Photographing in the jungle is difficult. Heavy moisture and low light are tough obstacles for a camera and photographer to overcome. But what makes the idea exciting? Meeting with, observing, and documenting a traditional - almost ancient - culture.
The Matis people in Amazonian Brazil were first contacted by the modern world in the 1970s. A small amount of contact has been had since then, but the Matis are still very much traditional in their society and way of life. The Matis were once nomadic people who moved villages every few years. But western diseases wiped out their population after first contact with the modern world. Now, only two villages remain - both situated on the Itui River.
Michael Herring, a SUNY Plattsburgh Expeditionary Studies student and travel photographer, traveled to Colombia for a rock climbing trip as part of his school's program. From there, Herring, along with members of the Explorers Club and Feral Human Expeditions, paddled up the Amazon into Brazil to meet the Matis just outside of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Reserve.
"We watched the Matis find the vine and harvest it," said Herring. "They created the poison out of the vine by shaving the bark, mixing it with water, boiling it down until it was a paste, then applying it to darts"
But deceivingly-dark lighting conditions mixed with heavy moisture in the air makes photographing in the jungle extremely difficult. "First you’re shooting the floor of the jungle, then the canopy," said Herring. "You’re dealing with very dark shadows then strong highlights as light breaks through leaves."
Plus, there was a lot of motion involved specifically during monkey hunts and dances. A creative decision Herring made was to roll with motion blur in some photographs, as they added liveliness to the images and helped show that the Matis are people, not just subjects to be photographed.
For five days of shooting the Matis in the jungle, Herring brought along two extra batteries and solar panels, as his team used solar-powered outlets to recharge their gear. He did bring one extra lens, but never changed lenses because the dirt and humidity of the jungle were too harsh. To help combat the humidity, Herring always carried a roll-top dry bag with him and put his camera in the bag while not photographing. He knew the Mark III is weather-sealed, but at the end of the trip Herring still had humidity in his camera and lens and battled a harsh fog in his gear constantly throughout the expedition. "If I could have brought anything it would've been giant silicone gel packs that suck up moisture," said Herring.
"I wanted to make sure I was observing the experience. I wasn't there simply to collect data, get a story, and move on," said Herring. "I wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing the human element."
On the expedition, Herring realized he was walking a fine line between photographer and passive observer of a unique and little-known culture. Rather than be obtrusive by sticking a camera in the faces of the Matis, Herring aspired to take a mellow approach. For him, the people were more than just a subject to photograph, and he wanted to make sure they felt that way. "I think this should always be the primary objective, regardless of deadlines needing to be met or objectives needing to be checked off. I want to have respect for the people I'm photographing."
"The best advice I could give to any photographer is to respect where you are and who you're photographing," said Herring.
You can visit Herring's website to view more of his work.
All photographs were used with the permission of Michael Herring.