It’s hard to imagine a time in which the Peruvian Andes weren’t on the world’s radar. But this magical place, which is now bustling with tourists eager to climb new peaks and experience indigenous cultures, was quieter and less sought after in previous decades.
In fact, the cultural value nestled in these communities was continuously undermined precisely because they were of indigenous descent. Colonialism unquestionably left, and continues to, leave its mark.
Despite this common apathy towards what lay beyond Lima’s modern confines, Martin Chambi (1891-1973) always found Peru’s greatest treasures to be in the Andes: A remote world, but rich in an indigenous past.
Chambi’s photos are proof that to understand this country for its complex history—a place rooted in indigenous tradition, but freshly painted with the strokes of colonial influence—we must look to its mountains.
Born in a Quechua-speaking community in a small town in Puno, Chambi came from a family of miners and grew up immersed in the struggles of rural life in Peru. When his dad was sent to Carabaya, a small province in Puno, to work in a gold mine, Chambi tagged along.
It was on this new journey that photography snuck its way into his world, unexpectedly tapping him on the shoulder and sparking a newfound interest in him.
There was a photographer at the site owned by the Inca Mining Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania who was documenting both the mines and their workers. Chambi took interest in his work and learned some of the basics from him. He soon realized this was an interest that would eat at him relentlessly until it was further pursued, so he made his way to Arequipa, working under the influence of Max. T Vargas, a famous Peruvian photographer at the time.
In Arequipa, Chambi learned the many ways in which one can play with light to accentuate a person’s certain physical features. Fascinated by this newfound manipulation, he opened a studio in Cusco with blinds and shutters that allowed him to mold natural light to his advantage. This studio was the melting pot for the plethora of portraits Chambi produced, many of which he is celebrated for today.
Some of these portraits are of wealthy, aristocratic families. In these, young girls wear flowy white dresses and hair adorned with ribbons, while men wear polished suits. Other portraits, by contrast, are of families of indigenous descent. In these, men and women wear traditional patterned ponchos and ornamented headpieces.
But perhaps most interesting is one of his portraits that puts these two opposing worlds directly in conversation with each other, something that was often unheard of in the early twentieth century (see right).
In this photo, titled Victor Mendivil y El Gigante (1929), Chambi asked a fellow artist, Victor Mendivil, to pose next to an indigenous man that Chambi’s grandfather met at a local market. He was surprised not only by his imposing size, his grandfather said, but also by the pride and poise with which he carried himself.
The indigenous man’s imposing nature, combined with Victor’s intense gaze, seems to suggest there is a sense of respect towards “El Gigante”. But Victor’s look is also one of slight confusion and fear, thus reinforcing the disconnect between the classes in Cusco and highlighting how an indigenous heritage made many Peruvians subject to social isolation.
Chambi’s photos were not limited to the realms of the studio. He wanted to preserve the integrity of indigenous communities by highlighting the beauty in their everyday-ness. He followed farmers deep into the Peruvian Andes and took more authentic portraits of traditionally indigenous families. Far away from the restrictions of the studio, he documented these people in their natural habitat, surrounded by the bold mountains glowing in the sunlight that are so emblematic of the Peruvian sierra.
Communities that had been reduced to stereotypes of archaic, outdated lives were being depicted, in his photos, as people worthy of respect. This photo, Ezequiel Arce y su Cosecha de Papas (Cusco, 1939), is a portrait of an indigenous family sitting atop the potatoes they produced during harvesting season.
By Including the potatoes in the photo, it serves to showcase the traditional farming practices used to sustain families like Ezequiel’s—practices rooted in tradition that they are proud of. This photo, like many others of Chambi’s, produce discourse without the need for words.
These photos didn’t have any commercial value until after he passed away, for he was documenting the members of society that, at the time, occupied the lowest of rankings and were often deemed less significant. But, it is these photos for which he is most celebrated now; they manage to unveil a unique society to the world under the gaze of someone who shares their history. His vision was clear, even if to others his work in these remote places seemed trivial. He was making history.
Chambi’s capacity to see beyond and capture the depth of these people is what eventually led to his global acclaim. In 1979, a few years after his death, Chambi’s photographs reached the cusp of their international appraisal in New York City. His work was finally displayed in the Museum of Modern Art alongside Edward Ranney’s, a photographer that documented indigenous communities in Peru and Mexico a few decades later. In the press release for his 1979 exhibit, a critic said the following of Chambi’s work:
“Chambi offers an insider’s view of a city distinguished by a strange mix of cultures–traditional Inca and Spanish colonial–and the complex network of relationships that such an inheritance engenders.”
Embedded in these 40-year-old words is the fabric still holding Peruvian society together. For Peru is still a complex network of relationships where the traditional and the colonial find themselves constantly butting heads. In these collisions there is often beauty—colonial cathedrals alongside markets selling indigenous goods, cuisine that incorporates flavors from countries outside Peru’s confines, etc—but conflict still persists.
Although they do not pose a solution to the conflicts that arise from this clash of cultures, Martin Chambi’s photos remind us that behind every community are voices worth hearing and stories worth telling. His work serves as a testimony to the power a lens holds in speaking for hidden communities, and shows us that if it speaks loud enough, people actually start to listen.
Cover photo: Andina
This article has been updated from its original publication on July 9, 2018.