Tiago Coelho on Miss Ana

“In 2010, after 40 years of not having news from her parents and siblings, she decided it was time to redeem her origins.” Brazilian photographer, Tiago Coelho accompanies his childhood nanny on a journey to find her long-lost family in northern Brazil.

© Tiago Coelho, from the series, Miss Ana

Brazil has a long history of internal migration. An acclaimed movie came out last year on the subject featuring Regina Casé in the role of a woman from the North who had moved to São Paulo to provide a better life for her daughter working as a housemaid. The fictional biopic depicts the cultural and socio-economic dynamics within Brazil's population through the life of a character inspired by a woman such as one whom photographer Tiago Coelho has grown up with, Miss Ana, or Dona Ana, as he calls her.

A rough childhood and harsh professional beginnings in Para as sole baggage, Ana moved to São Paulo. Unable to read or write, she lost track of her family who had threatened to kill her when she went away. 40 years passed. Despite multiple attempts, no letters or radio calls would reach her relatives. No matter what, Ana resolved to head north and find them. She had barely enough money for the bus ride, only a hammock to sleep in at night, no address, and Coelho decided to follow her.

© Tiago Coelho, from the series, Miss Ana

The result is not a mere record of her physical journey through Brazil. Coelho purposely ignored the landscapes to focus on Ana’s feelings, often portraying her asleep, abandoned to anachronistic memories as a metaphor for the uprooting experience.

“There was a very emotional moment when a woman in the bus approached us thinking Ana was Adelina - her sister. That’s when we realised that we were very close to finding the whole family”, Coelho remembers. Yet, that was after many kilometres of anxious gazing through the window. “We went aimlessly, for we knew nothing about them on this trip. It was me, my husband, and Tiago”, Ana recounts - her words complement Coelho’s photographs in a book that tells the whole story.

© Tiago Coelho, from the series, Miss Ana

The series brings together two faces of Brazil that rarely meet in a way that is as unexpected and moving as the moment when the two sisters are finally reunited. “We found the house of Ana’s sister, but she was away. We waited for her for hours and when she saw us she could not believe it. Everybody but her brother thought Ana was dead” - an assumption that, sadly, often proves to be right.

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Tiago Coelho is a freelance documentary photographer and a professor at Unisinos University.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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