Driven out of Tierra del Fuego, the Selk’nam now live very far from Patagonia. Their culture was declared extinct, as it had disappeared almost completely: today they search for their true identity. The Brazilian photographer Marcio Pimenta set out to find traces of this ethnic group; at the same time, his series speaks about how humankind sees itself apart from nature.
José Luis Vásquez Chogue, Secretary of the Corporation Selk’nam. This is the first time he has visited the land of his ancestors, Tierra del Fuego. “It was an emotion and an energy that I had never experienced. I tried to see and understand this place with the eyes of my grandfather.” His grandfather was given up for adoption and was taken by a French family. He have been on a personal search for more than thirty years. Only three years ago they found out that they were Selk’nam, when they saw their grandfather’s name in one of the Salesian birth records on Dawson Island. The recent Selk’nam journey of self-discovery has also become a tour of endless meetings with Chilean politicians to incorporate the Selk’nam into Indigenous Law. The main objective is to have them known as living Selk’nam, contrary to what is still taught. “It’s hard to say who I am, because the State doesn’t recognize us,” says José. Punta Arenas, Chile, 2021
What is the origin of your project?
I could say that this project began during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, however, it is necessary to contextualize my interest in this topic. In 2007 I went to Chile to do PhD studies in American Studies. I knew almost nothing about the country and Patagonia was too far away for me. Luckily, my doctoral colleagues, many of them anthropologists, geographers and historians, were very generous in sharing the history of the country, its cultures and challenges. When I decided to become a photographer I just knew that I would need to use all my academic knowledge in my projects, if I wanted to say something relevant to the public. I began travelling throughout South America to document the human presence on Earth related to water, energy, and food, and received an invitation to go to Antarctica to photograph the work of climate researchers. I realized how lucky I was to be there, but also how irrelevant we all are to the planet. We would not be missed at all. These experiences aroused my curiosity about the trajectory of humankind’s incredible adventure across the planet. During the pandemic I started my research, and in the diaries Charles Darwin wrote during his trip through Patagonia, I found some answers to my questions. I presented the idea to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and they embraced the project. Finally, in 2021, Chile reopened its borders and I was able to photograph what interested me most: the clash of civilizations.
You are following the traces of a people who have long been declared extinct. How difficult was it for you to find and follow these traces?
Although all the ethnic groups in the region have fascinating stories, I was particularly interested in the Selk’nam because they were the only ones who were thought to be extinct. When I contacted them, I learned that they are going through a legal process to have the Chilean state recognise their existence. It is a difficult time for them. In the last decade, many Selk’nam have undertaken emotional and physical journeys, to learn about and acknowledge the tragic history of their ancestors. Even today, some inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego do not assume their Selk’nam ancestry. The stigma of death is so strong that the Selk’nam did not want to be indigenous. Denying ethnicity was a way to survive. And so academics declared that they were extinct. There were long conversations and a lot of research was done, while waiting for Chile to open its borders. When I finally got there, I was lucky enough to witness some Selk’nam visiting their ancestral lands for the first time. They were all very excited.
Tools used by the Selk’nam to build bows and arrows that would be used for hunting the guanaco. These artefacts are exhibited at and belong to the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum, Punta Arenas, Chile. Punta Arenas, Chile, 2021
Are the Selk’nam a rather shy people?
Distrustful, evasive and taciturn were the adjectives that best described them in our online conversations; but when we met, everything changed. As they got to know the land of their origins, they were inspired with confidence. In between open smiles, they talked non-stop… To reach them, I contacted some friends in Chile and connections were made.
What do you want to show with the project?
Excellent question! I want to invite readers to look into the future. Where is our species headed? To some extent, humankind sees itself as apart from nature. As our species evolves we lose more of this contact. The COVID-19 pandemic has condemned us to stay indoors. At this time, many workers living in expensive apartments in New York, Paris and Tokyo, have realized that they have no more than 15 square metres of space in their lives. They were used to going out to work all day, performing repetitive tasks, eating fast food of dubious quality, and returning to their cubicles only to sleep. All this goes against the nature of our species. We have lost physical abilities that were fantastic. The indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego endured that hostile and cold environment and often walked around naked! Because they were not enslaved by the Agricultural Revolution, they had more varieties of food and a lifestyle with less repetitive and more stimulating activities. They also suffered fewer threats of hunger and disease. And there is no evidence that we are smarter today.
You photographed with a Leica M10…
I love my Leica M10. When I abandoned reflex cameras in 2018, I didn’t know that switching to the M10 would completely change my photography. I am calmer and devote more time to people and landscapes; because it is so good to shoot with this rangefinder, that the whole process becomes a huge pleasure. It reflects the state of mind I work with today: simplicity. I am not really interested in a lot of technological features; the subject and the people are the most important. People also seem to feel more comfortable and even surprised when I take the camera out of the bag to photograph them.
One of your themes is also the question of identity. How important is this topic today – and for you personally?
I was born in a small town in the interior of the state of São Paulo. As soon as I was born, however, my parents moved to Bahia, a state in the Northeast of Brazil, with a very rich and completely different culture, and they gave me up for adoption. So I grew up far away and without any prospects of one day returning to that small town. In 2014, I received an assignment from National Geographic Brazil to cover the story of the biggest water drought in the history of São Paulo; and its epicentre happened to be precisely in the town where I had been born. When I was working there, people would ask me “Where are you from?”, and for the first time in my life I could answer, “I am from here”. So the Selk’nam, who were driven out by the colonizers and given up for involuntary adoption, only seek the essential: the quest for recognition. That is why they fight to get the Chilean state to give them the right to exist, so that one day they can return to the land of their origins and be able to say “I am from here”. The identity of a people is the result of its culture, politics, and historical process.
The Cemetery of Onaisín, also known as the Cemetery of the British or of the Settlers. The cemetery belongs to the residents and settlers of the Caleta Josefina resort of the Sociedad Exploradora da Tierra del Fuego, and is now a Chilean historical monument. This is wheresome of the farmers who were killed by the Selk’nam during the conflict were buried. Tierra del Fuego, Chile, 2021
Is your project also an attempt to preserve the past and tradition?
I believe it is another attempt to bear witness to the history of humankind.
What did the work and encounters with the Selk’nam mean to you?
I feel that a new portal has opened for me. I want to go back there several times. I feel that very little light is shed on the history of Patagonia and its people in the international media. I keep in touch with them almost every month. And I keep learning. This is the work that I always wanted to do. And when I got there I discovered that I have enormous challenges ahead of me. Right now I am poring over books and cost sheets to make an expedition across Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in my jeep.
Based in Brazil’s southernmost state, Marcio Pimenta is an explorer, photographer and visual storyteller whose most important focuses are on human, sociocultural issues, identity and climate change. His work has been featured in multiple print and online publications worldwide, including National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and El País. Much of his work is done in the field, exploring the most diverse scenarios and cultures, with his camera. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.