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Mayra Martell

Español / English


photography & misery


My dear Mayra:

We first met three years ago at a gathering of photographers in Mexico where you were presenting a brief –but no less valuable– video. We met again in Chihuahua where you accompanied me to the dusty sweatshops of Ciudad Juárez, for which I am also grateful. To a degree I feel responsible and almost (dare I say?) a accomplice for having encouraged you to come and photograph the Cerro de Petare.

Here I am poring over the images to be included in your upcoming book on Petare, edited by Carsten and Luna, and I can´t help adding a couple of considerations of my own.

We know full well that ever since its invention and the physicist Arago´s words in its favor, photography has functioned as a precision instrument for recording reality, as well as an extremely useful tool for validating evidence at the scene of a crime.

Later –notwithstanding Baudelaire– other associations were incorporated into photographic images: everything from significant, interpretative and creative elements through to investigative ventures into suggestive artistry, etc., etc.

We know too, from quite a while back, that your theme of photography & misery has often been taken up by populist photographers, amateurs and jaded artisans, few of whom are original and many, more often than not, are akin to old crooked fools concerned to God alone knows what...

Mayra, I look at your photos and I am taken back to other Thursdays, other times and other situations that are somehow related to this very real place with its crimes of the here and now.

It was half a century ago when a painter, sculptor and superb draftsman, a countryman of yours, while sketching out a portrait next to the broken-down doorway of a hovel in the poor Caracas slum of San Agustín del Sur, turned to me and said: ... I like misery because it´s very plastic.

San Agustín was not so ravaged back then, nor was Petare, as they both are now.

Interviews and articles have been published over recent years by different selfdescribed humanists and also by a friend of mine, an architect and historian, who waxes poetic about our city and the slum districts –ranchos or favelas– call them what you will, that encircle Caracas.

Our friend in question says that the Petare slum, this Pyramid of ours, is one of the marvels of the city, and that its people understand the lie of the land and know how to take maximum advantage of it when they usurp it and squat on it. He asserts that its haphazard urban landscaping gives form to a kind of military fortress where all vital functions (I can only imagine he´s referring to life and death) take place within its walls (yes, it´s true, the Pérez de León Hospital was left out of the fortress blueprints...) and where a whole system of jutting and diving terraces clings to the pyramid-shaped hill. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum...

Back in the 70s –although this senseless tattle was doing the rounds even before then and is still unquestionably and unbelievably alive– there was a sort of war of the classes, a clash of trends going on, with bad photography, which limited itself to portraying and recording human misery, the horrors of war, the ignominy and shame of injustice, etc., versus those sublime images we were supposed to gaze upon in awe and aesthetic rapture; massive photogenic blow-ups on gallery and museum walls, where photography was said to be at last recovering and settling comfortably back into its primeval purpose, the hunt for a democratic ideal of beauty. It was all about contrasting the dispossessed or the cartridge belts of Tina Modotti with Weston´s cauliflower. Unsurprisingly, both genres were to end up in the selfsame grab bag of agents, markets and auctions.

Nowadays, space is readily available for broadcasting and marketing even the most soul-destroying images of the human condition ... oh, and their purpose is not to jolt our conscience, by the way.

For some time now, efforts have been afoot to somehow beautify misery by using Benetton-esque colors and stuffing with panties and brassières our modern-day insults and offences against nature; insults and offences hurled by what Elio Vittorini defined as a lost genere umano perduto in his Conversazione in Sicilia, legitimizing such cosmetics as aesthetic research or interactive communication.

Looking now at your photographs of Cerro de Petare, as you took to calling it after you arrived, I am struck by the impression that they would be timeless were it not for the odd graffiti or populist campaign poster; that the only evidence of their existence is to be found in the gouged-out lines of geopolitics, the third world and underdevelopment. It would seem to be the same panorama wherever you go, from Africa and its neighbors to the favelas of Bahía de Todos los Santos in Brazil.

They have the same wilted look about them; the same secretions and wounds; the same filthy marks of apartheid, segregation and marginal abandon; the political, the economic and the sexual discrimination; the same old grindingly familiar panorama of underdevelopment.

For all of the above, my dear Mayra, I give thanks to your honest photographs, because your small and precise book helps me to better understand this world around me and this Caracas ever more laden with human misery. I can better understand the slum Petare, this Pyramid of ours, gazing down on us, watching us steadily with its streets and its houses, which are not so immaculate as the blinding white architecture of the Greek isles; not so photogenic.

A mother spits at us: "around here they murder us every night, there´s no life to be had". As little life as there is in the final few pictures of your book, where a seventeen-year-old boy is found slaughtered with seven bullet wounds. Meanwhile the gang members jolt down the hill carrying the coffin of their dead comrade-in-arms (because the gangsters are forbidden from holding wakes for their own dead within the fortress), chanting the Colombian vallenato song…

The ways of life are not like I reckoned,
not like I imagined, not like I thought they´d be …
The ways of life are so difficult to travel …
They´re difficult to walk on and I can´t find no way out.
When I was a boy everything was different,
I thought things´d be easy - like they were back then


These are just some of the thoughts that flew through my mind when I saw your photographs your good photographs, dear Mayra.

They, these images, must therefore be made welcome - for theirs is true witness.


Paolo Gasparini
A rainy December 2007

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