The scenic splendor of Lake Atitlán and its environs has inspired Aldous Huxley and others to declare Atitlán the most beautiful lake in the world. However, it is the region’s inhabitants, with their colorful vestment and ceremonial life, which grace Lake Atitlán with its majesty. I don’t know if what Huxley said is true. Certainly claims can be made for Lake Como, Italy or Lake Geneva, Switzerland. I myself, an Illinois farm boy, remain tied to my own Lake Michigan. But, what I think makes his claim irrefutable is the rich cultural diversity of the many villages and hamlets that rim the lake and dot the mountainsides surrounding it. The real beauty and grandeur of Lake Atitlán are its people, the Maya kaqchiquel, tzutujil, and k’iche’.
Since late 2004, it has been my honor to photograph the Maya of the Lake Atitlán region, as well as Maya from much of the Highlands and Southern Coast of Guatemala. My technique is less photographic than it is social and interpersonal. I never take photos without permission and always give copies of the photos to their subjects.
I hardly ever ask to take a photo. What normally happens is a person recognizes me by reputation, or already knows me, so asks me, often demands me to take photos of him or her. As such, I shoot many photos that I don`t want to shoot. However, I keep the subjects of those photos smiling. I give them the photos they want for their personal and family memories. Later, we meet in the onion fields, the cafetal (coffee plantation), the public market, or a religious procession. Then they give me the photos I want.
The people I photograph are happy that I remember their names, where they live, in what fields they work, in which markets they sell their produce, and the feast days of their respective towns’ patron saints. They appreciate that I arrive at activities important to them when expected to do so; that when they attend events in other towns, I´m there too; that when we meet, I inquire about particular family members and neighbors; and that when I say I`m going to deliver their photos, I always do, almost always late but always.
Distributing photos is more important to my avocation than taking them. Keeping people happy, paying respect, working the crowd – these are my skills, ones that place me in a position to take increasingly better shots. When people see their photos, they gain confidence not only in me but in themselves. They see what I see. People allow me to shoot freely because they know just how beautiful I think they are and how rich I think their culture to be.
A 16th-century Spanish judge, Alonso de Zorita, penned A Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain to describe daily life and labor in Mexico directly before and after the Spanish Conquest. I’d like to borrow from Zorita. I entitle my work Lords of Atitlán to pay homage to my indigenous models and their cultures and to acknowledge that they are the natural rulers of the region. Simply put, I admire the Maya and hope you will too.
I wrote this introduction when lordsofatitlan.com went online twelve years ago, in large part to explain the choice of domain name. About four years ago, I took my site down, fed up with the theft of my photos. Now a different class of creative borrowing has come to my attention. A Sardinian photographer applied the name lords of atitlan to a series of his Guatemalan photos, thus confusing Google and people who searched for my website.
I explained my use of the name lords of atitlan in my original introduction above. However, how another person came up with the name independent of me, is beyond me. I have always retained the domain name lordsofatitlan.com. Therefore, I am now republishing my photos under that name to clarify matters and assert ownership anew.
I invite you all to Google images under the words lords of atitlan to view the work of the Sardinian pretender. You will see people covering their faces and ducking from the camera. His approach appears different than mine. To the Sardinian photographer, himself, I likewise invite you to view my photos. And then get out of Dodge.