Paz Errázuriz: Looking at the Other Side of Things
[Las juezas (The Judges), Santiago, 1983 © Paz Errázuriz]
After the end of the military dictatorship, a number of Chilean photojournalists were faced with a situation where, as their fellow photographer Héctor López puts it, ‘They’d lost the enemy. And since they didn’t know what to do anymore, they gave up photography.’
This was certainly not the case with Paz Errázuriz. From the very outset, this self-taught photographer, who was one of the initiators of the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI), devoted herself to denouncing not only the dictatorship but also the social dictates which made – and make – individuals and groups marginal, and ultimately, invisible.
[Homenaje a Neruda, Cementerio General, Santiago (Neruda Commemoration, General Cemetery), 1983 © Paz Errázuriz]
As she says, she developed a ‘parallel’ body of work, in the street to begin with (her first project was devoted to drunkards, discreetly referred to as ‘The Sleepers’), and then in places of confinement such as psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes. In the course of the 1980s, she did various portrait series on the fringes of society – transvestites, amateur boxers and wrestlers, circus performers (‘With its double face of repression and imposture,’ she later commented, ‘the period of the military dictatorship in Chile was a circus’.)
Since then, she’s spent years working on various projects about and with couples in a psychiatric centre (El Infarto del alma, The Soul’s Heart Attack), the last survivors of one of Chile’s indigenous people, the Kawésqar (Los Nómades del mar, The Nomads of the Sea), and most recently, an endogamous rural community suffering from an uncommon medical disorder which prevents them from seeing colour (La luz que me ciega, Blinding Light). And of course, she continues her street portraits, now taken in colour with a digital camera.
This interview was carried out over the past few weeks via email and thanks to the infinite patience of Paz Errázuriz.
MR: After several years in England in the 1960s, when you studied education, you came back to Santiago, completed your training and became a school teacher. This was just before the period of the Unidad Popular and the presidency of Salvador Allende.
How did photography come into your life? How did you actually become a photographer?
PE: After my stay in England, I wanted to go to Cuba to join the literacy campaign but personal circumstances – my pregnancy, a separation – intervened and I decided I would become a teacher in Chile. But I’d come back from England with my first camera, an Exacta. This was something I
always wanted to have because I was incredibly drawn to photography.
I began by taking pictures of my students in the playground, but when their parents wanted to buy them, I set up a darkroom in my house and started learning how to develop the negatives, by myself or with the few photographer friends I had at that time. There were no photography schools, so I taught myself.
And that’s how I became a photographer. It was a conscious decision that I was able to officialise later on, during the military dictatorship, when a few of us decided to found the Association of Independent Photographers on the pretext that we were earning our living from photography and had the right to call ourselves professional photographers, even if we were freelance [and therefore ineligible for the official Photographers Union].
Years later, in the United States, when they asked me what I did, I said I made photographs. And they replied, ‘So you’re an artist’.
MR: What kind of freelance work were you doing when you started out?
I was taking photographs of children and families and contributed photos stories to a children’s magazine called Mampato.
MR: What about Amalia, a little photobook for children that you published in 1973?
PE: It’s the diary of a chicken living in my house, like a pet. I was something did with my children – the photos and the text – during the curfew imposed by the dictatorship. We had to spend a lot of time at home because we couldn’t go outside. It turns out that Amalia was one of the first Latin American photobooks of the 1970s generation. Two publishers wanted to reprint it this year and so the second edition is coming out this month, 40 years later.
MR: In 1980, you also had your first exhibition, at the Chilean-North American Cultural Institute in Santiago.
PE: It took place in one of the few spaces where photography could be shown. My close friend and teacher, the painter Roser Bru, pushed me to do the exhibit, which included photos of people sleeping in the streets and elderly people from a nursing home, as well as the beginnings of my work at the psychiatric hospital inSantiago.
With the censorship and the self-censorship of the time, you had to be careful. In a military dictatorship, everything’s dangerous.
MR: In fact, your professional beginnings as a photographer coincided with the beginnings of the dictatorship.
PE: Photography let me express things in my own way and participate in my own way in the resistance waged by those of us who remained in Chile. It was our means of showing that we were there and fighting back.
MR: What was it like to be working at that time?
PE: It was very engaging, a real motivation for me, because photography took a direction I didn’t know. I was doing something truly meaningful but I was also very aware of the danger it represented. (My house was brutally raided after the coup d’état.) Discovering the street in that way gave us tremendous energy. For me, it was a form of activism.
[Día de la mujer (International Women’s Day), 1985 © Paz Errázuriz]
MR: In 1981, you were one of the founders of the AFI, a professional organisation which seems to have offered both an institutional framework and a community to independent, oppositional photographers. Some of the photojournalists talk about how they would go into the streets together, for protection, and there was terrible violence – including assassinations, disappearances – against the press. But it’s important to remember that the AFI also organised exhibits, sent out a newsletter, published books and catalogues.
PE: We were a group of photographers who got to know each other in these difficult circumstances and we managed to create an organisation to defend ourselves and have access to legal assistance. But at the same time, we started talking about Chilean photography. So it was also like discovering ourselves as photographers.
[Evelyn, Santiago, 1988, from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983-1988 © Paz Errázuriz]
[Evelyn, Santiago, 1987, from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983-1988 © Paz Errázuriz]
MR: To what extent do you think this experience shaped the very singular direction you would take? Or was that direction already inside of you?
PE: I think it gave me a deeper and more extensive knowledge of my country. And the direction my work was taking had to do with that. What I mean is that photography allowed me to discover things which were already inside of me. It gave me a pretext for digging into my obsessions and needs. The street is a tremendous school.
[Infarto 23, Putaendo, 1994, from the series El Infarto del alma (Heart Attack of the Soul), 1992-1994 © Paz Errázuriz]
[Infarto 29, Putaendo, 1994, from the series El Infarto del alma (Heart Attack of the Soul), 1992-1994 © Paz Errázuriz]
MR: What strikes me is that you’ve always maintained own approach, not only in relation to the repressive political climate of the 1980s, but also in terms of the different trends or groups around you, whether photojournalistic or artistic.
You brought your own touch, for example, to the projects you were involved in with the AFI – the photocopied monograph series Ediciones económicas de fotografía chilena (‘Affordable editions of Chilean Photography’, where your volume showed portraits from the margins of society – a psychiatric hospital, an old-persons’ home, a circus), or the set of photography postcards you published.
PE: It’s strange how hostile, dangerous times of conflict can stimulate artists. This was true inChile during the 1980s, with all the creative energy that went into making things without spelling them out, working a lot with metaphors and producing a tremendous amount in the midst of all the difficulties.
[Baño (Shower) I, Santiago, 1999, from the series Antesala de un desnudo (Anteroom of a Nude) © Paz Errázuriz]
[Mujeres III, 1999, from the series Antesala de un desnudo (Anteroom of a Nude) © Paz Errázuriz]
MR: And today?
PE: Today we’re living something different, not only because we have a right-wing government running the country as if it were a business, but neoliberal thought is being put into official practice. There’s a great deal of violence and discouragement. And at the same time, the hope that the young people who are taking to the streets today can assert their rights and obtain their demands.
[La calle (The Street), 2013 - © Paz Errázuriz]
[La calle (The Street), 2013 - © Paz Errázuriz]
MR: I came across something you said in your 1996 interview with Claudia Donoso, where she asked you when you’d stop working, and you answered that you didn’t know: ‘The other side of things is infinite’.
For me, those few words – the other side of things – really describe your work. And that digging behind surface appearances is just as relevant today as it was during the dictatorship. It’s not very comforting, but as you say, the violence is still there.
PE: Perhaps that other side is where it’s possible to survive.
Paz Errázuriz’s website :
Paz Errázurriz FotoNO/PhotoNO (Spanish-English book-catalogue) :
Next week’s interview:
Claudio Pérez: Keeping memory alive
Miriam Rosen is a journalist and translator living in Paris. She writes about photography, film and the images in between the two. Most recently, she’s been a regular contributor to Le Journal de la Photographie.