How one woman used her camera to defy a dictatorship

Paz Errazuriz went under the radar to make some of the most important – and dangerous – images of Chile in the 1970s and 80s

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Paz Errazuriz
Evelyn, La Palmera, Santiago (Evelyn, La Palmera, Santiago), 1983 from the series La manzana de Adán (Adam’s apple)Photography Paz Errazuriz

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet stormed the Presidential Palace in Santiago and overthrew the democratic socialist government in a violent coup d’état that would scar Chile forever. At the time, a young Paz Errazuriz had been teaching in her local primary school. But the news that day changed everything, as she picked up her camera and she hasn’t put it down since.

The Septuagenarian photographer – the first Latin American female photographer to be offered the Guggenheim fellowship – was recently celebrated with a survey at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles. Errazuriz is one of Chile’s most revered photographers, praised for her photographic work denouncing the Pinochet years. A period she navigated with a survivor's aptitude for evading authority. She never photographed the direct horror and bloodshed, instead turning her camera on periphery communities and the social diktat that shoehorned them into marginalisation. Her ability to denounce the dictatorship through capturing its victim's resoluteness earned Errazuriz the title ‘the woman who defied the Pinochet regime”.

“She never photographed the direct horror and bloodshed, instead turning her camera on periphery communities and the social diktat that shoehorned them into marginalisation”

In the first days of the regime, over 13,000 people were rounded-up and corralled in the National Stadium. Over the next 17 years, many more would die with thousands subject to torture and detainment in concentration camps. Pinochet didn’t need evidence or reason, taking whole families off in the middle of the night with no explanation. Crumbling under the weight of such an aggressive re-alignment, Chile was a nation in shock. It was in this dark period, Errazuriz began working under the radar, she tells me “something that was not easy to do because of constant curfews that lasted the whole military dictatorship”. It was near-fatal for anyone to speak out during Pinochet’s regime, let alone photograph it. But while Errazuriz took day-jobs as a family portrait photographer, she was covertly carrying out her own work. “The need to photograph was a constant, but one had to be extremely careful. I had small very children at the time and since my house had been searched by the militars you had to take precautions. I had it clear that I was not a photojournalist from the outset, but the challenge to work as such or intend to do so was very important to me”.

In the 50s and 60s Chile has been a liberal society, it’s political policies were progressive and Allende had instigated reform with state investment in public services. But American corporations had invested too. Knowing that a Marxist leader would eventually weaken their grip on Chile’s economy, the US state department began sponsoring Chilean students to study under Milton Friedman. The subject? Free Market Economics. As planned, the newly graduated ‘Chicago Boys’ would return to their country and under Pinochet’s auspices begin work transforming Chile’s economy on an unprecedented level.

It soon became overwhelmingly obvious that Friedman's policies only serviced the wealthy. It was estimated that some households, needed to spend 75 per cent of their income on bread alone. Errazuriz found these disenfranchised communities begged to be documented. One of her earliest series “Los Dormidos” (1979-1980), focused on the rapidly increasing homeless population that arrived with the onset of these new policies and show a bleak, destitute existence in opposition to what the regime projected. Yet far from the detached stance that many photojournalists favored, Errazuriz maintained a deeply humanist approach. “I feel very near to those voiceless people in society. Perhaps there exists some feeling of identification, something that is not difficult to learn, not difficult to be accepted.”

The defining thread of Paz Errazuriz’s work is the insatiable need to get close to something, maybe before it is wiped out forever. I ask if she needed to photograph the precariat because they were most vulnerable? “It could have had a subliminal intention. But I had a personal interest in certain part of the population that I could not have met except for my photography. I wanted to portray their lives, in their way. I guess my point of view has been an anthropological one. I do not comment on their lives, I wanted to be more of an accomplice, than a foreigner or an outsider”. 

“The need to photograph was a constant, but one had to be extremely careful” – Paz Errazuriz

This sentiment rings true in “La Manzana de Adán” (1982-87). In the series, her stark monochrome photographs capture cross-dressing male prostitutes living in brothels in Santiago and Talca. Fear has become commonplace, having settled into the shadows it haunts each frame. Although, Errazuriz teaches us that fear loses the capacity to define an individual with time. In her own words, “It is strange but one learns how to live in danger.” Lipstick is still worn, life still goes on. In one shot, Errazuriz’s own instinctive worry – one gets the sense she sees the men as her vulnerable schoolchildren – is mirrored back through the prostitute's eyes, whose impeccable make-up still can’t hide the strain on his face. She reminds me that not only was homosexuality brutally condemned with young people being battered, humiliated and tortured but “they were menaced by Aids too, which was a double danger of disappearance. In fact, most of the peoples in my series ‘Adam’s Apple’ died of Aids, except for Coral who is alive and today continues with Aids treatment.”

Towards the late 70s, Errazuriz’s began photographing the protest groups that had formed. In particular the Colectivo Acciones de Arte, a radical art group that held public performances. Operating without official consent, each performance was fiercely political but somehow escaped retribution. Errazuriz explains “to evade censorship was something implicit in our work and you had to find the proper language to communicate, which was an interesting and challenging exercise.”

This ability to skirt censorship allowed Errazuriz to continue her work, even when publicly exhibiting. Her first solo exhibition Personas (People) opened at the Chilean-North American Institute in Santiago in 1980. “I never thought about exhibiting before. It was my first exhibition thanks to a friend painter Roser Bru, who also had decided to stay instead of leaving for exile.” I ask if she was fearful of the exposure? “Certainly you had to be careful about what you could show but in general, militars were not interested in culture. It was learning to use metaphors that you had to practice”.

A year later, Errazuriz founded AFI (the Asociación de Fotógrafos Independientes) alongside her fellow photographic community.“The AFI meant a lot for us and was necessary because we could have legal support if we were detained or if we disappeared. And from an ‘artistic’ side we started to have group shows in Chile.” This vital network opened up a portal to the outside world, through, which came sanctioned film roll and foreign photojournalists sent to cover the protests – one being Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas. “with her we did an important book called Chile from Within, a relevant publication for the country and for our political history. Several of us participated actively doing this first publication which was a very valuable experience as a group.” But the most valuable thing of all? “the AFI encouraged us to fight the militars with our photography”.

While many lost their voices under the regime, Errazuriz became one of the few to find hers. It’s obvious she doesn’t forget this, not allowing the weight of her promise to those who died to get any lighter. “It’s not easy for you to finish your project. It’s a feeling of abandonment, that makes me feel full of doubts and conscious of the responsibility I have. When I make those portraits I feel as if I am doing a self-portrait.” Because for Errazuriz, photography became a way for her to participate in the resistance. Every time she took a shot, it was her way of showing she was there – fighting back.

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