We Are Brazil – capturing the DNA of a global nation

Somos Brasil means ‘We Are Brazil’ and is as ambitious a creative endeavour as its title implies. Nearly five years in the making, the project by photographic artist Marcus Lyon involved making portraits of over 100 people from Brazil in an attempt to capture the country’s identity in the 21st-century.

Yet by interviewing each of his subjects (their words feature in an accompanying image-activated app), and taking DNA samples to reveal each person’s individual heritage, the resulting body of work is more an anthropological study merging art and science than straight-forward photography book.

Both the Somos Brasil book and its exhibition officially launched last month in São Paulo and were greeted with national interest, even receiving coverage on primetime GloboNews. And, last night, Lyon and the project’s designer, Jim Sutherland of Studio Sutherl&, won a Yellow Pencil at the D&AD Awards for their work.

Luiz Roberto Barros Mott

While years in the making (the project was conceived pre-Brexit and pre-Trump) it has emerged into a world where issues of nationality, identity and diversity are at the forefront of politics and public discussion. Somos Brasil feels keenly in tune with the times, a project that has perhaps become political, even if it didn’t set out to be, and one that does much to reaffirm notions of humanity rather than nationality.

The sheer range and mix of ethnicities that emerge from the DNA samples that each subject provided – brilliantly incorporated into the project as infographics by Sutherland – speak of a society that can boast ancestral connections from all over the world.

Lyon travelled all over Brazil with a producer and sound recordist and mapped the identity of 136 people, collecting their portraits, stories and histories. Each of the subjects was found through a nomination process and the final selection included just over 100 portraits. 

“We ensured the nominators were people who were community activists and social leaders and commentators from all over Brazil,” Lyon explains. “But it was only as strong as the people who nominated. So when we were on the road we asked those who’d been chosen to nominate someone else in the community … the hidden gems of a community.”

Lyon says that as he and his team worked they filled in a 37-column Excel spreadsheet. “At every stage we marked age, colour, what we could work out as their ethnicity – the DNA came later – vocation, location, gender, everything we could possibly think of that would be an intelligent way of defining a person,” he says.

This ensured that the people who were eventually included in the book would represent the country as widely as possible – “that the final book, as much as we could [make it],” Lyon adds, “was a resilient piece of work about the breadth of an amazing society.”

Though numerous and spread all over the country, the shoots followed a relatively simple process, says the photographer. He instructed each person to wear their regular clothes and to bring only things that were relevant to what they were doing that day, while some were photographed at work in uniform. In each case, a white cloth backdrop was used in order to “strip the images of all vestiges of place”, as he writes in his essay in the book.

“I immediately engaged with them in what you might call an ’emotionally resonant’ conversation,” Lyon says of the first meeting his chosen subjects – “to get them in the space of understanding of how much love was in the room for Brazil and who they were. 

“Then we photographed them absolutely how they arrived. No changes, no set dressing or propping. My only brief was to be as genuinely representative of that human being and how amazing they were … I didn’t have to do anything. I photographed them exactly as they were.”

Following each shoot, each person was asked six questions – and the responses were recorded so that their voice could be played back as an audio component to the project (the dialogue also informed the text in the book). The Somos Brasil app is available via Google Play and the iTunes app store – once downloaded it will even work with the images on this post.

Finally, a sample of their DNA was also taken and processed by Max Blankfeld of the Family Tree lab. Using image-recognition technology, each portrait could then be scanned and the relevant voice would appear, while the ancestral information of each subject would also be revealed via a series of infographics.

“The ‘portrait’ is sort of the chattel of the viewer, it belongs to the viewer,” says Lyon. “And we wanted the photographs to have a stronger role in that relationship between the viewer and the sitter. So the idea was to photograph them and record their personal testimony to our questions and then take their DNA.

“We wanted it to be the same process you would go through in the book and the exhibition: you would stand face-to-face with a life-size portrait and you’d allow them to have a voice and a role in the relationship. And then you would look at their DNA and find out where they were from.”

Lyon says that Sutherland quickly came up with the idea of having the gatefold pages in the book. What would ostensibly appear to be a book of photographs could then open up to reveal the personal information inside. In a clever touch, the designer also laid out the DNA information in the shape of a figure (above). This also linked with his identity for the project which re-assembled elements of the Brazilian flag to construct a human form (also above).

The page design led the pair to the construction of the wrap-around front cover, says Lyon. “We began to build the idea around this ‘present’ – where between one side of the ‘wrapping paper’ and the other was this block, this ‘gift’,” he says. “There are a lot of beautiful photographic essay books that [include] a foreword and then a load of pictures. But this was not what Jim and I were doing. This was a much more layered and deeper experience – and it had to be one where you, as the viewer, would be prepared to put in a bit of work.”

(Bekwynhka Kayapó) João Pangrá Kayapó

As a whole, the project has a very positive message. In his essay, Lyon writes that the work is “an exploration of the exceptional human capital of a nation, one occasionally ill at ease with itself and the realities of poverty, social exclusion and inadequate infrastructure but one where the power of the unifying structures of family and community outweighed any sense of the fear of the stranger and their intentions.”

The stories in the book bear this out. While we can try and shape our own identities through self-realisation and self-creation, what also ends up defining us, as many of Lyon’s subjects suggest, is the influence of others. (Lyon explores the notion of identity in the TEDxExeter talk from April 2016, below.)

Having completed the project, Lyon reflects that any message in the book is really concerned our common humanity. “Through the lens of a South African country and a set of its best [people], we can accurately see that we are at our best when we allow ‘all of us’ to be present,” he says. While shining a spotlight on one nation, this is not a project that evokes nationalism or patriotism – it in fact eschews these concepts in favour of inclusivity and shared ancestry.

“I think it’s quite political, even though I didn’t set out to do a piece of politics,” he adds. “Somos Brasil talks to the world we live in a very powerful way – that is deliberate. But it wasn’t meant to be political, it was meant to celebrate the best of our societies.

“I see my real focus going forward as bringing science and art together,” Lyon continues. “I love that combination.

“With an experiment, effectively you do the same thing thousands of times, record the results and look at the variations. In asking the same questions to different people, that’s how you find patterns and commonalities and differences.” All of these things are on display in this rigorous and uplifting piece of work.

The Somos Brasil exhibition is at the Centro Brasileiro Britânico, Cultura Inglesa, R. Ferreira de Araújo, 741 – Pinheiros, São Paulo, Brasil. Produced in Brazil by NGO ImageMagica. Design (book, exhibition and app) by Studio Sutherl&. DNA by Family Tree DNA. Sound by Matt Hill at Rethink. App by Calvium. Curated by Iata Cannabrava. Published by Editora Madelena. The Somos Brasil app is available via Google Play and the iTunes app store and can be used with the images on this post

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