Photography in Oaxaca: Reality or Romantic Vision

What does a photographer whose subjects were native Americans have to do with Oaxaca?  Read on.

1900’s photographer Edward S. Curtis sought to capture the vanishing American Indian.  The just published Curtis biography,  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan, documents Curtis’ quest over the next thirty years traveling throughout the American west.  The photographs are stunning, emotionally connecting, and compelling. They present us with a real image of native American Indian life at the time.

Or do they?  The book reviewer Josh Garrett-Davis, a Ph.D. student in American history at Princeton University, and  the author of “Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains” (Little, Brown & Company) brings to question whether Egan promulgates the romance of the Old West and the inclination of photographer Curtis to capture life as he thought it should be.

This is an important question for documentary photographers.  The discussion challenges me to think about my own photography of Oaxaca life and her indigenous people.  Each of us who holds a camera could benefit from taking a moment to ask ourselves if we romanticize our subjects in order to capture what we believe should be authentic in the face of unrelenting forces of change.

Curtis was given almost unrestricted access to the tribes he photographed, asked his subjects to pose, and often removed signs of contemporary life from his photographs in the darkroom in order to present his subjects in an idealized environment.  We are more easily able to do this today with Photoshop.

Garrett-Davis says, “As gorgeous and useful as much of his work remains, the project as Curtis conceived it was a fool’s errand. He hurried to salvage scraps of pristine Indian culture, because, he said, “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations, and it’s a tragedy.” He had been infected with the white American fantasy that Indians were the “Vanishing Race,” to use the title of the opening image of the entire series. It depicts a line of Navajos, barely more than silhouettes, riding away from the camera and into a dark oblivion.”

Photography is a powerful medium. Through the lens we get to chose the story we tell.  And, we cannot prevent change.  Societal pressures from within as well as from external influences direct the forces of change.  Positive change has opened access to education, health care, good jobs and discussion about cultural revitalization.

Now, on to showing more Day of the Dead photographs!

Oaxaca Street Photography starts January 16.


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