Review by Brian O’Neill •
There is a QR code at the end of several additional texts that come inserted with this book that takes you into the Amazon rainforest, roughly 70% of which is within the territorial boundaries of the nation-state we call Brazil. Those sounds are at once familiar to me – the buzzing activity of frogs and insects (perhaps at night) – but also strange, for there is a liveliness and density to the sound that is unfamiliar. It is not often that I find a photobook which I first experience through, not a visual, but sonic clue. But, it is also not often that I come across a book project that has been approached with such rigor and care as Caio Reisewitz’s 2018 book Altamira.
At the time of writing, I am as yet unable to locate any reviews of this book, despite its release several years ago, aside from some miscellaneous short commentaries that have been written in English regarding the work of Reisewitz. These are in general, his status in the Brazilian photographic art world, and his contributions to the discipline, which have been many. And so, while I hope that I can bring this excellent book into wider circulation, my words are inevitably inadequate. The book is an experience, and the texts by Joerg Bader, Caterina De Pietri, Valéria Piccoli, and especially the interview by Weronika Zarachowicz of anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro are particularly useful, vivid in their descriptions of the work and its political dimensions, and insightful.
Altamira, from which the book gets its name is a municipality in Northern Brazil, in the state of Pará. Near there is a forest called Belo Monte, bordered by the Xingú river, which has now largely disappeared as a result of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex, estimated to be the fifth largest in the world by capacity. A quick internet search will reveal that the dam has been a locus consternation for more than a decade and half, with scholars and commentators remarking upon the egregiousness of a now all too familiar series of events: political ambition and corruption, indigenous displacement and hardship, ecological devastation and appropriation emerge together in a scenario common to many so-called “development projects.” At the same time, it has also been cited as a situation of surprising social coalition building and struggle for representation from the state, which continues to remain an ambiguous site of both oppression and emancipation.
Photographer Caio Reisewitz first visited the area in April of 2013, then returned in 2018, and Altimira therefore provides a unique, unprecedented, and evocative vision of what the site means and represents for the various groups that have clashed over the right to define, or simply be in, the region.
The book opens with a series of brooding, dark, aerial color photographs of the river, where blues and greens turn to black, and the last reds of the sun fade to purple. These are then separated with construction paper (serving to separate the “chapters” of the book) placing the reader in a human made road of deep red, terracotta colored earth – the arteries of the planet, it seems to say, have been opened as the eye follows the trail of earth movers and cars into the distance – presumably aimed at the intense labor that built the dam complex. Following the textures of these roads, we are suddenly introduced to a bright yellow map, with a label printed out in typewriter style text to demarcate Altamira. Here, Reisewitz has beautifully and disturbingly captured, in visual form, the mental logic of the god trick, as Science and Technology Studies scholar Donna Haraway might call it, that situated particular form of partial knowledge, and mode of vision(from above) that through imperial ambition has sought to expand its reach to new frontier zones of capital accumulation and nature appropriation. Altamira is the only word to appear in the book, but already Reisewitz has been able to establish the logic at work in this case.
From the opening chapters, Reisewitz’s own aims come into focus, which he nicely summed up at the recent 23rd Sydney Biennale “I always want to speak about the system. It’s not all beautiful images; I want to speak about the very sad relationship between the Government and the people of Brazil.” This perspective is significant, because, to my mind, it separates Reisewitz’s thinking from certain commentaries, such as that of photography critic and curator Christopher Phillips, who wrote about Reisewitz’s work in Aperture Magazine in 2014 that “Reisewitz’s images offer a sustained reflection on the struggle between primeval nature and the voracious human appetite to exploit it that has marked Brazil’s history since colonial times.”
The sentiment of this assessment hits the mark, but more to the point of Reisewitz’s own thinking is a notion closer to the recent critique of capitalism and the so-called Anthropocene sustained by geographer Jason Moore, which is to say it is not so much the “voracious human appetite to exploit nature,” but rather an underlying logic of capitalism as a system that emphasizes the significance of the expansion of profit making possibilities effectively internalized in the minds and actions of an elite class against others with which we must take issue. Moving through Altamira makes Reisewitz emphasis apparent. For example, the reader encounters a series of bricks and felled trees that evoke the destruction of homes displaced by earth moving equipment, foreshadowing the creative destruction, as geographer David Harvey might call it, fomented by the hydroelectric dam itself.
One of the most interesting photographic elements linking several of the middle sections of the book is the use of the color red. Here, the color features not in the perhaps typical manner photographers may think of it (e.g., Harry Gruyaert or William Eggleston as ‘colorists’), but to inveigh against the cheapening of nature and lives brought on by the neocolonial dam project. This is quite a considered photographic move that strikes me as rather unique. For example, the text by Valéria Piccoli describes part of Reisewitz’s process: “the apparent simplicity and immediacy of his photos are deceptive. In the Altamira series, there is, for example, a group of photographs taken inside a forest. These photographs were taken at night…the effect produced by the extended time of exposure is a radical alteration of the colors of the scene…” The verdant rainforest is replete with red, reds that course through the biome, reaching across lands and waters.
And as the second half of the book wears on, Reisewitz constructs the story around the theme of rising waters, a symptom of the damming process, engulfing nature and culture alike – a tide of cultural and material hegemony. Here the reader sees drowned palm trees and Araweté boats as Reisewitz traces the flow, concluding with a series of quite literally washed-out color images.
Altamira is a challenging book, one that takes time to visually and sensorially digest, but one that is also a masterclass in what the photobook might achieve as a means of social and political communication.
Brian O’Neill is a photographer and sociologist.
Altamira, Caio Reisewitz
Photographer: Caio Reisewitz, born and resides in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Publisher: Artphilein Editions SA, Lugano, (CH) copyright 2018 (Co-Publisher: Edition Centre Photographie Geneve)
Editor: Joerg Bader
Texts by Joerg Bader, Caterina De Pietri, Valéria Piccoli
Interview: Weronika Zarachowicz of Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Hardcover; 22 x 29 cm + folded poster, 88 pages (53 color ill.), Printing and Binding: Litogì, Milano (IT) ISBN : 978-88-94375-90-9 and EAN : 9788894375909
Graphic design: Caio Reisewitz and Carla Zocchio
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