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Lula and the Yanomami: Uproar Over Photos in Brazil

Amazônia Real, Gold of blood Yanomami. Aerial view of the Mucujaí river region in the Yanomami Indigenous Land (Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real).

Two situations caused major uproar in Brazil this month, both involving photos.

First is a double exposure image of Lula with shattered glass pointing at his heart. The other of a Yanomami woman who died due to severe malnutrition. Debates which used to be directed at the Lula/Bolsonaro dichotomy have turned inward, within leftists, over how to handle post-victory political crises.

Many people were horrified at the photo of Lula on the cover of a major São Paulo newspaper, claiming it incited violence against him. The shattered glass was from the capital building attack on January 8th, and the artistic composition by a renown leftist photographer was harshly criticized because it’s too dubious in a landscape where most feel there is no space for nuance.

To me, the photo depicts a bulletproof scene, where there was a failed attempt to destroy his presidency, and he leaves smiling victorious among the ruins. But to others, the possibility it might promote violence against the president, as if someone ought to shoot him in the heart, was enough to promote violence against the photographer herself. She was the target of an online mob until a more problematic scene arose.

Quite frankly, since the first news of what happened to those in the Yanomami territory, I couldn’t read anything about it because I couldn’t stand looking at the photos that came with the texts. Social media became infested with images of not just a crime, but of victims of what is the brink of genocide. The sharing of these images were justified as needed evidence, but that never convinced me. In court cases involving white children, the visual evidence is not publicized. More often than not, testimonies are enough. From the beginning, to utilize the images felt dehumanizing to me.

Now that one of the women from this community died from malnourishment, Yanomami leaders are finally pleading for people to stop sharing her image in a show of respect for Yanomami tradition. Still, people argue against it, saying this image has to be shared on the internet as evidence, as if the internet was the grand forum where justice is achieved by exposing violated marginalized peoples.

The images of malnourished Yanomami children were never tolerable to me, and it’s intolerable that to some, at this point, they are still needed as evidence for what the Brazilian government puts these peoples through. This resonates so much with what the brilliant professor and journalist Allissa V. Richardson says about black people and the need for mediatic evidence for the racist violence perpetrated against Black Americans. She says:

“I would like to get to the point where we don’t need the videos to believe black people […] Why are black people asked to produce this footage to kind of pre-litigate the fact that they didn’t deserve their own demise?”

When it comes to the subject of ‘Bearing witness’ to racist brutality, black and native people find common ground in the use of media. Considering the hundreds of years of colonization, what do people think Indigenous rights activists have been fighting against? Did the main stream think it wasn’t that bad, so they needed photographic evidence of how bad it actually has been? Do they think this is as bad as it gets? Or, they just need another reason to continue to blame Bolsonaro for everything bad that has ever happened in Brazil?

Amazônia Real, Gold of blood Yanomami. Large mining area known as "Tatuzão" in the region of the Uraricoera river in the Yanomami Indigenous Land (Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real).

Indigenous peoples have endured rampant assault, starvation and murder for hundreds of years, the fraction which survived are still enduring this paradigm, and the last 4 years are not single-handedly responsible for the injustices these peoples have been faced with, only for allowing business to go on as usual. The Yanomami have been dealing with the issue of absurd numbers of garimpeiros invading their land since at least the 70s. There has been rampant disease, malnutrition and massacres since then, even a declared genocide in 1993...

If it took these images in 2023 for someone to realize the inhumane and undignified living conditions natives have been submitted to, they haven’t been paying attention. And it surely is not the responsibility of the Yanomami to make an exception to their way of living (in dealing with death) to serve non-native people’s need for a wake-up call. Were it so, wouldn’t that just be an extension of the dehumanization forced upon them?

I also ask myself what the purpose is to juxtapose images of the Yanomami with historic images of Holocaust survivors. If this is an attempt to stress how violent it is what is happening to natives, it’s utterly inadequate and anachronistic, because what is happening in Brazil has been happening for much longer and to many more people than what happened in Nazi Germany. And the same goes for making the parallel with malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa, as if Brazil should be above that, when in reality, it's a tragedy that this is happening anywhere for any reason.

Could it be that when we think of the hundreds of years of genocide perpetrated against Indigenous and African people in Brazil, that doesn’t carry the same weight as what happened in Europe, with Europeans? So we take something way older and bigger, like colonial genocide, and try to fit it into a Eurocentric narrative. This way, perhaps, people will see it as more unacceptable, and therefore, ensure it never happens again.

Yes, we want the genocide of Indigenous people to stop and for it to happen ‘never again’. Indigenous people have wanted that at least since a century before the Second World War. If this isn’t resilience, I don’t know what is.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stand these images being used as evidence. Because they are used as evidence of something of a frail, defeated group of people, when in reality they couldn’t be farther from that. The Yanomami have endured the unimaginable for hundreds of years — this is not a story of weakness, it’s a story of power, and we should be so honored to stand next to them and fight for their dignity.

Against this background, Lula doesn’t look so vulnerable double-exposed to shattered glass, smiling, fixing his tie, does he? He is shielded by much more than bullet-proof glass, cars, vests and suits. He’s shielded by passing-whiteness, by the global markets and its super-powers. When it comes to his flesh, blood and consciousness, it will be the Yanomami who will save him, not the other way around, and they deserve the world in exchange for that.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi is a Brazilian writer, site editor at Gods and Radicals and founder of Plataforma9. She is the author of the book Anarcho-transcreation and producer of several other titles under the P9 press.


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