This summer, I am traveling to three sites in Peru to investigate the development of the photographic technology during recent decades. Having established that my dissertation will address the broad topic of social practices of photography in Peru, this trip is intended to help narrow the focus of my research and explore potential sites for more extended fieldwork. I have chosen three locations, each with a rich photographic legacy.
My first stop was Huamanga (also known as Ayacucho), the capital city of the Huamanga province in the Ayacucho region of Peru. Among the people I spoke with was Giovana Alejos, granddaughter of photographer Baldomero Alejos. I found her in the Alejos photography store, with its own studio and laboratory, located on a side street off of the Plaza de Armas.
A photographer based in the city center of Huamanga from 1924-1976, Baldomero accumulated an archive of over 60,000 images. The subject matter of the photos ranges from high society portraits to funeral processions, student groups, and popular festivals.
The Ayacucho region was heavily impacted by violence on the parts of both the Shining Path and the Peruvian military during the internal conflict of the 80s and 90s. In recent years, Baldomero’s photography collection has been recognized as a record of life during the years leading up to this period, a kind of documentation of “La calma antes de la tormenta” (the calm before the storm). This is the title given to an exhibit of the Alejos archive that is currently moving through Spain, most recently at the Casa Amèrica Catalunya in Barcelona. I was able to purchase the exhibition catalogue at the Alejos store in Huamanga, which contains a couple of brief essays that attempt to locate these images in relation to the broader context of the Peruvian civil war.
But given that photographs can be layered with multiple meanings depending on their context and use, I was interested in hearing about the archive in other dimensions. Giovana shared with me that beyond the project of restoring the images, in which her family has only addressed 30% of the archive, they are also pursuing what could be seen as a social memory project. Copies of photos are put into small binders which are taken in person around the city and surrounding communities. Through interviews, information is collected about the subjects of the photographs—notes with names, dates, events, stories, are added to the margins of the images. As the archive is enriched with personal anecdotes and memories, interviewees gain something too: they are reconnected with images of their past, with photos of family members, of friends, even of themselves.
A major element in the history of photography of the Ayacucho region, the Alejos archive shows that photographs have been a part of daily life in Huamanga for nearly a century. Baldomero Alejos was also not the only photographer working at the time, and the presence of the medium in the region has only increased. Questions that remain include what impact these photographs had on peoples’s lives, how they were used, and to what end; in other words, this is just scratching the surface.
Posted by Christine Mladic — PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU