Life that Remains by the Great Hole
In the visual essay “There’s a Hole Inside Us,” photographer Ian Cheibub documents the situation in the Serra dos Carajás, in the Brazilian Amazon, where Vale do Rio Doce operates the world’s largest iron mine. After traveling to the area and living with its residents for a year and a half, he produced a body of work that not only records the toxic impact of mining on the landscape and people’s health but also highlights the uniqueness of the local culture and the resistance to the extractive model that has been imposed in the region.
By Alonso Almenara
Ian Cheibub was still a photography student when he learned of the tragedy that had just occurred in the municipality of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil. This hilly area, named after the mists that blanket the region, is the operating center of the Vale mining company. Iron is extracted with water in this mine, and the liquid waste is stored in dams around the mine for later treatment. However, on January 25, 2019, one of those dams collapsed. The dam failure unleashed a mudslide that buried the dam facilities, the iron mine, and several rural homes, resulting in 270 deaths and turning the area into a muddy wasteland.
This event motivated Cheibub to initiate an investigation into the role of extractivism in his country. Shortly after that, he began documenting the situation in the Serra dos Carajás, home to the world’s largest iron mine, located in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Today, it generates billions of dollars in profits for the Vale do Rio Doce company, but it was once the site of the country’s most significant guerrilla movement. In 1982, ten years after the fighting ceased, the Brazilian government launched the Carajás Big Project with assistance from the United States.
According to Cheibub, the Vale company, in partnership with the government, “built a legacy of historical erasure, as human rights violations were buried across the 9,000,000 km2 region. The pasteurized history is a problem throughout Latin America, especially in Brazil.”
In the visual essay “There’s a Hole Inside Us,” a finalist at the 2022 Festival Della Fotografia Etica, Cheibub set out to examine the voids that have been created both in the land due to mining and in the people who inhabit Carajás, carrying with them the complex history of this region. It is an alternative history, different from what lingers in the streets and public squares and sometimes even in local museums. But Cheibub’s black and white photos do not emphasize the devastation or the persistent poverty in the region; instead, they explore the everyday life in Carajás and capture the dignity of a people who refuse to accept the toxic fate offered by mining.
“Every time the people of Carajás were photographed, they appeared with pity in their eyes. It is a problem for me because I have witnessed the tremendous dignity of these people. It is the greatest dignity of a person I have seen. And that was not being photographed.”
How did you start documenting the situation in Brumadinho?
In 2019, when the Córrego do Feijão dam collapsed in Minas Gerais, I went to see what was happening. I was 19 years old at the time. It deeply marked me because the Vale do Rio Doce company knew that this could happen at any moment and did nothing to stop it.
On the other hand, I had taken a class at university called Mining, Dependence, and Nationalism, which presented a critical view of mining across the country. That interested me a lot. But up to that point, I didn’t know the reality of all these regions in Brazil that are heavily impacted by mining, and I wanted to learn about them. Finally, I started researching what was happening in the Serra dos Carajás, in the northern part of the country, where the Vale company has its most important mine. I traveled there and contacted an organization called Justiça nos Trilhos (Justice on the Rails), which has been instrumental in allowing me to undertake this project.
It all began with an almost two-month trip to get to know the communities. However, I felt that the more I learned, the more it was necessary to deepen the research. So I started working there. My life was that story for a year and a half. I met many people and heard many stories. In the end, I understood that the problems in the region are interconnected: dependence, mining, exploitation of people, forced labor, and the destruction of nature. Living there was very important because it gave me a broader perspective on what is happening in Brazil, not just with mining. Because mining is connected to deforestation, Garimpo (artisanal mining) is all part of a neocolonial project to exploit the Amazon and the country.
What were you interested in capturing in these images?
First, there aren’t many photographic projects in this region, let alone long-term projects. Also, while I was there, I realized that whenever the people of Carajás were photographed, photographers portrayed them with a particular look of pity in their eyes. To me, this is a problem because I have witnessed the tremendous dignity of these people. It’s the greatest dignity of a people I’ve seen in my life. And that wasn’t being photographed.
Additionally, these people are engaged in a very strong fight against extractivism. Documenting that struggle, acknowledging the achievements of these individuals and their dignity, was something I felt was almost an obligation, a debt of photography to Carajás.
How important is establishing a personal connection with the people you photograph?
For me, living with and staying in the community is essential. I’ve never been interested in going alone to take photos. In fact, during the first days, I didn’t use the camera. I waited for the necessary time for relationships to develop. I talked about everything, and I was very surprised by the openness of these people. They offer you everything they have. I’m truly grateful to the people who live there because this work is very collective. I developed the project very close to them. It couldn’t have been any other way because I stayed in their homes, ate the same food, drank the same water. And three years after completing this work, I’ve returned to the communities. I’m still in contact with them; I was there not too long ago. For me, it’s necessary to go back in all the work I do.
One of the things you mention in the text accompanying this work is that myths and syncretism are instruments of subversion of the status quo. What do you mean by that?
In that region, everything is interconnected. The most significant guerrilla in Brazil is the Araguaia guerrilla, which originated in this area in 1967. It involved about 70 people who faced off against 10,000 soldiers from the national army. From the beginning, the guerrilla intended to make mining sovereign so that the region could separate from Brazil and maintain its economic independence using the profits from the Carajás mine.
Toward the end of the guerrilla, when its main leaders were captured, a popular myth emerged. It told the story that they turned into a rock, a butterfly, or a lion when the soldiers were about to kill them. That is how myths and syncretism become forms of subversion of the status quo. Through mythology and symbols, we in the Global South can change those perverse logics that affect us.
This magical aspect fuels another project connected to “There’s a Hole Inside Us,” correct?
That’s correct. There are two connected projects: “There’s a Hole Inside Us,” which is more of a classic documentary, and another fictional project that I’m still developing. The second project doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s inspired by the work of Nicolás Janowski, an Argentine photographer I admire. He has a project called ” Adrift in blue” about the imagery of Tierra del Fuego. I would like to work with people as he does. I plan to create a fictional documentary about a theater company in the Serra dos Carajás, where the guerrilla originated. I’ll also document the military operations that continue to this day in the region. I want to blend the past, present, and future from a perspective that connects with the magical thinking of the region.
To conclude: What is the role of documentary photography for you?
I know that many photographers go to places like Carajás or other areas in the country affected by mining just to take pictures and then leave. From the beginning, it was clear that I didn’t want to do that. One of the reasons is that I’m a student and an apprentice of the photographer João Roberto Ripper. He has curated my work and edited things with me. He developed a concept called “shared photography,” which involves, for example, turning off the camera immediately when someone feels uncomfortable being photographed. For him, photography connects the person being photographed and those who see the photos. As he says, photography is a “stream of solidarity,” an essential tool for breaking stereotypes. That’s what has always guided me.