1. What is your connection with the Linda Matney Gallery and John Lee Matney?
I have known “Lee” since second grade and we have been friends ever since. Lee was always an avid photographer and had his own darkroom in the basement of his house. He taught me how to shoot, develop and print black and white film when I was about twelve years old. Lee’s first photos were artistic closeups of everyday objects, which his father referred to jokingly as “doorknobs.” His instinct of using the camera to look at the world in new ways was an influence on me since the very beginning.We both worked on the school newspaper and I remember he took dramatic photographs of the remarkably professional theater productions at our school’s drama department. Lee’s mother Linda was a kind and generous woman, she always had a smile on her face and a meal on her table. She had excellent taste in art and antiques, and she and my mother were dear friends. We both lost our mothers in their prime, and that has been another bond in our friendship over the years. I was happy when he opened his own gallery and named it after his mother. We went our separate ways after college, but always stayed in touch. And when Lee moved back to the Tidewater area after living many years in Athens, we renewed our friendship whenever I was home visiting my parents. We have collaborated on several creative projects over the years, including gallery exhibits of my photographs and collection of ethnographic objects from the Amazon, fund-raising events for indigenous causes and a prize-winning avant-garde film.
|Taking aim. Manu National Park, 1992. |
Purchase the fine art print.
2. Give us some background about your use of photography in your work
I am an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, and I have traveled and carried out fieldwork with different indigenous peoples throughout the world, including Bedouin tribes in Jordan, hill tribes of northern Thailand, Mayan peoples of southern Mexico and numerous indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. Though I have always used photography to document the scientific aspects of my work, from indigenous healing ceremonies to medicinal plants, I always saw photography as a way to express aspects of my experiences in different cultures that don’t come across in dry, scientific studies. I especially enjoy taking portraits of people that I know. A photographic subject whom you have known for years looks at the camera in a very different way than someone who is encountering a journalistic photographer for the first time. I appreciate it when this sense of trust and familiarity comes across in my photos, such that their subjects appear first and foremost as friends, companions, fellow humans who share their experiences with a knowing glance.
|Elena. Manu National Park, 1992.|
3. Comment on how art intersects with your work and your life in Brazil and Peru.
Before the days of digital photography, I would always travel to the field with equal numbers of rolls of color and black and white film. Of course, surrounded by the lush colors of the tropical rainforest I would usually shoot up all my color film first, and then be left with only black and white for the second half of my trip. As frustrating as it was to run out of color film hundreds of miles and months away from the nearest film store, I always appreciated this forcing of black and white film upon myself when returning to develop the photos. As beautiful as the colors of the tropical rainforest are, and as useful are the chrome slides I used to present my work in the days before PowerPoint, I always found the black and white photos to have a more abstract and timeless feel to them, pushing aside all the distractions of color to get at the true essence of form, composition and human connection.
|Ayahuasca vine. Manu National Park, 1992. |
Purchase the fine art print.
4. Comment on your piece in the New York Review of Books about Martin Gusinde's photography in the book The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego. What are your personal feelings about Gusinde's photographs? How does that work inspire you?
I was delighted when the New York Review approached me about reviewing a collection of Martin Gusinde’s ethnographic photographs published by Thames & Hudson. Many professional photographers don’t understand the first thing about anthropology, and most anthropologists are even worse at photography than photographers are at anthropology. Gusinde is that rare talent who was able to capture the surrealistic quality of the ritual life of native peoples of Tierra del Fuego in high-quality artistic images, while also conducting meticulous documentation of the last vestiges of their ceremonies before the people succumbed to disease and acculturation. His photographs speak to that unique dynamic of truly anthropological photography which is to capture our fundamental shared humanity while also respecting the deep and beautiful cultural differences that make human life so diverse and fascinating.
|Yanomami headman making an arrow point. Marari River, Brazil, 2004.|
You also reviewed Davi Kopenawa's book The Falling Sky for the New York Review. Tell us about that book.
The autobiography of Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky, is one of the great works of anthropology of the 21st century. Rather than using academic jargon, anthropologist/translator Bruce Albert takes advantage of his deep understanding of the Yanomami language and his long friendship with Davi to craft an elegant, direct, first-person narrative told in Davi’s own voice, as selected and edited from over 100 hours of audiotape that Albert had recorded over many years. The book provides a vivid account of Davi’s shamanic visions while also presenting his philosophical reflections on his own people’s world view. It also presents a passionate appeal for indigenous rights and a condemnation of the damage brought by missionaries and gold miners.
5. Comment on your own photography as art and the new works we are presenting
I was a slow convert to digital photography, precisely because I enjoyed the luminosity of color chromes as well as the abstract quality of black and white. I was always a big fan of the alchemical magic of darkroom work, and the ability to control every square inch of the print. I didn’t buy my first digital camera until 2007 when I got back from the field and literally spent three months tracking down a lab to develop my film. But once I began to get used to the new technology, I appreciated the way digital photography takes away so many constraints imposed by film photography, from rationing your film stock to missing photos in low light settings. So I am especially excited over this new collaboration with Linda Matney Gallery to go back to my old black and white negatives while also reworking some of my more recent digital images in monochrome.
|Baby doll. Manu National Park, 2007.|
6. Comment on your poetry and other fiction
From a young age I always wanted to be a writer. I saw a career in anthropology as a way of gathering tales and adventures to write about when I get too old to travel. But even in my academic writing I try to make use of my story-telling skills to share the experience of cultural difference in a direct way that hopefully anyone could read and appreciate. I have always tried to avoid using theoretical jargon in my writing, and won a number of anthropology writing awards for this more accessible and evocative style of writing. In 2011, I became so frustrated with the straight jacket of academic jargon that I created my blog, Notes from the Ethnoground. I had submitted an article to an anthropological journal, with the explicit intention of relating indigenous concepts through stories without using abstract jargon. The article was sent back requesting precisely the kind of theoretical discussion I was hoping to avoid, so I gave up on trying to rework the text and began writing short posts about my experiences in the field using accessible language and plenty of photos as well. In 2014, my first “ethno-fictional” short story, about a villager who turned into a jaguar, won a prize from the Society for Anthropology and Humanism. I hope to continue writing fiction that is firmly grounded in actual cultural experiences. I also wrote lots of poetry when I was younger, and occasionally produce new poems usually based on my experiences in indigenous cultures. Recently, my poem The Fish Trap was recognized by Sapiens.org to honor World Poetry Day.
|Forest overlook. Manu National Park, Peru, 1995.|
7. Tell me about how you have used your anthropological knowledge and photographic skills to help the indigenous communities where you have worked.
I have always felt a deep responsibility to provide practical assistance to the indigenous communities that have been so generous and patient with me through the years. When the Discovery Channel film that I worked on, Spirits of the Rainforest, won two Emmys in 1993, I worked through Peruvian and New York based NGOs to hold a fund raising event that benefited the community political organizations and health post. More recently I have worked with the non-profit organization Rainforest Flow to bring sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects to these remote communities, transforming their health status. Curiously, Nancy Santullo, director and founder of Rainforest Flow, was formerly a successful commercial photographer. For the past fifteen years, we have used our photography to document and spread the word about the project and draw attention to the health needs in these communities. We appreciate the support of Linda Matney Gallery over the years in hosting various fund-raising initiatives for this project.
Because of this long term work in these communities, and the established relationship of trust and collaboration, Rainforest Flow is in a unique position to help prevent the deadly Covid-19 virus from entering Manu Park. I helped Rainforest Flow mobilize early communications between communities and park authorities to institute an immediate lockdown even before the Peruvian government took preventative action. There are currently no Covid-19 infections in any of the native communities where we work. However indigenous high school students studying outside the reserve have been stranded far from their home villages and need food, protective equipment, medicine, information, support and transportation to a safe place to carry out their quarantine. Rainforest Flow is creating an emergency Covid-19 relief fund to continue this vital work with native communities and Manu Park authorities to maintain the quarantine and develop safe protocols for the delivery of badly needed equipment and assistance.
|Safe water. Manu National Park, 2015.|
Proceeds from selected photographs sold will benefit a community health and hygiene project, including vital Covid-19 prevention, in the same native communities where these photos were taken.
---Visit the benefit photography sale on Artsy---