J Robert Russell, Travel Photographer - Atlanta Canvas and Print

J Robert Russell, Travel Photographer

Atlanta Canvas and Print is pleased to share this blog interview of J. Robert Russell, Photographer, for the enjoyment of our customers and interested readers in our ongoing blogging and email crusades. We enjoy showcasing interesting photographers as we periodically talk to our customers regarding the many unusual facets of their photography while dicussing how they use it in their various career fields. This particular man is retired now, but was the owner of an Adventure Travel Agency named Eagles Cry Adventure Travel. This author is delighted to have served in the military alongside Robert way back in the sixties while in the USAF. The following dialogue is in Robert's own words as he related several of his experiences for this blog interview. Please enjoy his story!

One day my phone rang, with someone asking if I'd be interested in accompanying a group of doctors headed to the Amazon rainforest to provide medical care to the Yanomami people, an indigenous tribe living in relative isolation in the Orinoco River region of South America. He had me at Amazon! And so began my 10+ year involvement with TOMA – Tribal Outreach and Medical Assistance. They needed a photographer to document their work, and I am always up for a new adventure!

TOMA was started by a former MK (missionary's kid) who grew up among the Yanomami. As an adult, he started TOMA to raise supplies and recruit doctors willing to provide immunizations, medical treatment, and education about the link between malaria and mosquitos to the Yanomami who were dying by the thousands from treatable illnesses passed along by insects, foreign prospectors, and poachers.

My first trip with TOMA almost killed me…several times. I knew this was no cushy assignment at a tropical resort, but admittedly I was relatively unprepared for just how rigorous the two weeks would be. From Puerto Ayacucho, we got on small bush planes where every ounce of weight mattered. The pilots were terrific, landing on crude dirt strips in the middle of jungles and steppes. Visibility was often compromised by bushfires and dust storms. Trust me when I say it was not your usual take-off or landing, and everyone always held their breath for the first and last few seconds of each!

During our first afternoon at a missionary base camp near several mountain villages, a Yanomami runner came down to seek help for a woman in his town who was near death. We quickly packed up to follow him back to his village. The doctors had their medical supplies, and I had camera and video equipment…lots of cameras and video equipment. After several hours of steadily walking and climbing, we dropped like flies.

In retrospect, we were severely dehydrated, but we had taken off without our water filtration pumps and knew better than to drink the river water full of all kinds of nasty parasites and bacteria to which outlanders had no resistance. I was cramping so badly that I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I thought I would die on the side of that mountain, but somehow we made it to the village. As it turned out, the Yanomami woman was dying from a very treatable urinary tract infection. After an overnight heavy dose of antibiotics, her fever subsided, and she was sitting up and smiling. We now could boil water and fill our Camelbacks for the return to base camp.

I learned several valuable lessons on that first trip.

  1. Pare down my equipment load.

  2. Always carry a water-filtering pump, a Camelback, and rehydration salts.

  3. Come prepared with trade goods to barter for help carrying equipment through the jungle.

Our treks through the jungle were always long, arduous, and very treacherous. I'm not exaggerating when I say that about every 15 minutes, we crossed rivers and ravines by balancing on fallen trees, and almost every village we went to involved climbing uphill on narrow, primitive paths, often pulling ourselves up by using tree roots. Often, we would take 10 steps and stop for a breath; take 10 steps more, and stop for a breath. On average, we lost about 10 pounds each during every two-week venture!

The second trip I took with TOMA, I was prepared with trade goods to barter for help carrying my equipment. I had several yards of red cotton material, several bags of beads that the Indians used to make necklaces, many fish hooks, and fishing line. The group leader said I not only had enough to get help with equipment, but I also had enough to trade for a wife! I used some of it to trade for a bow and arrows! I had a robust and capable young Yanomami man who acted as my Sherpa on that trip.

We stopped for lunch at one point, and I shared a can of mustard sardines with him. You should have seen his face when he took his first bite! He had to scrape off all the sauce before eating the sardines; my interpreter said he couldn't eat it because he didn't "understand" this strange taste. He also saved me from a close encounter with a bed of huge ants called veinticuatro, which means "24,"…as if you get bitten by one, you will be very sick and partially paralyzed for 24 hours. The Yanomami eat these ants live…but quickly before they can bite back!

Sardines aside, I always try to eat local food. It's part of the adventure of traveling to faraway places. So, while we brought some of our own food, we usually ate what the Yanomami ate – yucca, papayas, monkey, parrot, plantains, piranhas, capybaras, and most snakes. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and is surprisingly tasty. Depending on how it's cooked, it tastes like beef, sometimes pork, but never chicken! It was always a treat to get roasted termites because they tasted a lot like popcorn.

During another trip, we brought equipment to help protect the Yanomami from insect-borne diseases like malaria. The Yanomami live in villages with large circular lean-tos, an outer wall, and a roof. Everyone in the village lives within the structure. They sleep in hammocks made from palm fronds and usually keep smoldering fires going at all times to keep mosquitos away. Unfortunately, the smoke leads to a lot of respiratory problems. On this trip, TOMA had gotten donations of hammocks with mosquito screening, like the ones we used while we were there. As we went from village to village, we distributed the hammocks, which were well accepted primarily because they were red. We demonstrated how to set them up and helped the families understand how the zippers worked. The next time we visited those villages, we were dismayed that no one was using the screened hammocks. The women, however, all had new red loincloths made not from the usual jungle-grown cotton fiber dyed red but from what looked suspiciously like the rip-stock fabric the hammocks were made of. Well, at least they went to good use.

All in all, I made about twelve trips to Amazonis with TOMA, which are some of my favorite assignments. I have so many stories from these trips, but this being a blog, my words are limited. The photos will portray the experience of being among these stone-age hunter/gatherers. TOMA can no longer go into Venezuela because the country's leaders kicked out all the American missionaries and aid groups. Fortunately, TOMA is still doing good work with the mountain people in neighboring countries. Their service focus has expanded to include installing solar and water projects.

Yanomami Countryside

To conclude our interview Mr. Russell produced a short slideshow of pictures from his many trips there! Atlanta Canvas and Print is proud to have printed several canvas gallery wraps and black-and-white printing of his images through the years. Russell's travel photography is amazing and preserves the ongoing kindness of the TOMA organization as it gives assistance to the primitive tribes of the Yanomami people there in the mountains of Venezuela and surrounding countries.

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