In his debut photo book, Daniel Jack Lyons looks to a remote region in the Amazon, and in the thick of the rainforest, finds communities of young people who embody resilience and care in the face of uncertainty and discrimination.
The US-based photographer’s links to the Brazilian Amazon were first established in 2018. By the summer of 2019 he was being hosted as an artist-in-residence at an organisation called Casa Do Rio, run by Thiago Cavalli, and over the next few years, he made two subsequent extended trips to the town of Careiro along the Tupana River.
On these trips, he met a cross-section of young people in the Brazilian Amazon who became his friends. “There are indigenous land activists who are heavily rooted in their tribal traditions and heritage. They fearlessly advocate and protest for land rights and indigenous sovereignty. There is also a large trans, non-binary and queer community,” Lyons says, whose “mere existence is a political act. And there is also a group living on the margins as artists, musicians, skaters, performers,” he recalls. “Young people whiling the day away, imagining and exploring new versions of themselves.”
He laid groundwork by meeting with the young leaders in the community and sharing more about his practice and intentions. “I explained that this must be a collaboration, I only go where I am invited, and ultimately that I want to hang out before we make photos together,” he explains. “In my first meetings with people, I always made it clear that these photos could end up in a book or exhibition, and encouraged people to think about how and where they would like to be photographed – how they want to be seen. In the end everyone had very specific ideas.”
The book draws its name from a poem by Thiago DeMello, which was recited to the photographer by one of the women in the project, Andira. “Like a river, sum of streams / To learn how to follow / And widen with others / To finally meet / The ocean,” the passage reads. “And then she explained – ‘the trans community here is like our own small river in the Amazon, and it’s time that we meet the ocean, it’s time for the world to know us’.”
The people he spent time with welcomed him into their community with warmth, openness and eagerness to participate, he recalls. “This was especially true with the trans and queer community, who continue to make me feel like family. But I think being fluent in Portuguese was really important,” he says. “Without being able to casually communicate with people, this project would not have been possible.”
The connection he had with those communities was strengthened by other factors. The pandemic unfurled in the middle of the project, forcing him to cancel and reschedule visits, but there was a “silver lining” to the disruption. He kept in touch with people throughout that period, and they introduced him to networks of other friends via WhatsApp, who were keen to communicate in such a uniquely isolating time. “So much so that by the time I made it back there in 2021, I had all these new ‘internet friends’ and even though we were technically meeting for the first time, we all felt like we knew each other quite well already.”
Brazil is notoriously afflicted by political turmoil, deforestation and climate change, and the people who participated in the photographs are largely marginalised for one reason or another. Yet Lyons’ vision strikes a more serene note, through the lighting, tender expressions, and calming landscapes filled with greenery and the supple surface of water. Though this happened organically rather than being intentional, it reflects the photographer’s general attitude towards imagemaking. “It’s definitely a fine line, but I’ve never been interested in making images that are not rooted in some form of positivity or celebratory space, even if the sociopolitical context appears dire.”
He continues that “there is certainly a sense of tranquility that comes with documenting the quotidian banality of life and the rebellious creativity that it inspires”, and that portraying “this kind of spirit tends to be more evident in the quiet, less obvious moments. However, in this context those quiet moments are set against the existential backdrop of illegal mining, massive deforestation, and the Bolsonaro regime’s environmental and social policies, rooted in climate change denial and white supremacy.”