At the age of 14, Araquém Alcântara wanted to be a journalist, maybe even a writer. He spent his teenage years immersed in the literature of Lima Barreto, Machado de Assis, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Conrad and Guimarães Rosa. In 1970, he enrolled in the College of Communication of Santos. He was soon working in the branch of the newspapers Estadão and Jornal da Tarde. Everything according to plan.
But on a fateful evening he went to see a midnight movie session that a Frenchman, Maurice Legeard, held in Santos. The film was The Naked Island, by Kaneto Shindo. A film nearly without a story, or words. A couple living with their two children on an inhospitable island. The daily drudgery of getting up, fetching water, tilling the land, preparing the meals, fetching water again, the skiff at the dock, the birds on the rocks, the oar pushing against the waves. The power and beauty of the pure image. The photo as a summary of speech. Araquém, catatonic in the darkness, had an epiphany, as though struck by lightning. He left there staggering, overwhelmed, called.
The First Photo
The next day, a friend of his, Marinilda, showed him some commonplace photos, from her family album, taken with a simple Yashica camera. Still stricken, feverish from the film, Araquém could hardly look at them. Instead, he asked Marinilda to lend him the camera, bought three black-and-white films and that night went to a cabaret at the port where he often listened to rock bands and, with luck, could catch a brief appearance by a famous performer.
There he was, camera in hand, two rolls of film in his pocket, no technique at all in his head, nervous like on any first time. Although he lacked the courage to do anything, he was dimly aware that in that Yashica, in those films, he was holding a life. He left there late that night, without ever pressing the button.
At the bus stop, it was already dawn when one of the girls from the cabaret passed by and challenged him:
You want to take a picture, eh? You want to take a picture? So then, take a picture of this. She lifted up her skirt and showed her sex.
It was his first photo.
The First Exhibition
From that point on, he never stopped. Words were no longer of any use. He stuttered on them. What interested him now were books of photographs, and images: Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Welles, and the great photographers Cartier-Bresson, Werner Bischof, Ansel Adams, Ernst Haas.
Araquém chose the theme of his first photo essay: the vultures of Santos. They could always be spotted around the city, scavenging on scraps, dead fish on the beach, garbage in Cubatão. Always close to misery.
The somewhat provocative title of his first exhibition, in January 1973, at the Clube XV in Santos was Os Urubus da Sociedade [The Vultures of Society]. Black pieces of cloth concealed the photos of the vultures, the city’s garbage, its grimiest denizens. In order to see the images, the visitor had to unveil them, to lift up the “skirt.” An unconscious influence from that first photo at the dockside cabaret? It might have been, except that in this case the obscene aspect was a social one. Indeed, the exhibition was denounced as communist. And it sparked many questions. Why photograph vultures, miserable animals with no sales value?
The Vulture on the Sidewalk
But Araquém kept going. He already had a sort of lemma. Choose, always, with the heart. He pushed forward and never regretted that first wager on the vulture.
One afternoon, also in 1973, he was coming back from covering a regatta when he spotted a vulture on the sidewalk, in front of a fish shop. A little girl around three or four years old came out of the fish shop and began to approach the vulture, fascinated by it. Araquém deftly adjusted his modest Pentax Spotmatic. He felt a sense of presentiment. Throughout his later life, this perception was constantly reaffirmed to him: the photo is a presentiment, a premonition that something simple, yet great, is about to happen.
It happened. The girl bent forward to pet the vulture. The bird was already lowering its head docilely when two men rushed frantically out of the fish shop. One of them grabbed the girl, the other frightened away the vulture. In just six photos Araquém recorded the entire scene, telling the story in six words. At that one moment, he discovered that being a photographer is to record the instantaneous story of the world. That one must be there when life, without warning, raises its skirt – and shows itself.
At that time, the sequence of photos of the vulture on the sidewalk was published in the magazine Fotoptica.
Lights in Jureia
And then came the third calling. In 1979, it began with an environmentalist city councilman of Itanhaém, Ernesto Zwarg Jr., one of the first and bravest voices to be raised against the ravaging of the Jureia Forest by woodcutters and hunters. Ernesto called on Araquém to make a photographic documentary on the region.
His trips into the heart of the Atlantic Forest began. On foot, through virgin forests, treading up and down hills, sleeping under large trees. It was a revelation, just like that night when he had come face-to-face with the images by Kaneto Shindo. But with a difference: here the island was not naked. God made all the forests, but when he made the Atlantic Forest he followed it up with postproduction work: large patches of every shade of green, speckled with colors, with babbling brooks and natural ikebana arrangements formed one after the other. It was the revelation, against the backdrop of horror, of a possible harmony. The discovery of color, in its habitat.
In the midst of the Jureia Forest he had an experience that was almost like an anointing for this mission. One night, he witnessed the phenomenal flight of the bird called mãe-de-fogo [mother-of-fire], also known as tucano-de-ouro [golden toucan], which arose out of nowhere like a ball of light with a comet’s tail and hovered for a few seconds in the sky. Araquém had just enough time to call the able woodsman Vandir, and together they watched the mãe-de-fogo fly out of sight behind the mountain called Pico do Pogoçá.
The Jaguar in the Igarapé
In 1980, Araquém traveled to Manaus to take photographs for a company connected to the tire retail industry. In the hotel, he overheard two waiters talking about a stray jaguar that had recently been spotted roaming along the banks of a waterway that cut through the forest, called Igarapé do Guedes. He felt a sense of presentiment.
Guided by one of the waiters, he went off by boat to search for the jaguar.
He did not have to travel very far. He soon caught sight of it, majestic, biting tree trunks playfully in the water. It was a jaguar in trouble, which had escaped from captivity at a hotel, not wishing to return. On the other hand, it was apparently facing rejection from the jaguars of the forest. So it was living around there, like all the maladjusted, at the fringe.
Araquém developed the photo, enlarged it, sold it to the foreigners at the tire company, and used the money to buy his first tripod, his first Nikon.
He came back from that trip a professional.
He came back better equipped to do documentary photography in the spirit of activism and denouncement – the social in black-and-white, the ecological in colors. At that time, in the early 1980s, the military government was planning to build two nuclear power plants in the Jureia region. Araquém joined the protests and produced a legendary photo. This is where his father, Manuel Alcântara, “Old” Queco enters the story.
“Old” Queco is perhaps, in Araquém’s life, where everything really began. Because he was, as seen in the photo, a special being. He had left his home, in Itajaí, Santa Catarina, at the age of ten, “with a pair of hole-riddled shoes and one boiled egg,” to travel the world. He was a cabin boy, ship’s cook, treasure hunter along the coast and hiker, whose only luxury was to keep his shoes somewhat presentable in order to get into movie houses.
Although he was illiterate in the letters of this world, in trances he spoke ancient African languages.
On one fine day in April 1981, “Old” Queco went out with his photographer son to have his picture taken with the nuclear reactors in the background. Leaving Peruíbe, they walked 36 kilometers on foot, to the middle of the Jurea Forest, at Grajaúna Beach, where those reactors were to be built. There, “Old” Queco let loose his long, braided hair while holding a stately framed photo against his chest, showing the cadavers of unburied victims of Hiroshima. And his son shot the photo.
The photo was published all over Brazil and around the world; it flew like a shout, an exorcism. The prophetic “Old” Queco, holding a tragedy against his chest. Journalists wrote articles decrying the reactors; the region’s coastal dwellers began to say that the reactors were from the devil.
Today, Grajaúna Beach is part of the Jureia Ecological Reserve.
Books, the Book
Even while doing freelance work for various clients – he covered the historic ABC auto workers strikes for the magazine IstoÉ – Araquém never abandoned his projects and essays aimed at raising ecological and social awareness.
What he collected on the road began to be transformed into books. The first was with Burle Marx, about trees in Minas Gerais. This was followed by splendid works on the Atlantic Forest and on the complex of lagoons between the states of São Paulo and Paraná called Mar de Dentro [Inner Sea]. Both were a pure celebration of the beauty of our flora and fauna. A small book on the favelas in Santos, in a very well-edited black-and-white edition, shows that he had not abandoned the paths of the vulture.
And yet he continued to tread entirely new paths. In the book on Santos, Araquém, who was born in Florianópolis, celebrated the city where he grew up, from the age of seven onward.
On all these journeys, in these long communions with nature, Araquém was preparing the way for his great work on Brazil based on visits to its 36 national parks.
This was to be his big project, the impassioned essay. The book.
The Great Battle
The book began. When did it begin? The night he watched Naked Island, by Kaneto Shindo? Certainly, and also when he saw the vulture on the sidewalk, the jaguar in the igarapé, the mãe-de-fogo in the mountains.
In practical terms, it can be said with more certainty that it began about ten years ago. Because it was a vast, detailed, ambitious project. To register the magnificent Brazilian environmental heritage, from Cabo Orange to the Banhado do Taim, in its moments of splendor and misery, preservation and extermination. All of Brazil. The Amazon Forest’s greatness, the Atlantic Forest’ fragility, the hallucinatory mesas on the high plains, the remote strangeness of the Pantanal, the vast savannas, scrub forests and the first deserts. At whatever cost, no matter how long it took.
And the cost was great, it took a very long time. Brazil, sometimes, is very far away, expensive and confusing. It was necessary, the whole time, to come up with material for magazines, struggle to get flight tickets, lodging and food, hitching rides on boats, airplanes, sometimes chartering helicopters by the hour. The whole while considering the logistics of the thing. Being willing to set out, like “Old” Queco, with a pair of hole-riddled shoes and one boiled egg. While fortunately relying on the great solace of support from state secretaries of tourism, Ibama staff, and all the unforeseen and generous friends he made along the way. It was ten years of comings and goings, passion and boldness.
All of This Brazil
Passion, difficulty, but also a great deal of enchantment. Today, when Araquém talks about his long, ten-year journey, there emerges a myriad of far-flung places in Brazil, its animals, people and landscapes, appearing one after the other on an awesome mural.
The hyacinth macaws of the Pantanal, the delicate flowers of the mountaintop meadows, the roar of jaguars and the plethora of fish in Araguaia, the maned wolves of the Serra da Canastra, where, in a Japanese garden, the São Francisco River is born, the lost lakes and nomad fisherman of the Lençóis Maranhenses, the incredible concentration of sandpipers, swans and geese in the Lagoa do Peixe, Rio Grande do Sul, the cantankerous wild pigs and the arrogant hawks of the Park of the Emas, the blue-and-yellow macaws of the Grandes Sertões Veredas National Park where the Urucuia and Carinhanha rivers of Guimarães Rosa are born, the limestone and sandstone cities of the Serra da Capivara, in Piauí, subtitled with rupestrian inscriptions, the portentous canyons of the Aparados da Serra, the uncanny rocky outlines on the Pico do Roraima.
And a city: Xique-Xique do Igatu, in the Chapada Diamantina region. There, a unique people inhabit the spaces left in the aftermath of the diamond rush. Dona Poném, who with her many cats and wise irony lives alone in a large house ensconced in the Serra do Sincorá. Dona Alzira, who prospects among old houses for jewels from opulent times when luxury was everywhere. In a suit, hat, and cane fashioned from the iron door of the cemetery, along cobblestone streets, Senhor Carmito, an honorary subcommissioner, flaunts his authority. And it is customary to bring caged birds to the public square for a “walk” in the afternoon. In Xique-Xique do Igatu the pet birds are let loose to play in the public square, and afterwards come right back to their cages. And on nights with many moths, the entire city is invaded by frogs of every sort. While Araquém was there, “Seu” Guina, at the town’s only bar, knew that the photographer would return weary from his hikes through the mountains, so he had already iced the beer and separated the beef jerky.
The Great Journey
Of all his trips, the journey through the Amazon, in late 1996 to early 1997, was the most fantastic, the most arduous. By airplane, boat and on foot, there were four months of travel, 60 thousand kilometers traversed, and more than 30 thousand photos. This was the cost of the decision to photograph the seven national parks in that immense realm, a world apart. In the state of Acre, to photograph a unique and beautiful waterfall in the Serra do Divisor National Park, it was necessary to journey three days by boat and two on foot into the forest. The waterfall, called Formosa, was worth it.
By plane, by boat, on foot, it was a challenge at every step.
In Roraima, the single-engine airplane he was aboard simply disappeared in a storm. They spent an interminable one-half hour among thick clouds and lightning, in complete desperation, until catching sight of the first patch of blue sky. While descending the Cotingo River, also in Roraima, the boat got out of control in the current, near a waterfall. At the last moment, like in the movies, it was possible to catch hold of a rock, get the boat back under and save everyone aboard – and the equipment too.
A trip to the Amazon would not be complete if it did not include a climb up the mountain called Pico da Neblina, the rooftop of Brazil, a 17-day adventure. They left São Gabriel da Cachoeira, spent five days in Yanomami Indian villages, then traveled by boat along the Iá-Mirim River, entered the Iá-Grande River, and took the Cauburis until Igarapé Tucano. From there they continued on foot for five days through the forest until finally reaching the foot of Pico da Neblina, already two thousand meters above sea level. Then the climb begins. There are one thousand meters of steep slopes, stone, mud and low vegetation. As guides, two wild-cat gold miners.
It was a climb by dint of fingernails and courage, without any rope for support. It took five hours to reach the top, a plateau about 20 meters on a side with the Brazilian flag wedged into a rock. It was raining and cold, entirely blanketed by fog. The photo, the epic photo, was nearly impossible. Brimming with excitement, exhausted, huddling in the lee of a rock to get some slight shelter from the cold, Araquém managed to write in his notebook: “I feel, more than ever, like a traveler, a collector of worlds. Here, once again, I consecrate my life to recording and sharing beauty.”
Thus it is that Araquém, with this book, TerraBrasil, completes his 25-year career of pure photography. He, who wanted to be a journalist, perhaps a writer, a man of words. He, who one night, at midnight, was saved, or cursed, by a Japanese film, at a midnight movie session. The story also involves a dockside prostitute, a vulture on the sidewalk, a mãe-de-fogo in the mountains and, who knows, in everything and above all, “Old” Queco. All of them gave us this Araquém that we know, with his profusion, his boldness and his magnificent art.