Two days earlier, an American photographer met with leaders of young communities in the hope that some of them could take part in a new project that explores the lives of marginalized youth in a remote Brazilian region. Word spread quickly.
“He came up to me and said, ‘You’re a photographer, I’m a transvestite, and you’ll be photographing me on Thursday,'” Lyons recalled in a telephone interview.
The pair met, and the resulting portrait—Wendell staring defiantly at the camera with a lit match in his mouth—became a standout image in Lyons’ new coming-of-age dream series Like a River. But as a photographer and trained anthropologist, Lyons seems more interested in the human stories behind his photographs.
“Wendell does gigs, but he also takes care of his mother’s small business selling churrascos (grilled meat) at the market at night,” he said. “She is very ill and he has taken control. So it’s a very delicate thing: he doesn’t want to do drag and drop and (having any discrimination as a result) negatively impacting the business that they survive off of.
“So, as an overcompensation, he became the ‘mother’ to all the non-binary, transgender and queer kids in town,” Lyons added, talking about how Wendell opened his home to struggling teenagers and helped transgender youth access hormones. therapy in the nearest city of Manaus.
According to the photographer, about half of the subjects in Lyons’ new book are identified as transgender, non-binary, or “kind of queer.” Credit: Like a River 2022/Loose Joints
However, the predominant spirit of Lyons’ imagery is resilience.
“Of course, there was a struggle among everyone I worked with,” he said. “But it looks like discrimination is just being tacitly understood. It’s an undercurrent, it’s there, but when I made friends with people, there were a lot of positive discussions.
“There was (a sense of) urgency to celebrate the fact that they can walk around this city and not care what people think.”
Borrowing its title from the Brazilian poem of the same name, “Like A River” depicts not only the region’s LGBT communities, but also other groups “living on the sidelines,” as Lyons puts it. His intimate images capture teenagers involved in arts and musical subcultures, as well as indigenous youths with complex “intersectional identities”.
The photographer also turned his lens on young land activists, and environmental threats were a constant concern for his subjects. He said the fear of illegal mining and deforestation in Careiro has grown markedly since he started the project in 2019.
Lyons has also turned his attention to the region’s environment, which he says is under increasing threat. Credit: Like a River 2022/Loose Joints
“Obviously there is a lot of discrimination based on homosexuality, but I think the big threat to people is that Bolsonaro created this wild west in the Amazon. There are many fears that loggers and illegal miners may infiltrate the community.” he added, referring to recent reports of miners attacking indigenous villages in search of gold and other resources.
Lyons, who previously made a series of films about marginalized youth in Mozambique and Ukraine, sees portraiture as an act of collaboration and his characters as friends.
The photographer focuses on building relationships before picking up the camera. He usually doesn’t shoot people the same day he meets them, and gives staff the power to decide where and how the shoot will take place, including what they wear and how they pose.
“It’s not traditional photojournalism where you swoop in, take pictures and disappear,” explained Lyons, who said he still talks to many of the people featured on “Like a River.”
“It was much more than that. I wanted to focus on connecting with people and really appreciating the intimate moments they shared with me.”