The Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi is not a household name like his famous compatriot, Mario Testino, but his pioneering photographs of indigenous people were ahead of their time.
Martin Chambi transcended his impoverished start in life to become one of the Andean country’s most prized photographers.
Martin Chambi was born in 1891 into a Quechua-speaking peasant family in one of Peru’s poorest regions, Puno. The region, located to the southeast of the country, borders Lake Titicaca.
When his father went to work in a goldmine in Carabaya province, Chambi went with him and it was in this unlikely place that he first experienced photography. He got to know the mine’s resident photographer, who taught him the basics of photography. This early brush with photography planted the seed that would develop into a lifelong passion.
In 1908, Chambi headed to the more cosmopolitan city of Arequipa, where photography was more advanced and sophisticated. He became an apprentice in the studio of another photographer. Nearly a decade later, after a long period of training, he set up his own studio. He started then to publish his own postcards of landscapes, something he pioneered in Peru.
But it was Chambi’s move to Cusco, the ancient city of the Incas located high up in the Andes, that really made his legacy. Chambi relocated his studio to the former Inca capital in 1923 and began photographing not only society figures but also Cusco’s indigenous people.
He also travelled in the region, photographing the ruins of the Incas, locals and Andean landscapes. His pioneering work is now recognized as one of the first major indigenous Latin American contributions to photography. Yet the historic and ethnographic nature of his photographs should not be emphasized at the expense of its artistic worth.
Martin Chambi’s photographs featured in an exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI) earlier this year, called Chambi.
Photo: Celia Chambi playing with children. Cerca 1960. Impresión digital sobre papel. 28 x 28 cm. Archivo Fotográfico Martín Chambi, Cuzco.