“390 billion trees: almost fifty times the human population,” says the introduction to Italian photographer Tommaso Protti’s book on Amazonia. Rather than focus on the lush or ravaged jungle, Protti investigates the social aspects of the rainforest. Based in Brazil for the past six years, in 2019 he received a production grant from the Carmignac Foundation to continue his portrait of the modern Amazon region.
“Before I went there, I held a lot of stereotypes about the region—the wilderness, the isolated indigenous communities—but the reality was quite different. By working in the field, I wanted to set aside traditional representations and make a portrait of contemporary Amazonia,” he explained. With every news story he produced, often collaborating with the journalist Sam Cowie, Protti realized that humanitarian distress was at very the heart of the environmental crisis afflicting the region. “I focused on the urban areas of the Amazon to thread together an untold story.”
The vicious circle of destruction
Urban explosion is pushing against the boundaries of the forest as the social crisis deepens. Residents who used to make a living from fishing or gathering can no longer make ends meet because of pollution, illegal deforestation, and violence that spreads with impunity. “Only 10 percent of all murders are brought to justice,” stated Pratt. Backed into a corner, many flee to the cities, which are increasingly impinging on the rainforest. “The destruction is the result of several factors: violence, greed, the government, and self-interest,” commented Protti.
This somber aspect of the Amazonian reality is reflected in the photographer’s intense black-and-white images, as if the scenes he photographed were plunged in eternal darkness. Burned or razed to the ground, the forest has been knocked down. And so have the people, murdered or driven to despair. Protti’s portrait of the Amazon, however, is far from Manichean: luminous, proud, determined faces punctuate the series, never giving way to stereotypes.
Posing in the comfort of her room decorated with touching naïveté, a twenty-year-old woman recalls having moved to the mining town of Crepurizão, Pará, to make a living as a prostitute. Within six months, she had put aside enough money to buy an apartment in Manaus. Protti captures this sort of permanent entanglement of joy and violence. “The situation in the Amazon is the same as in the rest of the country,” he explains, comparing the suburbs of Manaus, the largest city in the region, to the favelas of São Paulo, where he normally works. “We are facing a social crisis. And we won’t solve the environmental crisis without solving the social one first.”
The viewer as an activist
Protti doesn’t see himself as an activist. “I’m an observer; it is up to those who come and look at these images to make up their minds and take action,” he modestly suggests. On the one hand, there is the worldwide conviction that the Amazon must be preserved. On the other, the Brazilian government maintains that the Amazon must be open to development, which means harnessing its natural resources to get the country out of economic stagnation and social crisis. “Faced with a humanitarian emergency, food shortage, and poor living conditions, the forest is seen as a barrier, an obstacle,” Protti explained. With the global cocaine and beef consumption growing exponentially, Brazil sees the exploitation of the forest as the answer to its economic slump.
“The government was advocating progress in the exact same terms already in the 1960s. And although we can see today that it doesn’t work, that people’s living conditions haven’t improved, we carry on. We must think about collectively saving the forest, or else we have to take responsibility for its fate,” added Protti.
In the end, “What is progress? Is it legitimate to impose it? These questions have never been raised,” he noted. “The indigenous people, even if they have TV sets, have no fascination with the modern lifestyle. They watch television, wear modern clothes, and can be bribed with motorcycles,” he explained, “but they are attached to their traditions.” In Protti’s images, the two realities coexist: two women are seen exchanging a passionate kiss in front of a poster of Jim Morrison—a critic of capitalism who was fascinated by crime and disorder. What kind of society, what kind of future do we want? This is the question Protti is asking us between the lines.
By Laurence Cornet