The Camera as a Tool of Social Awareness

An artist teaches Mayan Indians how to retake their ancient society - with modern technology

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. Taking her first photograph a year ago, Santiz Gomez began in February to document the ancestral beliefs of her people.

She writes that her main goal in recording 47 traditional rules that guide the eating and health habits of her people is ``so that the roots of our ancestral culture [can] be known by the new generation, above all by the children, because they are those who suffer most from the cultural changes of our people.''

Duarte sees Santiz Gomez as a harbinger of the future of the Mayan people. ``It's a deeply rewarding thing to be with Maruch at this beginning of what is going to be a life marked by enormous change.''

As an acknowledgment of the importance of Santiz Gomez's work, her pictures will be published in the upcoming issue of Luna Cornea, a Mexican photographic journal, Duarte says. ``It shows what Indians are able to do. There is a lot of prejudice that Indians are so backward, that they don't keep up with modern times. But what is so impressive to me ... is their capacity to adapt and utilize what is available.''

``They've been exposed to [new technology], see the value of it, and can adapt it to their purposes,'' she says. And sometimes they choose not to use it, but the technology has still become a part of their culture.

Santiz Gomez, for example, was writing an article that required her to interview elders in her community. Duarte asked if she had taken a tape recorder with her.

``No,'' Santiz Gomez said, according to Duarte. She had tried, but the people she was interviewing felt uncomfortable.

``Instead,'' Santiz Gomez replied, ``I use my mind like a tape recorder.''

The Mayan cooperative also serves as an example of the worth of all indigenous communities, Duarte says. By preserving their culture, ``they continue to give hope to other people,'' she says.

Duarte says that she has discovered what Americans can learn from the Mayans as well: ``They can teach us appreciation of ties and a sense of belonging; they belong to centuries. They can teach us the value of respecting what you have inherited - these are not dead cultures. Now, they are not using stones [to draw on, for communication], they are using photography.''

The lessons Duarte has learned from the Mayans she has come to know are much more personal than academic, though. ``The hardest part was leaving,'' she says. ``I grew into a kind of closeness ... that made it very difficult for me to leave.''

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