In April, Aaron Vincent Elkaim was in the last days of a two month trip working on the long-term project, Where The River Runs Through, when he learned that he had been awarded the $20,000 Alexia Professional Grant. He had thought that he was on his final trip, but the Alexia Grant is allowing him to continue to follow this story and show the world the severe impact Brazil’s major hydroelectric expansion in the Amazon has on the ecosystem and the people who live there.
“In recent years Brazil’s development of the Amazon has progressed at a staggering rate, as these new developments come to fruition it is vital to be a witness for both the people who call the Amazon home, and the World who depends upon it’s health,” Elkaim tells us in his proposal. “We understands the importance of the Amazon Rainforest, yet what happens there is often shielded from our vision.”
In a new interview, Elkaim talks about what is next for Where The River Runs Through, what effect he intends his project to have and how The Alexia Foundation is helping him accomplish it.
Alexia Foundation: What have you done on your project since having been awarded the grant?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: I received the Alexia Grant on the last days of a two-month trip while working on this project. Since then I have been scanning and editing the new work and planning my next trip which will begin at the end of September.
I will be partnering with a writer for this next trip. We are discussing spending time with the Juruna, which is one of the most heavily affected tribes who’s village is between the two dams as well as exploring the mining regions to the east.
It’s apparent that we need a paradigm shift, and I believe that the perspective of indigenous peoples could be integral to it
Alexia Foundation: How long will you work on this project?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: I hope to complete this project by the middle of 2017, but it’s always difficult to know when something will be done. There is so much scope to this project that you could spend a decade covering all the difference facets.
Alexia Foundation: Are you just looking at Belo Monte, or are you also still looking at the other dams being built?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: So far my work has mostly focused on the Xingu Basin and the Belo Monte dam, but also the resistance against the Saõ Luiz do Tapajos dam, which has been planned for the Tapajos River. Amazingly just last week the environmental licensing process for the dam was revoked, which is a huge victory for the Munduruku people who were fighting to stop it and protect their territory. A number of other smaller dams are still planned for the River, which the Munduruku will continue to resist.
Alexia Foundation: How many different tribes are affected by this?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: Belo Monte alone affects upwards of 18 different tribes, but hydroelectric in the Amazon affects many more. The impacts are not only through the direct impacts to the river and flooding, but also increased development, infrastructure, and population growth impeding on indigenous territories. Logging, fishing, soy production, cattle, and mining all have environmental impacts and are proliferating around the hydro development.
Alexia Foundation: The photos themselves are very distinct. How are you photographing this?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: I’ve been shooting with a Rolleiflex with a 2.8 Planar lens, which was my grandfather’s, as my primary camera. I also use a Mamiya 6, which is the same 2 1/4 medium format, but I have a wider 50mm lens on it. I’m also shooting with a Nikon D750, with a 35 and a 50.
I find the majority of the work that ends up in my edits is done with the Rollei. I find the camera a pleasure to work with and it produces rich images with depth, subtlety and feeling to them. I’m not sure if this is a consequence of the camera itself, the film, or the way it changes how I shoot.
What I love about that camera is that it eliminates the tricks of photography. The square composition and fixed lens simplifies the framing and you have to work at a certain distance to capture a scene. I find the moments reveal themselves differently than through a DSLR, I tend to frame and wait rather than snap as it comes.
It’s less trying to make a picture than being present and waiting for the picture to happen. I think this helps create a very honest image; the camera doesn’t add drama the way that a telephoto or wide angle can. It simply captures what is in front of it, but it does so in a really beautiful way.
Also, looking down through the ground glass I become a quiet observer and my energy is directed inward, rather than when I’m looking through a DSLR I feel more directly engaged, which influences how I feel and might also influence the subject.
Finally film is beautiful, and I love the fact that there is a magic happening when the light hit’s the celluloid, and I can’t chimp to distract me from the next moment. I have to choose my exposures wisely, and be OK with not taking a picture, which often happens when the moment doesn’t materialize, and the situation changes.
There is also this sense of capturing something beautiful and elusive. It’s like putting a butterfly in a jar. When that perfect image presents itself on the ground glass and you feel the shutter click, you’ve captured it in this magic box, on this tactile film.
You can’t check to make sure you have it either, but you know you do, and that feeling that you’ve captured something special stays with you until you get home, get the film back from the lab, look at it through a loop, and then finally scan it. For all that time the image exists only in your memory. This, of course, is still rare, as those images always are, but I find this process creates a very fulfilling experience.
Alexia Foundation: How did you decide to work on this topic?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: I originally came across this story online, I was just surfing the web and it popped out to me. At the time I was only beginning my work on First Nations people dealing with industrial development of their land in Canada’s Oil Sands. The Amazon has always been a place that I knew I would someday explore. Since I was a child it had occupied a place in my imagination and was high on my bucket list. I think it symbolizes the idea of a primordial nature, and that fascinated me.
I had put the Belo Monte story on the back shelf and continued my project in Canada for a couple more years. Once I had completed that, Brazil seemed like the next logical step. The project was a clear extension of the body of work I was committing myself to and in a place I was thrilled to explore.
I also came to realize that I was already connected to the hydroelectric story. Being from Manitoba, my perspective has been informed by the provinces history of hydroelectric dams displacing indigenous people. As well my family cottage where I spent my summers growing up and still visit each summer is on Lake Winnipeg, which is the third largest hydroelectric reservoir in the world. The health of the lake has long suffered because of the impacts of Manitoba Hydro, so these issues have always been present in some way in my life.
Alexia Foundation: Why is this work important? What do you hope for it to accomplish?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: I think this work is important for a number of reasons. I think it is always important to shine a light on the Amazon as it is such a critical resource for the planet and we all collectively depend on its health for our future.
I also think that hydroelectricity is greatly misunderstood. As a renewable resource, on paper it seems like a really wonderful thing, but when you look at the legacy of dams around the world the environmental impacts have been devastating to ecosystems and the people who depend upon them.
Dams are one of our most ancient technologies for producing power, but we now have the technology to do better. Investing in these megadams that will create permanent and drastic damage to vital and unique ecosystems should no longer be tolerated when so many other sustainable options for energy now exist.
Furthermore I believe there is much we can learn from indigenous and traditional peoples. For them the natural world is intertwined with the sacred and they understand the importance of creating balance and harmony with it. This perspective is increasingly important to spread in today’s world.
For too long we have been ruled by the idea that the earth was made for humans to control and to do with what we please. This mentality has created the rapid destruction of our planet, its ecosystems, cultures, and species all in what seems to be some egotistical pursuit of wealth and greatness. Dams, in a way, symbolize this mentality; they are some of our largest infrastructure projects and represent humanity’s ability to tame nature.
Our industrial progress has made us delusional into believing we can solve our problems through controlling nature. We are already paying the price for our ecological impacts, if we continue down this road I’m afraid it will be a very dark future.
It’s apparent that we need a paradigm shift, and I believe that the perspective of indigenous peoples could be integral to it. All of humanity shares a history of depending on the land for survival, yet today we have become so disconnected from nature and our roots. I hope my work can contribute toward reawakening that connection in some way. We are living beings dependent on a complex living world and we need to learn to find harmony with it.
I hope to educate and help create momentum against building new dams around the world. I think photography has an ability to engage people that are often not reached by activists and environmental movements. Images and stories don’t simply preach to a choir, they connect in a much broader, more nuanced and internal way. You never know how someone might be impacted by your photography, or what he or she will go on to do.
Alexia Foundation: How does the spectacle of the Olympics fit in with your thoughts on what is happening in the Amazon?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: It’s difficult to reconcile those two worlds. Brazil is a country hungry for greatness, and the Olympics and the World Cup are examples of that. Like Russia or China it’s all bravado for the world stage. Brazil, I think, sees the Amazon as a resource to be exploited like any other. While they have very progressive environmental legislation, I think they still looks to the Amazon for its future wealth and that’s frightening because it’s too important to keep destroying.
Alexia Foundation: What has winning the Alexia Grant meant for you?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: The Alexia Foundation grant has meant validation for my commitment. It is so meaningful to have those at the top of your industry embrace your work and push you forward. I also look forward to working with the foundation to disseminate this work around the world, that support is invaluable.
Alexia Foundation: How has the Alexia Grant influenced the reach of “Where The River Runs Through”?
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: The grant has got me wonderful exposure helping publish the work in Macleans in Canada, One World magazine in Belgium, and in Marie Claire Italy for the August issue. Also PDN is featuring me in their education issue for September.