Twenty color photographs from Paz Errázuriz’s La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple) (1982-87), a photographic series that tenderly documented a community of Chilean trans sex workers in Santiago and Talca living under Augusto Pinochet’s repressive regime, have entered the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Made at a time when those deemed dissident or subversive — a broad swathe of people including gender-nonconforming individuals and left-leaning artists — were murdered, tortured, and “disappeared” in the tens of thousands, the unvarnished photographs celebrate the lives, beauty, and resilience of an oppressed group at Chile’s social peripheries.
Errázuriz, a Santiago-born photographer celebrated for her focused photo-series of marginalized people such as sex workers, amateur boxers, and circus performers, is now in her late seventies. Her emergence as an artist-activist coincided with Pinochet’s rise to power. After the coup d’état that installed Pinochet as head of state in 1973, Errázuriz, a primary school teacher, became a freelance photographer documenting everyday life in the streets of Santiago, even photographing protest groups.
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“Photography let me express things in my own way and participate in the resistance waged by those of us who remained in Chile,” Errázuriz told Miriam Rosen in a 2013 interview. “It was our means of showing that we were there and fighting back… Discovering the street in that way gave us tremendous energy. For me, it was a form of activism.” In response to the violent repression of Chilean photojournalists, in 1981 she cofounded the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI), a group of photographers who supported one another as creators and activists, sharing exhibition venues and legal resources alike.
In the Adam’s Apple series, Errázuriz documented the lives of trans individuals working at three local brothels: La Palmera, La Carlina, and La Jaula. Though she made the photographs as early as 1982, they weren’t exhibited until 1989, a year before Pinochet fell from power. In 1990, she published the series as a photo book with text by journalist Claudia Donoso, who strove to relay the subjects’ own stories as well as her and Errázuriz’s real experiences with them. Errázuriz explained in a 2017 interview that, with the project, she wanted to “portray their lives, in their way” as “more of an accomplice, than a foreigner or an outsider.”
Errázuriz and Donoso became close with their subjects, even living with them. The closeness shows in photographs marked by intimacy and trust. Errázuriz’s camera captures the quotidian lives of sex workers as they snack on grapes, fix their makeup, pose in front of mirrors, take to the dance floor, relax on beds, and hang out with their moms. (She dedicated the photo book to Mercedes, the very present mother of two of Errázuriz’s prime subjects, siblings Evelyn and Pilar.) Sadly, many of the vibrant individuals depicted in the “Adam’s Apple” series died as a result of AIDS-related complications or the extreme violence of Pinochet’s regime, which targeted their communities.
MOCA curator Anna Katz told Hyperallergic: “Made under a brutal military dictatorship and exemplifying the Chilean concept of ‘una estética de los márgenes [an aesthetic of the margins]’, La Manzana de Adán functions as a critical proposition for the photographic medium as a tool of political dissidence.”
The 20 photographs from the series are the first works by Errázuriz, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986, to enter MOCA’s collection. There, Katz said, the series will stand alongside great bodies of social documentary photography by artists including Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Danny Lyon. The new acquisition additionally supports “an area of interest in overlooked and ongoing queer communities and communities of folks of marginalized genders,” also explored in recently acquired photographs of Los Angeles-based artist Reynaldo Rivera.
Photos from the series will go on view at the museum in the coming months, overtaking a gallery as part of the exhibition Our House: Selections from MOCA’s Collection.