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Amazon Rainforest Expedition: 1989

In 1989 John Dyer was awarded a Travelling Bursary from Thames Television in London to enable him to explore the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil.

"The experience of seeing the plant life of the rainforest gave him a fascination with ethno-botany and biodiversity which has lasted ever since."

Artist John Dyer's first Amazon Rainforest painting from 1989

The catalyst came at the end of his second year with the award of a travelling bursary by Thames TV. John has given a disarming account of how this came about. Despite his rebellious tendencies, he was recognised as one of the top students in his year and therefore was put on a short list of nominations for the award by his college. On his way to the interview with his portfolio, without knowing what to expect, he happened to bump into a fellow nominee from his polytechnic who was just returning from the interview and who alerted him to the fact that he needed to have a clear idea of how and where the bursary would be used. By the time he got off the Tube, John had his plan worked out and he told the interviewers that he wanted to travel to the Brazilian rainforest to make a photographic study both of areas of destruction and (even more importantly for John) of its remaining natural beauty, using black and white infrared film. Thames TV agreed with him that this was the ‘perfect medium’ and an admirable way of putting the funding to good use, and offered him the bursary on the spot.

While John’s preparation for the interview had been somewhat haphazard, his preparation for the trip itself was anything but. Preferring the idea of being accompanied, he invited a friend from his Foundation year in Falmouth to go with him and apply for his own funding to carry out a separate creative project. Tim Varlow was, like John, about to start the final year of his degree but at nearby St Martin’s School of Art, where he was studying Audio-Visual Graphic Design. The £800 bursary would barely cover their travel expenses and leave nothing at all for photographic and other equipment, so the two set about raising sponsorship. Within five months, John and Tim succeeded in attracting an impressive £10,000’s worth of money and equipment, largely through a mixture of sheer hard work, persistence and a huge number of persuasive letters: film cameras were donated by Television South West (forerunner of ITV West Country) and sound recording equipment by BBC Radio Cornwall; cameras and film from Keith Johnson and Pelling, Kodak and Ilford; special lightweight tropical clothing from Rohan and sunglasses from Style Eyes, in return for advertising photography; and financial support was received from a variety of corporate sponsors, including Volvo, English China Clays and Sedley Place Graphics, and from charitable and philanthropic groups including Rotary International, CAFOD (Christian Aid For Overseas Development) and The David Shepherd Trust. Much of the support they received was reciprocal: during the three-week trip, they undertook to produce material for three magazine articles, social documentary and advertising photography, a three-minute film and a radio programme. A key requirement of John’s acceptance of the Thames TV bursary was his agreement to exhibit the infrared photographs he would take of the Amazon rainforest at the television company’s headquarters after his return.

Artist John Dyer and filmmaker Tim Varlow in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Above: John Dyer (left) and filmmaker Tim Varlow (right) pictured in the Pantanal region of Brazil, the world's largest tropical wetland, south of the Amazon rainforest.

One especially helpful contact was with the Royal Geographical Society, through the explorer and writer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, to whom John wrote outlining the project. Robin – who would reunite with John more than 25 years later when they worked together to realise the joint Eden Project/Survival International initiative ‘Spirit of the Rainforest’ – proposed John as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, which opened many doors for him to gain access to expeditionary advisory services, and gave him credibility when applying for sponsorship. Robin also invited John to meet him at the RGS where by a happy coincidence, six weeks before their departure, a major conference on the Maracá Rainforest Project was taking place, organised jointly with the Instituto Nacional Pesquisas da Amazônia (National Institute of Amazonian Research). This brought about an introduction to the scientists of the Ducke Forest Reserve, a major research site for the study of Amazonian flora and biodiversity near Manaus in the western Amazon, which formed the starting point of their expedition. A letter to the Geographical Magazine, also suggested by Robin, produced a fluent Portuguese speaker to act as their translator, who greatly facilitated their interaction with the people of the Amazon region. Without Nanda, John says, ‘we wouldn’t have been able to understand their culture. Everyone was so interested in us and came up to us in the street and invited us to their houses and we were able to discuss their political system and culture with them.’ These encounters also gave John an insight into the lives of those struggling to survive in small settlements in and around the jungle and a more nuanced approach to the many issues affecting the rainforests.

"Travelling in the Amazon in 1989 was incredible, I spent three weeks exploring and photographing many parts of the Amazon river and its tributaries, spent time with WWF scientists, saw floating hospitals, met local people in very remote regions of the Rio Negro and photographed and recorded the natural beauty of this spectacular cathedral of nature. Photography however could not satisfy me as it simply recorded what I could see and as powerful medium as photography is it just couldn't capture the energy, colour, spirit, emotion and feeling of being in the rainforest. From that moment on I have painted, as painting comes from one's heart and soul and transcends time itself."

John Dyer. FRGS

During the course of their 17,000-mile round trip in November and December 1989, John, Tim and Nanda travelled into very remote areas and encountered numerous hazards, both natural and man-made. For about a week, as they travelled by boat up the Rio Negro (a tributary of the Amazon north-west of Manaus), lit only by starlight at night, they were out of contact with the outside world – something which is hard to imagine now when almost everywhere on the planet is connected by the internet and mobile phones. In the Ducke Reserve, where they spent three days, sleeping out in the open in hammocks and going on night hikes to record the soundtrack, they had to follow literally in their guides’ footsteps because of the constant danger of snakes. Poisonous spiders, aggressive bees and flying ants were also an ever-present threat. John had a gun pointed at his head at the airport; they had their first car accident within hours of arriving in Rio de Janeiro, and another on the last leg of their journey when the front wheel of the jeep in which they were travelling came off, after which they continued their journey by hitchhiking. None of them returned unscathed: John had a wound on his foot which nearly turned gangrenous; Nanda fell off a rickety gangplank and needed physiotherapy for weeks, as well as returning with malaria; and they all suffered badly from dehydration and dramatic weight loss – but John and Tim both said that they would do it again! 

Article courtesy of Kate Dinn.
Read all about John Dyer's life and work in the book 'Painting the Colours of the World' by Kate Dinn.