Amazon through local lenses – Interview
Vanessa Gama is a biologist, photographer and amateur filmmaker. She was born in Manaus and works at MUSA (Museu da Amazônia), where in addition to photographing nature, she carries out research in the field of botany and leads visitors from all over the world on the Amazonian museum’s trails.
Andrea Bandoni: Since we met in 2012, I have followed your work as a photographer and I admire you a lot. I know you're a biologist too. Can you tell a little more about your career?
Vanessa Gama: I started working as a trail guide in 2001 at the age of 14 at the Adolpho Ducke Botanical Garden in Manaus. I was in this function until I was 18, when I joined the bachelor programme in Biology at Nilton Lins University. Then, as a trail guide intern at the Municipal Secretary of Environment and Sustainability, I could continue working at the Botanical Garden of Manaus. During this time, I became interested in nature photography, so I took a photography course at the Rede Amazônica Foundation. My intern position finished in 2009, and in this year the Museum of the Amazon (MUSA) established itself, replacing the Manaus Botanical Garden in the 100 square kilometer area of the Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve. Since then I have been working at MUSA carrying out research in the field of Botany, making photographic records of local wildlife, and guiding national and foreign visitors along the trails of MUSA. I believe that through informal conversations with each group of visitors that I drive in a portion of the Amazon forest, I contribute to the popularization of science, to stress the importance of the living forest and “Living Together” [MUSA’s motto].
My interest in filmmaking came later, in 2018, when I felt the need to record on video the interactions that take place inside the forest. Movies and cinema have always fascinated me and I’m increasingly convinced that it brings me the power to enchant and sensitize people. It can better show how “Living Together” works, humans and the forest living harmoniously and without so much interference; a spider making its web for prey or larvae walking in clusters to protect themselves by looking like a larger organism in an attempt to intimidate the predator. Thus, with filmmaking it is possible to show that each organism has its importance on the planet as parts of a larger gear; if one loses its structure the whole ceases to function.
AB: Vanessa, you participated in the first Objetos da Floresta workshop in Manaus. At that time, you worked as a trail guide and photographer for Musa. What are your memories of the workshop? Is there anything that caught your attention?
VG: I remember learning from amazing people and I also remember not being very creative when it comes to handicrafts. The indigenous people have impressive skills in weaving, braiding or painting—I would like to have such skills, but unfortunately, we can’t have everything in this life (LOL).
AB: You have a great knowledge of the Amazon region close to Manaus. Have you seen in your travels objects like those that were part of the Objects of the Forest project? If so, what is the relationship of people with this type of object?
VG: I participated in the production of a documentary about the Traditional Agricultural System of the Middle Rio Negro, in Santa Isabel do Rio Negro. There I had the opportunity to live with indigenous people of the Baré, Tukanos and Baniwase ethnic groups. All of them use weaved baskets as domestic utensils, taking material from the forest and handcrafting the baskets.
I also tasted magnificent dishes of the indigenous cuisine. The tipiti is indispensable in the flour mill, as is the strainer used to sift the cassava, the fan used to turn beiju (local food) or fan the fire, and the aturá basket used to carry the cassava. These are certainly of great importance nowadays in the daily lives of indigenous people. According to Ms. Orlanda of the Baré ethnic group “Without flour we cannot live, the farm is our life”
AB: This year the Amazon has been in the news many times, especially because of deforestation and the consequences of the pandemic. All over the world I see people worrying about the Amazon. Do local people care about it? Do they have this information? What does this news feel like for someone who lives there?
VG: The concern exists, the problem is the lack of public policies coming from the government, the commitment of those in power. The Minister of the Environment of the current government falls short—he neglects defending traditional populations and the country's natural resources. It is a feeling of powerlessness under a selfish and greedy government. As a biologist who has vowed to protect life, I try to reach the largest number of people to warn about the dangers of destroying the forest, as this planet is the only one we have and we need to take care of it not only for ourselves, but for future generations. The forest is much more worthy while it is standing.
AB: I was very impressed with the talented people I met in the Amazon in 2012, including you, of course. I think many people would like to get to know the Amazon from a local perspective. How can we find these talents? How do you think local professionals like designers, artisans, artists, photographers and etc. can have their careers boosted?
VG: In fact, there are countless talented people who contribute to the preservation of traditional knowledge, environmental education and forest conservation. They are spreading their work on the walls of the city, on social media, at popular events in the City Center, galleries and etc. What we can do to boost their careers is to enjoy, share, encourage, give them opportunities, and bring these artists together to create something bigger in order to have a positive impact on society. Successful examples of this are found in the anthropological exhibitions of the MUSA. The “Fish and People” exhibition tells about the traditional fishing system of the upper Rio Negro. The “Aturas, cassavas and beijus” exhibition showed the traditional agricultural system of the Middle Rio Negro. In both exhibitions indigenous people were invited to participate in the construction of the exhibitions. I learned how to build fishing traps and make quality flour from them in practice. And who better than the indigenous people to teach us? They are the greatest connoisseurs of the forest.
AB: Finally, what is your favorite object of the forest?
VG: I have a lot of appreciation for all objects made with plants, but I really like the woody and resistant hedgehogs of the chestnut. They keep the almonds that are nutritious food, they are decorative, they are used to make toys and as plant pots. At MUSA’s serpentarium [snake terrarium] we use them to accommodate the snakes inside the enclosures. They are very useful for people, for animals and for the plants themselves, because when decomposed their organic matter returns to the trees in the form of energy.
photo: Tettigoniidae (Bicho-folha-seca) / Vanessa Gama