Foreigners in a Foreign Land
Arguiñe Escandón and Yann Gross travel to Peru in search of connections to nature.
By Emmanuel Iduma
In summer 2016, Arguiñe Escandón sent Yann Gross, a Swiss photographer who often works in the Amazon, a postcard with a photograph by Charles Kroehle. It was one of many pictures the German photographer made while documenting Peru between 1888 and 1891. Escandón, a Spaniard and a photographer herself, added a friendly warning: “I hope you won’t end up like him.”
Although much is known about Georg Hübner, the German ethnographer and photographer with whom Kroehle traveled in eastern Peru, Kroehle’s fate has been open to speculation—some say he disappeared after he was shot with a poisonous arrow in the rain forest. As Escandón and Gross considered their predecessors’ earlier photographs, they saw an opportunity to make collaborative work. Almost a century and a half later, they traveled in Peru with the legend of Kroehle as a kind of anti–field guide.
While Hübner and Kroehle intended to produce a visual documentation of Indigenous Peoples and to send back prints for sale, Escandón and Gross were not as unquestioning of the implications of being foreign and the ties between power and representation. “We didn’t want to bring back trophies, but tried to understand a bit more, even if the result was that we realized that we were totally ignorant,” Gross said. “It was a good lesson in humility.”
They traveled along the Pachitea, Ucayali, and Nanay Rivers, living among the Ashaninka, Shipibo-Conibo, and Cocama peoples, who must fight for the guarantee and acceleration of communal land titling, based on their rights of self-determination, and for alternative development plans that respect existing ecosystems. Escandón and Gross are rightly ambivalent about Kroehle and Hübner, who were complicit in more than one form of colonial exploitation, working with rubber barons, fur traders, and gold diggers.
The question for Peru, then as now, is how it might reckon with the pressures of global capitalism while addressing the fact that its resources are taken from Indigenous Peoples, whose claim to the territory is several thousand years old. The scale of the Peruvian Amazon—comprising 60 percent of the country, while occupied by only 5 percent of its population—makes parts of it prone to be allotted to companies engaged in mining, oil exploration, and hydroelectric megaprojects. “A concept is needed,” Gross said, mindful of the impact of climate change and decreased biodiversity, and the worldviews of the peoples he and Escandón spent time with, “where you are part of an ecosystem and in balance. It’s to be face to face with other elements and not above it—a concept of equality, more relational than hierarchical.”
If, as the artists have noted, Gross’s earlier photographs from the Amazon were documentary in nature and Escandón’s were invested in psychology, their collaboration, Tamamuri (2018–ongoing), has produced a mix of both enthusiasms. The photographs they have returned with so far—whether a portrait or a detail of marshland, whether varnished with light silver or delicate blue—convey the intricacy and totality of an ecological surround.
Escandón and Gross are as foreign as their predecessors. Yet work of this kind, invested in sensation instead of a romantic representation of an unfamiliar culture, is an inward rather than outward exploration—an intrepid adventure that nevertheless rejects the logic of the explorer as discoverer. Their photographs mark a process of participation. Foremost on their minds was the possibility that they could find a through line connecting self and environment, image and history.
Emmanuel Iduma, a critic and novelist, is the author, most recently, of A Stranger’s Pose (2018).