Photo series concerned with minority communities have been the focus of Paz Errázuriz’s work for many decades. She commits large and comprehensive ensembles to circus performers, jugglers, the last remaining indigenous peoples in the country’s south, mental and psychiatric patients, transvestites under the military dictatorship…
Paz Errázuriz moves among these groups with a keen sensitivity, and, based on the close and trusting rapport she establishes, she develops a kind of documentation of the usually precarious living conditions of the people she portrays. Always keeping a respectful distance but with relentless honesty and never masking the drastic reality nor stopping short of the abyss of human existence, her photographer’s gaze is marked by great care and clearly evident fondness.
I never figured out if it was merely by coincidence or if there was a method behind it, but for some reason all my encounters with the three great contemporary female Latin American photographers went similar in the beginning. All three of them—the Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta in Portobelo, the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide in Mexico City, and the Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz—were very guarded and reserved during my first visit. It cost me effort even to only ask to see their photographs. I had an intangible but clearly present sense of inappropriately overstepping a not further defined boundary, as if I was about to trespass into an unspeakably intimate space…
Well, Paz and I soon found ourselves in friendly and open conversation, and gradually she revealed her trove of photographs to me. At that time, in the beginning of this century, she was still a hidden gem outside of Chile. She was entirely unpretentious and slightly shy, but well aware of her artistic qualities, even though it would take some time before international recognition came. As yet, her photos had no price tag attached to them. I soon noticed that Paz was understatement personified; she was a stranger to self-adulation. As well she never disclosed any juicy confidential gossip about details that no doubt came to her knowledge under the precarious circumstances surrounding the making of her photos.
Respect as a basic concept
The impression that struck me spontaneously and intensified over the years was that everyone portrayed by Paz appeared «as they really were». Her human motifs never seemed to pose or be forced into the role of a model. They were rather photographed «in a very natural manner», as if they didn’t even realize that pictures were being taken of them, which, of course, they did. This can be explained by the fact that Paz never directed her camera to someone and simply pressed the release button, like Diane Arbus or Nan Goldin. In fact, she spent very much time among her target groups, and they even became a part of her life, for instance the travestis, with whom she spent four years gradually building a relationship of mutual trust. She always treated others with respect for their dignity. Often enough, she even managed to restore lost dignity through her photographic work with her profound affection for the ones she portrayed.
Empathy instead of voyeurism
Perhaps the tender and affectionate moments between the people in the asylum or in other institutions are precisely what cause the greatest scandal in public. Our society is not yet ready to welcome in our midst the marginalized groups portrayed by Paz in the course of over 40 years—people who are outside the system, beyond power; people whose constitution, whose tenderness, and utter vulnerability Paz documents in her photos. Although Paz Errázuriz always portrays a particular human being, she nevertheless means humanity as a whole. She transcends as a matter of principle the local context and gives us the image of the centuries-long suppressed native, the image of the travesti, the image of the old person—in a beautiful naked and old body: sic!—and thereby raises the issue what beauty actually means.
Paz Errázuriz is concerned with the human being and its precarious state of existence. Wherever necessary, she scratches taboos and opens wounds to reach an unbiased view of people outside our social everyday life. She mercilessly holds up the mirror to our neo-puritanical hypocrisy—with her powerful pictures that require no further manipulation and that are full of painful poetry, as is the beautiful title she gave to her photo series at the asylum: «El infarto del alma».