Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Peru - People and Portraits Part One

Peru is home to more than 30 million people, many whom preserve traditional beliefs including religious practices, festivals and clothing. Within these traditions there are many variations according to region. The clothes that people wear give a lot of information about their ethnicity, social and marital status. Hats in particular show whether a person is married or single as well as their ethnic group. All of this together with the magnificent backdrops of cities like Cusco and Lima make for some spectacular photographic opportunities. 

Photographing people here has proved more challenging than in other places I have visited. Some Peruvians have cultural objections to being photographed. Others expect payment and of course, like everywhere else there are people who just don't like to have their picture taken. This isn't to say that it's impossible to photograph people here and at the end of this post I will include some tips on how to make things a little easier.


But first the people! Urubamba is a town of about 18,000 inhabitants. The town itself is not really a tourist destination but its location makes it a good place from which to explore the Sacred Valley and its many archaeological sites. One evening I walked the two kilometres from my hotel to the town alongside a busy and very dusty road. The walk was worth it. On arrival I saw an elderly woman sitting outside her house selling fruit from a cloth spread on the ground. Her white clothing, the blue cloth and the deep red of the wall behind her made for a great backdrop. She saw me looking, smiled and wished me buenas tardes. I hesitated for a moment but decided to risk my few words of Spanish to ask for a photo. To my delight she agreed, straightened her collar and looked directly into the camera with a mischievous half smile. A risk is often worth taking.

Regular readers will know that I think markets are amongst the best places to get good pictures and to soak up the atmosphere of a city or town. I visited two of Cusco's markets. Mercado San Pedro is huge, noisy, pungent and dazzles with colour. Fruit, vegetables,  herbs and spices, bread, meat and  flowers are all sold here You can also find a barber, hat maker, electrical goods and myriad other items and services. In addition to the more formal sections of the market hundreds of vendors line the surrounding streets, their goods spread on the ground. San Pedro and its traders was amongst the highlights of my time in Peru. Some of the people I met are pictured below.



Raoul is a hat maker. His father began teaching him the trade from the age of five. He uses a mould, iron and other traditional tools and offers two kinds of hat made from materials of differing quality. I have never seen hats being made by hand before and assume that  in most parts of the world this industry is now mechanised. The cultural importance of headgear in Peru may well be a reason for the survival of this traditional skill.

Felicita sells woollen garments from a tiny stall in the indoor section of the market. Like the woman in Urubamba, she wished me buenas tardes and invited me to look at the hats, scarves, gloves and  other items in her basket. She was most pleased when I bought a pair of socks and encouraged by her daughter, had no hesitation in agreeing to a picture. I liked her kind face and gentle expression and took several shots of her.  In almost all of them she placed her hand on her throat, perhaps a little shy after all. Both Felicita and her daughter laughed when I showed them the results. This is a common response, usually because people are a little embarrassed and hopefully nothing to do with the quality of the photography.


Out in the streets I noticed a woman selling corn against a wonderful backdrop of faded and peeling green paint. When I spoke to her through a third person, I realised that she is a woman of character, joking a little and saying that she has no name. That smile shows a sense of fun but the placing of her hands in her apron pocket perhaps indicates a degree of shyness and that the bravado may be a public face rather than her real self.

I think I must be developing a fascination for street vendors.  I noticed three herb sellers sitting in front a pair of green doors. I was again struck by the backdrop as well as the woman in the red sweater and checked apron. Immediately I began taking shooting, another woman came up and told her to smile otherwise the camera couldn't work! The other two vendors began to laugh presenting a good opportunity to ask them for a group picture. Meanwhile the woman giving advice on smiling began telling them to say whisky which must be the Peruvian version of cheese. I love this picture, especially for the different expressions and for those red and purple shades against the green door.





There is also a market in Cusco's San Blas neighbourhood. Very different to San Pedro, it is much smaller, more genteel and focuses on the sale of textiles, leather goods and other handicrafts. It is located in the square beside the San Blas church, close to many cafes and restaurants in this gentrifying part of the city. There are sometimes musical performances here in the evening. It was here that I met Juana, a weaver and seller of textiles. Her colourful work was displayed on a small stall and after a little persuasion, she agreed to a photo, looking through a gap in her display but not before removing her hat first and "tidying herself up".  Ramon also has a stall in San Blas, selling woollen items. He is of striking appearance, exceptionally tall, well in excess of six feet and dressed in items made by members of his family. He was happy to chat a little and to pose.

Still in San Blas, I met Fernando whilst climbing a steep set of steps to reach a view over the city. He was coming down and carrying corn to his wife and daughter who I had seen earlier as they went from door to door selling. He carried the corn in a brightly coloured bag, contrasting with the greyness of his sweater and the steps. The woman with the llama gave her name as Maria. The llama is called Pabilito. Maria may or may. not be her real name - she is one of several women in Cusco who hang about offering pictures for a price to visitors. I couldn't resist and gave her a few coins. It is better to agree in advance how much you will pay so as to avoid disagreement later.





Ten million people live in Lima, one third of Peru's population. The streets of the Historico Centro teem with shoppers, vendors and people without work trying to make some kind of living. This includes children. The little boy chalking on the ground is called Darwin. He is about eight years old and together with his older brother he copies Manga images in order to earn a few sols to help supplement a meagre family income. Whilst talking to the two boys a woman came forward to rail against poverty in Peru saying it was a disgrace that in a country rich in resources, families were reduced to this. Not only in Peru of course.




A few streets away from Darwen I came across an elderly woman selling fruit. She lives in Ayacucho, a town about eight hours away from Lima and comes to the capital to earn a living. When asked for a photograph she agreed, but not before picking up her Bible for inclusion in the picture, demonstrating its importance to her.

The Centro Historic is also a good place to capture images of  more social situations. The refreshment stall with the older lady drinking tea, a man buying a snack and a third party deep in thought is just outside the city's Chinatown. They are together yet separate, each one lost in their own thoughts. The team of uniformed men polishing the fabulous doors of a former bank were much less restrained. Polishing with great gusto, they reacted with smiles and waves when they noticed the camera and some even posed for portraits. The door is beautiful and the men seemed happy in their shared labour. Ironically, directly opposite them a long line of some of the city's poorest people were waiting for a free meal given by a charitable organisation at the weekend. Signs of extreme wealth and poverty are never very far from each other.






Still in Lima but a world away from the Centro Historic, Barranco is an arty, gentrifying district. It is home to many artists and boasts several high quality galleries as well as a museum dedicated to the work of photographer Mario Testino. Art adorns the streets as well as the walls of the galleries. The couple pictured above were performing various acrobatic poses for in front of some of that street art. Note their shadows as well as their agility and the colourful backdrop.

Markets and "bohemian" quarters are perhaps obvious places for finding interesting people to photograph. But travel often offers unexpected encounters and opportunities. Many Peruvian women carry their shopping and other items in brightly coloured textiles, hung over their shoulders. In Aguas Calientes, close to Macchu Picchu, I noticed a tiny elderly woman struggling to pull her shopping on to her back. In despair she put her goods on the floor and looked around for assistance. I went to help her and was astonished to feel the weight of her load - at least 10 kilos. How on earth would she manage to get this home? Her name is Propina and you can see her above in blue clothes and a hat. I was to have a similar experience in Cusco where an elderly woman was struggling down some steep steps, saw me coming up them and put out her hands out for help. Once we reached the bottom she thanked me, calling me papa. I am assured this is a term of respect and not an indication that she thought I must be older than her!

My final two pictures in this first of a two-part post are of vendors working in Pisac's market. Aurelio, the baker makes and sells delicious cheese empanadas (as well as various meat varieties). His hat indicates that he is not married. The woman seated was weaving using a traditional method.



A few tips on photographing people in Peru.

It is a good idea to ask permission to take pictures of individuals. Be prepared to be met with a clear, and occasionally curt "no" and if you are, then accept it and move on as gracefully as possible. If you get a positive response, many people will expect a "tip" of about 2 sols (about 50p at time of writing) so click a few times to make sure you have a good result. I must note that in Trujillo (which will feature in my next post), there was no expectation of payment.

It is polite to let them see the picture, to thank them and if you can to use a polite term especially when older people. "Mamita" for older women and "Papa" for older men seems to be appreciated. If I am staying in a town long enough I sometimes develop hard copies to give to people if I think I can find them again.

Taking pictures of crowds or general street scenes is more straightforward but you may find people turning away if they think they are in shot.

It is really helpful to have someone with you who is local, can speak Spanish and abetter still,  one of the other Peruvian languages to help you engage with individuals before requesting a picture. Thanks to Jaime of  Photo Peru in Lima and Julie of Viracocha Travel in Cusco, both of whom who helped me enormously.

You can see more pictures of Peru here.

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