Mads Nissen on the contradictions of the Amazon and his Panos print ‘The Monkey and the Cat’

I was in a small house made of palm leaves, and I was photographing a Huaorani man, a warrior who was sitting in a hammock naked with a wooden spear and next to him was an empty tv stand and above my head there was a tarantula, living in the roof. It was dark in the house and as my eyes got used to the dark I saw something spectacular. I went a bit closer and there was a monkey embracing a cat or the cat embracing a monkey or whatever that love affair was! I knew I only had one shot before I would destroy it. So I got in position to turn on my flash, pointed my camera and just took the picture and obviously spoiled the whole romance, the cat got scared and left. Thankfully, the image was sharp enough.

It’s interesting because the monkey is native to the forest and the cat comes from the outside. Although it was native to the forest the monkey was actually tied up, and it was embracing this cat that was allowed to walk around freely. It’s a really fascinating thing to see but it’s also not just an embrace of a cat and a monkey, I felt this had something to say about two worlds embracing each other.

The project Amazonas is about how nature lives around us but also within us. Maybe more than anything, it’s about frictions. It’s about contradictions. And to me that is what Amazon is. It’s where we, as human beings, meet our own nature and are confronted with that. Many of the people who live in the Amazon, they come in from the outside, because they are religious missionaries motivated by faith, or they’re motivated by greed, or they’re trying to escape something or find a place in peace. It is this world of secrets, surrounded by the most beautiful and astonishing nature.

My aim is to invite people into this fascinating place. It’s more a song than a description. All of us have different places that we really connect with, a friend of mine likes climbing mountains, some people like to go to pine forest, or whatever. For me, the Amazon has this pull, it’s where I feel the presence of nature the most, more than any place I’ve ever been to. It’s so overwhelming, really dominant, you feel very small.

What I find a bit dishonest about some of the work that has been done about the Amazon is that it’s focused on how other people are destroying it. I think destruction is very relevant, but maybe what’s more interesting is how that destruction lives inside yourself. I can love the place but also be afraid of it. I also have a modern life that is disruptive to nature. Take an illegal gold mine, it’s dangerous and damaging to the forest. But why should I be judgmental? Why should I be critical of a poor man from the slums of Brazil who’s trying to get out of poverty? Why should I be harder on them than a friend of mine who’s buying a gold ring for his wife? Who am I to think an indigenous man should walk around like his ancestors if I don’t even want to wear the same clothes as I did five years ago? I wanted to see things with a bit more nuance, and photography is good at that, it can pose questions.

I worked in black and white for this project because I wanted to make the images as simple as possible. I really wanted to shoot with my stomach and not my eye. The composition is very simple. In almost all of the images, whatever I wanted to photograph, it’s just in the centre, there’s no fancy compositions. If it was too boring, then the picture must be taken out.

I like to think about contemporary issues, social issues, but what I find most interesting is the images that do it with intimacy, do it with closeness and do it with empathy. Because I really believe that there’s so much information out there but photography can bring us closer. If we really work hard as photographers, we can make images where in a split of a second we get an idea of how it is to be another person, another human being or even a cat or a monkey. That to me is the pillar of photography, empathy, that’s what I’m trying to do.

The Monkey and the Cat

from Amazonas

Bameno, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador 2008

A monkey embraces a cat in a home in Bameno, a Waorani village in the Yasuni National Park - two world’s colliding in the Amazon rainforest.

'I had been walking through the rainforest for several days when I reached a glade. The rainforest stood like a dense, green wall surrounding me. From top to bottom the plants were struggling for light and nourishment - thick lianas, razor-sharp thorns and delicate flowers. Under each and every leaf it was teeming with crawling insects. That was how the rainforest was. Feeling as though I had disintegrated, I sat down on a tree stump … and let go. To me, nothing can surpass the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon is a refuge for all sorts of people: escapists, fortune hunters, nomads, warriors, gold-diggers and others who want to get away. Civilisation pushes at the boundaries of this virgin territory, raw nature and the human compulsion to master it continue their dance in an eternal power struggle. The first humans came here approximately 12,000 years ago, but with the arrival of the Spanish, a greedy hunt for rubber, timber, oil and the legendary 'El Dorado' commenced. Diseases brought over by Europeans wiped out a large part of the indigenous population, while hundreds of thousands died as slaves on rubber plantations. The Amazon today has a population of 26 million, spread over nine countries. Unpredictable frictions play out between nature and culture, instinct and sensibility, predator and prey.’



About Mads Nissen

For Mads Nissen photography is about empathy - an attempt to create understanding, an intimacy and closeness to his subject. He strives to build that connection while focusing on contemporary issues like inequality, human rights and our destructive relationship with nature.

Mads has twice won World Press Photo of the year, the most prestigious prize in photojournalism. In 2015, his photograph was of an intimate moment between a young gay couple from Russia, and in 2021, ‘The First Embrace,’ depicted an embrace between two women in a carehome in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mads has published three photo books: The Fallen (People's Press), AMAZONAS (Gyldendal) and most recently in 2018 the award-winning We are Indestructible (GOST Books). He has had solo exhibitions across Europe and Latin America.