I found myself stranded in a Dantesque Amazonian town named Cláudia. Colonized in 1978 on land belonging to the Kayabi tribe, Cláudia stands at the frontier of deforestation. Most people presume the town was named after the mistress of the colonizer because his wife had a different name. The day before, with teenage brothers from Itaúba, I had gone through back roads to the edge of this municipality and witnessed the most pathetic spectacle of destruction. I expected deforestation to be about cutting down trees; but it was more like the ripping and shredding of living tissue in epic proportion.
This is the territory where western civilization penetrates the Amazonian forest to make a quick profit. The inhabitants, mostly loggers, hold an idealized notion of themselves as pioneers. Their slippery eyes move with the nervous evasiveness of those forced to hide their crimes. The presence of a photographic camera irritates them in a visceral way.
Recently, a journalist revealed in the national press that twelve people had been kept in slavery at one of the largest ranches in Cláudia. The news brought the intervention of the Federal Government. I could not persuade a single taxi driver to take me to the area where the forest was being burned. They obviously feared retaliation from ranch owners.
On days like this, the forces of chance seem to pull resources from the imaginary to plot an arbitrary intervention on reality, reshuffling the order of things just to make them coincide around an idea. It was July 14th, the two hundred and twenty-first anniversary of the French Revolution. In this part of the world the dry season was making everything more crisp and volatile. The passing cars clouded the air with a fine red dust that ended up sticking onto everything. As I left the hotel with my intrusive camera hidden in a plastic bag, I thought the only thing worth photographing would be dust.
A few blocks away a very colorful house attracted my eye. I stopped to observe it in detail. In front of the façade there was a rundown telephone booth with the number fourteen (today's date I thought). The peculiar profile of the modernist object reminded me of Napoleon's head in a caricature that I had almost bought at a street stand bookseller across from Place Saint Michel, on the shores of the Seine, two years ago. I remember it was the cover of a revolutionary journal that featured pére Duchesne wearing his red cap of liberty, facing Napoleon's statue with a chisel. I never bought the print because it was a poor reproduction and I still hoped to encounter a better version of it. I probably saw the resemblance with the telephone booth because I was reading Baudelaire's essay Of the Essence of Laughter in which he talks about caricature and the role of the comic in the visual arts.
Behind the telephone cabin, there was a gorgeous bush full of red flowers. I decided to take a photograph and started the process of measuring the exposure and fitting the subject within the frame. I noticed how gracefully the address numbers of the house were spaced in a diagonal line matching the inclination of the roof when I was pierced by a revelation. The number was 1871, and the vertigo of the revolution came over me as I realized that the caricature of Napoleon and Duchesne could not be from the siege of the Bastille, it had to be from the Paris Commune of 1871. In high school, l had learned that those three months of the Commune changed the world, that the bloody week in which the Communards were massacred was among the most shameful instances of modern history. The army of the official government in Versailles used photographs to identify and execute the Communards. This was the first time that photographs were used by government officials as a tool to survey and incriminate members of the population.
I went back to the hotel in a rush, escaping a cloud of dust made by a passing truck, feeling dizzy, probably from dehydration.
The numbers on the façade of the house, like the caricature, were pointing to both the French Revolution on July 14 and the Paris Commune in 1871. On my return from Mato Grosso, I enlarged the image to inspect it in detail. As if I were an Assyrian priest of Nimrud and the photograph the liver of a sacrificial sheep, I searched for the answers magically encoded in the surface of the visual evidence. And lo and behold, I found, in the shadow of a cactus on the right side of the house, the perfect outline of a cartoon Mouse’s head, hovering over the yellow wall like an evil ghost. I had heard in the news that Paris Disney had become the most visited tourist site in Europe, surpassing both the Louvre and the Eiffel tower.
A photograph does not mean anything other than what is projected upon it, yet photographs also provide evidence that can incriminate people. It started in France in 1871 and today the habitants of Cláudia know it perfectly well. As if a bouquet of flowers, I will bring this photograph to Paris and place it at the Communard's Wall in the cemetery where the last defenders of the Commune were executed. I would like to believe that the hidden messages encoded in the image could reignite my lost belief in the indexical power of photography. The printed image would function as a fetish, to commemorate the revolutionary spirit of enlightenment while warning against the outrageous, ever-expanding evils of rampant and savage capitalism.