Felipe Jácome’s Portraits of Activist Ecuadorians in the Amazon

January 14, 2015

By Brienne Walsh

For the indigenous women of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, the fight to protect the environment is not motivated by idealism. Rather, it is a matter of life and death. Their ancestral lands are in danger of being destroyed by state-run oil companies. After a proposed international effort to raise money to protect the lands was deemed a failure, the oil companies were given permission to drill by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. In the process of building an infrastructure for drilling, these companies have already polluted the air and water and introduced new diseases to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. (For example, 2.5 acres of land in the Yasuni National Park, one of the regions slated for extraction, is estimated to have more species of flora and fauna than the United States and Canada combined.)

“I fight for my kids so they don’t have to suffer, so that their land continues to be fertile and free of pollution, so that our rivers continue to be clean so they can drink clean water,” inscribed Hueiya, a member of the Waorani community in the Yasuni, underneath a portrait taken of her by documentary photographer Felipe Jácome for his series “Amazonas: Guardians of Life.” “I fight for all children who are yet to be born on this earth.”

“These women are literally willing to die fighting for their cause,” Jácome explained via Skype from Lebanon, where he now lives. A peripatetic soul, Jácome travels around the world to document human rights issues. He has documented the dire conditions of migrant workers in Mexico and the lives of sexual abuse victims in Haiti. A native Ecuadorian educated at Johns Hopkins University, he first learned about the Amazonas while on a trip to Quito, where he was raised. The project was inspired by a compelling news report about 300 women from seven indigenous tribes who embarked on a protest march from the Amazon to Quito, which at an elevation of 9,350 feet is the highest capital city in the world. The women came with very little food or money, carrying their children, often sick from environment-related illnesses, Jácome recalls. They did so without men because, as they told Jácome, “[men] are easily bought off for a bottle of whiskey and some prostitutes.” “They were elegant, articulate, very stoic, very proud,” he says. “I wanted to capture their eyes and the strength of their faces.”

On January 14, four months after the march was over, he began contacting some of the women using the help of NGOs that worked with them. Because many of the women live deep in the jungle, he partnered with Acción Ecológica to apply for a $5,000 grant to hire charter flights to three villages. He met with the women in the community centers where they held their assemblies. At first, they were hesitant to trust him, but after seeing a similar series he did on Haitian rape survivors, they better understood his project. If they agreed to participate, he took tightly cropped black-and-white shots of the women’s faces using his DSLR in the leafy shaded areas next to the community center. He took care to focus on their faces because he didn’t want the portraits to be about the women’s ceremonial dresses or their jewelry. “I did not want to participate in the folklorization of indigenous peoples,” he explains.

Jácome printed the images using a portable printer and asked his subjects to paint around the border with the natural dyes they use to paint their faces. Finally, he asked them to write an answer to the question, “Why are you fighting to defend the jungle?” beneath the photograph. If they were illiterate, friends or neighbors did the writing for them. Overall, the photographs took just five days to shoot, but the planning took more than six months.

In collaborating with the women, Jácome hoped to create documents that won’t get lost in a world full of billions of images. “Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in Latin America, I am part of a generation that is very conscious about the need to document in order to learn from our dark past, to establish what happened, the truth, so we can move towards reconciliation and beyond,” he explains. By not only taking portraits, but also using words inscribed directly from the hands of the women, he hopes to set his images apart. “The moment these women inscribed their testimonies, it stopped being about me, and became about them,” Jácome says. The women, he says, are “extremely aware that the photos are a step in the vindication of their struggle.”

Although President Correa has refused to meet with the women, many of them recently returned to Quito on the one-year anniversary of the march to explain their ongoing resistance at universities and in public forums. Concurrently, Jácome’s images were published in a three-page spread in El Comercio, the country’s largest newspaper. The series was also used by the San Francisco-based NGO Amazon Watch to highlight the plight of the Amazonas. They showed the images at a panel discussion, “Women Leading Solutions on the Frontlines of Climate Change,” organized by The Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network during Climate Week in New York City. The images continue to be used in Ecuador to raise money and awareness for the movement to defend the indigenous people and their lands, including at Simón Bolívar University in Quito, as part of an exhibition on the environmental situation in Ecuador.

As happy as Jácome is that the works have been widely shown, what he’s most excited about is the idea that they might inspire other photographers. “Now more than ever, photographers need to find a way to create documents that won’t get lost in the insurmountable noise of modernity.”

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