A Peruvian Pioneer


new internationalist
issue 185 - July 1988

A Peruvian pioneer

Most published pictures of the Third World are produced by visiting Western photographers. We see very little that shows what people in developing countries think of themselves - often suitable equipment is not available, or it costs far too much.

But in fact one of the world's photographic pioneers was a Peruvian, Martin Chambi. He lived and worked in the southern city of Cuzco from 1920 onwards. And such was his skill with the use of natural light in portrait photography that the elite of the city sought him out whenever there was a marriage or another important event to record.

But Chambi was also an Indian. And he used his base in Cuzco for motorcycle expeditions into the Andean highlands to record the everyday lives of Indian communities. The camera equipment was large and clumsy and there was at that time very little tradition of documentary photography to emulate - Chambi had to invent his own techniques. His portraits show Indians in a sympathetic, respectful light and even in his commissions for the wealthy of Cuzco he would sometimes include an Indian figure off to the side - serving as an indirect comment on Peruvian society.

These few examples of his work cannot reflect the breadth of his activity or the technical brilliance of his photography but they do give some indication of his work. Martin Chambi died in 1973, leaving around 18,000 negatives. Our thanks to the Chambi family in Cuzco for their permission to use these pictures - and to Paul Yule for helping us reproduce them. We start below with a self-portrait.

Martin Chambi himself on one of his motorcycle trips.

The man from Pisac (1926). [image, unknown] Chambi's photo of the organ-maker of Tinta (1935)

The group of Campesinos waiting at High Court in Cuzco to have their case heard (1928). [image, unknown] 'Two giants' (1929) - the man on the left is Chambi's assistant, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall.

This picture is typical of the formal photographs which Martin Chambi took of the wealthy families of Cuzco - but look closely and you will also see the Indian servant woman he included in the composition.

A landowner surrounded by his workers who also form a musical ensemble (1944).

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