Image and Vision

By Corona Berkin, Sarah | Hemisphere, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Image and Vision


Corona Berkin, Sarah, Hemisphere


San Miguel Huaixtita is a mountain village in the Sierra Madre Occidental, in the northern part of the Mexican state of Jalisco. It has a population of approximately 710 Huichol Indians. The village has no electricity, advertising, billboards, newspapers or even full-length mirrors. Inside and out, the walls of the houses are usually left blank; ordinary decorations, such as calendars and photographs, are rare. The same is true of the village's schools and kaliguey, or holy places, which are unadorned by images. The only Western images San Miguel Huaixtita's residents see are the illustrations in children's school books, photographs brought by the occasional visitor, or the labels on the few packaged goods for sale in the village store.

What happens to the act of seeing in a community where there are no images? Do people look at each other differently? What is the relationship between the a-iconic glance and the universe that surrounds the Huichol?

These were some of the questions I hoped to answer in San Miguel Huaixtita. The following photos are the product of a research project undertaken at the Tatusi Maxakwaxi (Our Grandfather Deer Tail) secondary school. The school's 100 students were each given a disposable camera with enough film to take 27 pictures. They were briefly instructed in the use of the camera, including such tips as the importance of keeping the lens clean and not pointing directly at the sun. After one week, the film was developed and returned to the students. Some participated in one-on-one interviews in which they were asked to classify and comment on a selection of photographs. Their responses, along with observations made during the author's extended stay in the community, yield some clues about how the Huichol of San Miguel Huaixtita view each other and the world.

As a form of communication, images reflect trends in contemporary society. We live in the era of the close-up, a point of view that privileges the human face. In Western culture, the face has become the locus of all drama. This emphasis has produced a certain stereotyping of emotional expression, a sentimentalism and an aesthetic in which images manipulate our moods. In contrast, the Huichol photographs are rarely close-ups. They contain a wealth of minute and varied detail. Their austere poses and panoramic views allow us to see complete worlds instead of being made to feel subjective impressions.

Another way in which the Huichol photographs differ from Western images is in the use they make of the horizon.

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