Daniel Jack Lyons wanted to photograph the lives of marginalized youth in a remote Brazilian region.
While dining at a restaurant in Careiro, a small town deep in the Amazon rainforest, Daniel Jack Lyons was unexpectedly approached by local drag queen artist Wendell.
Two days earlier, the North American photographer met with young community leaders in the hope that some of them could be part of a new project that explores the lives of marginalized youth in a remote Brazilian region. The news spread quickly.
“He came up to me and said, ‘You’re a photographer and I’m a transvestite and you’re going to take a picture of me on Thursday,'” Lyons recalled in a telephone interview.
The pair found each other, and the resulting portrait – Wendell staring defiantly at the camera with a lit match in his mouth – became the lead image in Lyons’ new coming-of-age series, Like a River. But as a photographer and anthropologist, Lyons seems more interested in the human stories behind his photographs.
“Wendell works as a drag queen, but he also runs his mother’s small business selling barbeque (grilled meat) at the market at night,” he said. “She is very ill and he took over the business. So it’s a very delicate thing: he doesn’t want to do it. thrust and (have any resulting discrimination) adversely affect the business on which they depend for survival.
“So, as an overcompensation, she became the ‘mother’ of all non-binary, transgender and gay children in the city,” Lyons added, noting that Wendell opened her home to struggling teenagers and helped transgender youth access hormone therapy. in the nearest city of Manaus.
Settling in Careiro and the nearby Tupana River for eight weeks, Lyons photographed dozens of young people for the series currently running. in exposition at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France. About half of the participants subsequent book are transgender, not binary or “gay in some way,” said the self-identified photographer.
Their stories tell of turbulent sex changes and family tensions. One man Lyons spoke to as part of the project was rejected by his wife and parents and separated from his son after becoming transgender. The photos were also taken amid social stigma in a country where homophobic crime is on the rise and LGBTQ rights seem increasingly threatened (Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who once told Playboy magazine that he “couldn’t love a gay kid,” stated, which disapproves of same-sex marriage laws in the country).
However, the dominant spirit of Lyon’s images is resilience.
“Everyone I’ve worked with has had problems, no doubt about it,” he said. “But it seems that discrimination is understood tacitly. It’s an undercurrent, it’s there, but when I made friends with people, there were a lot of positive conversations.
“There was (a sense of) urgency to celebrate the fact that they can walk around this city and not care what people think.”
The title “Like A River”, based on a Brazilian poem of the same name, depicts not only the region’s LGBT communities, but also other groups “living on the fringes,” as Lyons puts it. Her intimate shots capture teenagers involved in artistic and musical subcultures, as well as indigenous youth with complex “cross-sectional identities”.
The photographer also turned his lens on young land activists as environmental threats constantly worry his supporters. He said that since the launch of the project in 2019, fear of illegal mining and deforestation has grown markedly in Careiro.
“Obviously there is a lot of discrimination against gay people, but I think the biggest threat to people is that Bolsonaro created the wild west in the Amazon. There are many fears that illegal loggers and miners will infiltrate the community,” he added. referring to recent reports of miners attacking indigenous villages in search of gold and other resources.
Lyons, who has filmed a series on marginalized youth in Mozambique and Ukraine, treats portraiture as a collaborative act and his models as friends.
The photographer focuses on building relationships before picking up the camera. He usually doesn’t capture people on the day he meets them, and gives employees the power to decide where and how the shoot takes place, including what they wear and how they pose.
“It’s not traditional photojournalism where you come in, take a picture and leave,” explained Lyons, who said he’s been in contact with many of the people featured on “Like a River.”
“It was much more. I wanted to focus on connecting with people and really enjoy the private moments they shared with me.”
“Like a River” exhibited in photography festival Rencontres d’Arles until August 28, 2022 A book from the series published by Loose Joints is now available.