Photographer Jon Cox is a National Geographic Explorer, an assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of Delaware, Board Member of the Dorobo Fund for Tanzania and new president of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER). We are honored to welcome him as a new artist ambassador for the Amazon Aid Foundation.
Throughout his career, Jon has photographed numerous hunter gatherer tribes worldwide. As part of his process, he utilizes cultural mapping to document not just the people but tangibles like craft and industry, along with intangible elements such as memories and personal histories, that make each culture unique. Jon’s latest, a collaboration with artist Andrew Bale, follows the Ese’Eja Nation in the Amazonian region of Peru. This work is currently on exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
“The photography was influenced by the goal to capture the collective voice of the community,” he says. “The challenges they face and what’s important to them as a culture to share with future generations of Ese’Eja, locally and abroad.”
Jon did not just go and observe; he made sure that the Ese’Eja had a voice in the process by forming an editorial committee of elders to ensure their collective vision was accurately portrayed.
“The Ese’Eja believe they live in three worlds, the sky, the forest, and the water,” he explains. “We focused on those three areas and then documented their oral history and the current challenges they face so the reader would have a full picture of the Ese’Eja past, present and future.
It took about a year to prepare for the 3 ½ week long expedition with one major goal of cultural preservation. He and his team visited all three Ese’Eja communities. From 2013 to 2016, Jon — along with multiple cultural mapping team members — took 9 trips to Peru to work with the Ese’Eja to facilitate them telling their story.
He and his team used a technique called “PhotoVoice” with the children of the tribes. They gave ‘point and shoot’ cameras to the kids and encouraged them to take pictures. Jon’s team would then print the images that the kids shot. In the evening they would have a conversation with the kids based on the photos. Pictures ranged from mothers making baskets, insects, women bringing water back from a well. One four-year-old immediately took a selfie.
The idea of cultural preservation doesn’t mean keeping these tribes as is, but rather cataloging where the culture is at this particular stage. It has long been known that indigineous people are better protectors of the land. How can we learn from their traditional ecological knowledge and conservation ethic to preserve the forest? This kind of exploration is invaluable in preserving culture and providing outside communities with an understanding of why their home needs to be protected and what we can do to help.
Though the Ese’Eja people do not participate in gold mining, they are directly impacted by mercury poisoning used in the illicit process. They live along the three rivers, the Tambopta, Heath (locally known as the Sonene) and Madre de Rios. Gold mining takes place there and, consequently, they can no longer eat fish from the big rivers nor can they drink the water. They must source water from a spring. Women walk four kilometers round-trip carrying water from a well in the Palma Real Community.
There are noticeable effects of mercury on the children. The elders say the children lack stamina and focus. They are not performing in school or able to learn traditional forest hunting and gathering skills — and their hair is a copper color instead of dark black.
With mining comes standing water and mosquitoes that carry diseases. There is animal poaching to feed the mining camps. Worse, there is the unspeakable horror of child kidnapping for sex trade.
Jon sees himself as a storyteller and photography is his medium. He and his creative partner Bale chose to take daguerreotype portraits–a photography technique developed in 1839 where silver plates are developed with mercury and gilded in gold. Using an ironic process in which the viewer sees themselves reflected in the silver surface like a mirror, Jon raises awareness to the mercury pollution and our role in it. Only upon deeper inspection does the portrait of the Ese’Eja become truly visible.
The process is long and entailed, If you get one photo in a day, it is a good day. They took digital photos in the Amazon, printed them back in their studio and then took photos of those prints and developed them in the daguerreotype process (which basically is developing the print onto a silver plate with a mirror finish using iodine crystals, bromine, mercury and gold).
Jon and Andrew’s intention behind this artistic choice is being that we are a part of the process – the choices we make with our technology and jewelry impacts these people so as we see their faces looking at us, we see ourselves in the mirror. These are REAL people being impacted. This is happening right now. These portraits put a face to the larger ideas.
A primary goal in Jon’s work is to have people consider how they view land and the environment. Many people see things in a pyramid model where we “inherit” from previous generations, whereas the Ese’Eja people believe what we use borrows from our children. If there was a cultural paradigm shift in this way of thinking, we as a society would make different choices and this could positively affect climate crisis mitigation. This way of thinking could be useful in redefining models for business, policy making, government, and education. How do we make that shift? We need to start with education. Thanks to Jon and Andrew’s work, all we have to do is look at ourselves in the mirror and maybe change can start.
Check out Jon’s website
Learn more via his book: