Published: January 2007
Alex Webb

What was your best experience during this assignment?

One evening at the edge of the Panará village of Nãnsêpotiti, I came across a girl with a monkey nestled in her tangled mop of hair. She wasn't more than five or six years old, and she made me think of the title character in François Truffaut's film The Wild Child a kind of mythological creature existing outside the bounds of our civilization. I returned to photograph the girl over several days, and I never once saw the monkey leave that dark nest of hair.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Sweat poured down my neck and back, drenching my pants as I photographed illegal loggers in the Brazilian jungle. My broad-brimmed hat hung sodden and limp around my head. Mud sucked at my boots. Ants crawled up my pants and gnawed at me from ankle to belly. As chain saws buzzed, giant trees fell all around me, taking with them vines, smaller trees, and everything else in their path. Clouds of insects—displaced from their habitat—added to the misery. Soon, a smoking bulldozer tore through the brush, creating a muddy path so the massive tree trunks could be dragged out to a waiting truck. These were the first steps in the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest.

I was miserable: itching and soaked and depressed at the loss of remarkable old trees. Then I thought of the gaunt men with chain saws, covered with sawdust, who bring down the trees. What must it be like for them? Out of economic desperation, what was it like to risk fines—perhaps even imprisonment—for the pittance earned doing this grueling and dangerous job in the sweltering jungle heat?

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

The chief of the Panará people in Nãnsêpotiti would sometimes greet me by beating his chest, pointing at me, and declaring "Salti Kuh." He and the other village elders would then break out in raucous laughter. Confused, I asked Stephan Schwartzman, the anthropologist who was with me, about this odd behavior. The chief, he explained, had given me the name, Salti Kuh, after a ruthless Panará warrior who had killed dozens of rival Kayapó Indians. It was an honor to be named after such a revered warrior from the Panará past, but I couldn't help but wonder: What in my behavior had prompted such a nickname?