A Selk’nam man, circa 1920. ©Martín Gusinde.

©Obder Heffer.
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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
January 2006

Chilean photography:
Indians in the picture

The photographic record that since the 19th Century has kept the images of our native people, is now not only a valuable documentary source, but also a testimony of their way of living.

The book Fotografia Mapuche siglos XIX y XX: Construccion y montaje de un imaginario started with the analysis of more than 900 pictures. The authors and editors studied how the members of the community perceived those images, and what academic and editorial use could be made from the pictures. A work such as this opens a whole new valuation of photography as a historical and documentary register, with a wide universe of meanings to explore. At the same time, it promotes and locates the Mapuche culture through a valuable artistic patrimony.

By Rosario Mena

©Christian Enrique Valck.

Since the 19th Century up until the 20th Century, photography was a medium that was profusely used for the visual record of Chile's native people, specially the Mapuches. Photographers like Valck, Milet and Heffer were pioneers on this genre, and their work reflects the Republican intent of making native people icons of national identity. This was an operation that implied a whole new visual construction, with a strong symbolic and aesthetic content, and which responded to the European canons of the time. As a consequence, the ethnic reality was somehow hidden, and what people ended up seeing were stereotyped or idealized images, magical or dramatic scenes that defined the historical appreciation of these cultures. These are images that, nevertheless, now bring us a valuable testimony from the past, and an undeniable artistic heritage.

In the book Historia de la fotografía en Chile: Rescate de huellas en la luz ("History of Chilean Photography: recovery of traces in the light"), published by the Photographic Heritage National Center in the year 2000, there's a chapter written by investigator Margarita Alvarado: "The enlightened path of the border's photographers", who she calls 'the founders' (Christian Enrique Valck, Gustavo Milet and Obder Heffer). They are those men who established the bases of what would later be known as "ethnic photography".

The pioneers

©Gustavo Milet.

Born in Germany, and established in Valdivia since the year 1852, Valck is one of the first photographers who got some kind of prestige here in Chile. His work shows the costumes and social practices of the Mapuche people, surrounding them with an exotic atmosphere. Gustavo Milet, born in Valparaiso but from a French origin, arrived to Lebu in the year 1886, from where he moved to the town of Traiguen.

He was essentially a portraitist, and got his biggest prestige with his studio-pictures of Mapuche people. Somehow, he made the people look like actors —"representing their own identity", according to Alvarado—, in a stage set up by painted cloths, columns, arches and plants.

©Obder Heffer.

Between the years 1886 and 1910, when he established his own studio in Santiago, Canadian photographer Obder Heffer made a remarkable work with urban views of the city, the Andes, the south and the Mapuche world. He had arrived to Santiago hired by the agency Foto Garreaud and ended up building the biggest archives on these subjects.

Selk'nam men painted with tari, drawings used in the dance of the Kewánix.
©Martín Gusinde.

But if the Mapuches are portrayed and put on the scene under the peculiar lens of those "border photographers", a similar experience happened with the people of Tierra del Fuego, with whom Alvarado is currently working. The visual construction of this very unknown and almost extinct (by way of colonization and the agricultural system) austral cultures could have a deep social and cultural impact, helping to gain some view about History and anthropology. An example of the media use that photographs can have are in the work of Austria's Jesuit priest and ethnographer Margin Gusinde, who portrayed the Selk'nam and their rituals.

Those images have travelled worldwide, establishing the magic perception of this people and generating a whole new reference about their existence. The testimony of a new reality is new ground for any spectator who forgets about the inherent fiction that's present in any photography. As investigagor Margaraita Alvarado puts it: "Photography has been produced according to several procedures and visual elements that are part of the technical peculiarities of photographic fabrication".

On those famous images of the Selk'nam' spirits made by Gusinde —which registered a ritual now extinct— one sees clothes and body painting that some investigators have called 'fuegian fashion'; a mix of art, design and anthropology.

"What this pictures try to produce on the viewer is an effect of reality, in terms of a belonging and ethnic identity", says the investigator. "This way, the historical subjects that we now see as native fueguinos reveal to us as a random construction, a result of the combination and overlapping and union of several visual fragments, transforming them in true 'types' supposedly representative of an race and an identity".


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