An eye of one’s own

A heavily contested bi-annual event is showcasing the creative talent that exits throughout Latin America: POY Latam.

Photo of the Year 2011 Latin America
A successful entry from the 2011 POY Latam, title: Yanet Acu?a arrives home, after a birthday concert. She carries the decorations she was able to rescue. [Max Cabello]

Forget about GDP. You know a society is doing well when it is generating artists. The last decade of economic growth and poverty reduction across Latin America has spread from social policies to the arts. Photography is booming. Latin America’s Pictures of the Year Latin America, POY Latam, is taking place this April 2013, and the level of participation has surpassed all expectations. As the largest documentary photography contest in the region, it gives a bird’s-eye view of what is happening in the continent. It also reveals a new generation of photojournalists, vanguard and irreverent, who is moving away from traditional references to gain an eye of their own.

POY Latam 2013

POY Latam is the largest documentary photography contest in Latin America. Aimed at celebrating “excellence in photojournalism, multimedia and photographic books,” it is held every two-years in a different country. The first contest took place in 2011 in the city of Quito, Ecuador. The second contest will be judged from April 7-12 in Fortaleza, Brazil, hosted by the University of Ceará. Participation soared from 700 photographers (and 17 000 images) in 2011 to over 1 400 this year. Large countries like Brazil and Mexico are massively represented, but smaller nations like Haiti and El Salvador also have photographers competing.

The idea of creating POY Latam came from Pablo Corral Vega, Director of Nuestra Mirada, and Loup Langton, Director of the School of Communication at the University of Western Kentucky, who regretted that Latin America lacked a good photojournalism contest of its own. Existing international venues, like Pictures of the Year (POY), the oldest existing photojournalism contest in the world, received mostly work by US and European artists. So instead of inventing a brand new contest, the two co-founders decided to create a Latin American version of POY. Their main goal was to raise the level of photojournalism in Latin America, give photographers international exposure, and generate a regional network.

The event has inherited the know-how and structures of its forefather POY. The selection process is completely transparent. Like POY, judges deliberations are streamed live. The world can thus follow the process of selecting the best pictures as it unfolds, accompanying step by step how debates determine the pick of the crop. 

Although it is a regional contest, POY Latam has global undertones. It is open to photographers who from all Ibero-American countries, which includes Spain and Portugal. This year’s international jury includes Cristina Garcia Rodero (Spain), Mary Ellen Mark (USA), Pascal Maitre (France), Nair Benedicto (Brazil), Luis Weinstein (Chile) and Santiago Harker (Colombia). The institutional support is internationally diverse too, ranging from the University of Ceará to Tempo de Imagen (Brazil) and the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Journalism (Colombia).

Latin America’s new photojournalism   

Latin American photography is too broad to be defined in generalising terms. There are, however, some common tendencies across the region. Pablo Corral Vega, POY Latam Ecuadorian co-founder, believes contemporary photojournalism in the region is breaking away from traditional ways of looking. A first trend is the disregard for the usual separation between art and journalism. Documentary photography makes visible what urgent issues affect society, yet a young generation is reinventing how images tell the world- and what photojournalism is all about. Moving freely between journalism and aesthetic photography, they blur conventional borders between art and news. 

In such processes, beauty becomes an intrinsic tool to tell the worse violence affecting the region. Fernando Brito’s photography is iconic of this trend. His photographs documenting violence in Mexico approach death through aesthetics. Looking from afar, he frames cadavers in idyllic landscapes at sunset, expressing angst with subtlety in romantic compositions. The corpses become a type of still life, and poetry comes in to tell the horrors that journalism fails to describe. 

A second characteristic of Latin American’s new documentary photography is that it is highly emotional. Images are not to be descriptive but to evoke sensations, moving beyond the mere informational realm. As it distances itself from conventional journalism, it becomes more powerful than the traditionally objective eye. Gihan Tubbeh won the 2011 POY Latam with his gloomy portrayal of Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, and his photographic essay “Night of Grace,” about a child with autism, comes straight from the guts, instinctive and impassioned. 

Photographers disregard conventional practices, Brito by moving out instead of getting closer to his subject and Tubbeh by favouring an emotional insight over objectivity. This new generation of photographers has also brought forward alternative forms of professional organising. Photo collectives are an emerging trend, in vogue from Brazil to Argentina, with entities like CIA de foto, Garapa, La ONG, and Cooperativa Sub. These collectives treat social themes in refreshing, aesthetic ways, willing to use technology to manipulate photos and unafraid of passionate perspectives. Supay Foto’s multimedia on the Amazon reveals this new way of engaging visual documentary.

Decolonizing the image

Perhaps the most significant tendency is that Latin American documentary photography has started looking at itself. Latin American literature is powerful, as are its visual arts. In journalism too the region is finding narratives of its own. 

Despite icons like Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexico) and Martin Chambi (Peru) who stand tall in the global history of photography, Latin American photographers traditionally tended to look northwards instead of dialoguing among themselves. Their references were great photographers from Europe and the US. There is nothing wrong with French photography, except that it corresponds to French reality. As valid as external references may be, they are intrinsically foreign to Latin American reality.

Latin American photojournalism has ceased to see itself as a satellite of the north. This means that it has redirected its gaze inwards. Communication within Latin America, which tended to be difficult, is now strengthening through various social networks, and cheaper technology has democratised photography as a mean. Rather than looking abroad, Latin Americans are looking at neighbours who share similar social realities, and local insights are proving particularly enriching.

One of the positive results of Bolivarian discourses of independence and widespread policies of redistribution has been a recovery of Latin America’s own worth. The desire for political independence has meant a validation of the self. The great references are less and less out there, and increasingly at home. As Latin America gains the confidence to look at itself, it inevitably decolonizes the visual.

Further, this photographic emancipation is demystifying the exoticism that traditionally objectified the region. Foreign photographers often came to Latin America in search of the exotic, pursuing a local, visual form of ‘orientalism.’ The visual mythologies that dressed underneath objectivism are now being debunked at home with the grace of poetry, irreverence, and passionate emotions. Marcos Lopez, for instance, ridicules the eyes of the beholders as he appropriates exoticism photographing the kitsch in “Pop Latino.”

Latin America is forging an eye of one’s own. And hopefully this emancipated eye will help reshape other ways of seeing too, inspiring political practice and social relations. 

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.