I recently came across an interesting photograph that was published in Life magazine on 12 November 1971, accompanying an article written and photographed by John Dominis and entitled ‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon.’ The article concerned the building of the Trans-Amazonian highway, a 4,000km road conceived of to unify Northern Brazil, which opened in September 1972 and ran through the Brazilian states of Paraiba, Ceara, Piaui, Maranhao, Tocantins, Para and Amazonas. In the top-left hand corner of the article, an image captured five Brazilian women straightforwardly in the frame, against a dull background of clouded sky, a wooden fence disappearing into the distance, and the green-and-white facade of a building. The caption that accompanied it read: ‘towns along the road are booming with such by-products of civilization as electricity and bar girls. On Saturday, hundreds of workers come into Altamira, above. Girls entertain the men for about $3 each.’ A closer examination of the photograph made me realise how simplified this description was in anchoring the meaning of the photograph, since it understood the women solely in terms of their availability as objects of a male gaze, and refused to acknowledge the layers of meaning embedded within their appearance as created by their fashionable ensembles.
Looking more closely, I saw that each subject met the photographer’s gaze directly, and enacted a variety of poses, from straightforwardly presenting the body to the gaze that scrutinizes them, to more stylised and performative fashion stances that revealed an uncovered thigh and high-heeled sandal. Their clothing is a combination of white nylon knee-high socks worn with white shoes, white and pink ankle-length dresses with thigh-high slits, and hot pants and overcoats in eye-popping psychedelic printed fabrics, all of which stand out against the general degradation of their arid surroundings. The clashing colours and swirling patterns that adorn three of the women’s outfits demonstrate the influence of contemporary Western-style hippie fashions, with their penchant for exposing the body, vibrant colours and mismatched prints and styles. Yet this was not a simplistic demonstration of a one-directional homogenisation of clothing that had travelled to Brazil from Western Europe and North America. This is because their dress also demonstrated the influence of the left-wing Brazilian artistic movement named Tropicalia, which was articulated as a response in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the repressive dictatorship that occurred in Brazil from 1964-1985. The Tropicalists re-defined Brazilian fashion, art and music by appropriating elements of Western-style hippie fashion, such as psychedelic fabrics, mini-skirts, hot pants and micro dresses, which exposed legs and thighs, and using it to demonstrate their sartorial freedom under rigid political control. Under Tropicalia, the meanings of hippie fashion, although still remaining non-conformist and rebellious, took on new meanings relevant to their Brazilian context. The women in this photograph were not part of the Tropicalist movement, but their clothing shows how elements of these popular political fashions filtered through into everyday dress worn in Brazil.
Taking all these sartorial references into account in our understanding of the image enables us to read it against the grain, and understand the women no longer as merely passive objects of a presumed male gaze, but active fashion consumers who contributed to the construction of their own identities through dress. That Life omitted to draw attention to the women’s dress can be understood as part of a broader omission within the Associated Press, which failed to outline the human rights atrocities taking place under a right-wing regime that was politically aligned to the Cold War interests of the United States.
John Dominis,‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon’, Life, pp. 26-31.