the art of encounter and photography as a social purpose
an article by Leonardo Carrato
Urihi-a from the series The House (1976) ©Claudia Andujar
I have to say that I was looking forward to meeting Claudia Andujar. As I waited for the appointment, my hands were sweating, and with elevated concentration, my senses could notice everything around me. She is one of those people, one of the biggest references, that you always dream of meeting in person, but there is also a certain conformism in case it doesn't happen. An encounter of generations that use photography as a tool to understand an immense and complex Brazil. Claudia welcomed us to her apartment, on Avenida Paulista, the main avenue in the city of São Paulo. In her living room with large windows, it was possible to feel exactly the city's typical cloudy Friday afternoon in late August. For almost two hours, we went from Transylvania to the Amazon, with serene pauses where Claudia seemed to explore her memory, searching for everything she experienced and felt along her odyssey under the sky.
Born in 1931 in Switzerland, just like her mother Germaine Guye, Claudine Hass moved at a young age to Transylvania, the birthplace of her father Siegfried Haas. During World War II, he was taken to Auschwitz, where he died. Fugitives, mother and daughter returned to Switzerland. A highly tense train journey that she had to do on the quiet. “There was a time when nobody could know that I was a mixture between a Jew and a Protestant,” she confides. Her relationship with the mother was not the best. “It was complicated”. That's when an uncle, her father's brother, invited her to move to New York. “Once again, learning to live in another way”, she says, with a lot of wisdom and a slight smile. She got a job as a salesperson at Macy's during the day and studied at night. “So I didn't depend on anyone”, she says categorically. She was around 18 years old. In town, she met a refugee from Spain and ended up marrying him.
It was on American soil that she changed her name to Claudia and adopted the Spanish surname. The symbol of a new life. However, it didn't take long for fate to surprise her once again, and her husband had to leave the US. “I was alone, but I managed. I had friends, spoke English, worked, and studied. Later, I divorced from him”.
In 1955, at the age of 24, Claudia went to Brazil. “I preferred it here over New York. I got along better with the Brazilian people”. The attunement was the basis for starting a journey to meet herself and her life purpose.
“In Brazil, I started photographing. In the beginning, it was because I wanted something to express myself. A language. When I started, I was living by myself. Photography became a friend of mine. I found a way to communicate with myself”.
Even not speaking Portuguese well, she started traveling alone within Brazil. “Photography was a way to talk to someone”. And it was her friends, recognizing her good eye, who motivated her to continue with the photographic records. “Then I discovered that I could use photography for a living, to have a job. And I was invited to photograph for Realidade magazine. I became a professional photographer”, she says with joy.
In one of the magazine articles, the agenda was about the Amazon, without much focus on the indigenous people, in order not to disturb the military government at the time. But that's not what happened. The year was 1971. The first meeting with the Yanomami. "The first time I went there, they didn't know who I was and why I wanted to talk to them." She approached them in order to have a dialogue. She reveals that the first contact was not complicated. “They let me talk, get to know them. I felt comfortable. It was a very positive thing, I became their friend. In the beginning, I went there just for us to get to know each other, I didn't arrive photographing. And that was very important.” She realized that in order for both parties to build trust, it was necessary to strike up a friendship before starting to point the camera.
“I didn't speak Yanomami and they spoke very little Portuguese. But we took the time to get to know each other. First, I showed them what a camera was because they had never seen it. Slowly, I started taking pictures, but it took a while.”
In order to penetrate more deeply into Yanomami culture, Claudia did many experiments with the camera. She used Vaseline in the lenses, filters, and a variety of methods. “I wanted to go in, create intimacy, use photography for that. I wanted them to feel at ease. I didn't want to insist on things. That's why I worked with them for years,” she says.
Shamanism, one of the main interests of Yanomami cosmology for Andujar, allows for a re-encounter with the teachings of nature. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a Brazilian anthropologist, says it is a kind of cosmic diplomacy dedicated to translating ontologically heterogeneous views. And Claudia confirms it. “Knowing the meaning of shamanism was a learning experience, just like the Yanomami culture. This encouraged me to try to bring to photography what I felt as well”, says the photographer, who reached the limits of her own thinking in order to discover the Yanomami's.
Êxtase from the series Yanomami Dreams (2002-2004) ©Claudia Andujar
Yanomami from the series The House (1974) ©Claudia Andujar
Claudia's work impresses not only for its relevance with a strong social purpose but also for her numerous and different forms of visual approach over decades involved in the same subject. From superpositions in her series entitled “Yanomami Dreams”, where, according to her project description, “it was from that moment on, I managed to conceive an imagery interpretation of the rituals that gave me access to the genealogy of the people, agglutinating aspects of culture, dissolving the borders between human beings, the gods and nature continuously integrating them; to a powerful series of portraits named “Marcados”, which began with an action aimed at the health of the Yanomami, and with numbered boards identified each indigenous person assisted, thus realizing “the look is the soul of each person” says Claudia.
And so it was. In such a natural way, Claudia was not seen as a foreigner. She was accepted. “The longer I stayed, the longer I knew them. I needed to understand their culture. It was essential”, she says after a sigh followed by a distant look, one of those with no time or space.
Her work approaches avant-garde theories of understanding the other like the Amerindian Perspective of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. It also navigates between Deleuze's "plan d'immanence" and Foucault's "Penser autrement". It is an attempt to break the narcissistic mirror and to decolonize the thought.
Claudia says that she used a basic resource to capture the minds of the Yanomami: paper and coloring pens. She was interested in knowing how they perceived the world. That was the idea. “They usually drew what they wanted. I didn't say 'do this'. I was interested in knowing how they reacted”. It's no exaggeration to say how touching the lines are. The true expression of a people in their first contact with someone who was interested in perceiving them.
It was very clear to Claudia that, while it was a work of photography, it was a work of understanding the Yanomami people. “These two things are not separate,” she emphasizes. For the first time, the world had access to images of a life hitherto ignored. The forest was not empty. The miners did not invade land with no owners. The government did not open roads in the middle of the depopulated forest. There were people there. 20 thousand people, according to estimations. Yanomami people. Yanomami, in Portuguese, means human being. There were human beings in the middle of the rainforest. And the white man, or napë in the Yanomami language, brought destruction and disease to these people.
“Look, I think I was already an activist. It was part of my personality. Obviously, when I went there for the first time, I didn't know who the Yanomami were. I dedicated myself a lot to understand them as human beings. I was convinced that I could, with my work, share my vision of these people with the world. That was what really mattered to me.”
Horizontal 2 from the series Marcados (1981-1983) ©Claudia Andujar
She was interested in photographing what impressed her, what moved her, what touched her. And that's what she did. First, she stayed for a few months. Returned to São Paulo. However, the connection had been made. And the dedication to the Yanomami people took on a gigantic proportion in her life. It lasts until today.
Claudia managed to fully immerse herself in the Yanomami world without any kind of judgments or pre-established views. And she got involved in the Yanomami struggle with body and soul. She promoted exhibitions, went overseas to search for resources. Through her photography, the Yanomami issues became known. She was one of the powerful voices of the Pro-Yanomami Commission and was at the forefront of the campaign for their territory demarcation and creation of the indigenous reserve – conquered in 1992. A battle started 14 years earlier. “That's why I dedicated myself to their land, which is called demarcated. It was something very connected to my own wishes, to the meaning of life”.
Claudia is more than a pioneer in collaborative work with the Yanomami, attempting to get to know them more deeply and trying to think like them or understand how they think. She managed to go beyond the spectrum of photography. What could have been a passive record became a powerful weapon of effective action. And part of the income from her work goes to the Yanomami cause. “I have projects in which I put money at their disposal for them to be able to move on with their lives. I do that until today”. Currently, her work continues in vogue and has been exhibited in major cultural centers around the world, such as Paris and Milan, in 2020; London and Barcelona in 2021; and is currently on the walls of the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in Miami.
I wonder if Claudia would have done what she did if her early life had been different, without the tragedy that World War II caused. I feel that the void that has been so present over the years was filled when she met the Yanomami people. They became her family. I dare say that it was a meeting of souls, as indigenous people have always known, and that we, non-indigenous people, are still learning to see.
The bottom line is that this learning process is taking too long. More than four decades have passed since Claudia first set foot on Yanomami land. But the white man, in the words of Viveiros de Castro, continues in his “absurd inability to understand the rainforest”. The Yanomami continue to have problems because of illness. They continue to have problems because of invasions. They continue to have problems because of deforestation. On the day we spoke, six thousand indigenous people were camping in Brasilia, the federal capital, in the fight against bill 490, or Marco Temporal (Time Frame) – a measure that could change land demarcation rules. The most important cause of recent times, which has as one of its leaders, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. Davi, a friend of Claudia, recognizes that white people "only study their own thinking and, thus, only know what is already within themselves".
“The demarcation of their land was important, for them to be recognized as a people, for them to be able to live. I still have this perception. I do what I can. Now it's not that easy for me to go there. There are some Yanomami who come here. And I still want to defend them. Nowadays, the government has no interest in them. We try to do things for them to be more respected”, says the photographer, who is called a mother by the people who welcomed her.
Claudia Andujar on her apartment in São Paulo. Portrait by Leonardo Carrato for VII Insider
Claudia has not been to the Amazon for a few years. But she knows she will go back. “Probably,” she says. “I became known because of them. . Now, I don't know yet how this is going to proceed. But I am willing to continue fighting for them, for the Yanomami people," concludes Claudia Andujar, who is now 90 years old.
*This article would not be possible without the essential collaboration of Galeria Vermelho. I also thank my great comrade Vitor Kruter for sharing his sensitive eye and my dear mentor Stefano De Luigi for guiding me sublimely through the everyday challenges of photography.