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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
June 2006
Photographic book Desert churches:
Light temples

To bring out the valuable tangible and intangible patrimony in the Northern Andean temples was what motivated photographer Max Donoso to publish his book Desert churches, the first in a trilogy dedicated to Chilean churches.

By Rosario Mena


He would go to the Altiplano’s smallest towns by truck, foot and even mules. That’s how photographer Max Donoso got to portray its temples, which condensate the Aymara and Atacameña cultures. The book Iglesias del desierto (Desert Churches) collects the images of most of them.

It is a deluxe edition that adds to its documental value the richness of its artistic proposal. The reader will see captivating atmospheres, through a special work that was done with color and light. Sponsored by the Foreign Affairs Office’s Cultural Issues Direction, the book presents a selection of thirty churches located around the cities of Antofagasta, Iquique and Calama; photographed and introduced by a historical text for each one of them, written by Cristián Heinsen (both in Spanish and English). Historian Isabel Cruz wrote the book’s introduction, while the Pre-Columbian Art Museum’s director, Carlos Aldunate, took care of its presentation.

©Max Donoso. View the complete album.

—In your pictures there is an intention that goes beyond what’s documental; a certain "staging" that you build. Does that have to do with the ritual sense you have perceived in these temples?
—In a way, the temples can be seen as a stage for what’s sacred: the place where the community gets together to connect with the divine. In that sense, I wanted to show the contrast of light and shade that’s typical of these chapels; and highlight, through natural light, the mysticism they posses.

—On that same aspect, how do you get involved in the community in order to get into these places, which are a center for social and religious life? Most of these people live in a very isolated way until they organize these meetings.
—Northern churches’ communities are very proud of their temples and traditions, but also a little jealous and not always open to people that do not belong to their surroundings, specially in small communities. I think that the reason for that distrust comes from how they have historically felt left-behind, and to reverse that feeling they have to create ties that take time to strengthen. No doubt that to get into these communities is sometimes a difficult task, but most of the time we get welcomed with great generosity.

—What is your vision about the steps that have been taken to stop the fatal abandonment of such a patrimony?
—The first step is to value the huge significance these temples, the people and their traditions have. They are part of our cultural diversity. So first you have to promote it, since you can not take care of what you don’t know. There needs to be a sustainable tourism, like the one in Parinacota, with an organized community. The Patrimony Institute, whose creation has just been announced, may bring a unique opportunity to protect these churches that represent an Andean world particularly beautiful. They cannot be unprotected. The full restoration of the Cultural Donations Law would motivate corporations and private mining companies  to have a much more active role in restoration projects.

—What is your opinion about the significance that the inhabitants themselves give to this patrimony?
—Communities have a profound appreciation of their traditions, and keep them alive as the heritage they have received from their ancestors. This is something that shows specially in the way they celebrate their Saints. You can see the devotion for their churches, images and dances. I think that communities must show legacies such as these more openly, to share their traditions with other people and make it easier to access their temples. In several of these towns, churches are only open for the Patron’s Holiday, so the rest of the year it stays completely closed and exposed to damage.

—We know that those foreign tourists that come to Chile prefer to visit Torres del Paine and San Pedro de Atacama. Would you say that it would be possible to incorporate these places in their routes, despite of the difficult access they may now present?
—Absolutely. In the Altiplano interior roads of Arica and Iquique I find more foreigners than Chileans. Europeans value the fact that this has not become an established tourist route, so they get to see places really untouched by civilization. So you just have to make very basic improvements to this infrastructure in order to attract more tourism.

—How do these temples reflect the Altiplano's idiosyncrasy, landscape and Cosmo vision?
—Everything in them reflects the Andean identity: some temples are located in relation to the nearby mountains, and their shapes and materials mimic with the landscape. The tower represents what’s masculine; and the main nave, what’s feminine. Their naïve paintings tell us about their myths. Andean Cosmo vision is present also in rituals such as the 'Calvario', the 'Llamo' sacrifice', the coke-leaves ceremony, etc. So the material and immaterial is reflected in this syncretism.

—Your project also took care of Chile’s Central an Southern regions' temples, with the intention of showing our patrimonial and cultural diversity. Do you think we have integrated those elements enough to the building of our national identity? At the same time, do you think these communities feel part of a larger national group?
—Just the fact of having such an extraordinary patrimony now at risk of being lost forever shows the lack of importance we give to our cultural diversity. I think that the native cultures do not feel part of a National community, quite the opposite, actually: they feel left-behind. The development of a society can not be based just on economical statistics, but also on the construction of a national identity. And that starts with our appreciation of those elements that are part of our memory and, certainly, the respect and care for its cultural diversity.


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