980s and 1990s that brought so many prospectors to find their fortunes to the detriment of indigenous populations and the natural environment.
The pursuit of Amazonian riches—material, spiritual, or scientific—is not a new endeavor. It is an age-old story that began with the first European explorations of the region in the 16thcentury, initially spurred by the quest for the mythical riches of El Dorado. In addition to displaying a selection of 41 photographs by Farkas, the exhibit also weaves a complementary story tracing key aspects of Western conceptualizations of Amazonia over the last 500 years through rare books and maps from The Latin American Library’s special collections. In this way, the exhibit suggests a dialogue between Farkas’ complex vision of the 1980s-1990s gold rush and a broader historical context of varying and often destructive efforts to appropriate and master the abundant wealth of this region, often called the “lungs of the world.” In 2019, it is especially timely to recall this history as Brazilians face once again the dangers of unchecked developmental policies threatening the environment and the people of Amazonia.
This exhibition is the result of joyful collaborations and creative synergies. Christopher Dunn conceived of the project, and his enthusiasm and knowledge have been the driving force from the beginning. He and João Farkas curated the photographic portion of the exhibition. Christopher Dunn, Christine Hernández, Rachel Stein, and I explored and unearthed the Brazilian treasures of the special collections to co-curate the exhibit cases. Felipe Cruz brought his passion for technology to the mix in ways that will surely enhance the audience’s engagement with the content. And Verónica Sánchez, Madeline White, and Sara Kittleson were instrumental in all phases of production.
I am grateful for the continuing support of the Doris Stone Endowment as well as to the Stone Center for Latin American Studies who also supported this project. I would also like to thank Robert Freeland for his steadfast support of this exhibit and the Library. Finally, I am pleased to announce that The Latin American Library has acquired over 20 limited edition photographs of Farkas’ Amazônia series. Utmost thanks to João Farkas for the honor of serving as a repository of his extraordinary work and for letting us experiment with new ways of narrating his vision of Amazonia in this exhibition.
Hortensia Calvo Doris Stone Librarian and Director The Latin American Library, Tulane University
Amazônia Ocupada features the work of Brazilian photographer João Farkas, who documented the mass migration of people from throughout Brazil who came to the Amazon River basin in the 1980s and 1990s to try their luck in gold mining, logging, farming, and cattle ranching, often with devastating effects on the environment and the indigenous peoples of the region. The curators of the exhibit seek to place the photographs of João Farkas in dialogue with rare books and maps from the archives of The Latin American Library that document how the region has been imagined and “occupied” by Westerners from the 1500s to the present.
Initially known by Europeans as the Marañón, which is still the name of a large tributary in Peru, the river was renamed by Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, who completed the first recorded navigation of the entire river in 1541-42. After a group of Tapuia Indians, including a large contingent of women, attacked the expedition, Orellana renamed the river Amazonas after the tribe of female warriors from Greek mythology. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans invaded the region in search of El Dorado, a mythical city of gold and precious stones near the legendary Lake Parime, believed to be somewhere in northern Amazonia. Meanwhile, European explorers, such as French pastor Jean de Léry and German soldier Hans Staden, published widely read accounts of their travels to Brazil, featuring sensational illustrated accounts of ritual cannibalism among the Tupinambá Indians, which had a profound impact on how Europeans imagined indigenous peoples of South America. In the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the region attracted scientific expeditions to explore and document flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples. In the twentieth century, Brazilians looked to the Amazon region as a vast untapped resource of lumber, rubber, industrial minerals, farming, ranching, and energy. The authoritarian military regime (1964-1985) regarded Amazonia as central to national security and invested heavily in massive infrastructure projects, such as highways, hydroelectric dams, and telecommunication networks, designed to control and develop the region. Dispossessed Brazilians from the south and northeast migrated in droves, attracted by federal land grants and fiscal incentives offered by the government, which promoted the spurious idea that Amazonia represented “a land without men for men without land.” The discovery of gold in the late 1970s sparked the largest gold rush in history attracting over one hundred thousand migrants to the region. Indigenous communities and their allies struggled to establish indigenous reserves and limit the devastating ecological effects of unregulated development. On January 1, 2019, the presidency of Brazil was assumed by Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist who has pledged to accelerate development in Amazonia by constructing new hydroelectric dams, deregulating mining, and curtailing protections for indigenous peoples.
From 1984 to 1993, João Farkas and journalist Ricardo Lessa made nine trips to document Amazonia as it was “occupied” by gold prospectors, loggers, ranchers, and farmers from all over Brazil. Farkas took over 12,000 photos in the states of Amazonas, Pará, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, Acre, and Roraima. Amazônia Ocupada captures the violence and horror of this ongoing humanitarian and environmental crisis, but also the beauty and spirit of its protagonists.
Christopher Dunn Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Africana Studies Tulane University