Vintage box camera portrays Mayan women

AP News
Posted: Aug 16, 2011 3:40 PM
Vintage box camera portrays Mayan women

The women gaze patiently out of the darkness at the camera, their silver necklaces and intricately patterned headscarves giving them a regal air.

Shadows blur faintly around their faces in the black-and-white photographs, and the diffuse glow of the light brings to mind images from an earlier, less-precise age.

Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd made his way to the Guatemalan mountain city of Coban in July to photograph these women vying to become this year's National Indigenous Queen of Guatemala, who is honored for helping keep alive the country's rich Mayan history.

At the same time, Abd was keeping alive another tradition from the other side of the world by using a wooden box camera he had bought in Afghanistan.

The Argentine native is part of a worldwide movement of photographers who are taking up the box camera, which uses 19th-century technology to produce its luminous, instantly nostalgic pictures.

He set up the camera in a municipal meeting hall. One by one, he invited the prospective queens to sit in front of a black backdrop. The women held still for up to two minutes as Abd made exposures with light shining directly from the lens onto photo paper inside the box camera.

He then produced a negative print of the picture by passing the photo paper through developer and fixer sloshing inside the box. He later repeated the process to make a positive print.

The long exposure time drew serene, pensive expressions from the women, making them appear timeless, almost like hieroglyphs on a temple wall.

"You can't make any real big gestures," Abd said. "You are in front of a box camera. You need to be quiet and you need to be frozen."

Jose Sierra Lemus, the organizer of the contest, said the pictures reminded him of vintage images.

"They were very powerful to me," Lemus said. "The idea was to photograph these women in their clothing and to remember them."

The winner of this year's contest, 23-year-old Rosa Lidia Aguare Castro, is from Santa Lucia La Reforma, about four hours' drive from the capital of Guatemala City.

She said she and everyone else there speak the language of K'iche' and make it a point to learn their community's centuries-old dances.

During the contest, Aguare Castro wore a striped wool fabric folded over her hair. Like the others, she danced and explained in both her native language and Spanish how she lived as a 21st-century Mayan.

For a country where about 40 percent of people identify themselves as indigenous, the title of National Indigenous Queen is a major honor, equal to or more prestigious than winning the annual Miss Guatemala crown.

"This is important because in Guatemala, there are a lot of influences that come in from the outside," Aguare Castro said. "This festival protects all the traditional dances and customs that come from Guatemala."

Abd said the Afghan box camera is also under threat from outside influences. When Abd visited Afghanistan in 2006, he saw many street photographers using box cameras to take passport photos and portraits. During a visit four years later, however, Abd noticed that digital cameras had taken over and the vintage equipment had become rare.

Digital cameras had grown cheaper and more popular worldwide during those years, and older cameras fell out of use, Abd said.

Relearning the box camera's more methodical procedures has been a revelation, Abd said.

"I really like the idea of doing these portraits in this way because I'm going back to the idea of photography without iPhones or that sort of modern technology," Abd said. "It's about having this connection with people I'm portraying because they have to be totally quiet and spend some time only with me, looking at me with my camera."