Evelyn, Santiago, 1983, from the series La manzana de Adán [Adam’s Apple], 1983© Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

The Photographer Who Documented the Underbelly of Chilean Society

“I witnessed it all, and through photography I perpetuated their rebellion.” Paz Errázuriz tells Irina Baconsky about defying the Pinochet regime to capture her country’s marginalised communities

With bracing candour, vulnerability and authority, Paz Errázuriz’s imagery illuminates humanity in all its poetic, unruly beauty – yet, despite a career spanning nearly four decades, the Chile-born photographer has only recently begun to accept the label of artist. “When I started taking pictures in Chile in the 70s, photography didn’t have the status it has now,” she tells us at the opening of the Barbican Art Gallery’s Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins. “It wasn’t really a part of the art world, and I never used the word ‘artist’ to describe myself.”

As such, rather than being interested in the strictly aesthetic value of photography, the self-taught image-maker was drawn to the political, transgressive, documentary potential of her medium, which she continuously used as a portal to the obscure corners of society’s underbelly. Born into a conservative, catholic Santiago family, Errázuriz nurtured a profound desire for escapism and a fascination for the lifestyles and communities of people whose mere existence was a radical act of disobedience to the status quo.

 

“I was always interested in exploring identity, especially in the context of a homogenised society,” she explains. “Through looking at the identities of others, I began to discover my own.” Following the 1973 Chilean coup d’état which established the repressive military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, photography became more than a personal interest for Errázuriz, resolutely morphing into an unapologetic means of political resistance. “I started working in the street as a photojournalist, and that’s how I first got a glimpse into the underworld of alternative and marginalised communities,” she reminisces. “I did a lot of work on female prostitution, which I knew nothing about – it was an incredibly taboo area, sex was a forbidden word.”

“I was always interested in exploring identity, especially in the context of a homogenised society. Through looking at the identities of others, I began to discover my own” – Paz Errázuriz

It was the hidden realm of prostitution that led to Errázuriz’s encounter with the dangerous, intrepid and intoxicatingly genuine world of the people both closest to her heart and most influential in her work: the transgender and transvestite communities. Documenting one of the most obscure and difficult times in Chile’s recent political and sexual history under the brutal authoritarianism of the Pinochet regime, Errázuriz’s powerful series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple) is among her most memorable works to date. Shot in the 1980s over the course of four years, it centres on the lives of Pilar, Evelyn and Mercedes, members of a community of transvestite sex workers in the Santiago brothels of La Jaula and La Palmera. “Living with them for so many years was the best education I could have asked for,” asserts the photographer. “I learned so much about love, community, and I found a family that I wish had always been my own.”

Conspiring with them to create their own identities, Errázuriz’s colour and black-and-white images portray the protagonists of this underground world as they go about their daily lives, be it preparing for a night’s work or simply finding refuge in their domestic space. The personal struggle they demonstrate in their refusal to conform or accept traditional notions of gender marks them out as unlikely heroes against a hostile political power determined to control and regulate every aspect of society. Taken at a time when gender nonconforming people were regularly subject to curfews, persecution and brutality, Errázuriz’s tender images of Evelyn and Pilar – which more often than not capture them staring directly into the camera – represented a bold and collaborative act of political defiance for both the artist and the wider community.

“It was an incredibly dangerous time for them, they were constantly hiding, running away from the police, being jailed… They had to lead a completely secret life. I witnessed it all, and through photography I perpetuated their rebellion” – Paz Errázuriz

“It was an incredibly dangerous time for them, they were constantly hiding, running away from the police, being jailed… They had to lead a completely secret life,” Errázuriz recalls. “I witnessed it all, and through photography I perpetuated their rebellion.” Three decades on, the rebellious frankness of the artist’s photographs feels just as bold and relevant.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins runs until May 27, 2018, at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.

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