The Brazilian photographer’s most recent project documents drug trafficking in Michoacán, Mexico, and caught the judges attention
Each year, EyeEm selects a standout photographer to present with the EyeEm Photographer of the Year Award from hundreds of entries from all over the world. Out of the many talented storytellers and finalists selected for the organisation’s prescient categories, this year’s winner is Brazilian photographer Thiago Dezan, a multifaceted image-maker who embraces the dark energy of chaos with the click of his shutter.
“The lone wolf in me took over, and making photographs seemed to be a better way to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Without relying on anybody else or any organisation behind it.”
While today he primarily works with still images, Dezan didn’t start his creative output through photography, but with film. His preference is a video camera stocked with mini DV-tapes, splicing together experimental shorts and documentaries about his hometown, Cuiaba.
His fascination with the moving image organically evolved into live-streaming, and in 2013, Dezan and his friends created Ninja Media, an outlet covering political and social unrest across Brazil in real time. After such eventful teenage exploration spent in a vibrant, kinetic community, Dezan felt it was time to pursue things independently. For the budding creator, that meant making his moving images into something static. “The lone wolf in me took over, and making photographs seemed to be a better way to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” he explains. “Without relying on anybody else or any organization behind it.”
The gritty textures of Dezan’s practice of experimental video are present throughout his still images. Though frozen, the pictures embrace the more sensorial components of photography — its sounds, smells, and atmosphere — rather than the purely visual. Looking through his images, you can almost hear the movement that resulted in their capture, and there is a cohesive vision across all his projects. After years of producing documentary series, Dezan published When I Hear That Trumpet Sound, a collection of five years’ worth of images documenting the Americas, highlighting the collective experience of oppression. “The book focuses on what it is like to live in the American continent, and how people all over this land have to face similar issues in order to get by in their lives,” he explains. “It’s a very serious subject to portray, so we did it with a lot of respect and honour for the people in the work, and for those who go through similar situations.”
Dezan’s latest project is the body of work that piqued the interest of EyeEm. Tentatively titled AUTODEFENSA, the images are a documentation of narco-trafficking in Michoacán. Since 2013, the region in Mexico is where more than 40 groups of armed men and women have organised a patrol. The Indigenous people and small communities have built up a conglomerate of 20,000 armed citizens that fight the drug cartels in the absence of government assistance. “When the state failed to provide safety,” Dezan explains, “instead of giving up to the cartel’s demands, the Indigenous communities and small farmers in the region took matters into their own hands, fighting a war against a powerful force in the name of their right to live the way they want. That is very honourable and it deserves to be passed along for more people to see.”
“When you establish a relationship based on respect and empathy, you can move freely, and most importantly you can be accepted, which is essential to produce deep and meaningful work.”
Dezan’s images, which maintain the nocturnal plane of his pre-existing visual world, show the makeshift armed members in their militarised regalia, at home and comfortable with their dogs, maintaining anonymity with masks and balaclavas. The depth and contrast Dezan is able to translate by using his preferred Leica M cameras — which he appreciates for their ability to take a beating on the road — allows him to take photographs of his subjects without being intrusive. By not having an elaborate setup, and by maintaining transparency with the individuals he works with, he portrays a story that feels collaborative. He reflects, “When you establish a relationship based on respect and empathy, you can move freely, and most importantly you can be accepted, which is essential to produce deep and meaningful work.”
While a number of photographers use their craft to create balance between light and dark, Dezan feels at home in the chaotic darkness alone — and he has an impeccable ability to invite you to join him inside of it. “I think that all my life, I have been documenting a world that does not end well. This world lives in my mind, but I also inhabit it. We dwell with and rely on each other.” Photography, for Dezan, is simply another mode of coursing through chaos, trying to make sense of the things we refuse to see, or the moments we actively ignore. “The act of photography is my way of interacting with the world. It’s about finding ways to express myself through someone’s story,” he explains. “I use photography to create a voice for myself and a space for this voice to echo, filling the void with issues that are important to me. It is my search for meaning, for understanding the world I see around me. It’s a constant hunt for significance — for people that will help me make sense of society and its ills.”
Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.