The Challenges of Telling Indigenous Peoples’ Stories

To accurately portray the plight of isolated Amazon peoples, it’s vital to ‘strip away your preconceptions,’ says photojournalist Charlie Hamilton James.

One of the most challenging aspects of storytelling at National Geographic is introducing our readers to people and cultures they’ve never seen before. It’s a beautiful part of our 130-year history but also an ethical minefield: What’s our responsibility in telling the stories of those who, at least outwardly, seem so different from us? How do we cover cultures sensitively, without “exoticizing” or romanticizing what’s natural for them?

This month’s cover story, on grave threats to the indigenous people who live in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, brings this subject into high relief. Our photographer, Charlie Hamilton James, spent a month with indigenous groups such as the Awá and Guajajara people; overall, he has spent a year and a half in the Amazon. We talked about the challenges and responsibilities of taking photos in this setting.

Hamilton James: You can go in with two mind-sets: You can go in to show how different people are, or you can go in to show how similar we all are. If you go in to show how different we are, what you tend to show is exaggerated bits of the culture, and you can see that in the imagery—it exoticizes people, it romanticizes them. My interest is in photographing some fellow human beings, and I’m really interested in how similar we all are. I just want to show people living as people live, in the most honest way I can.

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