Photography

Photographer Claudia Andujar: a Life Dedicated to the Socially Invisible

Discover the work of this 90-year-old Swiss-Brazilian creator and activist, defender of the indigenous cause

Half a century ago, when Claudia Andujar first visited the great land of the Yanomami, a territory larger than Portugal, situated on the extreme North of Brazil, and inhabited by around 30,000 souls, this ancient civilization was living in isolation, leading existences embedded in tradition.

Over the next few decades, she was able to document what assimilation had meant to the villages of the forest—illegal mining of metals, land-grabbing, loss of traditions and landmarks, illness, and misery.

During the most critical moments of the aggressive developmentalism by the military dictatorship and the failing democratization at the end of the 1980s, the Swiss photographer, with Brazilian naturalization, captured the accelerated transformation that impacted the surviving people who originally inhabited the country.

Photographer Claudia Andujar: a Life Dedicated to the Socially Invisible 1
Claudia first arrived in Brazil in 1955. Photo by Lew Parrella, 1961/Acervo Claudia Andujar through IMS.

This record is the main idea behind the biggest exhibition put together so far about the trajectory of the photographer, artist, and activist, who will be 90 soon. The exhibition has been organized by the Centro de Fotografía KBr, part of the prestigious Fundación Mapfre, in Barcelona, in collaboration with Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), in Brazil, and commissioned by Thyago Nogueira, the contemporary photography coordinator at IMS.

The exhibition includes an extensive selection of photographs (around 300) focusing on her proximity with the Yanomamis, audiovisual installations, and drawings created by indigenous people. The curator selected the work after researching Andujar’s archives over the last four years.

"I am connected to the indigenous people, with their land, and to this important fight. All this deeply moves me. And I deem it necessary. Perhaps I was always searching for a reason to live in this essential way. I came to the Amazons for this reason, instinctively, as I was looking for myself."
- Claudia Andujar
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Young Yanomami Susi Korihana, in 1972. © Claudia Andujar.
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Naki uxima and Marokoi Wapokohipi thëri dancing and singing. Catrimani, Roraima, 1974. © Claudia Andujar

Born in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel on June 22, 1931, with the name of Claudine Haas, she experienced the same violence directed to the different as a child. Her Jewish paternal family was decimated in the nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. She was able to escape to the United States with her Protestant mother, where she adopted the name of Claudia, graduated in arts, and worked as a guide at the recently created UN building in New York.

In 1955, she went to Brazil for the first time. She decided to settle in São Paulo and devote her new profession to photographing the oppressed populations and the socially invisible.

In the 1960s she published a series about the collateral victims of the so-called Brazilian miracle, a period of economic growth under the military regime that left myriads destitute in its path. She managed to capture the images of the northeastern populations emigrating to the center-south of Brazil. She photographed those who would have to return when they did not find the opportunities they sought, the broken families, and the marginalized. Her photos appeared on the pages of renowned publications, such as Life, Aperture, and Realidade.

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Photo from the series "É o trem do diabo",published by "Realidade" in 1969. © Claudia Andujar.

In 1971, however, her career reached a critical point and this sealed the moment she was forever connected with the indigenous cause. Of her own accord, she visited the land of the Yanomamis, to which she returned many times in the following years.

Filled with an anthropological vision and deep respect for the people she was getting to know, she earned their trust. She spent a long time among them, documenting their traditions, religious beliefs, and vision of the world in depth.

She did this in highly experimental infrared and double exposure techniques, among many others. She made the most of the spectacular Amazonian light to create dream-like images, moving away from the documentary style trending at the time.

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Yanomamis burn down their homes when they emigrate, when a leader dies, or in a plague. © Claudia Andujar (1972-1976).
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Funeral ceremony photographed in 1976 using an infrared technique. © Claudia Andujar.

The inside of the yanos, the enormous collective homes of the Yanomami tribes, are the setting of innumerable photographs taken by Claudia Andujar.

In one of the notes accompanying the exhibition, which will move from Barcelona to London, and later to Winterthur, in Switzerland, the photographer explained:

"During the night, the yano is like the uterus of an expecting woman, warm and safe. It is like a rounded hand, encircling life. Outside is darkness, cold, and danger. On the inside, however, the community is protected by the campfire, and the environment is welcoming."
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Indigenous home and forest, photographed in 1976 using an infrared technique. © Claudia Andujar.

The construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, a project that was never completed and aimed to cross the forest, left a massive scar in the land and thousands of original inhabitants homeless. It also caught Claudia's attention.

Her photograph of indigenous people working on the construction sites wearing the contractor's clothes and helmet convey a true feeling of displacement.

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Indigenous worker during a road construction in the Amazon, 1975. © Claudia Andujar.

Claudia Andujar saw and told the world how this ethnic group was being rapidly impoverished and how it had been denied a protected area until 1992.

A few years ago, while editing a series of photographs she had taken during a vaccination campaign for the Yanomamis, she noticed that the children were being identified through numbered badges, a record of state bureaucracy that was a chilling reminder of her early childhood years.

Claudia realized a similarity between these badges and the triangle badges her Jewish ancestors had to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe and the concentration camps.

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Double-exposure photos from the series 'Branded', created in 1983. © Claudia Andujar.

"The only difference is that the Yanomamis were branded so they could survive. This ambivalent feeling was what brought me, 60 years after (World War II) to create something that would question this practice of labeling people in this way," claims Claudia, summing up how the 'Branded' series came to be, one of many series that the artist—acknowledged in 2000 with the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award in Los Angeles—dedicated to the indigenous people she made her raison d'etre.

English version by @acesarato.

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