New Maya Scribes: A Photography Cooperative of Mostly Women Is Recording Scenes of Everyday Life in Chiapas, Mexico, in Images of Social and Artistic Eloquence

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For centuries Maya scribes dedicated their talents to composing the story of their people in striking visual glyphs. A new generation of Maya scribes are telling their stories through images too, but their methods would undoubtedly amaze their forerunners. While the ancient Maya worked on stone, ceramic, and amate paper, today's historians use the latest cameras, film, and photographic paper.

As the mediums of contemporary chroniclers differ from those of the past, so do the stories they tell. Modern scholars are beginning to decipher the dynastic histories of the Maya elite based on the remaining glyphs, and today's Maya are recording details from the lives of everyday people, some of them exiles from their traditional communities. Yet, even across the years that separate them, both photographers and ancient scribes share a respect for well-made images rich with symbolic meaning.

Travelers to Chiapas, Mexico -- who have long been warned against photographing local peoples -- may be surprised to learn that photography has joined weaving as one of the area's widely admired art forms. The indigenous people of Chiapas have not necessarily changed their views of outsiders wielding cameras. But the Chiapas Photography Project has shifted responses by providing the Maya themselves with cameras, training in basic photographic skills, and access to a darkroom. The photographers the Chiapans now see on their streets may well be family members, friends, or neighbors.

Carlota Duarte is the driving force behind the Chiapas Photography Project. Although her father came from Yucatan, Duarte was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an English-speaking household. She learned Spanish later; so, as she wryly observes, she and her Tzotzil, Tzeltzal, and Ch'ol-speaking colleagues are equally disadvantaged. None of them is entirely fluent in the one language they share. Yet the images produced by the project's photographers show that, despite language barriers, they can indeed communicate.

"My thinking was that photography, in a largely nonliterate culture, would be an ideal medium for instructional materials," Duarte said, as she explained the genesis of her project in afterimage Magazine. "Literacy, visual and otherwise, has always been associated with the non-Indian world and thus with power. New visual skills and tools serve their own cultural needs as well as help them represent themselves to the wider world.... They see it as a sign of hope of what Indians can do."

Duarte taught herself photography but eventually studied with Aaron Siskind, one of the century's most noted photographers and a highly regarded teacher in his own right. During the Depression, Siskind began his career photographing the residents of New York City's slums, as an employee of the Works Progress Administration. He later earned fame for his closeups of cracked paint, peeling posters, and other details of urban architecture that looked more like abstract paintings than photographs.

The powerfully composed, formally beautiful photographs created by her Maya colleagues look as if they might have descended from Siskind's masterworks of modernism, but Duarte has intentionally resisted introducing "established Western traditions of seeing." Rather, she leaves her students "free to make whatever sort of images they wish. My teaching is wholly technical. I have not critiqued or commented in any way on the photos."

Duarte was drawn to Mexico and the Maya through her interest in her own family history. "My personal journey relates to my two cultures -- U.S. and Mexican -- and reflects for me something of what I have noted in indigenous people becoming part of the wider Mexican culture."

Her first visit to Chiapas in 1981, and additional work in the area as associate editor of Picture Collections: Mexico, a guide to the nation's public and private photography collections, convinced her that Chiapas was potentially fruitful territory. …