Amaze

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Ta’Kaiya Blaney spreads her arms to show off her beautiful cedar cape, a garment passed on
from generation to generation by women of the Salish Sea Tla’amin First Nation.

For more than two decades, through the lens of my camera, I have sought out the hope and beauty woven into the fabric of all life and all peoples, from forest to ocean. In the face of the myriad unrecognized plights and urgent truths of our shared human and planetary condition. These shimmering threads promise change.

– Cristina Mittermeier –

As with many impassioned journeys, my life as a conservationist and artist began with a lesson.

A lesson that rattles in my soul like a grain of sand in a chambered nautilus shell. Urging me onwards; reminding me why I do this work. Curled deep within this hidden spiral is the unwavering memory of one of the most powerful photographs I never took.

The densely knit Amazon rainforest; home to countless indigenous peoples and the once-mighty Xingú River, now forever tamed.

When I was a young and inexperienced photographer, I was sent on an assignment to a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon. Flying from town to town, over vast stretches of rainforest, and in increasingly small airplanes, I finally arrived at the Kayapó village of Kendjam; home to one hundred and fifty individuals. My mission was to give a face and a name to the thousands of indigenous people whose lives were soon to be impacted by the construction of the Belo Monte dam.

Young Kayapó children will sit or stand patiently for hours, as their mothers paint their bodies with genipap, a dye made from a forest fruit of the same name. Being painted, and painting others, is a very important form of social bonding in these remote Amazonian villages.

Late one afternoon, I saw a group of women coming up from the river; one of them carrying a tiny baby in her arms. It dawned on me that they had just given this newborn his first bath in the river; a vital ritual bath that ties a person’s fate to the fate of the river. And I had missed it. I consoled myself, naively thinking I that could find the mother in the morning and ask her to bring her baby back down to the water, hoping to recreate what I had missed. Tragically, we woke to the news that the infant had not lived through the night. By the time I had figured out what was happening, the women had already buried the tiny body, and I had missed that ritual as well.

Dismayed, I began to wonder if I was up to the challenge of this assignment, wishing the editors had sent a more experienced photographer, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure approaching. It was the mother of the baby, walking straight towards me and bawling. Nobody was going near her. As she came closer, I saw that she was cradling a dirty bundle.

In her sorrow, she had dug out the body of her dead child, and was carrying him around. Clutching a machete in her hand, she was hitting her forehead with the blunt edge as she screamed out her sorrow. Her face, her dress, her dead son; all were covered in mud and blood.

I stood there, gripping my camera with frozen fingers; paralyzed.

I could think only of my children back home and how I would feel if a stranger shoved a camera in my face just after I had lost my child. I am ashamed to admit that I did not take any photos.

The Xingú river is intimately woven into the fabric of Kayapó life. This young girl’s eyes speak of a beloved waterway about to be dammed forever, of pride in her people’s traditions, of fear for a future unknown, and of the innocence that every child deserves to live with.

A few months later we learned that the dam had been approved and construction was to begin immediately. I thought about the beautiful, generous people I had met and how their lives would be changed forever.

To this day, I am haunted by this question: 
Would their fate have been been different if I had dared to do my job and take those difficult photographs? What if my images had been beautiful enough, or dramatic enough, to change the conversation?

I will never know, because that day I lacked the courage to press the shutter: a mistake I never made again. From that moment forwards, I pledged never to hesitate and to make images that matter.

Over the course of my career I have witnessed photography’s ability to shape perceptions, help societies pause and reflect, and inspire change. Being a photographer allows me to share my deepened understanding of the truth that all things in nature are part of one vast ecosystem.

Unlike people, the Earth’s diverse waterways, wildlife, and forests are intricately woven into the fabric of the whole; not claiming a separate existence. My hope is that my images will inspire a stronger connection with the nature that lies within and around us, as it is infinitely worthy of our deepest respect and care.

– Cristina Mittermeier –

In a raw world that seems to bleed everyday with shriveling resources, human tragedy, and environmental ruin. Where every moment with a press of a button or a swipe of a screen, we are assaulted with distressing news, stories and images that threaten our sense of security and dim our lights, we must find ways to remain optimistic.

We must work to remove the physical and metaphorical barriers that block our meaningful connection to one another and to our planet. In my twenty five years documenting remote tribal communities around the world I have learned important lessons from their collective wisdom.

However, all is not lost. We still have time to nurture the Ocean’s incredible Resilience.

From Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, I have witnessed entire ocean ecosystems spring back to life when local communities are empowered to sustainably manage and restore their waters. Slowly but surely, communities around the world are harnessing the political will necessary to bring our oceans back to health. When we act together, we can inspire great change. This is why I co-founded SeaLegacy with my life partner, Paul Nicklen.

INTENDED TO ELICIT OUR WONDER AND AWE AT THE NATURAL WORLD, AMAZE IS A GUIDE THROUGH THE LABYRINTH OR ‘MAZE’ OF NAVIGATING A SUSTAINABLE EXISTENCE.

With gratitude to Zoe Christensen and TeNeus Publishing and to Kim Frank, Dorothy Sanders and the Maptia team.