An inside lens on Maya life
By Carol Kino The New York Times

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico Since the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, the story of that country's indigenous people has largely been told by others. And, since the 19th century, much of it has been told through photography.

Not long after the invention of the daguerreotype, European and American archaeologist-adventurers were hauling their equipment across the Yucatán to photograph Maya ruins. They were soon followed by anthropologists, like the American ethnographer Frederick Starr, who focused their cameras on human beings. Then, during the Mexican Renaissance of the 1920s, art photographers like Tina Modotti and her Mexico City-born protégé, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, began to celebrate the indigenous life and culture in their work.

But in 1992 a small organization in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, began to correct this imbalance by providing cameras and basic photography instruction to the local Maya Indians, many of whom could be descendants of those who were depicted by outsiders in the past. To date, the organization, the Chiapas Photography Project, has worked with more than 250 Maya photographers from 10 different ethnic groups living in and around the highlands city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a tourist magnet that is the commercial locus for Indians living throughout the state.

Though the organization was founded and is overseen by an American-born nun, Carlota Duarte, most of its day-to-day activities are carried out by a core group of Maya staff members who teach classes and workshops, run the darkroom, catalogue images and help license reproductions and organize shows of the photographers' work.

"It has the potential to be completely in their hands, without me as a facilitator," Duarte said recently.

By early November, the group plans to publish its seventh book, "Pox (Posh)," by Genaro Sántiz Gómez, whose photographs document the workings of his family factory, which produces the sugar-based alcohol cited in the book's title and is used in Maya religious celebrations. Next up will be "Carnaval in Tenejapa," by Petul Hernández Guzmán, who has spent the last 10 years photographing this annual celebration and its long preparations, most of which are off limits to outsiders.

Most of the participants in the project have switched back and forth between different jobs. Sántiz Gómez, a former project staff member, now works in a furniture factory in Georgia, while Hernández Guzmán, a former Maya language interpreter in San Cristóbal and the surrounding hamlets, is now on staff.

Duarte has led something of a double life: as well as being a nun of the Society of the Sacred Heart, a religious order that focuses on education, she is a professional photographer: she has a master's in fine arts in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and has exhibited at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.

Although she initially came to San Cristóbal almost 25 years ago as a tourist, the idea for the project didn't strike her until later, after she realized that most depictions of Mexico's indigenous people had been made by outsiders. That struck her as "unfair," she said recently. "It was also a deprivation. What would these people say if they had a chance?"

After several return visits, she made contact with Sna Jtz'ibajom ("House of the Writer"), a cooperative of Maya authors who focus on reading and writing their own languages - activities that were sharply discouraged under Spanish rule. The 13 members became Duarte's first trainees and staff members. "They were interested in learning about computers and modern technology - anything they felt would give a voice to Indians," explained Robert Laughlin, a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist who works with the group.

Duarte kept the project going on a shoestring with a combination of tiny grants, equipment donations and grass-roots fund-raising efforts. As the group expanded, it relied on disposable cameras, which staff members gradually figured out how to refill and repair on their own. (They now have several automatic and manual cameras and digital equipment, too.) About a year after Duarte began working with Sna Jtz'ibajom, the Zapatista guerrilla army began its uprising against the Mexican government from San Cristóbal. This seems to have attracted new attention to the area's indigenous cooperatives and groups. In 1995, she began receiving Ford Foundation money to develop the project. It is now part of a Mexican anthropological center.

Because many of the photographers live in the Zapatista conflict zone, one might expect their lenses to be trained on political subject matter. Instead, they tend to focus on the pleasures of daily life, revealing an aesthetic outlook that is more elegant and spare than historical photography might suggest.

To make the vibrant still lifes in "Our Chile," Juana López López, 35, positioned poblanos, habaneros, piquins and other chiles against Maya textiles, many of which she wove and embroidered herself. With their painstaking styling and supersaturated colors, these images wouldn't look out of place in a glossy food magazine.

In "My Little Sister Cristina, a Chamula Girl," the photographer Xunka López Díaz, 34, focuses on her spunky sibling, then 9, whose childhood, as she explains in the accompanying text, has been far more carefree than her own. The family was expelled from its village, San Juan Chamula, after López Díaz's parents converted to evangelical Protestantism. At Cristina's age, she was cooking and caring for the other children while her parents sought work in San Cristóbal; yet Cristina's only responsibilities, now that the family is more settled, are to eat, play and wash her own clothes and hair. In a series of beautifully composed portraits, López Díaz shows her doing just that.

Then there are the enigmatic images of Maruch Sántiz Gómez, 30, a Chamula woman who at 17 became one of the program's first interns. Her 1998 book, "Creencias" ("Beliefs"), presents sayings passed down by her people for generations, using text and black-and-white photographs that may seem as streamlined and modernist as Alvarez Bravo's work.

A picture of a carved wooden comb lying on cracked earth is accompanied by the words "It is bad to comb your hair at night because it is said that your mother will die." A basket filled with glowing white tufts of wool is paired with "Do not to burn sheep's wool because the sheep will lose his sight." The text is in three languages: Spanish, English and Tzotzil, a Maya language that is Sántiz Gómez's native tongue.

The decision to pair photography and text was purely practical, said Duarte: "Maruch's original concern was to gather and write down these beliefs so that they would be available for the younger generation. She decided to take photographs to accompany them, because people in her village could not read - but then the photos didn't work without the words." Still, the combination makes "Creencias" seem fashionably conceptual, a factor that has helped launch Sántiz Gómez on an international art career.

In 1998, she was taken on by the prestigious Galería OMR in Mexico City. Since then, her work has been widely shown internationally, and she is working on a series of photographs about wool production, medicinal plants and contemporary Chamulan baby care.

To many in the art world, Sántiz Gómez's new career seems the best measure of the project's success. But Duarte doesn't necessarily agree. More important, she said, it has widened the photographers' horizons. And it is clear the Maya viewpoint is finding new audiences far and near. Since 1994, the project has organized 11 group shows, which have traveled to the Netherlands, New York and California, as well as throughout Mexico. As a result, the photographers have developed "a sense of having a legitimate place in the world," Duarte said. "It gives them a sense of entitlement and dignity."