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Dead Water: Brazilian communities affected by hydroelectric dams

A book and an exhibition which convey the voices of the riverine people



Photographer from Minas Gerais launches book with photos and stories of communities affected by hydroelectric dam. This review of an exhibition of photographs was translated for LAB by Chris Whitehouse. The original, in Portuguese, can be read here. The series will be exhibited in Marilene’s solo show as ‘Agua Muerta’ at Casa de America, Madrid in September 2021.

Photographer from Minas Gerais launches book with photos and stories of communities affected by hydroelectric dams

I have a dream, in which all the dams burst. I am worried about my relations who live downstream, but nothing happens to them, nothing at all. The dam wall ruptures on both sides, disintegrates and comes tumbling down along with the water. But we are celebrating, happy to see our beach, our river, to see everything as it was before. — Leonardo Batista

It is with this statement by Leonardo Batista that the photographer Marilene Ribeiro, from Minas Gerais, starts her book ‘Dead Water’, completed for her doctorate at the University of Brighton, UK, and presented in an exhibition at the UFMG Conservatory, on 12 April.

The book explores the consequences of building hydroelectric dams. ‘I wanted people to understand the real costs of hydroelectric dams. The material benefits are usually obvious, but the environmental and social damage is much greater’, she says.

At a time when the country, especially the people of Minas Gerais, have witnessed at close quarters the effects of a different type of dam (a tailings dam, containing mining waste), she believes that it is more important than ever to talk about the issue. ‘We are living through a process in which non-material things become invisible when confronted by capital, by economic forces. When this is the environment in which we live, it is important to highlight another way of looking at things so that people can reflect and try to understand how the world functions and where it is headed’, she says.

I see myself as part of the river. Fishermen belong on the river, don’t they? I wanted to be able to use the front of my house as a means to express my feelings, but, it is underwater… — Geovan Carvalho Martins, 21 October 2016

Photo: Geovan Carvalho Martins and Marilene Ribeiro 2016.

The other side

The benefits of these dams are easy for people to understand but, with this book, Marilene aims to show the collateral damage. ‘I tried to use photography to address the issue because it is a way of reaching a much broader public than a technical report can do. There are no graphs or tables for people to try and understand. Photos are more democratic, because they show the non-material side of things’, she points out.

Marilene chose a method that allowed the active participation of the people affected, so much so that the photo credits include the names of participants. ‘I wanted to show how people affected by the dams feel about the situation as well as putting my own point of view’, she says.

In order to include the views of those affected, she spent two months in each of the three regions covered by the book: the dams at Sobradinho, in Bahia; Belo Monte, in Pará; and Garabi-Panambi, in Rio Grande do Sul. ‘The time I spent there was important for getting to know the people and involving them in the work’, she explains.

This stage was crucial for Marilene’s project, given that she had chosen to involve local people actively in producing material for the book. She discussed the project with them and asked them to help decide on the subject matter. All the photos were taken following conversations and interviews with the people of these regions. ‘I asked them how we could capture the stories they told me and create a visual portrait of their situation. I asked them to choose places and subjects for the photos and that’s exactly what we did’, she says.

What is the island where we used to live like now? The one with plantations and trees? It’s a desert now. They [Norte Energia] cut down the trees and buried or burned them all. When I go past in the boat, I can see it is just a desert now. — José Nunes, 23 October 2016

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Photo: José Nunes and Marilene Ribeiro 2016

Statements gathered during the project made a big impact

After all the interviews were completed, months of research, taking of photographs and data collection, Marilene emphasises the importance of her conversations with the participants in her book Dead Water – all people affected by construction of the dams or the imminent construction of dams.

The experience that had the most profound impact on her was when she took photos of Nelci Bárbaro, on the River Uruguay, in Rio Grande do Sul. ‘The residents of the region didn’t know whether a dam would be built or not. Like all the other projects, it was planned in the 1980s but was blocked. It’s always like that, they keep changing their minds, but the threat was always there’, she explains.

It was in this context that Marilene interviewed local people. ‘I asked her [Nelci] what she felt about what was happening and she told me she was very angry’, she recalls. Marilene asked Nelci to choose a subject to represent her feelings and a place to take a photo. ‘She chose her parents’ home, which was built brick by brick by the family and would be flooded if the dam was built’, she recalls. The choice of subject also impressed her. ‘She didn’t hesitate for a second, she said – shoot’, she says.

‘Taking the photo was an extraordinary moment: she started a fire in a cooking pan. I explained what I need to do and she decided on the pose and held the pan. She looked like she was dancing with it. I was stunned but just clicked away. It was very cathartic. I didn’t even sleep that night’ (Marilene Ribeiro).

It makes me feel very angry. I always say that I’m afraid of my irrational side. Until you know your rational side, it’s difficult. When you leave your rational side behind, your irrational side looks altogether different. I don’t know what it might make me do. –Nelci Bárbaro, 11 February 2016

Photo: Nelci Bárbaro and Marilene Ribeiro 2016

One of the products of Marilene’s work is her short film ‘Costs’, with English subtitles:

Click here to access all Marilene Ribeiro’s work: ‘Dead Water’

LAB adds: Marilene Cardoso Ribeiro is an award-wining photographer and ecologist. She holds an MSc in Ecology and Wildlife from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and a PhD in Photography from the University of Brighton, UK. She was photography editor and co-author of Chapter 6 ‘The Hydroelectric Threat to the Amazon Basin’ in LAB’s book Voices of Latin America – social movements and the new activism edited by Tom Gatehouse.

Main image: ‘Drowned Island’, one of the photos from Dead Water.