Rosy Conversation with Tommaso Protti

Tommaso by Gabriel Bianchini for Vogue Italia

It’s with great pleasure that I share my interview with award winning Italian photojournalist, Tommaso Protti.  He has been documenting the deforestation of the Amazon as well as the humanitarian crisis associated with it. Our conversation spanned a number of topics, including his introduction to his career in photography, some of the crises that he has documented in the Middle East, as well as the themes that appear in his work.  In 2019, he was awarded the esteemed Carmigniac Award in photojournalism, which allowed him to continue documenting the crisis in the Amazon. 

The images that he has documented include deforestation as well as images of the Indigienous Guajajara people, now known as the “Guardians of the Forest,” who have increasingly been driven off their land.  They have resorted to self-arming themselves in order to fight back against illegal loggers to protect their land.  This is happening in the impoverished state of Maranhão, Brazil, where illegal logging has sharply risen in the last couple of years under a particular political climate.  

Tommaso’s work in documenting these stories should embolden the global community to consider how we are at a precipice both within the climate crisis and also work to ensure that the Guajajara people are supported in protecting their land, which in turn protects the future of the Amazon. 
If you are in Paris right now, Tommaso’s photography is currently on display at the MEP in a solo exhibition entitled, “Life and Death in the Brazilian Amazon” until February 16.  Please follow Tommaso on Instagram @tomprotti.

Tommaso captured this image of a member of the Guajajara forest guard in a moment of sad silence at the sight of a toppled tree cut down by suspected illegal loggers on the Araribóia indigenous reserve in Maranhão state.
Tommaso captured this image of the vast deforestation that has been occurring at an accelerated rate in the last couple of years.
Junior poses with his gun for a portrait in the periphery of Manaus. He is a member of Família do Norte – The Northern Family or FDN –. The Northern Family is considered the strongest gang in Amazonas state. It controls local drug sales, trafficking routes and prisons. The gang formed in 2006 to ward off the advance of criminal gangs from Brazil’s south. In 2017, leaders commanded a bloody Manaus prison uprising when 56 people were killed; many beheaded, gutted or burned. In 2019, at least 40 prisoners were killed in an internal gang dispute.

Our Conversation

Bianca: Your photography has been featured in major publications including National Geographic and The Washington Post.  What prompted your passion for photography? 

Tommaso: I started in photography because of my studies. I studied Political Science and International Relations at the University in Rome. My first project related to geopolitics was regarding the flows of water in the Middle East. I went to the region and that was the first step where I started taking pictures with the intent as a profession.  That’s really where everything came from.  

I started with a project concerning the construction of dams in Turkey and the photography project was about the environmental and social impacts of these dams and how Turkey is using this project in strategic ways.  The sources of the rivers are in Turkey, but the majority of the water flows are in Iraq and Syria, which enables Turkey to have a powerful tool. I started with this story and I translated these geopolitical issues and started to explore the region and further continue documenting the conflicts of the Kurds.  The last time I went there was in 2015, there were PKK guerilla fighters and then the Turkish state started to impose curfews on people. (The PKK, otherwise known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have been involved in an armed conflict with the Turkish government since 1984 with the initial aim of becoming an independent Kurdish state.)

Bianca: You are originally from Italy, when did you move to Brazil and how long have you lived there? 

Tommaso: I moved here for family reasons. The first time I came here was in 2014, I got an assignment to do photography, and I like São Paulo and decided to stay, which is why I have been living here. 

Bianca: Your photographs tend to be in black and white, is there a reason for this stylization? To me, I interpret your B&W photos as highlighting the devastation happening to the Amazon because it adds such a haunting quality to them.

Tommaso: Black and white is the way that I prefer in photography to express myself. It allows me to put a variety of issues together while maintaining coherence within my visual style.  

Bianca: Congratulations on receiving the 2019 Carmignac Photojournalism award!  What is the history of this award? 

Tommaso: The Carmignac Photojournalism Award supports photographers in the field. It funds annually the production of an investigative photo reportage on human rights violations and geostrategic issues in the world. Selected by an international jury, the laureate receives a €50,000 grant, enabling them to carry out an in-depth research in the field, with logistical support from Fondation Carmignac. The 10th edition of the grant was dedicated to the Amazon and the issues related to its deforestation and I was chosen as the winner. The award allowed me to produce an in-depth investigation around the region last year.

Bianca: Your photography has depicted haunting images of the Amazon’s deforestation, which has also accelerated since last year as the world has now seen with images of catastrophic fires.  Are there ways for the global community to intervene? If so, how? 

Tommaso: The global community should intervene.  The scientists are saying the forest is reaching a tipping point and we should be aware of that.  We should also value our choices… the problems of the Amazon are complex, but they are the results of consumerism and other interests.  My point of view is to make people curious and intrigue people as each of us should do for our own work. I am documenting the crisis. 

Bianca: You have put your life in danger while capturing these photographs, what makes you go back?  Is it a sense of justice for all of the impunity that is happening? Or is it as simple as feeling more alive? 

Tommaso: I don’t look at it as putting my life in danger.  The Amazon is a dangerous place. As a photographer, I do my best in taking the least risks as possible.  It’s a long term project and I always like to go back to the Amazon and there is always something new to discover and document. The risk that I am taking is part of the job and I am not driven by adrenaline.  I am driven to document these crises. 

Bianca: After President Jair Bolsonaro’s election, Amazon deforestation in Brazil has sharply risen. He has scaled back on efforts to fight illegal logging which has facilitated further destruction.  The Amazon rainforest lost an area about 12 times the size of New York City from August 2018 to July 2019. This is not acceptable. How can the public hold him more accountable?  

Tommaso: Yes, this is a process that has happened years ago and there are many drivers of this deforestation: there is greed, violence, and self interests.  More than anything, there is impunity.  It’s lawless like a new Wild West. The lack of justice is the main problem for the Amazon and you have all of these criminal groups and the statistics have increased of a presence of criminal groups in the Amazon. His message has been that the Amazon is open to business again, which has legitimized many people in the general exploitation of the forest.  He has moved to reduce the indigenious reserve and he is not exactly environmentally friendly. 

Bianca: How can the global community understand these complex issues and then take action? How can we support the Indigenous Guardians of the Forest?

Tommaso: I am not an activist per se, the governments need to work together on these issues.  I am mainly trying to share these stories with the world. Another theme that I focus on in my photography is about violence. It’s my intention to continue doing this work and exploring other regions of the world as part of a long term photography project.  I also do commercial and advertising work as with photojournalism, it’s not always possible to share the stories that you want to share.

This image is of a group of Gujajara who are beating a man suspected of illegal logging.  A couple of days later, the group was shot at by illegal loggers in retaliation for this beating.
Indigenious Guajajara leader, Paulo Paulino, was tragically murdered in the Amazon in November 2019.  Tommaso followed him and became friends with him, capturing the image of him above. Paulo was killed in an ambush by illegal loggers.

Thank you, Tommaso! Your work is noble and needs to continue being shared with the world.

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