South America’s Amazonia Blurs the Present and the Past

Tracing the route of a 16th-century expedition, a photographer finds that in the jungle today, tribal myths coexist with modernity.

This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Noble savages, lost cities, pristine wilderness—Amazonia has always conjured romantic myths and stereotypes. But what is the jungle really like in the 21st century? In 2011 I set out to find the answer.

My interest actually began in 2008, when I was working with an indigenous community to reforest a patch of northeastern Brazil. The youngsters in the village liked to talk about the purity of tribal life, but it was a borrowed nostalgia. Like most kids their age, they danced, drank, and played soccer. One evening they refused to take me to a party; I wasn’t dressed well enough. At that moment I realized how much our perceptions and projections can differ from reality.

After that I started to read books about Amazonia. One of them was an account of the Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana’s voyage down the Amazon River in the 1540s—the first European exploration of the region (but not, of course, the last). I decided to follow in the footsteps of that expedition, to see what the route is like today.

Starting in the Ecuadorian Andes, I slowly made my way downriver. For six weeks I traveled through the Peruvian Amazon on a medical boat from Peru’s navy. I arrived in Colombia, and finally Brazil, where I picked up the Trans-Amazon Highway. Access was often tricky, and usually expensive. I did a lot of research just to find routes that would work.

As I traveled, I photographed staged scenes of the people and places I encountered. I didn’t look for unspoiled nature or uncontacted tribes; I collaborated directly with local communities. In one of them, in Brazil, I shot a video clip for some indigenous rappers. Later I went back to their village and led a one-month video workshop. Good relationships with local people help me create meaningful work.

I hope this project reveals how ambiguous and complicated modern Amazonia really is. Many people there today aren’t indigenous; they’re there for economic reasons. Not all of them are against development. Once you have some comfort, it’s hard to go backward.

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