Latin American Fotografia: Bear Guerra Photographs Ecuador's Cofan Community

By David Schonauer   Wednesday March 29, 2017

The Cofán people of Ecuador don’t paint their bodies.

They don’t wear loincloths, lounge in hammocks, or live in homes roofed with palm fronds. In fact, notes American anthropologist Michael Cepek in Pacific Standard  magazine, they don’t fit the Western stereotypes of how native Amazonians are supposed to look or act. “To most outsiders, the Cofán don’t look indigenous—they look poor and defeated,” Cepek writes.

When the Spanish conquerors landed in western South America in the first half of the 16th century, there were as many as 30,000 Cofán people living in the region. In 2014, Ecuador’s Cofán population was estimated to be around 1,400; there is also a small population living across the border in Colombia. “The Cofán have suffered the same traumas as many Native Americans: invasion, enslavement, missionization, and epidemic disease,” notes Cepek.

In the 1960s, the Cofán faced another threat when oil was discovered under their homeland. Today the Cofán village of Dureno has become what Cepek calls a “poignant case study of cultural loss and environmental destruction.”

Accompanying his text are images taken by Roberto Bear Guerra, a photographer whose work addresses globalization, development, and social and environmental justice issues. His photographs of the Cofán, made over the course of two weeks, will be included in Cepek’s book Life in Oil: Surviving Disaster in the Oil Fields of Amazonia, which will be published in 2018 by University of Texas Press. Pacific Standard previewed the images. We feature a selection here.

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Guerra is now based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his daughter, Camila, and wife and collaborator, journalist Ruxandra Guidi. Guidi and Guerra often work together under the name Fonografia Collective to produce local and international print, radio, and multimedia stories about human rights and social justice.

Guerra is also winner of the Latin American Fotografía 5  competition. Three of his photographs were chosen, including two shots of anti-government protests in Quito, Ecuador.

Also chosen was photograph from a series about the Shipbo community in Peru. The Shipbo, notes Guerra, faced displacement as part of the beautification project of the Rímac River. The series originally appeared in Americas Quarterly magazine.

Guerra, who studied anthropology at Notre Dame University and once assisted photographer Dan Winters, was also a chosen as a winner of the LAF 3 competition for a series of black-and-white images of his daughter.

“Though on the one hand I’m simply setting out to document Camila's life as part of our family history, I also see this project as a way for me to to show my love for her through my work, as a way for me to remain attentive to the beautiful moments of childhood and everyday life, in general, and  to learn to see better as a photographer,” he told DFLA  in 2015.


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