Worldwide, hydropower is pitched as a renewable and green energy source. But the production of hydroelectricity hides a much darker conflict—one that has long been overshadowed by its environmentally-friendly qualities. In her project Dead Water, Marilene Ribeiro sheds light on the severe impact that the construction of dams has on local inhabitants. Despite the destruction that hydropower plants cause to the lives of nearby residents, the surrounding wildlife, and traditional riverside cultures, the expansion of the hydropower industry continues to reek havoc on communities across the globe.

João. ‘How I miss the land that provided everything to my family!’ João’s feeling concerning his move so that the Sobradinho dam could be built: pining. Object chosen: cassava and sweet potato. João, like most of the 72,000 people displaced by the Sobradinho dam, moved from the fertile riverside to the semi-arid surroundings, whose soil is rocky and there is virtually no water available. © João and Marilene Ribeiro

The photographer’s case study is her native Brazil. In a bid to create a counter-narrative to the mass media’s treatment of the subject—made up of portrayals that typically overlook the voices of ecologists, anthropologists, social activists and people personally hit directly by the industry—her project focuses on giving voice to the affected communities. Dead Water presents the material impact of hydropower through a hybrid point of view: both that of the photographer and the subjects of this story.

Ribeiro’s sitters are people in remote areas of Brazil who either have been, or are soon-to-be, displaced by the creation of dams for hydropower purposes. For the photographer, the act of giving voice and visibility to her sitters is not achieved by merely taking a portrait: full collaboration in putting the photograph together is central to the way she works. “For this photo shoot, each sitter was asked to choose a relevant place, as well as selecting an object that represented the feeling they have regarding their move due to the dam works,” she explains in her statement.

Liane. ‘Nobody can tell how we feel. I can’t imagine that this site will no longer exist… I feel a deep pain.’ Location chosen by Liane: the stretch of the Uruguay river that will be flooded by the Panambi dam. Object chosen by Liane: one of her piglets. © Liane and Marilene Ribeiro

“Each sitter was also asked to direct his/her own photo shoot, making the changes she/he wanted in order to best represent himself/herself, her/his history and feelings before the Other. I want the sitters’ voices to come through in the making of work, not simply as the observed within the documentary process.” In addition to bearing witness to the changing landscape that surrounds the people she photographs, she invites them to express how they feel in response to these transformations that they have little control over: their thoughts, dreams, memories that speak to their intimate relationship to the place they belong to.

Maria and Delcilene. ‘Our island, our sandy beaches, our trees, our home… all has gone. Belo Monte dam has brought nothing to us but death.’ Location chosen by Delcilene and Maria (Delcilene’s mother): their former backyard in Cashew Island (currently partially submerged by the Belo Monte dam-reservoir). Object chosen by Delcilene: cashews. Object chosen by Maria: sand. © Delcilene, Maria, and Marilene Ribeiro

Using photography as an agent for change, Ribeiro positions her images within a highly active and engaged practice that includes writing a PhD on the subject and taking part in the collective Voices of Latin America and Agnitio, a project that seeks to empower communities through photography. She is currently working on an extensive book project (which has been shortlisted for the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles) that weaves the portraits together with in-depth research, unpacking many dimensions of this urgent issue. In doing so, she builds a multi-layered story on the development of Hydroelectricity, in which the overlooked become protagonists of this troubling narrative.