A Picture is Worth . . . What?

Photographers are a breed apart. Because the books I publish are generally highly photographic, I have a fair bit of experience dealing with this unusual species. Let me give you some case studies, field work if you will, based on shots taken for a new book I’m working on about the history of textiles in Chiapas.

Janet Schwartz, who spends much of her time in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, is an ingenious seamstress/fashion designer turned kamikaze photographer of the journalistic type. She goes into whatever setting presents itself: an off-limits church, a festive mob scene on a crowded street, a rebel uprising—and shoots as if that camera were a machine gun. Never mind if the crowds that surround her have NO desire to be photographed—she will get the shots and get the hell out. I’ve just recently gone through 14,000 of Janet’s images (I am not making that number up), looking for the perfect ones to illustrate textiles and techniques in a slew of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya villages that do not appear on maps. I feel as if I’ve been to another planet.

A gathering of Zapatista rebels, many of them women, around the time of the 1997 massacre of 45 Tzotzil peasants in the village of Acteal. Photo by Janet Schwartz.
A gathering of Zapatista rebels, many of them women, around the time of the 1997 massacre of 45 Tzotzil peasants in the village of Acteal. Photo by Janet Schwartz.

Then there’s Alfredo Martinez. Alfredo’s home base is Mexico City, but his reputation as an extreme-sports photographer takes him all over the globe. He will happily dangle off a helicopter into space to get the perfect shot of a rock climber or a lunatic skier. He’s often hired for radical magazine reporting—the one job he turned away from was photographing women who had sewn their mouths shut in protest over their husbands’ incarceration. I have a vivid mental image of him in a small hamlet called Quinta Obispo, galloping through a burning field with a pack of men dressed in ceremonial costumes and monkey-fur hats and blowing trumpets, all the while carrying a thirty-pound video camera on his shoulder —with no jiggling.

A religious ceremony in the church in the village of Oxchuk. Photo by Alfredo Martinez, from A Textile Guide to the Highlands of Chiapas by Walter F. “Chip” Morris.
A religious ceremony in the church in the village of Oxchuk. Photo by Alfredo Martinez, from A Textile Guide to the Highlands of Chiapas by Walter F. “Chip” Morris.

Which brings me to Joe Coca, my most frequent photographer sidekick, in that same burning field, but lying on the ground amid the smoking grass clumps with his camera at the ready while said pack of men leapt over him. All in search of the perfect shot.

Worm’s-eye view of a Santa Semana ritual in the hamlet of Quinta Obispo, in which men dressed in costumes patterned on 18th Century French military uniforms stampede through burning fields. Photo by Joe Coca.
Worm’s-eye view of a Santa Semana ritual in the hamlet of Quinta Obispo, in which men dressed in costumes patterned on 18th Century French military uniforms stampede through burning fields. Photo by Joe Coca.
Me, I just sit and watch in amazement. Photo by Joe Coca.
Me, I just sit and watch in amazement. Photo by Joe Coca.

These people are nuts, which means that the rest of us can enjoy their escapades and go to their exotic locations in relative peace and quiet. You’ll see their work, eventually, in Chip Morris’s new book, subtitled “A Textile History of Chiapas.  Now I’d better get back to work.

—Linda Ligon

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