We came as hunters, but we became farmers

Interview with Pedro David by Fronique Oosterhof, November 2008. Commissioned by Noorderlicht

The Jequitinhonha Valley, in the northeast of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, is one of the poorest regions in Brazil. Since the 1970s the region has been subject to rigorously executed environmental politics. One of the most radical interventions was the construction of the Irapé hydroelectric project, which is intended to provide an economic stimulus for the impoverished region. The down side is however that an enormous dam on the Jequitinhonha river has flooded out a large part of the valley. As a result, the already scarce fertile land in the area has been as good as lost. A large proportion of the 1150 farming families - many of whom had never been outside of the valley - were forced to relocate.

In 2002 three Brazilian photographers decided to document the lives of the families involved. Independently of one another, João Castilho, Pedro David and Pedro Motta regularly travelled to the valley. They worked on the Underwater Landscape project until 2007, which is a small history of the Jequitinhonha Valley. At the same time it deals with great human themes: our connection with the land and cultural identity, disasters and higher authorities, being uprooted and starting all over again.

F: Underwater Landscape is a collective project involving three photographers, but most of the time you operated apart from each other. How did that work?

P: João [Castilho], Pedro [Motta] and I started with photography at about the same time, in the late 1990s. We met one another at the very start of our careers and immediately began to exchange information, view each other's work, talk about our goals and share our ideas about photography and the art world. In 2001 we did a joint work. We enjoyed the experience; we travelled together to the middle of our country, by car. On our return we presented a beautiful exhibition in Belo Horizonte. At the time we thought seriously about starting to make more work in the same way.
However, we very quickly saw that it was not practical. We could be more efficient if we all worked alone, each in a self-chosen time frame. Moreover, three photographers who all arrive in a small village at the same time, with all their photo equipment, that would have too much impact. We decided to set up the project about the Jequitinhonha Valley from our joint contacts and efforts, and then leave each of us free to go to the region and photograph on his own initiative, and at the end combine forces once again to tell one story together. The decision was also a matter of principle. A person who is travelling alone can follow up his own questions and wishes and make really personal contacts. He can rely on his instincts, and doesn't have to discuss everything with his colleagues. Underwater Landscape came at a decisive moment in our lives. In 2002 we were still beginners, but we ended the project as expert photographers. In this period of five years we could take the time to investigate our technique, our ways of working and our thinking, and then go back and use each discovery in our work. Each of us developed his own individual photographic language during this period, his own style. Precisely through that we could see clearly what the collective story could become. It was our key to creating a certain unity in the book and exhibition. As one of the most important Brazilian writers, João Guimarães Rosa, says, 'Sowing takes place in isolation, harvesting is done together.' 

F: What was your approach? 

P: At first we wanted to get to know the whole area that was going to be flooded out. But after our first visits we focused primarily on two large communities of around thirty families, Peixe Cru (Raw Fish) and Porto Coris (Coris Harbour), a former hotbed of slave rebellion. From these villages we also went up and down the river and tried to make contact with other people. But the 'better' photographs from the project were made in these two communities. 

F: How did the relation between you three and the families develop, and what did it mean for your photography? 

P: I went to the Jequitinhonha Valley fifteen times, about 600 kilometres from my home, and that was true for each of us. My visits were from something over a week to three weeks. I liked to devote as much time to the visits as I could. Because of the bad roads, it was difficult to get around in the valley, so there weren't many visitors coming there. The residents enjoyed receiving 'aliens' and being able to talk about this, that and the other. We were immediately welcomed by these people, we slept in their homes and had a nice time there. When we started with our visits the people in the area still led relatively normal lives. They knew that everything was going to change radically, but at that time the changes were still just on paper. Yet we were really there to photograph the process of change! But nothing visible was happening. We could only photograph the daily life before the changes, so that afterwards there would be a document of it.
Thus there were only words - words, and a feeling of uneasiness that grew larger all the time. The topic of conversation in the communities was always the same: The Dam. The residents of the valley were concerned about the rising water. We in turn were concerned about the same thing. We began to think more, and more deeply, about the inundation. And in that period a change took place in us, in our capacity as photographers: we had come as 'hunters', but we had become 'farmers'.
It was not a question of shooting pretty pictures. What was important for us was what we could reap in the close relationships that we had entered into during our trips, and in the long conversations. We worked with these people. They were surprised at some of the things which caught our attention, things that for them were very ordinary. But, as perceptive as they were, they learned to know our wishes, our perspective. When they realised that we were going to come back a number of times, they began to make plans. Time and again somebody would suggest an idea for a photo to me. By the same token, we always returned with a number of portraits to give them. That in turn produced other things, because people asked us to make photos of them, of something that they wanted to see depicted.
It is difficult to make a judgement about the production of energy with the aid of large hydroelectric projects. We're dealing with a complicated mixture of politics and economic factors. I have tried to understand more about it, but I am still no expert. When we were with the families in the valley, talking with them about the lives that each of us led, we experienced many feelings. We didn't want to wait until the valley filled up with water. We photographed our fears, dreams and wonder, in solidarity with their fears, dreams and wonder. That is Underwater Landscape.

F: Your photography goes beyond the description of the current realities in a part of southern Brazil. With the power of your own imagination you have created a new reality. Many of the photographs take on an extra, symbolic meaning. Did you consciously strive for an artistic value, perhaps for universality? 

P: Yes, that was certainly an aim. We see ourselves as contemporary artists. We went to the Jequitinhonha Valley in search of subjects for our work. We chose precisely that region because we believed that there we could talk about our roots in one way or another. Our city of Belo Horizonte is still rather young, only 110 years old. Almost every family has a rural background. Our families, too. We didn't want to play games like we were adventurers bringing back something new or supposedly 'exotic' from distant places to our own people, like the old documentary makers did. That came across to us as arrogant, and it doesn't work today anyway. We wanted to manage to capture something of our own roots. We threw ourselves into this surprising reality with that as our goal. We saw that it was possible to bring this together as a whole, with other vital questions in the world today, like energy, migration, territory, self-awareness. We have that engagement. We wanted to tell a universal story. A work becomes interesting when it is about something that is important for the world. I say this in the conceptual sense, and also in the aesthetic sense. We are always occupied with investigating art in all its forms.