Thoughts

This Image Should NOT be Seen by the Whole World

Chief Raoni Metuktire of Brazil's Kayapó

Chief Raoni Metuktire of Brazil’s Kayapó

If your response is either “I shared it and this is not what I meant!” or “The ends justify the means!” then consider this: Follow Up Post


Why is Chief Raoni Metuktire of Brazil’s Kayapó tribe crying? According to a popular meme, it is because he received devastating news about the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

THIS IMAGE SHOULD BE SEEN BY THE WHOLE WORLD

While magazines and TV chains report about the lives and love affairs of movie actors and actresses, football players and other celebrities, the Chief of the Kayapo tribe heard the worst news of his entire life:

Mrs. Dilma, the president of Brazil, has given her approval for the construction of an enormous hydroelectric central (the world’s third largest one).

This means the death sentence for ALL the tribes living at the shores of the river because the barrage will flood more or less 988,421 acres of the forest. More than 40 000 natives will have to find other living surroundings where they will be able to survive. The destruction of the natural habitat, the deforestation and the disappearance of several species of plants and animals will be a fait accompli.

We know that a simple image is the equivalent of a thousand words, it shows the price to be paid for the “quality of life” of our so-called “modern comforts.” There is no space in the world anymore for those who live differently. Everything has to be smoothed away, that everyone, in the name of globalization must lose his and her identity and way of living.

If this enrages you, I urge and implore you to “SHARE” this message to all your friends, relatives and acquaintances.

Thank you in the name of life, nature and biodiversity.

This narrative is truly heart wrenching. For the most part, this description is accurate. There is a project to build a hydroelectric dam across the Xyngu River and it is likely to have significant impacts on the the indigenous people in the area and the environment. However, the Belo Monte dam project is not why I chose to make a post out of this frequently shared image. What bothers me is the subtle stripping of Chief Raoni’s agency and power.

What the Meme Says

The image attached to this meme depicts Chief Raoni in tears and clearly emotional. The description says, “Chief of the Kayapo tribe heard the worst news of his entire life,” implying that the image was taken at a moment of intense grief over the devastation of his home and people. The representation of Chief Raoni shows a man who is sad, powerless, and at the mercy of a powerful President Dilma. This is supported by his hunched posture, his hand attempting to cover his face, and his closed, scrunched eyes. The text enforces this representation by speaking of death, destruction and disappearance. It then puts Chief Raoni in sharp contrast with the reader, by describing the reader as frivolous and superficial and to an extent blaming the reader for the devastation, “it shows the price to be paid for the ‘quality of life’ of our so-called ‘modern comforts.’” The text then ends with a call to action to save Chief Raoni and his people.

This is inspiring stuff. The first time I read it, I felt moved by the passion of the text and I swelled with empathy for Chief Raoni. Then, I did some research on Chief Raoni, the Belo Monte Dam, and this image.

What Reality Is

Chief Raoni in Paris presenting his petition.

Chief Raoni in Paris presenting his petition.

The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebook, twitter and a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.

The Problem

I find the Facebook meme distressing, not because of the Belo Monte Dan Project, but because the author and all of the people who share it have fed into and bolstered (even if unknowingly) a narrative that depicts indigenous people as sad and powerless and awaiting the benevolence of people from industrialized nations. This pulls into focus our own arrogance and biases against indigenous peoples. It does not help the cause or support Chief Raoni. It only makes us feel better about our lazy attempts to “save” people that we look down upon. (On a side note, Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” is another excellent example of this phenomenon.)

While far too many have shared this image on facebook, twitter and elsewhere – including many anthropologists – Chief Raoni is effecting actual change and wielding real power. But don’t take my word for it; this is what Chief Raoni had to say about this representation of him crying.

“I did not cry because of the authorization for construction and the beginning of the work of Belo Monte. As long as I will live, I will continue to fight against this construction. I want to tell President Dilma, to Lula, to the President of FUNAI, to the President of IBAMA, to the Minister of Energy Lobão, that I am on my way to Brasilia and that I will take along all my warriors to fight against the Belo Monte. I will not stop.

It is President Dilma who will cry, not me. I wish to know who published this picture and spread this information. I would like to see this person. Instead of constructing the dam of Belo Monte, why is President Dilma not taking care of the bandits of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and why does she not stop the destruction of the environment? Does she have no authority?

It has to stop. The President Dilma will have to kill me in front of the Palace of Planalto. Only then will you be able to build the dam of Belo Monte. As long as it has not happened, I will fight until the end. I am before the city council of Colider to show who I am : Raoni! And I will also demonstrate it in Brasilia.” [Source]


Update: Apparently, it isn’t just social media that proliferates this. The Washington Post did in 2011 as well.

This post has been syndicated on the Daily Dot.

If your response is either “I shared it and this is not what I meant!” or “The ends justify the means!” then consider this: Follow Up Post

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56 thoughts on “This Image Should NOT be Seen by the Whole World

  1. Isobel says:

    SPI link led me here.
    Glad to read this, I first saw that photo/meme online about 2 or 3 years ago and it’s becoming popular once again… Thank you for articulating why I find it so troubling and for more information on Chief Raoni!

  2. Timothy Miller says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. Mis-information and dis-information are one of the greatest perils our modernized societies face in the information age.

  3. Great post. It irks me when I see misinformation spread so easily and widely — some stories are just too good not to pass on. A very intersting case reflecting on the recent phenomenon of crowdfunding is that of the Trust Fund to save Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. The country is seeking half the estimated value of the oil beneath the park in donations as a means to keep the park alive. http://mptf.undp.org/yasuni

  4. Jerad Otis says:

    Yes, memes that could be construed as or that are blatantly offensive and/or derisive to other ethnic, political or religious groups are OK, but if it’s this group it might be offensive.

    HELLO! It’s called a JOKE. If you’re not in on the joke then obviously it is flying over your head!

    • Rebekah says:

      Jerad, it’s not a joke (like say the overly attached girlfriend memes). This is spread as a true story, in no way is it presented or made out to be a joke. Regardless of whether one cares about indigenous people or not, one should care that they’re being lied to. Deliberately, in many cases. And often for the purpose of ‘like-farming’ for a corporation.
      Even when not deliberate, it’s not helpful to anyone to have misinformation being spread like wildfire.
      Then there’s looking like a fool because someone points out the errors and the lack of fact checking before reposting becomes blindingly obvious.

  5. Jerad Otis says:

    I meant to add that I am personally promoting this meme now in my facebook and twitter timelines on inspiration of this story!

    Carry on with your white savior industrial complex! BARRRF

  6. Stefanie van Buuren says:

    It’s funny… I actually know the source of all these annoying, heart-wrenching Meme’s… as a freelance writer and translator, I receive my work from a myriad of websites. I can pick the jobs I want, apply to them and wait to see if I get them. What I never apply to, however, is projects requesting one’s ability to play on heartstrings, to ‘get likes’ etc.

    Yes, these fraudulent meme’s are often the work of freelancers (desperate ones, at that, not to mention without any morals in my eyes) who are hired for a measly dollar per picture (sometimes less), and are told to come up with a heart-wrenching story to befit the picture they are shown…

    • Ian Croft says:

      I must be old as I have no idea what you’re all talking about with regard to the word “meme” (and the plural of which, would be memes not meme’s). However, misrepresentation of people via all types of media should be exposed, whenever possible, so this story, with its explanation, should at least be shared on FB.

  7. Peter Parslow says:

    It’s slightly awkward that when I share this on facebook, the title (with NOT) is shown alongside the lower image. Here in the original, I get the impression that the upper image, of Chief Raoni crying, is the one you’d prefer is not shared, whilst the lower image, of Raoni in Paris, seems a reasonable one to share.

      • Thank you very much Vanderbroek. I went many Times in Brazil especially in Rio De Jeneiro, Sao Pao, Minnajerai, south Brazil and North Brazil. Kayapò Indigenous peoples are the major ethnic group. In the history many millions slaves had been killed-like minnajerai and many other places in Barzil, that’s why when a leader of Any Indigenous groups find some irrelevant project which is against their wills, it’s normal and natural to burst the tears out for any Indigenous person – it’s not only just an emotional breaks but innate ideas too.because many lives will lost and the will bring the natural desastrous. I Ihink that Ms Dilma is going to take a wrong decission for Indigenous peoples. Thanks a lot again.

  8. Not a Joker says:

    Sadly, Jerad, if in your world, this constitutes a joke, I’m glad that we are of different worlds…oh, wait, unfortunately we are of the same one. BARFF away, you sad excuse for a human being, no matter what shade of pale you may be.

  9. I wonder if there is a way to attract the attention of Snopes, since this is the kind of thing that they’d jump for.

    Thanks for sharing this information you found.

  10. Anna says:

    An important post, particularly given the rising tide of superficial championing of complex social justice causes (need I mention Kony 2012?!)

  11. espher says:

    I don’t know if I buy into the “subtle stripping” of “agency and power” angle, but I do buy into the “fraudulent memes are a bad thing” angle.

    • Ingenjören says:

      “I don’t know if I buy into the “subtle stripping” of “agency and power” angle”

      Hmm, could you clarify what your qualms are. Do you a) believe that pretending that the chief is helpless until WE help him is a good thing or b) that the chief is indeed helpless until WE help him?

  12. Liv says:

    I agree with the core of the article, that it is bad that things get shared that are fraudulent, but I don’t know if it in this case is inherrently connected to looking down on the indigenous people in that traditional colonial sense you are describing (at least I didn’t have that intention as I shared it a couple of years ago not knowing better). There might be people doing that, but I for an exemple did not have that particular argument in mind sharing it.

    Deforestation is a huge problem, and indigenous people, or just people living in rural areas with attractive lands around them, are being forced from their homes. Even with the new legislation in Brazil only 4000 families has been able to return to lands they’ve claimed. I can see a good reason to making people in other parts of the world aware of this, since most of the deforestations results are exported and produced by mulit-national coroprations. Actions over here, can in some extent help putting pressure on the issues. Awareness, and reactions against this, can bring force to a fight that these people are already fighting. And awareness is spread very effectivily by this kind of pictures that go viral. Not that shares on facebook is the real change-bringer, but a few of those that shares acctually try to do more then to click share on the screen.

    Of course this would be much better if it was done with proper, authentic pictures, and not fraudulent memes. But I do not see it as being only a first-world-guilt-solver (where we share something to make ourself feel better as you described above).

    But thanks for informing me that this particular picture was a ‘fake’ :)

  13. Sven Martensson says:

    While I don’t like disinformation, I just don’t agree on the statement
    It is not the effect it has on me at least.
    - Why should I look down upon people if they were powerless to fight for themselves agains the industrialized world?
    - Why should I look down on people that are crying?

    If I just get a message that some bloke are fighting an efficient but loosing battle in court against the dam that would force a group of people to move, I would forget it immediately. Why should I care about some people that are like us. There are people like us everywhere! Having to move due to some highway project or whatever. Why should I care about that specific bunch of people?

    But if they are different from me and all the people around me it is another thing. Because I wish for the world to have room for different ways of life. And thus the original message was more powerful on me (not entirely honest though, but as long as the background story was true I don’t care).

  14. Sven Martensson says:

    #&@&! I messed it up with the tags! I should have this citation in my previous message:
    “a narrative that depicts indigenous people as sad and powerless and awaiting the benevolence of people from industrialized nations. This pulls into focus our own arrogance and biases against indigenous peoples. It does not help the cause or support Chief Raoni. It only makes us feel better about our lazy attempts to “save” people that we look down upon.”

    Sorry!

  15. callum mackendrick says:

    Thanks for offering more information on this story. I agree that the meme is spreading because of a misguided perception of the ‘powerless’ indigenous tribal chief.

    However, despite Chief Raoni’s efforts, and ability to delay the project for years, it still doesn’t alter the fact that his best efforts haven’t stopped the dam project and his land will still be flooded.

    So if some details of the ‘meme’ are inaccurate isn’t the basic message still intact?

  16. Pingback: Misinformation & The Chief Raoni Meme

  17. rune saugmann says:

    Hmm… every time you open a newspaper you see images of equally powerful politicians (which in my eyes is what this guy is) taken from different occations, trying to illustrate the point of the news piece. Merkel looking angry from somewhere years ago as an illustration on a Greece debt story, your local PM worried to illustrate bad opinion polls, etc. This is standard practice, and it makes me uncomfortable that we can all agree to its unethicalness (and our own criticality) when it is applied to a slightly more exotic politician. Are these reactions, in doing so, not repeating the very same orientalizing that they decry, invoking the very same awesome-white-(now:critical)-people-will-save-the-savages thinking?
    And please don’t reply by quoting Chief Raoni, the point is not that politicians cannot be angry about misrepresentation, but that it makes critical thinkers dance around when it is non-traditional, non-western politicians..

    • Brad Harris says:

      Ok, I am a facebook ignoramus, but as a linguist I see “meme” has been hijacked. But it’s still a meme, and the ruckus over this image is a great commentary on the perils of facebook and the pervasiveness of prejudice. All the more reason for political activism in my own street.

  18. Jason says:

    I dont understand your point. The main thing is that a dam is going to be built that will devastate the lives of many tribes. So what does it matter whether a picture is real or not? That is minuscule related to the suffering of the tribes, certainly is a lot less relevant.

  19. Cynthia Handlen says:

    Hi Angela, I really appreciate your work to uncover the real story behind this photo. However, I don’t agree with your comment, “It only makes us feel better about our lazy attempts to ‘save’ people that we look down upon.” I didn’t feel any better about anything after reading the fake story. My emotional response to it and choice to share it with others I think was inspired more by my own internalized feelings of powerlessness and wanting to do SOMETHING regardless of how ineffectual I thought that action might be. And I do not look down upon indigenous people. That is a broad cultural assumption. But thank you, none the less. Instead of powerlessness, your story inspired powerful and empowering feelings of warmth, love, and respect. From now on, I will be sure to fact check–at the very least with Snopes before re-posting such an article.

  20. Gregor MacLennan says:

    This is not so much a story about dishonest journalism – it has never been clear where the caption originally came from, and it has been spread through social media. There were numerous stories in 2011 explaining the real context of the photo e.g. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/09/29/1021393/-Chief-Raoni-Cries-for-his-people-no-but-you-can-still-stop-the-Belo-Monte-Dam

    The photo is from a protest about the dam, Chief Raoni is steadfastly opposed and fighting it, and it is something worth crying about. He was just crying about something else – meeting family members at this protest.

    Unfortunately once a photo starts spreading like this there seems to be no way to stop it, but important to point out the true context whenever it pops up again. Just remember, although Chief Raoni is not crying for the dam, doesn’t mean it’s not something worth crying about: http://amazonwatch.org/news/2013/0321-new-protest-paralyzes-brazils-belo-monte-dam

  21. Pingback: Rhetoric and Philosophy | Pearltrees

  22. brendalynn says:

    Hi Angela, This is a really interesting post, thank you! I actually hadn’t seen this particular photo/meme before. I wonder if you might take the next step and instead try circulating the petition photo captioned with quotes from the Chief as an alternative meme?

    I think it could stand alone just fine. And responding to the original meme gives it power by spreading it further to people like me, whereas simply creating a new meme gives power to the message you prefer.

    There is definitely an aspect of “lazy attempts” to do good for many users of social media (memes being related). I think we could help them do their lazy-good better with content that is more accurate and fair, etc :) If that makes sense… What do you think about taking that next step, from evaluation and critique into action?

  23. Lucy says:

    This reading is quite interesting as it has in it the incredible macho idea that if one is crying, that would somehow make them powerless in the long run.

  24. Neil says:

    Great article. We are lead to feel pity for the “native” but the power structures and attitudes of oppression remain firmly in place.

  25. Really great read, I’d enjoyed it lots … But I understand why people create memes like this, it’s like a last minute effort to catch the publics interest.
    It still is annoying to hear that I was lied to when I first read it, but I understand it now.
    Good work!

  26. Zoe says:

    While this article brings out some very good points, it ignores the fact that countries exploit their own (and others) land and people. While I agree it is wrong to pity other people and wrong to presume that they are powerless in our “civilized” world, it also needs to be taken into account that there are agencies more powerful, and consequently more monetarily wealthy, than them.

    I am guessing that this dam will be built in the end, not because Chief Raoni is powerless or just sat to the side doing nothing, but because it is difficult, anywhere in the world, to win a battle against corporations and governments.

  27. Pingback: It Isn’t Just About the Falsehood – Follow-Up on the Chief Raoni Crying Meme | How to be an Anthropologist

  28. Nim says:

    This picture moved me to tears when I first saw it, with the meme text.
    Though I am glad to have learned that yet another meme isn’t accurately portrayed, I object to that this picture would contribute to making indigenous people seem “sad and powerless”. That says more of the beholder than the picture. Even if it turns out it wasn’t the case that he cried in sadness over the construction, but in joy of being reunited with a family member,
    I NEVER saw a sad and powerless man. I saw a REAL HUMAN BEING, a very strong man, brave enough to show emotion, regardless of whether it is from sadness or joy. That’s why I wanted to see the picture again, because it is so rare to see true emotion. This whole view of “keeping a stiff upper lip” and not showing emotion being regarded as “strength” and showing emotion being “weakness” is the real problem.

    I sincerely hope that most people who was moved by this image was moved by it out of empathy, not pity.

  29. VL Evans says:

    Whether the chief is shown jumping on a jet headed to Paris for a book signing, or giving a powerful speech, or crying in rage and anguish–I am thankful to see issues of Indigenous people being given attention in many real faces of human emotion and struggle. God knows I wish more people would become activists regarding North American Indians in the U.S. Also, most working people do not have time to “fact check” every little shared post on facebook. That is classist to throw around that blame. Rather it is the collective responsibility to keep in mind that social media is what it is, and nothing more. Finally, one way or the other–I hope the damned dam does not get built.

  30. Teresa says:

    This is very sad…I am a loss for words…how can so-called civilized bureaucrats condone such an injustice…Once again stealing from the people who live to honor the earth…For shame

  31. Louise says:

    Interesting.
    But it doesn’t really add up the way the article wants it to.

    I don’t find the mistaken headline for the photo as disempowering a mistake as this article suggests. One hint to my reasoning can be found in this line-”… a narrative that depicts indigenous people as sad and powerless and awaiting the benevolence of people from industrialized nations.”
    To start with, I don’t (and didn’t) see crying as powerlessness. Crying can be very powerful, it cleanses people and clears the soul for the future. A person can be sad yes, but then what he and his people are facing is a very sad situation, even if it is not directly related to the photo. But crying can be seen as frustration and part of a renewing resolve as well. Especially since it was immediately linked to his online petition and website. It communicated, perhaps not the exact meaning of that exact moment, but it definitely caught the attention and communicated a sense of great feeling.
    The idea that it is somehow looking for ‘benevolence’ seems to get itself caught up in the idea that it was ‘charity’ from others and overlooks the point that it asked people to become involved in witnessing the event and signing the petition.
    Visibility is important in any activist work. The chief is advocating for his people and is most certainly involved in activism- “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change” for the good of his tribe.
    I personally took a bit of offense at the line for the simple reason that there are many indigenous peoples IN industrialized nations around the world. That line has the unfortunate undercurrent in it’s attitude that indigenous people would not be at the other end of the electronic media seeing the photo online.
    Chief Raoni has been around the world to directly appeal to other nations as well as worked on an online petition. I would say he fully understands and functions beautifully within diplomatic and technological communications with people all over the world.
    From deep in my heart I want him to succeed.

  32. Tim A Bedel says:

    I was very pleased that I read through the entire article. What I find most disconcerting is the fact that journalism has fallen so far from presenting facts , and put their own twist or “spin” on just about everything presented to the public as truth. If we as a people, world wide would start to insist on the truth , I have faith that the majority would choose to do the right thing.

  33. Ursula Wagner says:

    Although I agree with basically all that she says in the post, I think an important issue was left out. I still think that the meme was ‘useful’ to make the issue visible to many people. Indigenous rights are not on many people’s priority list, especially when those rights are sacrificed in the name of “development” and “progress” and juxtaposed with the notion that the needs of the many outweigh the rights of the few, which is the recurring argument in development projects like dams around the world… Narmada dam is a good example of this. But like I said, I agree with most of what she writes, but I think she needed to be a bit more nuanced when it came to that…

  34. Reality says:

    Well.. This explains a lot.. :( Dilma Roussef told about 80 Brazilian Jews at an event Monday at the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation that her Jewish descent could be due to her grandmother’s surname Coimbra, which she believes to have belonged to New Christians, or Iberian Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism, also known as Marranos Jews..

    Read more: http://www.jta.org/2010/09/14/news-opinion/world/brazilian-jews-meet-presidential-front-runner#ixzz2w0nfUzTGhttp://www.jta.org/2010/09/14/news-opinion/world/brazilian-jews-meet-presidential-front-runner

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