It’s dusk. A group of young boys scale a tree, jumping from branch to water along a riverine neighborhood in Brazil. Pulsing through the center of one of the world’s last remaining rainforests, Brazil’s waterways have sustained vitality for thousands of indigenous people for centuries. But since this photo was taken last year by Canadian photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim, a third of the city has been displaced by the world’s third largest dam.
Elkaim’s photo series—a long-term documentary that chronicles the lives of people displaced from their homes by the Belo Monte Dam—was awarded the $20,000 Alexia Foundation professional grant.
Finalists of the grant in this category include Brendan Hoffman, Adriane Ohanesian, Asa Sjöström and Krisanne Johnson. Alvaro Ybarra Zavala won the judges special recognition for his work on Colombia, The Parallel State. In the student category, Nathaniel Brunt’s #Shaheed, a study of men and technology in the war in Kashmir, took first place.
Elkaim, who had self-funded the project, was on what may have been his last trip to Brazil when he learned of the prize. “The news came at perfect timing,” he tells TIME. “This story is constantly evolving, with so many layers and so much more to do and I kept thinking this can’t be the end.”
As a young kid, Elkaim recalls scouring through a tall stack of National Geographic magazines that his grandpa kept. “Going through those magazines, the Amazon captured my imagination,” Elkaim says. “I always knew one day I would go there.”
He went on to study cultural anthropology at the University of Manitoba and later pursued photojournalism, focusing his lens on the impact of development on cultures still connected to the natural world. He co-founded the Boreal Collective, a team of 12 internationally based photojournalists, through which he exhibited his Sleeping With the Devil project, which examines a Canadian community in the heart of a territory called “chemical valley.” But he never forgot the Amazon.
When he read about Bela Monte in a news article, he instantly knew this was what he had to do next.
His resulting images look at the people’s connection to the land: One image shows a Ribinerio family preparing fish to eat, in the river; Neto fans the flames while building a canoe on the reserve; Munduruku women bathe in a creek; A boy plays by the river in the Xingu Basin. Other images reveal the fallout of the dam: Families move their belongings out of their flooded homes; a child stands, knee-deep in water, in a flooded home; tribal members on a sandbar prepare for a protest against the dam.
With grant funding, Elkaim plans to return to Altamira to focus on the continued fallout. “This dam is built, it’s producing electricity, the damage is already done and it’s a catastrophe,” he says.
For Elkaim, The Alexia Foundation grant—created in remembrance of Alexia Tsairis, one of the 35 Syracuse University students murdered in the terrorist bombing of PanAm Flight 103—is humbling. “It’s not just about the sum of money,” he says. “It’s about the others that have come before me, and all of the amazing colleagues that I know also applied for this award and to know that I was recognized for it. That creates an obligation to do the best work I can.”
Aaron Elkaim is a Toronto based photographer. His work will be exhibited at the 2016 Look3 Festival.
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