Spotlight: New work

Tommaso Protti’s portrait of a modern Amazon

Araribóia, Brazil. Members of the Guajajara forest guard patrolling an indigenous reserve in Maranhão beat an indigenous man who they suspect is collaborating with illegal loggers. The guards conduct patrols of the indigenous reserve each month, destroying loggers’ camps and seizing equipment. Sometimes, they catch the loggers red handed, which can be dangerous as both groups are armed. In Maranhão and other Brazilian Amazon states, the vast majority of killings over land or resource conflict go unsolved. © Tommaso Protti.

Addressing a range of issues that span deforestation, drug wars, and daily life, Tommaso Protti’s investigation into the social fabric of the Brazillian Amazon wins this year’s Carmignac Photojournalism Award

The Amazon dominated the front page of almost every news outlet last month after devastating fires raged across the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Today, thousands of fires are still burning in Brazil, and deforestation is at its highest level in more than a decade. In a time when global media attention has been turned to this vast reach of land, a new photography project, actuated by the 10th Carmignac Photojournalism Award, reveals the complex social fabric of the Brazillian Amazon, documenting issues that span deforestation, the drug trade, and daily life in its urban centres.

Tommaso Protti was announced as this year’s winner at Visa Pour L’Image, where his work was first showcased. Accompanied by British journalist Sam Cowie, from January to July 2019, Protti travelled thousands of miles across the Brazilian Amazon — from the northeastern region of Maranhão to the states of Pará, Amazonas, and down to Rondônia in the west. The resulting project reveals the region’s pressing social and humanitarian crises, and their connection with the ongoing destruction of the forest.

The Amazon rainforest is losing a football pitch of forest every minute. Maranhão, Brazil, is one of the regions worst affected by forest fires and illegal logging, and has lost 75 per cent of its forest. © Tommaso Protti.

Based in São Paulo, the Italian photographer began his career in photojournalism by chance. After completing a degree in Political Science, and a thesis on the geopolitics of water in the Middle East, Protti travelled to Turkey to bear witness to the situation himself, and took along a camera with him. When he returned to Rome, he met photojournalist Francesco Zizola and became his assistant, and since then, has devoted himself to his own long-term projects, alongside assignments for major titles including The New York Times, National Geographic and the Guardian. 

The photojournalist first visited the Amazon in 2014on assignment to cover the environmental impacts of the Belo Monte Dam — a controversial project that threatened to displace 20,000 people and flood large parts of the rainforest’s indigenous land. 

Protti arrived with preconceptions, but what he discovered was far from the vast jungle landscapes and indigenous tribal communities that he had imagined. Built on the Xingu River, the Belo Monte Dam sits on the outskirts of Altamira, a once-quiet Amazonian town. Due to urban development and displacement from the construction of the dam, the city’s population has tripled, and has become one of Brazil’s most violent cities. 

Araribóia, Brazil. A member of the Guajajara forest guard in a moment of of sad silence at the sight of a toppled tree suspected to have been cut down by illegal loggers. With deep cuts to Brazil’s environmental and indigenous protection bodies in recent years, tribespeople across the Amazon are forming groups to protect their land against unscrupulous farmers, loggers and land grabbers. But it is dangerous work – indigenous activists who revolt in Brazil’s Amazon states are routinely threatened, persecuted and murdered. © Tommaso Protti.

“It was an Amazon that I didn’t know about. I found a very different social fabric than what I had in mind,” says Protti, who has been reporting from urban regions of the rainforest for the past five years. Together with journalist and “adventure companion” Sam Cowie, Protti has covered issues such as the growing number of drug gangs, the rights of indigenous communities, and the effects of deforestation.

“At some point, we realised that something big was at stake,” says Protti. “We felt the need to convey our experience and the variety of topics in one long-term project that could offer a new vision of the Amazon.”

Altamira, Brazil. These trees died with the opening of the Belo Monte Dam, which flooded 400km2 of the forest. The project remains controversial with serious questions regarding its viability and accusations of corruption during the bidding process. © Tommaso Protti.

In late-2018, Protti was selected as the laureate of this year’s Carmignac Photojournalism Award. “The grant allowed me to think bigger, to reach more people and places I hadn’t before,” says the photographer, who travelled across the rainforest to create a multilayered reportage that will be revealed to the public in an exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris in December, along with a photobook that will include Cowie’s accompanying text.

Protti and Cowie have been working alongside one another for four years; it is a partnership that Protti speaks of fondly. He has found that a writer can pick up on nuances that a photographer may miss visually, and vice-versa. “It is a good way to understand the different layers in a story,” says Protti.

Kayapo children play behind a waterfall in the Kubenkrãnken indigenous village. The Kayapo have only been in contact with the non-indigenous world since the 1960s. Their land serves as a crucial barrier to deforestation advancing from the south. © Tommaso Protti.

The project focuses on the Brazillian Amazon, which covers 60 per cent of the whole rainforest. Through covering different regions and issues, Protti shows how the social, humanitarian and environmental crises overlap. For example, he documented the gold-mining industry — a sector that contributes to deforestation, pollution, and encroachment on indigenous lands — where workers live in isolation, spending all of their earnings on  hedonistic nights with prostitutes, alcohol, and drugs.

“It is all connected,” says Protti, explaining how since the dissolution of the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, the Amazon River has become an important route for drug trafficking, making these urban regions “some of the most violent places in the world”.

But, it is not all about tragedy. “The Amazon is a place like anywhere else,” says Protti, who also photographed the daily lives of normal people that live and work there. “For me, these are emblematic pictures, because when we start thinking about the preservation of the environment, maybe we should think about how we can make these Amazonian cities more sustainable,” he says.

Tommaso Protti’s project will be exhibited at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris from 04 December 2019, and at the Saatchi Gallery in London in summer 2020

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