Where are we now?

View Where are we now? in a larger map Jo, Annie, Miles and I are living in Northport, Alabama and working at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We've been glad to be in one place for a bit after what appeared to be semi-permanently traveling (in actuality for a period of 2.5 years).We started this blog to catalogue some of the adventures when Jo and I were sequentially conducting our dissertation research in India and Brazil. While we've fallen off the blogging bandwagon somewhat during recent trips to Brazil, we're trying to pick it up again now that we're back in India!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


To ensure the reader is not lost in the somewhat rapidly transpiring events of late, take a moment to read (if you haven’t already) the blog post of a few days ago “Fingers crossed X 2”, linked here. If you have already read this, or just can’t stand the suspense any longer continue scrolling down.

Drum roll..........

This will be a blog post more of images than words, partially in keeping with the nature of the subject matter, and partially because it’s more fun to put an emotive entry together in this fashion.

Image A: My feelings right now

After 2 very frustrating months of archive work in which I probably visited around 15 different archives in 3 different Brazilian cities, I feel as elated as Donald (or whoever that duck was in Duck Tales that was always jumping into the treasure vault). The reason:

After a red-eye flight back from Maraba, I was under caffeinated and preparing myself mentally, emotionally, and physically for the let down that I knew was awaiting me at the archive. Although I didn’t write about it in the previous post, the way things were left with the archivist were as follows: there were two options: Option A) she pull some strings and get the IT group to scan the photos I had requested; Option B) if option A) fails take the photos and go to a copy center and get them to scan them. Option A) was certainly preferential from my perspective, but given past institutional experiences here in Brazil, I knew that this request would necessitate this woman making a formal request to not only use the scanner, but to harness the services (time=$$$) of the IT individuals who would manually scan these 100 or so photos. As a result of past experiences, I was preparing myself for option B), which I interpreted as shelling out about 2 hundred dollars on scanning, and spending the data at the local equivalent of kinkos. Not ideal, but par for the course

All of that said. What I found was the following

Which left me much like Howard Carter, who is said to have answered upon being asked what he saw when he first peered into King Tut's tomb. “things, wonderful things”.

The reason. I walked in this morning and my new best friend, sorry Boris, and Jo, handed me a disc, with not only all of the images saved in the highest quality digital format possible, but also organized impeccably and labeled according to film roll, and image number!

Which left me as follows:

(slightly scary, I know)

So comes to a happy end this summer's archive research. I'm about to head off to the airport and back to Fortaleza for a few last days of project work, and then home this weekend!

Is this the end of my love/hate relationship with archival research: far from it. A) the archivist was about as elated as I was with the results of my research, and we had a meeting: given that essentially no-one knows that these photos exist, much less what other series are in dusty folders awaiting discovery, we acknowledged that there is an invaluable resource here for scholars interested in everything from landscape change to municipal planning. For data like this to be inaccessible for an area of as global importance as the Amazon is unthinkable and untenable (I'm on my soapbox if you couldn't tell): our response, to start working on putting together a collaborative multi-organizational research project to create an online cartographic library of these and other similar data. If it ever gets off the ground it will certainly be a multi-year endeavor requiring extensive interorganizational coopertation and agreements not to mention funding and personnel; however, all that said, given the fact it took a very persistent and not-completely-dull geeky doctoral student nearly two years to track down the first of these photos, having them accessible online would be an enormous resource.....in the meantime, back to Duck Tales

Monday, August 9, 2010

Upon landing

The first thing that hits you when you step off the airplane in Maraba is the smoke. It stings your mouth, throat, and eyes. At 6:30 a.m. it’s quite a poignant olfactory indication that you’re in the Amazon. The drive from Maraba to Eldorado das Carajas is equally sobering: environmental devastation and social inequality could simply not be written larger into the landscape. One passes giant gated fazendas (cattle ranches-think Ted Turner scale), eucalyptus plantations, and encampments of MST activists and other social movements literally along the side of the road. Against this social backdrop, or perhaps the environmental context of it, is sprawling cattle ranches, fragments of secondary forest succession and the occasional live castanha tree, a remnant from a Dr. Seuss story of long ago.

Upon reaching Eldorado das Carajas (a 1.5 hour drive from Maraba) it’s time for some excitement! Banjo across my knees (don’t call me Susannah), and backpack on, I climb on the back of a motorcycle (a moto-taxi) and head up the hour-long rutted dirt road to the settlement. It’s equally as sobering as the section from Maraba, but harder on the body…it took two days for my back to feel normal (something about holding on to the motorcycle, banjo and backpack wasn’t quite natural). And then, when you don’t think you can hold on any longer..one reaches the 17 de Abril settlement.

Fingers Crossed X 2


One thing I’m continuing to relearn with more time doing field work is to not celebrate until the data is in hand (and you get to take them home). The excitement and thrill (seriously, no sarcasm here) of the chase though, especially, when the data are actually in one’s hand makes it sometimes hard to temper excitement.

All those caveats aside, I am willing (perhaps foolishly) to say that I think I finally struck gold! As always, caramba was it ever an adventure to find it! Here’s what happened….

So this morning I started hitting the pavement again…one organization…two organization…cross several highways in the blistering sun…the usual. Third organization, I arrive at, and had been told their library was a bit of a mess and that the photos were still in a box…..

A bit of a mess? In a box? I guess that describes the situation somewhat. While finding the boxes of photos themselves was actually pretty easy, discerning which photos out of the tens of thousands they have was a completely different story. Why this archive was in such disarray is a long story, basically one organization disintegrated and was reconstituted, several times over. Fortunately, unlike the archive yesterday, this librarian was very helpful. Unfortunately, like the archive yesterday, she had absolutely no clue about how the photos were organized, and more importantly where the photo indices were that are the key to being able to find the specific photos you’re looking for. So I’m going through box after box, ogling at the unbelievable beautiful (from a remote sensing dork perspective) photos of the Amazon. But quickly I realize these boxes only contain the actual photos and not the indices…they are way too small to contain the indices, which based on my past experience were the size of a place-mat for a dinner table.

So I shift gears, and start looking for big boxes…but all the big boxes just have books. As I’m literally turning around in defeat to tell the librarian that this pile of boxes is useless without a photo index…..something catches my eye!

How I happened to glance INSIDE the specific role I have no idea…must have been fate, or perhaps the gods of research thinking I’ve passed enough gauntlets. Without even opening it up I new that this massive 4 foot long roll contained the indices-the key to finding the actual photos….

Excited like a little school boy I ran to the librarian and told her I found it! To her credit, she was actually very excited and rushed over with me to examine the treasure. After uncovering a desk, we unrolled the massive set of indices…and lo and behold after several minutes of looking through them I had a realization: these were photos from the same mission as I had seen the day before. Now why is this important? Well, this librarian was incredibly helpful, and grateful that I had essentially turned this giant pile of boxes into the valuable resource that it is; although they didn’t have a scanner there, she said next week, on the one day I’m back in Belem, she’ll go with me to a professional copy center, and we can make copies of all the photos I need! Now, I asked the question I’ve learned to cringe at here: do I need formal authorization.

“I am the formal authorization”. As the head librarian her word is hopefully as good as gold.

So tomorrow, at an absolutely obscene hour that I dare not even mention, I’ll fly on down Maraba, arriving there at the essentially same obscene hour. After trying to visit a few more organizations there, I’ll head down to my field site. Now, as I haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone by phone or email…I have no idea whether they know I’m coming or not…..oh well, here it goes.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty?

Glass half full or half empty…the perennial question.

Let’s start with the glass half full…
So I came to Belem with that now tired old mission: find those aerial photographs. Readers might remember that this has been my gauntlet for quite a while now, and while I haven’t updated the blog with the latest info from Rio let’s just say I’m not completely holding my breath on that front.

So I came to Belem with a list of probably 10 organizations that might have archives of these sorts of photos. Knowing I had essentially two days to make this happen before I head down to southern Para to visit my field site, I knew this aspect of my research needed to go as they say here “rapidgim” (super fast). So this morning I head out in the (relatively) cool Belem air and start hitting the pavement.

Let’s see….I went to three organizations without much success. And than the last of the three directed me to a fourth that I had never heard of and shall remain nameless at present. So I head over to this obscure state organization…and well, viola! Sort of .
They had done some aerial photo reconnaissance at some point in the past, and had a few projects to show me. Well, complete with my laptop and coordinates, I was able to identify the photo index.

On a variety of levels this was the first hurdle of the day as I then had to find which flights they had been taken on, which rolls of film, and which actual images. Now this place, unlike the military archives, actually had the photos in filing cabinets, which increased the value of my time there a thousand fold. However, as always, complicating matters were several factors: first the “archivist”, as sweet as she was, was possibly as helpful as a screen door on a submarine. Whether she was illiterate or not I can’t be sure…seriously, but regardless she had no understanding of how the photos were catalogued in the eight giant filing cabinets, and after a cursory glance at what I wanted told me they didn’t have it, and it had been lost in a fire….

Ok…and so what would be the basis for that assessment? Well, you can see all these folders have 4 number record identifiers, and your photos have six. Well, luckily for me my eyes are still decent, because squinting at the impossibly small numbers on the photo index, I was able to barely make out the four digit number she was referring to…now granted, this discussion was not quite civil, and was the first of several near shouting matches, as I tried to explain to her something that she was not willing to hear…until I showed her.

So, I wrote down the number of the first of the photo series (the one that burned up in that fire mind you) walked past her to the sacred filing cabinets which I was certainly not supposed to touch, and after some shuffling…pulled out the photos.

Archivist: ”Those aren’t them.”

Me: “Really?” Do you see this giant land clearing on this photo?”

Archivist: Yes.

Me: “Do you also see it on the index?”

Archivist: “….um, yes.”


Now for those not intiated into the wonder that is aerial photograph interpretation among you, man-made features (i.e. roads, dams, forest clearings), have an incredibly striking geometry, standing out starkly against the landscape. How certain was I that this was the same clearing….certain enough that I remembered seeing it on the photos in Rio.

Ok, so with that hurdle down…it was time for lunch. Yes, the all-important two hour break in the middle of what is otherwise an incredibly uneventful day for most archivists from my incredibly cynical perspective.

Following the two hour siests, and with the precious few hours of “working” time slipping away, we got back to it. Finding the photos was pretty exhausting- physically and mentally. The font of the number identifiers was so incredibly small I had to squint over my glasses, picture pressed up against my face, writing down each number, and then not letting my eyes go out of focus to write down the rest of that series (i.e. 1123-1140).

Given that these images were stereoscopic pairs (think 3D) there were two images for ever little puzzle piece on that index…which put it at about 130 photos…which given my Portuguese pronuciation and my ever so unfriendly archivists processing capability, probably resulted in me reading about 400 of these numbers.

So after several hours we have all the photos in piles, organized by film strip. Now remember these are the actual photos, so we’re talking gold here.

The archivist asks me if I want to photograph them, seeing that I have a camera. I give it a shot (couldn’t help that one) but am not ecstatic with the result. I inquire whether they have a scanner I could use….

BAD IDEA (note to self take the opportunity when you still have the chance)

She goes off to ask the boss.

And then I’m summoned in to see the boss….who tells me there’s this “processo”… oh really, a process? Why am I not surprised? Ever so remotely (bad joke for remote sensing dorks). The process is that there needs to be an institutional agreement between the local university I’m affiliated with here and them.

“oh, but don’t worry, that shouldn’t take more than an hour”

At which point I laugh in his face.

Last year it took three months for such an agreement to get squeezed through the works. An hour huh?

So I go back downstairs and tell the archivist I’m just going to take some photos.

Well, that’s when she starts hemming and hawing…..

Oh I don’t know, the boss wants you to have this institutional agreement…etc etc.

I’ve reached my limit. I can’t take it anymore.

I gently grab a stack of photos, and start explaining my logic as I take the pictures…

Well, you see, you told me I can take them before, and I already took some so I’m just going to finish the job.

She wasn’t too impressed with that logic, and was so very clearly unimpressed with me.

I have to say I was fairly unimpressed with myself as well (hence the cow poo image).
Not only was I unimpressed with myself for basically taking these photos against this woman’s wishes, but also because in reality, they are not of the highest quality (as one might imagine taking a 130 photos while basically arguing with someone in a foreign language about why they should let you do what you’re doing anyways). As the quality is not so great, it’s good, but stereoscopic good….well, I’d be surprised, I’m going to try to push this darn institutional agreement through, and if I can get that gauntlet passed, spend my one free day next week (after my 3rd red eye flight in a week mind you) in front of the scanner….

Glass half empty

So where is the rest of the glass is half full? Well, I might have forgotten to mention that the very helpful receptionist didn’t know when the photos were taken…not like that’s important at all in a temporal study of land cover change (sarcasm dripping like acai ice cream from a child’s hands). However, after some nudging she called the woman who she had taken the job over from. That women had started working as an archivist in 1978. And at that point the photos were already in filing cabinet. So…we’re talking old. But how how, at least to the year is very important. Well, leafing through the photos I found a date written on one April 1972. It was written into what appeared to be the kind of stamp a library puts on a book when it first receives it. So they RECEIVED it in the early 70s….something tells me, it is just a hunch, that there was at least 3 years between when the photos were took for this massive project (8 filing cabinets worth of aerial photographs-probably costing several million in terms of production) of which they have no record of when it occurred and when they actually received the photos and found time between siestas to catalogue them…covered now in the gooey acai . The upshot of all this, remember this started out as a glass half full entry. Well, if these images were from the late 1960s, and the nebulous ones from the military archives are also from the 1960s…nope, it doesn’t mean they’re the same, don’t ask me how I know (the answer is I’m omnipotent, and very cynical), but that I don’t necessarily need to keep bugging the military in Rio, and might have just save $500 by not having them develop them….

So, glass half full or half empty You decide. All I know, it usually works out in the end. And in the end, I’ll be laughing about this….much like the pants.

Phew! That was cathartic.

Postcard from Belem

Greetings from Belem! For those of you who've been following the blog you might remember that I was here last year for a while; well, this year I'm here for just a few days at the mouth of the Amazon, visiting several organizations in hopes of tracking down those ever elusive archived aerial photographs.

I really like Belem; Brazil is such a huge country, and the different regions are...well, very different. Not only visually in terms of the people you find here, but linguistically in terms of strong accents, words used and the general jeito (or way).

Above (and below) are two photos from one of my favorite places in Belem at what I think is one of the best times of day, along the docks on the Amazon at sunset. Perfect time for one of those coco geladaos or perhaps one of the fantastic ice-cream concoctions that they have here...acai anyone?