National Geographic

Behind the Cover: Martin Schoeller Photographs an Amazon Tribe

Dec 19, 2013

Her face is painted, the crown of her head shaved, and her eyelashes and brows plucked
in the traditional manner of her Amazon tribe. That tribe, the Kayapo, is the subject of the
January National Geographic cover story. The girl with the direct gaze personifies the
tribe’s determination to defend their culture and their homeland.
But the child on the cover is not just a symbol. She is a little girl of about four named
Nhiaka-e, and she lives in Kendjam, one of three villages in northern Brazil that
photographer Martin Schoeller visited to document the story. “She was shy,” says
Schoeller, who spent roughly ten days in Kendjam, “but she was always checking me
out to see what I was up to.”
To take Nhiaka-e’s portrait, as well as those of other Kendjam residents, Schoeller set
up a makeshift studio in the local school and asked the teachers to spread the word that
anyone could come to get their picture taken. He estimates that about 80 percent of the
village showed up. “We were the entertainment,” he said, “with our big lights and the
monitor where they could see the pictures.”
Nhiaka-e didn’t seem nervous about posing. “What I love about Nhiaka-e is that she
looks so proud,” says Schoeller. “She has a great sense of attitude.”
Faces rarely appear on National Geographic magazine covers, says creative director Bill
Marr. “When you think of the newsstand market, nearly all other magazines are selling
their issues with the familiar faces of celebrities,” he says. “The faces of the Kayapo are
not familiar-they are exotic. And we hope readers will react positively to them.”
Schoeller himself is a celebrity photographer with a portfolio that reads like a who’s
who of the bright and beautiful. But his favorite kind of work is to document indigenous
cultures. “I don’t watch that many movies, I don’t watch TV, and I’ve only liked a little bit
of the music by the musicians I’ve photographed,” he says. “I’m way more interested
in people who haven’t been photographed much.” His previous work for National
Geographic magazine has included stories on multiracial Americans, twins, and the
Hadza, an African tribe.
Two of Schoeller’s favorite people from Kendjam are featured on the cover of the iPad
edition: Ynhire, a Kayapo warrior, and Pukatire, the village chief. “Pukatire was really on
our side,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with him, which signaled to the rest of the tribe
that we were okay.”
When Schoeller wasn’t with Pukatire, he was following Ynhire around. Unlike other tribal
members, the energetic warrior didn’t wear a T-shirt-but he would don sneakers for a
pickup soccer game after a long day of hunting.
Despite modern incursions like sneakers and soccer balls, says Schoeller, “these people
are fine without us.” For this story about the Kayapo isn’t the familiar sad tale of an
indigenous people facing extinction from the forces of modernity, but the surprising story
of a powerful tribe holding its ground. Or as the cover line puts it, the Kayapo are “taking
on the modern world. And winning.”