Student Júlia Pontés Receives Grant from ‘National Geographic’

Brittany Nguyen
November 19, 2020

Visual Arts student Júlia Pontés received a Grant from National Geographic for her project on COVID-19 impacts in mining communities and the environment. 

Pontés has been living between Brazil and America for about seventeen years and has always been very troubled about the changes in the landscape in Brazil. Every time she flew home she would look out the airplane window and wonder why no one was talking about the changes with the landscape. She calls the land “swiss cheese,” the holes representing the open-pit mines.

Five years ago she discovered that her own hometown was home to the largest concentration of open-pit mines in the world. Her family also comes from a mining background, owning a pig iron plant. Growing up she had no clue due to the natural mountainous landscape covering them. The public prosecutors, when licensing the mining projects, usually license in a way that the visible face of the mountain is always preserved. This prompted her to do aerial photography of those “swiss cheese holes” and to uncover the caved-in parts of those mountains. 

Unfortunately due to the lack of funds and a sudden spinal injury, she was unable to begin the project as planned. During a period of time in which she turned the camera on herself, beginning deep reflection and interrogation, the Mariana dam disaster of 2015 occurred. This was the worst environmental disaster ever recorded in Brazil. The dam burst, releasing millions of tonnes of toxic mud. This caused a trail of 500 km destruction from the mountains of Minas Gerais to the Atlantic Ocean. Pontés decided to become an artist rather than just a photojournalist. Once she recovered she went back to Brazil, managed to find a pilot, and took photos.

Pontés’s project surrounds the people who live around those mines. After taking a series of aerial photos she drove to all those villages situated between the mines and talked to the locals. She started documenting their experiences. She used older cameras from different decades to retain the effect of changing landscapes and often takes photos of them. Her art practice revolves around extractivism. 

Last March when Columbia University started shutting down due to the pandemic, Pontés gathered old lightboxes and her research to prepare them to be seen. Her first-year project as a student at Columbia was video, audio, and slide films set alongside her economic research. This work also stemmed from her group research with Harvard’s Planetary Health Alliance that explores economic and social-economic implants in mining.

After some fundraising during the summer, she headed back to Brazil in response to many locals’ calls for help due to the raging COVID-19 virus. “A major issue, outside of the number of cases, in mining towns was that the administration in Brazil—which is very pro-deregulating environmental rules—was taking advantage of the media coverage of the pandemic,” Pontés said in a comment. “The governmental companies and institutions started displacing communities, utilizing their fear of other dams collapsing around them, without giving any aid or care. They also started doing emergency infrastructure/construction on the land, destroying a lot of native Atlantic forests and their attached archeological native heritage sites.”

Pontés remarked that President Bolsonaro, on September 28th, released a plan called the Mining and Development Program (PMD) which loosened a lot of regulations for mining companies and lowered the fine companies would receive for dam collapses. 

Pontés put together the National Geographic project in response to all of these reasons. She is unable to disclose much information during this time about her expeditions due to political disputes with authorities in Brazil, her journey will be included in the documentary National Geographic releases at an undisclosed date. Pontés’ current team consists of Pontés, a researcher, an anthropologist, and a writer/communication specialist. Pontés remarked that the grant “ensures that these communities are seen in a way that is catered to their needs.” 

Pontés is working in eight different cities. There she speaks with select members of those communities to discuss their needs. She is also currently working on a website with an interactive map to visually show a wider audience, demonstrating the scale of the situation. She says the website will have media downloads, an anonymous tip section, and academic papers. Her goal is to make everything more accessible. Even the communities in those mining towns are isolated from each other, despite their close proximity. She is also making photographic essays and short videos for each of those eight communities. National Geographic will publish each essay alongside the documentary.