All the World’s a Story: Tales From Invisible Populations
By Miguel Pinheiro
In Short: Written as a first-person account, this case-based article is a storyteller’s perspective on how to expose urgent global issues that affect distant, sometimes “invisible” communities by gaining access and trust to understand, document and share their real stories.
You might be here because you are an (aspiring) investigator, a storyteller, or both, or more. If so, through a series of cases and projects - as well as the challenges associated with them - you will find some tips that may trigger your next investigative project, inspire you to create original and impactful content, or help you reach out to people whom you might want to involve, inform, inspire, or mobilise. Consider this as a case-driven journey into a storyteller-investigator’s mindset, experiences, findings and ever-evolving approaches to exposing the invisible that surrounds us all.
The Flying Dutchman
To tell a good story - whether we talk about an investigative story or any other - one must have interesting things to say and must be able to transmit them in a non-ordinary way.
Leaps of thought, transition of ideas, or an astute interweaving of events can cause the action of a story to develop in unexpected ways or to conclude in a way that is opposite to how it began. Subjectivity plays a big role both on the author and on the audience, as Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) - so brilliantly captured in this poem Autopsychography:
“The poet is a pretender.
He pretends so completely
That he even pretends that it is pain
The pain he really feels.
And those who read what he writes,
Reading of pain, feel truly
Neither of those pains he had,
But only the one they themselves have not.”
“O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.
E os que leem o que escreve,
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve,
Mas só a que eles não têm.”
Image: Wagner, The Flying Dutchman, engraving by French artist Gustave Doré (1832-83).
Take the example of the curse of the Flying Dutchman - Captain Van der Decken. In his attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope, he blasphemed against God and was condemned to sail until the end of his days.
In the 18th century, German writer and poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) took this folk tale and added that, from time to time, the Captain docked at a city where he looked for love, as he would be rescued from the curse if he found a woman who would be faithful to him unto death. So, the curse is now a story about infidelity and finding true love.
In the 19th century, another writer - German opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - transformed the meaning of this saga, and in his version a woman named Senta swears to be faithful to the captain unto death. But the captain overhears a conversation between Senta and another man, who she had also sworn to be faithful. Fearing that she may betray him, the Captain decides to leave. In despair, the woman throws herself to the sea. The theme of a curse that can be reversed by a woman, turns into a theme of condemnation that now falls also upon women in love.
One character submitted to different points of view gives rise to different meanings within the same story. Depending on which version of the Flying Dutchman is chosen, a distinct idea will be created in one’s head: is the Captain a cursed sea-wolf, an eternal seeker for true love, or a damned lover that brings death to the women he finds?
The same happens every time one listens to an invisible population, that is, a group of people whose voices were rarely (if ever) listened to by a wider audience, or a certain community whose physical, geographical, social, cultural or ecological context and isolation, made its communication to the public rather difficult. Or, as it is most often the case, the media never truly delivered their true undistorted speech. Such groups of invisible populations include, among several others, Indigenous people, maroons (African descendants) communities, and riverine populations, and they constitute the main focus of my work.
As a storyteller, I combine my experience in science, film and photography to provide alternative views of lesser-known communities. Whether in an urban or non-urban environment, I am always interested in recognising the human variety of behaviours and traditions, including local culture, value systems, traditions, or beliefs, and this is the drive behind all the examples I present here.
Image: Above is the Kayapo chief Raoni Metuktire, one of the most known Indigenous leaderships on the planet, being painted with the natural pigment named Urucum. ©Miguel Pinheiro
The Indigenous ethnic groups of the Amazon Rainforest are known by many for their chants, rituals and timeless dances. For centuries, these guardians of the forest prospered in a balanced way with the environment around. In the past decades, development projects such as hydroelectric dams and mining, are creating a tremendous impact in nature, and are a threat to the way of life of these populations, and a cause of extinction of human diversity. As each native community breaks down, the forest’s equilibrium is at stake.
After some years wandering in Europe and Africa narrating the invisible within urban centres, from disregarded communities to the central role of women in shaping identities, I spent the last few years in Brazil documenting traditional populations that are normally not heard when it comes to analysing the issues that flood our everyday news (see later section “Invisibility is Everywhere). When reaching such populations, I observed the resilience to maintain their territory, or their unique way of life, and the strategies developed to manage the unavoidable cultural clash between the local reality ruled by a providing natural biosphere and the life-changing arrival of the technological driving force of globalization.
Image: For Indigenous peoples, territory and land are the basis not only of economic livelihood but also are the source of spiritual, cultural and social identity. Without access to and respect for their rights over their lands, territories and natural resources, the survival of Indigenous peoples’ culture is threatened. [Above Lorena Kuruaya in the Xingu river. ©Miguel Pinheiro]
But after several trips to the Amazon Rainforest, I eventually decided to settle here. My goal is to be able to transmit and translate the life stories of “invisible” communities, their traditions, the way they relate to their territories, and how what is called progress and development can at times be measured as a deterioration of human rights, or as a questionable act to Nature’s balance. What I am trying to produce is a message that is clear enough to be understood without losing its originality, without distorting the people’s views and opinions, and without using such idiosyncratic and many times exoticised individuals to fit a sympathetic agenda. However, truth is subjective, as it depends on the personal imagination of who is witnessing. So, like in the case of the Flying Dutchman, a different version of the same story is not only possible but expected.
This article is a reflection about how I understand the role of multimedia as a vehicle for storytelling, and how such work can be used to raise awareness around the world. As a contemporary message, the following case studies reinforce the need to examine the significance of biocultural diversity and biocultural heritage, the urge to promote human rights, and the importance of alternative media channels to cover other angles of accepted mainstream speech.
Image: Swiderska, K. (2017), “What is biocultural heritage?”, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Image: Candomblé is an African diasporic religion that developed in Brazil through a process of miscegenation between the traditional religions of West Africa, Occidental Christianity and native Indigenous ceremonies. Afro-religions are part of Brazil’s daily life. Candomblé does not include the duality of good and evil; each person is required to fulfil his or her destiny to the fullest, regardless of what that is. To keep the trance and ecstasy going, the initiated drink spirits and smoke tobacco from a pipe. A high energetic focus is required from them, as each person is a living exchange of energy that demands a unique channel to transmit the advices of the Orishas (deities). [Ceremony of Candomblé in Diamantina, Brazil. ©Miguel Pinheiro]
Human Rights: a (brief) timeline
The information below was sourced and adapted from (2010) Langfield, M. et al - “Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Human Rights”. Oxon: Routledge.
Globalization is a buzz word of our time and, driven by information technologies and reflected in global movements of capital, resources and workers, its impact on the heritage field is enormous. Despite the existence of international instruments to safeguard fundamental human rights, specific rights of Indigenous and other traditional peoples worldwide remain inadequately protected.
In 1966, at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s General Conference, the Declaration on the Principles of International Cultural Cooperation asserted more clearly the link between human rights, human dignity and culture: “Each culture has a dignity and value which must be respected and preserved”, “Every people has the right and duty to develop its culture” and “In their rich variety and diversity, … all cultures form part of the common heritage belonging to all mankind.”
In 1982, the Mexico Declaration on Cultural Policies at World Conference on Cultural Policies, the notion of “culture” was broadened from a narrow, high art definition to be seen in its widest sense, as the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society and social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.
In October 2000, the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted by UNESCO, refers to a new ethic for the twenty-first century, providing the international community, for the first time, with a “wide-ranging standard-setting instrument to underpin its conviction that respect for cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue is one of the surest guarantees of development and peace”, which declares in Article 5 that: Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent. All persons have therefore the right to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons are entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity; and all persons have the right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and conduct their own cultural practices, subject to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
More recently, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes Indigenous peoples’ holistic approach to land rights. Article 25 of the UN Declaration affirms that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”
The healing Shaman from the Amazon Rainforest
“It’s like, how did Columbus discover America
when the Indians were already here?
What kind of shit is that?”
Miles Davis (North American trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, 1926-1991).
Image: Ayahuasca is a powerful brew that is consumed as a sacred medicine by some native South American nations. Records from the 16th century show meetings of Spaniards and Portuguese explorers with Indigenous groups taking Ayahuasca, “When drunk, they lose their senses, because the drink is very powerful. Through it they communicate with the demon, because they are without judgment and present several hallucinations that they attribute to a god that lives inside these plants.” [Above, Claudio Suarez, a Peruvian healing Shaman that calls himself a Chaka Runa, a bridge between worlds. ©MiguelPinheiro]
If the written format already has so many possibilities, a whole new set of meanings arises from multimedia, the use of sound, and image, and others combined. However, filming and photographing a subject has always been more of an art than a science, or in other words, subjectivity always plays a role even when visually documenting facts.
Collecting and using visual evidence
Photography or film are extremely helpful means of collecting information throughout an investigation.
“We need to keep in mind however, that the collection of information and recording of events through photos and videos is a double-edged sword. It can be objective and useful as a physical record and evidence of something that happened at a certain time. But it can also be (and is) subjective, as it shows what a photographer intended to show us when focusing her/his attention on a certain actor or action. As with any other fragment of information, with images we need to consider who made the image and for what purpose, and to apply a thorough verification process of important elements such as the who, what, where, when, and why” (excerpt from the “Gathering Visual Evidence” guide by Sajad Rasool, in the Exposing the Invisible Kit.)
This became strikingly important when I met Claudio Suarez, an itinerant Shaman from the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. On our first meeting in Rio de Janeiro a couple of years ago, I was surprised by his magnetic, yet silent presence. He inspired awe, all behind a simple and gentle way of communicating. When the healing Ayahuasca ceremony started, he unexpectedly transformed into a guide, a protector, an interpreter of sacred Indigenous songs that heighten the effect of the brew in the body, taking me into an indescribable sensory experience of intense proportions. This master of ceremonies took nearly ten years to complete the initiation into the secrets of the healing plants. Claudio represents a side of what was once called the “Third World” and that Western people still often see, numbed as they are by decades of being fed images of poverty, scarcity and technological underdevelopment.
Despite being used for centuries as a sacred medicine, Ayahuasca is classified as a psychedelic substance and banned in most countries in the world due to one of its ingredients, the DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). Ayahuasca is also part of a new billion-dollar psychedelic industry, along with substances such as LSD or psilocybin. Here’s how a complex mixture of two different plants of the Amazon Forest, put together by the ancient Indigenous lore, used as sacred medicine in a ritualistic context, transforms itself into a recreational drug used in Silicon Valley as a trendy micro-dosing psychedelic habit, all because new scientific studies show its benefits toward depression, anxiety, addiction and an increase in neuroplasticity. Huge profits are expected and brilliant careers will be forged, but it is worth asking, what’s in it for the native populations of the forest who created the medicine in the first place? Do people even know of whom we are talking about?
The human story
Indigenous people and other traditional populations can benefit from media approaches to recover their own collective stories and histories, that may have been erased in the national narratives of the dominant cultures and are in danger of being forgotten within local worlds as well. That’s why my main source of information is always the subject I’m portraying, including her or his memories, beliefs, and drive. That’s why I always spend a considerable amount of time before I choose the main character of the story. Then, I use whatever I can find: other local interviews, previous news pieces, science and media articles, public archives, and, last but not least, striking visuals.
Fortunately, when I met Claudio for the developing of the multimedia piece, we were at one of the most picturesque spots in Northern Brazil, which got us in a very fine mood. The scenery was a helpful ice-breaker, as he was still not sure why I was so interested in telling his story. To me it was all very clear, I saw him as someone consistent and genuine to symbolise the fundamental advantage of caring for a plural world, rich in a multitude of cultures.
Claudio was no new-age guru preaching an enlightened way to reach nirvana. Quite the opposite… Through his own life-questioning, he travelled the Peruvian Amazon until he chose a master that could initiate him into the hidden knowledge of the sacred plants. He then undertook a lengthy apprenticeship to become an educated healer. And, once he felt ready, he left the forest and took this wisdom to the people living at the urban centres, both in South America and in Europe. The first moment he told me some fragments of this story I realised that I wanted to document him. Dozens of questions popped immediately in my head, and one of the crucial ones was: how could this old medicine be the answer that so many scientists have been talking about, and that for years has been attracting thousands of tourists, celebrities and spiritual seekers to travel to South America?
My great obstacle was Claudio’s shyness, so I knew I had to wait to interview him. After I waited for nearly a week, a few hours before his flight, he asked me in his Spanish-accented Portuguese:
“So, Miguel, don’t you want to do the interview?”
I couldn’t hide a big smile of relief, but at the same time he picked up the right moment. I was ready to ask him all the questions I had prepared back home, plus several others from all I had learnt in the days before the ceremony.
Finally, once I finished the editing of the multimedia material, and while drafting the text for my article, I felt the need to balance Claudio’s speech with other voices that could legitimatise his truth. I chose a Brazilian neuroscientist conducting one of the few allowed studies on the therapeutic benefits of Ayahuasca in patients with chronic depression, and the director of an international NGO based in South America with several years of experience in running Ayahuasca retreats. To be honest, I felt that Claudio was more than enough. I had his interview, some images from the Ayahuasca Ceremony, the experience of having been part of this week-long meeting… But still, it is really easy for an audience to discard something new, so it is important to build a context around your story, to be more easily embraced. My resulting multimedia article “Ayahuasca: Caramel Gold?” (August 2021) explains how this sacred medicine made its transition from indigenous culture to health science and finally to the profit-making culture.
The African trap and the black people of the Amazon Forest
“If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play
that determines if it’s good or bad.”
As a storyteller it is hard to avoid the popular press suppositions that “sex sells” and “if it bleeds it leads.” It is just as hard to be immune to sensationalism, and ethic concerns very easily succumb to market pressures. There is even a specific jargon to justify this as “the public interest.”
I wish I had always been this clear about how to develop a story. But the truth is that, my first attempt was a colossal failure.
After a 3-month multimedia project at the outskirts of an urban centre in a small archipelago off the coast of West Africa, I decided - along with a team that included professionals from the film industry and a couple of fundraisers from the UK - that the only way to sell the story was to go as dramatic as possible with the first teaser of the film. The scenario was set in Africa (Cape Verde), the most materially-deprived continent, and so priority should be placed on social issues such as drug addiction, urban crime, gender inequality, broken families, and so on, and so on…
And I did just that, trusting not only that it was the best way to portray my first experience in Africa, but also to be sure that I would be able to take the project to another level of social awareness by feeding media channels that used similar content. By making such a choice, I ignored the amazing time I had with a bunch of talented and versatile youth, capable of overcoming all social issues for higher and more sophisticated experiences, such as theatre. Even more strikingly important, I ignored how much I learned with them about the role of theatre in modern times, in a way I had never experienced before in Europe.
Image: theatre rehearsal at an abandoned building in the city of Mindelo - Cape Verde, Africa (©Bob Lima). The project in Africa involved a participatory documenting experience of the youth’s daily lives, and the collected material was later fictionalized in a theatrical narrative and presented as a play in a site-specific location within the same community.
The final result was obvious: the project did not succeed because it became just like so many others. Actually, it didn’t have enough drama, no deaths, no rapes, no revolutions, nothing new - I was told!
But I was lucky enough to listen to one of my African friends asking me:
“Why do you come all the way to someone’s else land, only to speak about what’s not right over here!?”
I suppose some lessons must be learned the hard way, along with a debt of several thousand euros for hiring the team of professionals around me…
A couple of years later I was finally bold enough to craft a message from my heart with three African artists that were living at the time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This time, I did all that I wanted to do. I framed them not as an ethnically different minority, but rather like cosmopolitan universal characters, individual lives that enjoyed the city buzz and added - with their difference - a whole new and exquisite cultural palette to the most seductive city in Brazil.
The end result was a photo exhibition and a small video that brought about a fresh way to look at African migrants in South America.
The takeaway here is, if you have doubts, trust your gut!
At the moment I am working on yet another multimedia piece that pulls together history, environment, traditional populations, questionable development projects from abroad, unique ways of living, and untold stories. It’s a treat for someone like me, thus I feel a great responsibility on my shoulders and a walloping desire to share this story with the world. These are the greatest and the worst moments to me. I feel I have something special in my hands, and I fear I’ll ruin it all if I don’t pay a tribute to the people that received me, sheltered me, fed me, and opened their life stories to my camera.
Some centuries ago, a great number of Africans were transported to the Americas to perform hard physical work in a regime of enslavement. Some were taken to new towns in the Amazon Forest. Like in others parts of the world, in Brazil, the enslaved workers performed several successful escapes, and managed to establish their own communities far away from the colonial centres. These people are called maroons, and their unique cultures are under-appreciated even today.
But due to the increased environmental pressures in the Amazon Forest in recent years, these centuries-old communities are facing some issues associated with deforestation, the building of dams, the implementation of massive crops of palm oil, and land conflicts with farmers and ranchers. I went to visit some of these communities and collected their stories. I called the project Afro Amazônia (see details in Portuguese here).
Image: from AFRO AMAZÔNIA, a multimedia work-in-progress by Miguel Pinheiro.
If you have reached this far, it means you may have a great deal of empathy with the themes that are familiar to my work. That is not the rule though, invisible populations are often ignored by the main media channels. Other subjects grab the attention of viewers, as they can easier relate to them. Unfortunately, as this happens, we as humanity are experiencing a loss of human diversity at an accelerated pace. And the loss of such intangible heritage is irreplaceable. In many occasions, simple things and collective task forces could be put into place not only to prevent its disappearance, but also to allow the natural thrive of populations that chose a different way to live, and that are entitled to enjoy their full humanity without being erased by other dominant forces. Maybe in many situations, decision makers do not know, or are not willing to listen to these distant speeches. With my work and stories, I try to get these voices closer to them.
For that sake, I would like to present another project that got the attention of some mainstream outlets. It tells the story of an old Indigenous lady, the last speaker of her language.
The Forest’s guardians and the last Indigenous speaker
“It’s not about standing still and becoming safe.
If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”
Image: here, in the Xingu region, it’s been long since the lands have been invaded, cultures have been decimated, and Odete Kuruaya (Iawá), the last Kuruaya fluent speaker, is now on the verge of becoming a closing statistic… In the image, Miguel Pinheiro shares some fruits with Iawá. (©LorenaKuruaya)
There are about seven thousand idioms in the world, most of which are spoken by Indigenous populations, most of the dying ones as well. They are oral, without grammar, nor dictionaries. Knowledge is passed from person to person. According to a 2014 report (Loh, Harmon), 25% of languages are now in danger of extinction, a higher percentage than the rate extinction of mammals (21%), reptiles (15%) or birds (13%). The decline in linguistic diversity is linked with social, political and economic behaviours, such as forced migrations or urbanization. The journey of the Kuruaya Indigenous group, at the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, is a sum of those factors.
It all started in 2019, when the Amazon Rainforest was being ravaged by multiple fires, and I got an invitation from the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei to lead a cinema team to the heart of the matter. Once the job was done, I found myself in the middle of the forest and decided to stay a bit longer and hunt for some stories…
The timing of my arrival was great, as a big event was being prepared that would gather Indigenous leaderships, along with scientists, researchers and journalists. At that time, I took the chance to narrate the conflict of the first female Indigenous chief of the Xipaya tribe who faced harsh threats while trying to challenge the local corruption linked to the construction of the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam in that region. She insisted with me that the slogan “Save The Forest” is not good enough. All over the world we hear people shouting to save the Amazon Rainforest. But, what about saving the inhabitants of the forest, the ones with the knowledge to ensure its preservation?
During my stay, I met another Indigenous woman who - once she became comfortable with my work - told me about her grandmother, about how she was always refrained from speaking her language for fear of being perceived as uncivilised. As years passed by, she got used to not speaking it at all, and when her relatives started to die, she found herself with no one to speak it to. Her children grew up with the same prejudice, and no one made an effort to speak a language that people around couldn’t understand. Her granddaughter was the first one to make that effort, and her grandmother was now the only person that could fluently speak Kuruaya.
That night at the hotel, I checked some linguists’ archives online. According to the main science research institution in the region, the Kuruaya language was not spoken anymore. If I was to believe my sources, I was then going to meet the last speaker of a lost language - which science stated it was no longer spoken - and I would be the first outsider invited to this community.
A couple of days later I was being introduced to Mrs. Odete Kuruaya or Iawá, her Indigenous name.
Every language is the product of a unique historical experience, and each one is the carrier of a memory, a literary heritage, a specific skill, and a legitimate basis of cultural identity. Languages are not interchangeable — none is dispensable, none is superfluous (Maalouf 2008).
Just imagine a world where you would be the last remaining English speaker, how would you make that story - and the context of how this happened - meaningful to the others?
The world has been filmed, and filmed again and again, for the last 120 years and, as a result, audiences are oversaturated with similar content, approaches and issues. There is often a monotony, lack of creativity and superficiality from the mainstream media that makes many people anaesthetised. In my work I try to break this. The capacity to narrate stories and retell histories from an Indigenous point of view through media forms that can circulate beyond the local has been an important force for constituting claims for land and cultural rights, and for developing alliances with other communities.
I was introduced to the whole family by the granddaughter of Iawá. They didn’t understand why I was so enthusiastic in interviewing the old lady, as no one had done it before. They invited me to stay a couple of days with them, and that was crucial. Slowly, interview after interview, I started to understand the context of the story, and how my work could be of use to this family and to the world. I had a great obvious title for this story, “the last speaker of a language” draws immediately the attention of many. But this was more than an oddity, or an anecdote. Because of the arrival of the dam, for the past years they had endured a decrease of quality standards in their lives. It changed the way they could navigate the river, their main road of contact to the world. It decreased the quality of the water. It caused deforestation. Their way of life based on fishing and hunting had been crucially compromised. I understood there and then, that I had an urgent story to tell…
In this particular case, the international impact of the piece, published in the USA, Canada, UK, Portugal, and Brasil, offered this community leverage to negotiate their rights with the private company responsible for the compensation mechanisms to the local communities impacted by the dam.
It is important to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples often must appeal to foreign or international institutions in order to secure (or regain) their rights and interests, including their right to govern themselves and determine their own affairs. These visual records are a way to reconnect to tradition and an inspiration to reclaim and build upon what was lost.
Invisibility is everywhere
How I discovered a new world in my homecountry, Portugal!
Sitting next to the Atlantic Ocean, where the sun dives for each sunset in a dreamy array of colours reflected by old medieval houses where once poets and sailors thrived, the city of Porto is probably the most charming one in the world. I was born there, walked every stone, listened to every wind, touched each and every one of its mysteries. So, it was in great doubt that I took on board the task of unveiling what was then the local cultural challenge. I remember thinking, how could I discover something new inside my own “house”?
The call to action was clear, to devise a way to get access to the population living in the Historical Centre of Porto. Paradoxically, the old buildings that constitute this place were home to several hundred families that comprised a peripheric community. A periphery in the city’s centre, as sociologists used to describe it. These people, that lived in the heart of the city, mostly composed of proletariat, casual job seekers, and low-income families were inaccessible to the many, feared even, as the narrow alleys were a spot of clandestine transactions, either of illegal substances, gambling, and others…
To add pain to injury, and to make matters even more difficult, I decided not only that I would dive inside these historical communities, but I would tie them to another population that, after my experience in Africa, started to puzzle me immensely: the ethnic minorities in the city.
Image: “OLHA LÁ” was the third project of the cycle INVISIBLE LANGUAGE by Miguel Pinheiro, dedicated to the gathering of life stories of peripheral communities in Portuguese speaking countries. This photo exhibition took place in the busiest streets of Porto, Portugal, and assembled 50 portraits from several socially isolated communities in the city, including migrants from the ethnic minorities, such as Africans, Brazilians and Asians. - In this image, Filó arrived from Angola to Porto a long time ago. Her family belongs to the Mamuíla tribe, but she has long forgotten all those tribe traditions. She’s a Chef, she has a restaurant in Porto that serves African food. (Image from the project’s archive: ©SusanaNeves.)
Portuguese language is the 6th most spoken language in the world. It is used in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. For centuries, migrants from different places in the world adopted Portugal as their home land and, for most of the time, they remained invisible in the news unless they were football or music stars.
Once the project started, I gathered a team that included one African student and one local inhabitant from the Historical Centre. Together, we went to search the different communities we were interested in, to collect interviews, to document their lives and stories and - with the gathered material - to put together a photo exhibition in the city’s busy streets. My idea was clear: I wanted to give a chance to the population of the city of Porto, to look the individuals of these communities straight in the eyes, while crossing the city in their normal lives. That was the reason for the project’s name, “OLHA LÁ”, a common expression in the city to call someone’s attention, but it literally means, “Take a Look”.
There were some very difficult moments during the project. “Invisible” populations don’t normally want to be publicised by any means, they fear they’ll be in trouble if they somehow attract the eyes of the government or the police…
Image: the neighbourhood of Sé, right next to the city’s cathedral, is one of the oldest and more traditional to visit in Porto. In the past years, due to the increasing real estate prices, a phenomenon of gentrification caused problems to the families, as pressures increased for them to buy a house they couldn’t afford or move from a house where their families have lived for several generations. In the image, the film team records the favourite hobby of the women of Sé. (Image from the project’s archive, ©SusanaNeves)
Documenting stories of/with isolated communities
Some of the advice I offer when working with closed or isolated communities is to:
Connect and work with someone from inside, look for the best person who can present you to the ones around. It is what some would call a “fixer”, which is not what I do, I would call them a new friend, a person of trust, someone in a position to help connect people and help others understand what the local realities are.
Spend time with and learn to understand and respect the community for what it really is, don’t make judgements and don’t compare, accept.
Involve people in your work and never act like you are there to “shoot and go.” You can only do this genuinely if you open up to the community, gain and maintain people’s trust and show that you really are there to make sense of things, to give everyone credit, ownership and power to represent themselves as they are.
Some of the people we met never believed I was going to put their portrait on the streets, in a poster of nearly 2 meters. By the time they saw their photography on the streets, they assembled all of the family to take photos next to them. They now felt proudly visible, they had never seen such a big picture of themselves.
Some of the people we met refused to be in the project though, they felt we were part of the efforts of the City Hall to remove the local families from the houses, and we fully respected their opinions. At the time, we thought they were being a bit paranoid with the gentrification rumours taking place.
Some years later however, most of them were out of their houses, and it became clear that the efforts of the City Hall to take several arts and culture projects into the Historical Centre was a way to make the territory seen and visited, and eventually lead to the selling of more houses.
So, who was paranoid after all?
The project was really well received. Suddenly, people started asking new questions, a newspaper published an article about the African restaurants in town, the TV stations wanted to know who the persons portrayed on the streets of Porto were, and many others, from friends to strangers, were contacting us to ask how they could have their photo placed downtown! We manage to transform invisibility into curiosity, and in the following year we applied the same methodology to the same communities, but this time focused on the women only…
Image: the article “Olha lá: A Portrait of Porto” was published in the biggest newspaper in Portugal. Above is the printed article from PÚBLICO.pt newspaper (images ©PauloPimenta]
How a broken heart made me understand the invisible possibilities of Rio De Janeiro
It was the last months of 2015, and the summer was about to start in Rio de Janeiro. There was samba on the streets, joy on the beaches, and one could feel an exciting buzz as the city prepared to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
On my end though, things couldn’t have been messier… After a honeymoon period, I had recently separated, I was unsure if I wanted to continue living in Rio de Janeiro and to make matters worse, I had just finished an acting role in a feature film, I had no other work prospects and no idea what to do next. I remember sitting at Leme, next to Copacabana beach, looking at the skies while listening to The Clash: “So you got to let me know. Should I stay or should I go?”
At the time, I was living in Rio de Janeiro for nearly two years, and I was always surprised by the street life of the city, its true heartbeat. You see, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most iconic cities in the world, and consequentially, one of the most fantasized. If you type it in Google, the first 200 images give you only 5 different sceneries: the Carnaval, the Sugar Loaf, the Christ Redeemer Statue, the favela (slums), and the beaches… Not enough to portray Rio’s complexity!
Where were the city sellers?
The afro religious public events?
The crowded mass exiting the train station at rush hour?
The stolen kisses in the city’s appealing dim corners?
The random couple of musicians that fill the air with the sweet scented melody of samba? …
The moment I understood this, I took a 1908 book from my library called “A alma encantadora das ruas” (The charming soul of the streets), from João do Rio. The book offers the reader the chance of walking through the streets of Rio at the beginning of the 20th century. There, you see the unexpected pains and pleasures of the city dwellers of the time. It is both scary and mesmerizing. But that was all I needed to make up my mind. I was going to stay in Rio, I was going to give myself to the streets of Rio, and I was going to create a new project called “Alter Rio. The Offbeat Guide to a real Rio de Janeiro.” - “After all this, I can then leave Rio!”, I concluded at the time.
Image: some of the first images from “Alter Rio”, left to right: 1) an old Samba musician, 2) a man dressed as Saci-Pererê, a traditional legend from Brazil, 3) a migrant from North-East Brazil playing the accordeon, 4) a train station at the periphery, 5) an empty street in Rio’s Business Centre neighbourhood, 6) Arco do Teles, one of the older places in town, 7) Afro-Religious celebrations in a city’s maroon community, 8) Mãe-de-Santo is the name given to the priestesses in Umbanda and Candomblé religions, 9) an offer being made to the deities, called Orishas. (Images from ©Miguel Pinheiro]
This was one of the greatest ideas I had. I unleashed the curiosity I had always had about many invisible features of the streets of Rio, I started to meet new people, I started to develop my skills in street-photography, I forgot how dangerous the city could be and I filmed everywhere I walked. And that was only the beginning. In less than 3 months, I received an arts award from the Cultural department of Rio’s City Hall to develop this project further. As Rio is a big city, I needed some help to be able to portray an alternative view of the city, a reflection on its alterity, a solid guide to what Rio de Janeiro really looked like.
So, I started some photography and videography workshops where I would teach people from the outskirts of the city to improve their skills. In turn, they would go and take images from their daily lives. For several months, on a weekly basis, we would be together to talk about film and photography, while sharing the images that each one had captured throughout the week. Suddenly my eyes were multiplied by twenty, and the surprises were immense, both for me and for all my students / collaborators who were, for the first time, using visual representations to generate new insights into their lives as cariocas (inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro). Or, in other words, they felt like they were contributing to transforming the idea of Rio-Paradise-Copacabana into Rio-Real-Life-With-Us-Telling. Also, while talking to random people on the streets, it emerged that they loved the idea of a different way to portray their city and they would always provide some tips “go here, go there…, just be careful not to get mugged…”.
Image: the 2016 Olympic Games were enjoyed by many across the world. In Rio de Janeiro it was no different. Most of the population didn’t go to see the live competitions taking place though, they rather created their own specific sports. In the image above, children play at Madureira, Rio de Janeiro (©Miguel Pinheiro).
This project was completed with a multimedia installation and it became part of the Official Cultural Agenda of the 2016 Olympics. While one walked in the space of the installation, sounds and voices of the streets of Rio played on the screens. Images from more than twenty photographers were on the walls. Everything was prepared to make the visitors feel like they were walking on a very active street in Rio. The tourists loved this safe contact with the street vibes and people. The locals loved it even more - an unmasked city, with no make-up from the government and no nonsense from the TV soap-operas. My team loved it, because they had the chance to exhibit their work and to see it being used in the media. And to me, Rio was never the same since… I loved it because I learnt so much more about the city and the people around, and it gave me the opportunity to collect so much footage that I expect one day to develop a documentary about the B-side of Rio de Janeiro, the one that never makes it on the tourist attractions’ lists, the street Rio, the real Rio.
It’s all about listening
“Sometimes you have to play a long time
to be able to play like yourself.”
Image: “Above all, we have to learn two things: learn how extraordinary the world is, and learn to be wide enough inside, so that the whole world can enter” (by Agostinho da Silva - Portuguese philosopher, essayist, and writer, 1906-1994). - In the image, a Tupinambá Indigenous village from Bahia, Brazil. (©Miguel Pinheiro]
I really don’t like to tell people what to do. I like to show things, give examples, let each one complement the gap to action by their own means.
But, as this is a case-based article supposed to provide some guidance or lessons-learned, here’s how I would sum up my practise in a couple of lines. However, I must first say that you must not let my words influence you much. They constitute a brief experience of my own ignorance. There is nothing more holy than our own mistakes. Fear them not, and you may have the bliss to find new unexpected paths!
Take time to choose the main character of your story - or if you are working with a theme, frame your story as specifically as possible. Do it consciously, the world can wait. Spend time with what you want. If you need to know a person, spend as much time as you can with that person. If it is a place, extend your stay as much as you can. If you need to dive deep into a subject, don’t assume you’re the hero that people in a certain place were expecting all their lives to visit them. Most of the times, if you are abroad, or in an unfamiliar place, you are one of the dumbest people around. So you really have to show respect and work hard, in order to get something worth telling. If you’re still in doubt, check out this brilliant article at Bright Magazine: “The Reductive Seduction Of Other People’s Problems”, that suggests one should “listen hard enough so that ‘other people’ become real people.”
Do your real research - and by that I mean not just Googling stuff. Grab some books, talk to people around, see if you can move them with your story, and ask them why they are moved. I always follow that Latin saying: “Vox Populi Vox Dei” (the voice of the people is the voice of god.)
Check your biases. - Now, you’ve finished your story? Well done! Did you make your point? Is it clear? Do other people get it too? Haven’t you made any bad compromises there? Can you defend it well? Then it’s time to check how biased you were! We are all humans, and you are too. Make your point of course, but don’t try to convince anyone that you’re right about it all… It is not important whether or not you have an opinion, it’s important whether or not you get the facts of the story right, or whether you twisted them to meet your opinion.
Be kind to yourself. - The world changes, people around you change, and even you and me are a dynamic soup of thoughts, emotions and fears. At any given point of an investigation, particularly when you are building your story, if you are having a hard time to find or pick the best perspective you can offer, be human, follow your heart. If later on you’ll realize that it was an awful choice, well, at least you will understand why.
You have one life only, choose to live it well doing things that actually mean something to you!
In the end, what I believe makes my idea of storytelling distinct from mainstream narratives is that clearly the media around the world are influenced by corporate interests that promote the agenda of the people in power. So they are limited in the message they pass, and at the same time, they are careful not to be compromised by the vocabulary they use. Independent media made its way to a bigger audience due to the gaps left by the traditional and local media outlets that could no longer sustain themselves. The internet was responsible for a sudden rise of different channels with alternative voices, including activists, independent researchers, and multimedia communicators. Hundreds of thousands suddenly flooded the media landscape providing an overflow of data, while giving space to diverse points of view. When powerful social media networks such as Vimeo and YouTube appeared, alternative media was able to outpace mainstream media and reach the masses like never before, questioning the nature of reality from all angles - and then it’s up to the viewers to choose what they are capable of understanding.
Like in the story of the Flying Dutchman that we started with, the invisible is now observed through myriad lenses. This is probably the wider umbrella where my work fits, an attempt to narrate the world’s invisibility with creativity and with the humbleness to pay attention to the places I visit and the people I talk to.
One time, a reporter asked the famous jazz musician Miles Davis how he decided which note to play while improvising. Miles answered: it is not about playing, it is about listening.
About the Author
Miguel Pinheiro (also see his portfolio) is a former neuroscientist and an awarded Portuguese artist, with a focus on the biocultural diversity and heritage of traditional communities. His stories have been published in Europe, Africa, and in the Americas. His photographic work has been shown in solo and collective exhibitions. Currently he’s developing documentaries about endangered cultures in the Amazon Rainforest, where his production company is based.
Published November 2022
”A Rewarding Challenge How The Multiplicity Of Languages Could Strengthen Europe”, report from the Group of Intellectuals for Intercultural Dialogue, Maloouf, A. et al / European Commission, 2008.
“Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Human Rights”, book by Langfield, M. et al, Routledge, 2010.
– “Culture, Diversity and Heritage: Major Studies”, book by Arizpe, L., New York: Springer, 2015
“Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology”, book by Barba, E., Savarese, N., London: Routledge, 1991.
“Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain” book by Ginsburg, F. et al, University Of California Press, 2002.
“The Act of Documenting”, book by Winston, B., Vanstone, G., Chi, W. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
“The Reductive Seduction Of Other People’s Problems”, essay by Courtney Martin, Bright Magazine, 11 January 2016.
Biocultural Diversity - the diversity of life in all its manifestations: biological, cultural, and linguistic, which are interrelated (and possibly coevolved) within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system.
Biocultural Heritage - refers to the knowledge and practices of Indigenous people and their biological resources, from the genetic varieties of crops they develop, to the landscapes they create.