The Camera as a Tool of Social Awareness an Artist Teaches Mayan Indians How to Retake Their Ancient Society - with Modern Technology

Article excerpt

SINCE a New Year's Day rebellion erupted in southern Mexico, photojournalists from around the world have been snapping pictures of the Indian guerrillas and townspeople there.

So has Carlota Duarte. But instead of using her camera to document violence, she is using it to inspire hope.

Now back in Cambridge, Mass., after a seven-week trip to Chiapas, Mexico, Ms. Duarte is staying tuned to events leading up to Mexico's Aug. 21 presidential elections, while brainstorming on how to raise funds and awareness here.

Mexican politics has little to do with Duarte's mission to teach Mayan Indians ways of chronicling their ancient culture using modern technology. But the mounting tension from this year's Indian uprising has deeply touched the people with whom she works, and in turn, her.

"It has directly affected our work," Duarte says of the revolt's reverberations. "We never knew if the next day we could do what we planned. We never knew if there would be road blocks or work stoppages."

For the past two years, Duarte has worked with a 10-year-old Indian cultural cooperative in San Cristobal de las Casas, founded to preserve Mayan history and tradition and provide an outlet for the Indians' creativity. Members of the cooperative write and publish books of Indian history as well as producing original plays, puppet theater, and radio and video programs.

Initially, Duarte built a darkroom with the cooperative's 10 members, instructed a group of them in basic photography, and assisted in their project to publish original plays in comic-book form, known as fotonovelas in Spanish.

She has also encouraged individuals within the cooperative to create their own ways of photographically preserving their culture. From her most recent trip to Chiapas, she has brought back three members' pictures of their communities that will be the backbone of an exhibition she is planning to show here in the fall (the place and dates have not yet been set). "It's important that they are showing their communities the way they see them," she says.

But the most tangible result of her teaching thus far has come from the successes of the youngest artist in the cooperative, a woman named Maruch Santiz Gomez. "I find it quite wonderful to see what has happened when she's given tools," Duarte says of Ms. Santiz Gomez.

Santiz Gomez was a shepherd before joining the cooperative. She still lives at home in a nearby village with her parents, six brothers and sisters, and her sister's family. …