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Daniel Jack Lyons, Like A River (2022)
Daniel Jack Lyons, “Wendell in Drag”© Like a River 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

The trans and queer youth coming of age in the Amazon

Daniel Jack Lyons’ photobook Like A River documents the marginalised teenagers growing up in the heart of the rainforest

Photographer Daniel Jack Lyons’ debut monograph Like A River (Loose Joints) is a coming-of-age story embodying many of the archetypal experiences of moving inexorably through adolescence towards adulthood. Lyons describes his subjects in familiar terms: “Young people whiling the day away, imagining and exploring new versions of themselves, Immersed in the banality of everyday life and riding the high of the rebellious creativity that it inspires.” 

Yet, unlike many depictions of restless teenage life, the stories conveyed in Like A River are set in the heart of the Amazon, among the marginalised communities of young people growing up in the rainforest. “It’s a space that accentuates the seemingly reckless courage of youth to live in truth, in spite of the relentless pressure to submit and conform,” he explains. “I think the biggest distinction is that this is all happening within a larger context centred on illegal mining, massive deforestation, and the Bolsonaro regime’s environmental and social policies, rooted in climate change denial and white supremacy.”

As an artist and anthropologist, Lyons was initially drawn to the heart of the Amazon as part of his ongoing work with marginalised youth, whether “occupying spaces on the periphery of society or in the face of conflict.” Like A River particularly amplifies and empowers the trans and queer communities of the region, as Lyons explores the intersection of deep indigenous traditions and modern identity politics meet in “the lush canopies and vegetation of the rainforest”.

“I think one of the biggest stereotypes that needs to be broken is the idea that there is just one kind of indigenous identity” – Daniel Jack Lyons

In 2019 he spent six weeks in the rainforest on an artist residency arranged by Casa Do Rio, a community-based organisation that celebrates and supports the cultural lives of teenagers and young people living in the region. Over the next two years, he made two more trips, spending most of his time in a town called Careiro which sits at the base of the Tupana river.

“This project is about challenging expectations and general assumptions about indigenous life in the Brazilian Amazon. In particular, it explores how the intersectionality of indigenous traditions and modern identity politics and how they are both guarded and celebrated against the backdrop of a toxic mix of environmental degradation, violence, and discrimination,” Lyons tells us over an email conversation. 

He invested a great deal of time getting to know individuals in the community before reaching for his camera. “As a rule, I never photograph someone the day I meet them,” he says. “Each person in the book is someone I’ve spent a lot of time with, and most of the people, especially the trans and queer community, I’ve become quite close with. In many ways, this work is really just a documentation of friendships as they were formed.”

“All of the participants and collaborators that appear in this work are people who have very complex intersectional identities. While some people come from rural and secluded tribal communities and are proud of their heritage, they may also listen to hip hop and 90s indie rock, and are skaters, drag queens, musicians, land activists, and trans rights activists etcetera,” Lyons explains. “I think one of the biggest stereotypes that needs to be broken is the idea that there is just one kind of indigenous identity. More often, indigeneity is one aspect of multiple intersecting identities that work in unison, and are unique to each individual.”

Looking through the poignant images in Like A River, I ask Lyons about his enduring memories of his time in the Amazon. It’s not an easy question to answer, but he recalls one particular moment which inspired the title of the book and seems to embody the spirit of his project: “One of the trans women in the book, named Andira, is from the same small village as a famous Amazonian poet named Thiago DeMello. We had been talking about the complexities of ‘being seen’ in an authentic way and how difficult that is, particularly for indigenous trans Amazonians. She, like many from the queer community, felt it was really important to collaborate with me on this project for the simple purpose of visibility. She told me about Thiago DeMello and then recited his poem, also titled Like A River. She stopped on the second to last stanza, and pushed through tears to repeat it twice. And then explained, ‘The trans community here is like our own small river in the Amazon, and it’s time that we meet the ocean, it’s time for the world to know us.’”

Take a look through the gallery above to take a look through a selection of photographs from Like A River.

Like A River by Daniel Jack Lyons is published by Loose Joints