Sunday, June 1, 2008

To photograph or not to photograph...that is the question

Last week, incredible pictures of an "uncontacted tribe" (a fascinating term in itself) near the border of Brazil and Peru were released. Sponsored by FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs department, the overflight was seemingly undertaken for one purpose: to photograph them.
'We did the overflight to show their houses, to show they are there, to show they exist," said Brazilian uncontacted tribes expert José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Junior. "This is very important because there are some who doubt their existence."
After seeing this, I started reading up on uncontacted peoples. While I do agree with and wholeheartedly support tribal sovereignty (and their isolation and protection), the fact that the flight likely disturbed the tribe greatly (what on earth did they think it was?) and perhaps could spur some twisted version of "eco-tourism" bothers me.

In fact, I debated whether or not to even post the picture above.
Once, when I was visiting Niagara Falls with my family, we visited Ripley's Believe it or Not. Sandy Allen, the tallest woman in the world, happened to be there that day. For a dollar or so, you could have a Polaroid taken with her. We did it, but even at age 10 I thought, this doesn't sit right. It's still an unfiled, odd memory today. Nevertheless, photographs continue to enthrall and circulate. The web site of urban legends,, even has a category dubbed "fauxtography," in which it researches (and often debunks) amazing images spread on the internet. On the other hand, seeing this image on the news roll did spur me to learn more about this complicated issue.

Photography has, since its very beginning, been used in an ontological manner. I am reminded of early collections of stereo views of various places and peoples. People could tour the world from the safety of their armchairs. I look forward to seeing Erroll Morris's newest film, Standard Operating Procedure, for another perspective on morally ambiguous photography (and actions). The claim that such photographs have on our collective imagination is powerful.
I hope that this generates debate. Does the end justify the means?

I close with a quote from Miriam Ross of Survival International, a non-profit that supports tribal peoples:
"These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist. The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct."


David said...

Well, I don't think they're "uncontacted" anymore. At least not unmolested. In physics and anthropology alike, it's hard to observe without also affecting. From their point of view, we're all still uncontacted. I have to believe that these people could have been photographed less intrusively. It looks like the plane came in low enough to make them draw their bows back to shoot the plane - did they see the people inside or just see a metal monster? Where are all the fancy spy satellites when you need them?

On the other hand, for anybody to present a photo like this as proof of the existence or status of a group of people seems pretty ridiculous to me. It's like a UFO picture or some crop circles - it could be almost anything and could mean almost anything. Is there a McDonalds just outside the frame? Maybe Mel Gibson yelling "cut!"?

Whoever and whatever they really are, I hope they can go about their business and not get destroyed by their newfound celebrity.

LKB said...

Good points, I agree David - they aren't uncontacted and didn't choose this. And as you say, we are the uncontacted. A pretty loaded term on many levels.

Well, photo has been used to say things exist, has and still is. Ghost photos and UFO and more still proliferate and perhaps even more so on the internet. I don't think photo's truth status has been altered too much in the general public's eye - despite photoshop. We like to believe and we like to see.

Good physics analogy. Is very apt. I hope so too.

LKB said...

We can't paint blog also posted on this topic,

Jeffrey Engel said...

Ethics aside, it would actually be interesting if this eventually didn't turn out to be faked. So many times in recent history there have been "news" breaks about primitive tribes which turned out to be faked or exaggerated. I mean, this photo is almost too cliché. I'm not saying it's faked, I know as well as anybody that fact is stranger than fiction... but it looks straight out of an Indiana Jones movie with the red-painted warriors defending their homes while the dark witch-doctor-like figure near them adds to the mystery of this tribe. From a news story perspective, this kind of stuff is money.

David said...

it appears this photo is not entirely what it claims to be...

LKB said...

I was just going to publish that link - and an update! wild...