democraciaAbierta: Feature

Embedded in the Amazon: new ways of narrating indigenous stories

The Gabo Prize-winning series ‘Rainforest Defenders’ shows that deep empathy married with visual innovation can unveil seminal truths

César López Linares
18 April 2021, 12.00am
Left: Ednei, a young indigenous leader, lies on the tracks of timber haulage trucks in her territory. Right: The remains of 26 trees felled by an illegal logging company
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Pablo Albarenga

When the Spanish-Mexican journalist, Francesc Badia i Dalmases, and the Uruguayan photojournalist, Pablo Albarenga, decided to investigate how climate change is harming indigenous peoples, they realised that the truth would only come from experiencing the lived reality.

Their multimedia series, ‘Rainforest Defenders’, which won a prestigious Gabo Prize 2020 in the Image category, tells the stories of young people who are knee deep in fighting the Amazon rainforest crisis that directly threatens their homes, as well as the world at large.

“Right off the bat, we were looking to answer a complex question, which is how climate change affects the populations who suffer it directly,” Badia told the Gabo Foundation. “It’s a very abstract question that is usually answered with statistics at a macro level, but what we sought was to have a personal answer from that microcosm.”

Instead of basing their account on hard data, Badia and Albarenga decided to make intelligent use of multiple languages and embed themselves in the heart of the Amazon ecosystem for several weeks, to get to know the terrain and understand firsthand the dynamics of the communities who inhabit it.

The result was a multimedia project with ten episodes produced by democraciaAbierta that harmoniously combine long-form text, video and photography to portray Amazonian communities’ relationship with their territory and their struggle to defend it.

Avoiding exploitation

The articles were published in full in Spain’s El País newspaper and on the website of the Pulitzer Center, which aims to raise awareness of under-reported issues. Pieces were also picked up by The Washington Post, The Guardian and Initium Media, a digital outlet based in Hong Kong.

“The project brings the voice of the protagonists and the stories are narrated by them,” Albarenga told the Gabo Foundation. “We put ourselves [forward] as a vehicle and somehow bridge the gap between a large audience and the protagonists with the goal of making them resonate more, even internationally.”

Extractivism is a key instigator in the Amazon’s climate crisis. External agents exploit natural resources and export them, without offering any benefit to the region that provides the resources.

Keeping this in mind, Badia and Albarenga decided that ‘Rainforest Defenders’ would avoid journalistic extractivism. Rather than just visiting the area, collecting stories and returning to their offices to edit their material, they decided to completely immerse themselves in the Amazon and shape the project from there.

The authors were careful to avoid the journalistic extractivism of rushing to collect stories and deciphering the meaning from the comfort of an office

“The key was to spend enough time with each community so that there was a relationship of trust, that we didn’t get there in a hurry, wanting to extract our story and run away,” said Badia. “It’s key to have this empathy with the people you’re going to work with, so that the magic of proximity and trusting interrelationship happens, which is what gives us a different tone.”

Badia and Albarenga travelled among several communities in the Brazilian Amazon for a month starting in March 2019. Then in October that year, they followed up with a second trip, spending three weeks in the Amazonian region of Ecuador.

Badia wrote each story on the ground so that his descriptions could faithfully capture the sensory experience and emotional states of daily life in the jungle.

“Once outside, if I had written it [based] on notes, it would have been different,” he said. “If you write it on the ground, the story is fresher and has a tone closer to what you want to explain.”

The series required painstaking reportage to locate the people defending the Amazon. Badia and Albarenga decided to feature a diverse group to fairly represent different facets of the region.

Their fixers played an important role at that stage. The team had the support of activists who had already been working in the area for some time and so knew the various community leaders. This was how they located Ednei, Dani, Drica, Joane and Tupi, the protagonists of the stories about the Brazilian lower Tapajós region; and Julián, Verónica and Nantu, who feature in the stories from Ecuador’s Achuar territory.

It was paramount that the immersive coverage didn’t intrude on the communities’ lives

Both journalists took great care to ensure that their immersive coverage was not an intrusion into the communities’ lives. They were passionate about respecting their subjects’ worldview and their stories. “We tried to be as invisible or neutral as possible,” said Badia. “We believe that this narrative is the one that best reflects the reality and the purpose of each of the stories, which is to get a good understanding of who these characters are, what they feel, think and see, and how they want to communicate it.”

Badia and Alberanga ensured their project would be a mutually beneficial partnership for the people they featured so they shared their audio-visual material with the groups to use it for their own purposes.

“This is also part of the success of the project, this proximity, one is not perceived as someone who is going to buy something or extract something, but as someone who is going to do collaborative work, an alliance, a joint project, and not something unilateral or vertical,” said Badia.

The first story in the series was published in June 2019. By February 2020, eight stories had been published. Last year, Badia and Albarenga made a third trip, this time to the Colombian Amazon, from which two more stories emerged, those of José Gregorio and Lilia.

“We were received with greater empathy than if we had landed without knowing what we were going to find,” said Badia. “There is previous work of identification and planning so that, when you arrive, there are already a series of steps, in advance. I think if there is one thing that stands out from all this work, it is the relationships between people.”

Beyond stereotypes

The Gabo Prize 2020 international jury praised the series’ careful visual construction and solid conceptual character during the awarding process.

The journalists agreed with the jury that the audiovisual elements of the series were fundamental to its impact because they portrayed the Amazon crisis from the perspective of its people. Albarenga explained that the text, short videos and still images that make up each of the ten episodes complement each other, so that the audience can understand each protagonist’s story on different levels.

“It’s about bringing together different kinds of narratives to tell a story in the best possible way, so that the story is much more holistic in its approach and addresses all those layers of richness embedded in each story,” said Albarenga. “I think it creates a lot more empathy with the viewer and brings them closer to the characters in the stories.”

Each episode includes as a cover image a photograph of the protagonist lying on the ground, which merges with another image of their particular territory of the Amazon.

Albarenga found this to be an effective way to show that the indigenous people have a unique relationship with their land.

“I think there was something innovative there and that’s why the images were successful worldwide,” he said. “The relationship between the body and the territory is very clear and, in a way, it is also like paying homage to those territories, to those struggles, to those people. I think that my voice as a Latin American very much permeated there, saying that we must understand that other links with the territory are possible.”

Albarenga won the Sony World Photography Award 2020 for the photographs and subsequently put them together in a photo essay titled ‘Semillas de Resistencia’ (Seeds of Resistance), to which he continued to add images. There are now 17 portraits.

Drone images played an important role in the project, not only to show the vastness of the Amazon, but also as a tool to add context in a terrain where there are few elements to distinguish one area from another.

“Once you get in a track inside the jungle, you can’t see anything, you only see the vegetation around you but you don’t see any horizon, so having vision from above is important,” Badia said. “Using the drone allows, above all, to provide geographical context and context of what is happening and where it is happening, something that otherwise it is very difficult to tell.”

Other than the drone, the only equipment Albarenga used was a camera with a built-in microphone. A small support team helped those on camera to appear more natural and Badia credited Albarenga for his skill in this area also.

“Pablo does this very well: making the camera practically disappear, making it not an intimidating camera, but a camera that is part of the landscape so that the person in the conversation has more weight,” said Badia. “This is achieved through complicity and empathy with the characters that are portrayed.”

For Albarenga, the project’s visual aspects succeed because they communicate the reality of the Amazon’s communities beyond stereotypes, even as the audience becomes aware of the environmental crisis that besets this beautiful region.

“Sometimes we want to dramatise and produce impact and we end up sinning in that ‘porno-mystery’, trying to show crude, shocking realities, and we leave out a lot of beautiful things that happen inside, such as companionship, courage, resilience, resistance,” said Albarenga. “Just as images are a great ally to build stereotypes, the same tool can be used to undo them.”

Badia and Albarenga believe that the core strength of their work is that it breaks new ground in its commitment to a journalism based on empathy.

“I think journalism, especially in Latin America, is in an interesting phase of experimentation, of looking for new ways of telling stories, and I think this work can be a contribution to this trend,” said Badia. “The key lies in a journalism that is very sensitive to the values of the other, of the territory; a journalism that is less intrusive, more understanding, that gives more time to the story it wants to tell and lets it flow. It is an exercise in humility and professionalism at the same time.”

Authors’ tips for reporting on indigenous communities

Don’t go to talk, but to listen

“We don’t need to go there and write what happens according to our way of thinking and our way of understanding things,” Albarenga said. “What we have to do is to convey their message, not impose our message. It is their voice that matters more than ours.”

Engage communities at all times

“It’s important to ensure the interviewees understand what we’re going to report and don’t find out what we did when it is already published,” Albarenga said. “It’s good to have a lot of fluid communication about what we are shooting.”

Avoid the cliché

“Sometimes one looks for the indigenous person to put on feathers so that you have the most ethnographic and clichéd image,” Badia said. “I think you have to forget about this, you have to go and really look for the reality. You have to avoid emphasising what seems more folkloric to you when it comes to portraying or explaining it.”

Put aside Western arrogance

“We have to have values of respect, empathy and humility when approaching these stories and overcome this arrogance that many of us who come from the West have. It is an almost neo-colonial and extractivist mentality, [this] thinking that we are going there to get a story and run away,” Badia said. “We must understand that if we spend only four days there, we are not going to pretend to know exactly what is going on, or what their reality is, because it is a very complex reality full of layers that we can only grasp at best.”

Be aware of your own ideology

“All the images we make, all the text we write, we produce based on our beliefs, our convictions, and that’s why we do this kind of work,” Albarenga said. “What we do speaks of our convictions. Don’t be pigeonholed into maintaining an objective stance, but to relate the facts in the most consistent way.”

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