Peru is a land of enormous cultural and geographical diversity. For photographer Michael Robinson Chávez, the South American, Andean country has proven to be a great muse: during each of his many visits he has been surprised, overwhelmed and even frustrated. Over a number of decades, he has created an impressive portrait of the land and its people, which he sees as a kind of visual diary, and which offers a unique glimpse into the soul of the Peruvian folk.
You were in Peru regularly over many years. Approximately how many pictures did you take in all that time?
Yes, I took a great many trips to Peru. How many pictures? I am not even sure! There were certainly less in the years when I was taking photographs on film, but to be sure there were hundreds of rolls between 1993 and 2000. I worked most intensely in 1996 and 1997 when I was there for months at a time. On digital the frame count inevitably goes up, no matter how disciplined I try to be to not let that happen!
How does the selection process actually unfold?
The selection process has been a long one. Over the years your photography changes the way you see things. That applies to editing as well. You may go through your contact sheets and be drawn to an image you took 20 years ago that wouldn’t have perked your interest back then. There have been multiple editing sessions to get the work to where it is now. I’m currently editing to create a book, so I’m hopeful to discover some gems I overlooked before.
Which photographers or artists have influenced your work and your approach to photography?
My influences are too many to name here! Many are Latin American greats: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, Sebastiao Salgado, and Martin Chambi, among others. Then there are the beautiful moments of Cartier Bresson, the eloquence of Josef Koudelka and the great blending of journalism, documentary, and art of Eugene Richards. Gilles Peress and Costa Manos were instrumental in changing the way I think of composing images. Many of my contemporaries are doing phenomenal work: Rena Effendi, Moises Saman, Ron Haviv, Johis Alarcon, Hector Emanuel, Evgenia Arbugaeva… just too many to name. I get a lot of inspiration from visits to museums to see works by Edgar Degas, Edward Hopper, and Barkley Hendrix.
How do you manage to capture the diversity of Peru in your images? Do you have a particular approach?
I don’t have a particular approach to Peru. In fact, freewheeling it was the whole point. It was a place to go and take photographs, unencumbered by assignments, deadlines, and expectations. In later years I had assignments in Peru, but I tried to apply the same method to taking photographs. The country is so powerful and astonishing that you just let it happen around you and try to choose the moments. That’s one of the reasons I love it there.
What role does the emotional connection to a place play in your photography?
My emotional connection to Peru is more powerful than anywhere else in the world; even more so than the United States where I’ve lived most of my life. Peru was where I got in touch with the Latino side of my family. On my first trip there as an adult I walked into a room with 50 people, most that I had never met before, and I was related to all of them. It was glorious. There was a lot of food, beer, laughter and joy that evening. It is always wonderful to go back; so yes, for me the emotion there runs much higher than in the rest of the world.
Can you share a key experience or story that has left a lasting impression on your photographic journey?
Wow, there are so many stories. Many of them have left an impression. There was my initial arrival in Peru as an adult, in 1988. The country was enveloped in chaos, a brutal civil war was raging in the mountains, the economy was in free fall, and I remember landing in Lima with eyes like searchlights. It was astonishing, the chaos, the noise, smells, and faces. I loved it. It shook me out of my Los Angeles suburb banality. I was hooked from day one.
For what reason did you choose analogue photography?
Haha, I had no other choice except analogue! Many of these photographs were taken before digital even existed. I used a M6 and M4 for most of the frames with 35mm and 50mm 1.4 Summilux lenses. And a bag of Tri-X film. In later years I switched over to a Q and Q2.
What advantages do you see in using Leica cameras in your travels and projects, and what role did the Leica M6 and M4 play in your personal photographic development process?
Leica rangefinders changed everything for me photographically. Certainly, the way I saw and composed. And patience. I had always wanted a Leica and once I got a real job at The Boston Globe, I could finally afford one. Up to that point I had been taking photographs with an SLR. The Leica Ms opened a new world: zone focusing, seeing what was coming in and out of my frames, a quiet unobtrusive camera that drew less attention… it was a complete and welcome shift. Layering became a big part of my photography, especially when I had the aperture set to 11 and 16. It was hard to go back to SLRs after that experience.
What advice would you give young photographers inspired by your passion and experience?
Young photographers are in a challenging environment. Photo manipulation and misinformation have always been with us, but they are entering more dangerous ground with AI and post-production technology. I would say, be true to the work and find a topic, place, people that you are genuinely drawn to and have a deep interest in getting to know better. It will come across in your images. Also, learn the art of photo editing, which is not an easy task to master. Or find a great editor! It can really help you focus your vision and find the gaps in your body of work. Most importantly, get out there and take photographs!
Michael Robinson Chávez, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for The Washington Post, became seduced by photography after borrowing a camera for a trip to Peru. A native Californian and half Peruvian, he worked previously with the Associated Press, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. He has covered assignments in over 75 countries, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the collapse of Venezuela, the Egyptian revolution, gold mining in Peru and the 2006 Hezbollah/Israeli war. He is a three-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Photojournalism and was named Photographer of the Year by PX3 Photographie Paris in 2023, and Pictures of the Year International in 2020. He is an iWitness Fellow and teaches for Leica Akademies and Foundry Photojournalism Workshops. His work has been exhibited worldwide. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.