PRINT September 1993

Gilles Peress’ Cajamarca, Peru, 1991

IT HAS ALL, maybe more than I would want, from a photograph of this world. André Breton spoke of the beauty of the “convulsive,” a quality he didn’t necessarily associate with photographs, though the Surrealists liked them. Somewhere there exists a Surrealist map of the world, and Peru figures on it as a place alarmingly swollen in comparison with its neighbors, a Peru of the mind as well as the earth, and the site of this convulsive image.

I first came upon it a few months ago, in a color Xerox made from a slide, one of about 20 such pictures shown to me by the photographer, Gilles Peress. He had returned from a South American assignment on the legacy of Simón Bolívar, for National Geographic. As visceral as so many other pictures he brought from that tour, this one immediately singled itself out as the most enigmatic. Even in Xerox the subject induced a blaze of anxiety and wonder. What was I looking at? What did it mean?

Such questions arise in photography because the camera can cut so abruptly into space as to strip a scene of its narrative context. With many, perhaps most photographs, we expect the scene to at least intimate context, and captions to spell it out. Any breakdown in this potential suggests either that the context is esoteric, to outside viewers, and/or that the events are improbable, no matter who the viewers are. If it affords us a view of a reality beyond what we would know or guess, the improbable subject has an informational value. And if the information does not stabilize the pictorial effect, the photograph is likely to have a poetic import, perhaps even a Surrealist resonance.

In this image, everything hangs on the sense of an activity clearly described but seemingly inexplicable. Supported or possibly grappled by two men, one of whom is masked, a dark-skinned woman, in an electric-blue dress, appears to be overcome, as if in some faint or grip of pain. Her arm nevertheless pinions the head of a naked white doll, sprawled grotesquely over her front. To the left, a bonfire crackles, close enough for the group to feel its scorch. Behind, a glimpse of a crowd, banners.

I don’t know whether it’s the fire or the doll or the mask—take your pick—that prevents the rest from fitting together. Each point of reference is vivid, but relates to no general content we can establish. It’s not as if some core of intent on the subjects’ part were missing, but rather that we’re furnished with too many disparate hints of it, and the quarters are overly close. Peress just thrusts in, and leaves us with the galling charisma of some strange rite. Innuendoes of cultic sacrifice and hysteria, of pageant and interracial symbolism, are whisked about with frenzy. The effect is as startling and undecidable as the image’s thermal cast—at once molten and icy. The action has a certain tenderness about it, and also cruelty. Finally, a distant audience views, from behind, a performance that is conceivably either played for real or interrupted by sickness, right in our lap—and the conflict of all these virtualities keeps viewers sharp.

Peress has written of Peru: “The Spaniards have . . . gone, but it is the very same colonial aristocracy they left behind that rules . . . against a background of . . . the absence of bare necessities like water and electricity. There, one can see the emergence of the most baroque, most violent guerrilla movement in existence: the Sendero Luminoso control half the territory, which they share with narco-traffickers, amid massive emigration of a rural population to the shantytowns of the cities, a cauldron of pre-Christian sects, pagan miracles, chaos and insanity.”

This Magnum photojournalist had been to danger zones before, most notably Iran and Ireland. But where their grittiness could be rendered in black and white, the extravagance of this one demanded color. During the last two years Peress has wandered through Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia as well as Peru, on Bolívar’s trail. He depicts something popping off in a terrified crowd, gunpoint arrests of civilians by troops, the sludge created by gold miners, a boy flying a ragged kite above straw hovels, the panicked faces of those in custody, the jowly ones of those in power, funerals, magic dances. Everywhere he saw that the reality, let alone the dream, of liberation left from Bolívar’s time had failed long ago.

In place of, or rather in addition to, the dictators and juntas of yore, the pressures now at work in South America are less visible and more insidious. They come from international banks and rogue guerrillas, from the lack of due process in the courts, from gringo corporate maneuvers, and from pathologies in the culture itself. Peress’ rendering of this historical continuum of epic violence is more in the spirit of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Eduardo Galleano than of anything National Geographic envisaged. In certain of his pictures elsewhere, one almost perceives the moment when the adrenaline of religious faith flares into social hatred. Here, at the carnival in Cajamarca, in the Peruvian highlands, we are dealing with a charade of primal drama that relives the past as a nightmare of religion. The people enact the death of carnival, symbolized by the burning of a baby. Only, at this moment, which is both Indian and Catholic (blue represents the Virgin’s purity), the baby is a doll and the mother is a man. As a form of social license, carnival can reverse the roles of women and men. One of them impersonates maternal hysteria, another behaves like a penitente or executioner.

This image joins countless fine photographs of similar subjects by Latin Americans, but with them the interest tends to the anthropological, the rites of campesinos providing a glimpse into the ancestral past. By contrast, Peress in Cajamarca stresses the confusion of the present. He’s sensitive to that instant when the improbable prevails without ceasing to be exceptional. At the same time, his political consciousness highlights struggle carried out as much in the country as in the city. In the highlands, rondas, village self-defense units originally formed by the army along American counterinsurgency lines, have become paramilitary outfits, victimizing their own people. The destructive result erodes the tribal patterns and traditional leadership of the indigenous culture. This reminds me of that great moment in Surrealist art, the opening of the Buñuel film Le Fantôme de la liberté, where Napoleonic soldiers shout “Long Live Liberty” as they execute Spanish peasants fighting to preserve the reactionary monarchy of Ferdinand VII. Peress quotes Bolívar, their contemporary, who said, “To fight for the liberation of Latin America is like plowing the sea.” As it witnesses the pandemonium of the carnival, with its mix of perverse desire and lethal farce, this photograph, in some way I can’t even begin to grasp, shares in the futility of Bolívar’s judgment and the bitterness of Buñuel’s insight.

Max Kozloff was executive editor of Artforum from 1974 to 1976. In 1994 the University of New Mexico Press will publish his next book, Lone Visions, Crowded Frames.