Daniel Jack Lyons explores identity and youth in the Brazilian Amazon

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All image from Like A River by Daniel Jack Lyons.

Lyons documents a complex region through the eyes of its youth and marginalised identities, sensitively exploring the collision of indigenous tradition and modern identity politics

In Olivia Laing’s book Everybody: a book about freedom (2021) the author writes of  “a desire to turn the body from an object of stigma and shame into a source of solidarity and strength, capable of demanding and achieving change”. American photographer Daniel Jack Lyons’ photographs are underpinned by that same desire, focusing on queer community, youthful spirit, and a sense of empowered, collaborative representation.

Lyons’ latest body of work, Like A River, was shot over three years in the Brazilian Amazon, from 2019 to 2021. It is newly published by Loose Joints, and will be exhibited as part of the Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles. A sensitive exploration of identity and coming-of-age, the series documents a complex region through the prospective eyes of youth. 

© Daniel Jack Lyons.
© Daniel Jack Lyons.

With a background in social and medical anthropology, and an interest in queer politics, Lyons has embarked on a number of collaborative projects. In 2005 he joined the Peace Corps and spent four years in Mozambique, shooting analogue portraits that would become his series Hotel Luso. Then, in 2010, he began ongoing work as a consultant for the United Nations and human rights agencies, putting Photovoice projects into effect. The organisation bestows cameras to community members, debriefing on the results thereafter to address and take action on relevant issues. He did this in 2014 in Ukraine, following the invasion of Crimea, where he also shot the series Displaced Youth.

Lyons’ formative photographic pillars were Nan Goldin and Graciela Iturbide, but it was medical anthropologist Paul Farmer who really paved the way for his approach to community projects. Like Farmer, Lyons believes in empowering communities to identify the issues that they face and come up with solutions, “rather than dropping in and telling them what their problems are and how to fix them”.

“When the Amazon was on fire, everybody was talking about it as the lungs of the earth. I didn’t hear about the people living there – homes being lost, communities being displaced. This project was an attempt to really put a ‘face’ to them”

In 2019, Lyons was offered an artist residency at Casa do Rio, an organisation that supports the teenagers and young people living in the Brazilian Amazon. When he arrived, he acclimated to the environs by meditating in the wild, walking alone through the jungle. He realised that the powerful narratives of the local indigenous communities deserved as much reverence as the infamous rainforest. “When the Amazon was on fire, everybody was talking about it as the lungs of the earth—how important it is to preserve the forest because it accounts for a certain percentage of the oxygen that we have access to globally. I didn’t hear about the people [living there]: homes being lost, communities being displaced,” says Lyons, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “This project was an attempt to really put a ‘face’ to them.”

The resulting series includes a kaleidoscopic array of youth subcultures. “It’s like a three-part Venn diagram. Everyone’s indigenous, but you have the land activists, who are really devoted to preserving traditions, indigenous rights, land sovereignty; the queer, trans, and non-binary people; and then artists, rappers, musicians, skaters, the youth-on-the-margins group.” Lyons connected with his subjects interpersonally before taking anyone’s photograph, and seceded personal choices (shooting location, what they wore) to them. He felt very accepted on site, and the friendships he made have lasted well beyond the residency.

© Daniel Jack Lyons.

Although profoundly tied to the region, Like A River examines a larger generational struggle to reconcile traditional values with contemporary identity. One of his subjects is a lesbian, and has only come out to some friends. Her father is the chief of her tribe, and her sexuality would be considered a disgrace to him. During a portrait session with Lyons, she had painted her face – but then abruptly wiped it off one cheek. “She did it right before the photo,” Lyons recalled. “I was like, Oh, did you want to redo it? And she goes: No; I’m one foot in the door with my tribe – and one foot on the way out.”

Feeling part of a community while still having to hide one’s authentic self is a grim but recurrent reality. “In the more traditional indigenous communities, yes, homophobia is alive and present,” Lyons acknowledged. “I don’t think that really has to do with indigeneity,” he clarified. “Evangelicals have really made way proselytising all across the Amazon. So you have this influence of born-again Christianity that brings all of that homophobia and transphobia.” Moreover, the political climate under the treacherous extremism of Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, fosters a culture of fear.

© Daniel Jack Lyons.
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The hardships of homophobia, however, reinforce how queer kinship can be a wonderful refuge. “There’s this magical aspect that you have a community wherever you go,” says Lyons. The most-shared photo from Like A River features a charismatic drag queen: match in mouth, wearing a bedazzled cowboy hat. Behind the photograph, his love of drag is, however, tempered by circumstance. He lives with and looks after his mother, and doesn’t want to jeopardise her small business, selling meat on a plaza. But, discreetly, “he is basically a mother for every trans, non-binary, and queer person in this little tiny town,” says Lyons, explaining how he sets up a safe houses, or makes rooms in his own house.

Can photography ultimately dovetail with a form of activism? “When I was younger, I used to really think that art could be an advocacy tool to create systematic change, at a high policy and human rights level,” Lyons says. His sense of that scale has since shifted. “The change that I’m more interested in creating is on an individual level,” Lyons posited. “I think that’s valuable.”

Like A River by Daniel Jack Lyons is published by Loose Joints. Images from the series are on show as part of the Prix Découverte Louis Roederer at Les Rencontres d’Arles, from 04 July to 25 September.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.