Photographing a Traditional Amazonian Culture

Photographing a Traditional Amazonian Culture

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.


Michael Herring with the Matis.

In addition to studying the Matis' building tools and medical practices, what was unique about this trip, (besides being able to meet and interact with a traditional people and culture), was that Herring and his team were in Brazil to document a discovery. A few months prior, Herring and Garret Cooper - owner of Feral Human Expeditions - were in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in New York City. During their visit, they stumbled upon an "Ancient Peoples of South America" exhibit. One plaque in the exhibit stated that the curare vine was used by one tribe to make poison for darts. But Cooper knew firsthand this wasn't true. He had met with the Matis in the past and knew they used the curare vine, too. 

"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"


Matis harvest the curare vine.

One of the biggest challenges Herring faced in photographing the people was the fact that the Matis and the explorers were so different. "The first thing I did was to make sure they were comfortable," said Herring. "I focused on the things that make us similar simply by talking and laughing with them. Then I'd move into photography."

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.


Matis on a hunt.

To help combat dark shooting conditions, Herring brought his Canon 5D Mark III and 24-105 F/4 lens. Although he had to bump up his ISO while photographing, the grittiness that comes with lots of noise added to the overall emotion and theme of his work. 

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. 


Matis hunting in the jungle.

But there was a bigger takeaway from the expedition than documenting the discovery. There was a realization of what it means to be a travel photographer.

"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." 


Matis children.

Cooper and Herring shared a symbiotic relationship in which Cooper needed photographs for his company and Herring wanted to travel. But by photographing a tribe that rarely connects with the modern world, Herring questioned his position of travel photographer many times throughout the expedition. He never wanted to get too close to the Matis, or obstruct a traditional ceremony because he needed the picture. The key to photographing this culture wasn't to capture every moment, but rather know when to click the shutter and when to put the camera down. 

"The best advice I could give to any photographer is to respect where you are and who you're photographing," said Herring. 


The Matis.

On March 11 at the Explorers Club headquarters in New York City, Herring's team is presenting their findings. It's possible someone from the Smithsonian will be present, too. 

You can visit Herring's website to view more of his work.  

All photographs were used with the permission of Michael Herring. 

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Allen Morris's picture

I'm torn on this article. It's great that we learn more about indigenous traditional cultures and correct information about their daily lives, and kudos for the photographer for feeling a connection with the people and fostering his craft but this seems a little exploitive.

Feral Human Expeditions? Really? We can go on people safari?

Agreed. Also, the "Observer Effect" doesn't only apply to physics and is much more obvious in the case of people.

Allen Morris's picture

TIL about the "Observer Effect". Appreciate it.

TIL about the acronym, TIL. We're even! :-)

Jeff Walsh's picture

Yeah, this felt weird to read about, especially when it started off by saying that most of this tribe was killed after being introduced to western viruses. There's a part of me that found it intriguing but at the same time it felt very, going to the human zoo.

Allen Morris's picture

Certainly adds a bit of ethical ambiguity to the story, and raises a number of questions on “authenticity”.

Tim Behuniak's picture

This is what the article was trying to get at. Perhaps I didn't do the best job getting to the point. The idea of being exploitive vs. documenting a traditional culture is something the photographer grappled with the entire trip.

Allen Morris's picture

I enjoyed your article, specifically how you interwove his technical specs with the story, but no, I didn't get that the photographer himself grappled with the possible exploitive nature of the trip.

Regardless, I'm still glad the conversation went in that direction. So maybe there were hints in the writing that I picked up subcounsciously!

Adam T's picture

I kind of think it's ok once the tribe starts wearing levis instead of leaves.

Tim Behuniak's picture

This is what the article was trying to get at. Perhaps I didn't do the best job getting to the point. The idea of being exploitive vs. documenting a traditional culture is something the photographer grappled with the entire trip.