Gertrude Duby Blom first arrived in Chiapas, Mexico in 1940 as a political refugee escaping the war in Europe. Her prior activities as a political activist had landed her in jail in Mussolini’s Italy and in a Nazi prison camp in France at the beginning of the war. Upon her arrival in Chiapas, she was introduced to Ladino and Mayan communities of whom she would spend the rest of her life befriending and documenting.
There have been many books of her work published. Two of note are, Gertrude Blom: Bearing Witness published in 1984 by the University of North Carolina Press and the other is Chiapas Indigena published in 1961 by the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.
In his introduction in Bearing Witness, Alex Harris wrote of Blom: “It is particularly in her photographs of the Lacandones and their jungle environment that Gertude Blom joins the ranks of other great social observers with a camera, like Laura Gilpin, Dorthea Lange, and Eugene Smith, photographers who earned the trust of their subjects, in part, because they cared a great deal for the lives and fates of the people they portrayed.”
Blom didn’t consider herself a photographer. She was an amalgam of part journalist, social activist, explorer, ecologist and anthropologist. The photographs exist as a way of holding onto a primitive culture that was butting up against the advancement of the twentieth century. Working mostly with a 6X6 medium format camera, Blom shows us their daily life and cultural traditions in an intimate way that radiates warmth towards her subjects. She also fought tirelessly to stop the destruction of the surrounding rain forests and her images of the jungle are often the more complexly constructed of all of the work.
For someone who didn’t consider herself a photographer, she produced a lot of photographs that I would argue hold their own next to the likes of Pierre Verger or Martin Chambi. Bearing Witness gives us 104 photographs alongside three essays about Blom and this disappearing community.
The book itself is interesting for the photographs and the anthropological study of the subjects. Its design is decent but the reproductions are surprisingly mediocre considering it was printed by Meridian Gravure Company. I also have seen the paperback edition of this same title and the reproductions were even worse. Beware of this should you want a copy.
The other title, Chaipas Indigena is authored by Gerturde Duby, apparently she took her husband Frans Blom’s name only some of the time (keep this in mind when searching for books). This book was produced in Mexico so all of the text is in Spanish. Again, it is a kind of anthropological study that happens to be illustrated with good photography.
This title is, by most photobook standards, poorly printed but it has a certain charm to the whole production. It has 138 black and white photographs and a few in full color that are saturated to the point of being surreal. The photographs are laid out on the page in a playful manner and many are cropped into various ratios. This seems like more of an element of the book’s design than her usual practice. Although there are a few cropped images in Bearing Witness, there are very few in this book that follow the ratio of her square format camera.
The subject matter is like in Bearing Witness, the indigenous communities around San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas. I find it amazing that she was accepted into these communities with such strong trust. It is even hard for Mexicans to access these communities let alone someone originally from Switzerland.
Another title by a different author, Jonathon Moller’s Our Culture Is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge, and Healing in Guatemala, shares a similar sense of study and activism for Latin American communities in turmoil.
For ten years, Moller, a human rights activist and photographer, documented communities in Guatemala that have been displaced by war. Like Blom, Moller is fully accepted into the communities he is documenting. Using 147 photographs alongside quotes from his subjects, this book serves as a document of historical record and as a monument to the deceased.
It is dense book full of content that covers many bases. On one level, it can be viewed as a history lesson. On another, it can be seen like Blom's as anthropological. Or it seems it could be used to create a legal case to seek justice for the victims. (All of the author’s royalties were donated to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation in Guatemala)
The book is well designed and decently printed and was published in 2004 by Powerhouse Books.
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