Uncovering Suppressed Histories of Corruption and Murder in Latin America

In Peruvian photographer Milagros de la Torre's work, documentation is a tool bound up in the narrative of power.

by Olivia Parkes
Jan 13 2016, 10:00pm

"The lost steps," 1996. Courtesy of the artist and Rolf Art, Argentina.

Born in Lima, Peru, in 1965 and raised during a time marked by military coups, dictatorships, repression, and upheaval, Milagros de la Torre has been working as what some have called a "conceptual photographer" since the early 90s. Her research-based practice presents a relentless investigation of photography as a tool bound up in the history of power, a form in constant conversation with issues of violence, surveillance, and the social construction of identity. She understands our willingness to trust the photograph as well as she understands the camera's ability to lie using all the trappings of objective truth.

Several of the artist's projects originate from her own experiences in countries that have undergone extended periods of censorship or corrosive violence, such as Peru and Mexico. Her process is underpinned by extensive research in archives and libraries; de la Torre works to reveal suppressed histories. The photographer is reflexively aware of the history of the medium, the techniques and ideologies that have accompanied the development of photography. Her seminal project Under the Black Sun (1993) issued from the tradition of making portraits for identity cards: The series of hazy red-lit faces juxtaposes definitions of personal identity with photography's role in establishing typologies and documentation to service surveillance and control. The Lost Steps (1996) employs 19th-century photographic processes to treat images of evidence used in criminal trials during the violent years of the Shining Path, the violent Maoist guerrilla organization, in Peru. The series nods to photography's early use in the service of criminology and forensics while humanizing the isolated objects each picture represents.

The real power of de la Torre's stark images—the bloodied shirt of a journalist, a letter, a straightjacket—derives from the artist's ability to capture what is perishable, fragile, and autonomous, in what has been classified and preserved.

"Under the black sun," 1991-1993. Courtesy of the artist and Toluca Fine Art, Paris

BROADLY: You were raised in Peru in the 70s, a very violent, politically unsettled time in Latin America. What impact has that had on your work?
Milagros de la Torre: The influence one receives while growing up is somehow ingrained in who we become later on. I do recognize some of the impact that growing up in Latin America has had on my work, but it's not a conscious issue while working on the concept or idea for a project.

What made you leave Lima and go to London and Paris?
There was a ticking clock. I was just out of high school and already studying at university, but felt increasingly unhappy within the constraints of Lima's society, its norms and specifically, in education—I knew there had to be better. I looked to the oldest continent for that.

The history of photography is very dominated by the French and English narratives. Do you see a different approach in the Latin American history, in the use and adoption of the medium there?
When photography came to Latin America, there were similar early applications of the medium. We saw the proliferation of the cartes-de-visite, studio portraits—[photography's] utilization to establish the idea of the nation and its individuals.

Tell me about Under the Black Sun, your first personal project.
Under the Black Sun is the first work I did after finishing school in London. I came back to Peru, curious, after having absorbed mostly European and American art history, to learn about my own. The series is based on a rudimentary technique used by street photographers in Cuzco. A part of their work includes the "instant improvement" of their subjects by lightening their skin tones. This comes from the belief, of colonial origin, that fairer skin represents better qualities. My proposal was to utilize this technique but to stop it midway, unresolved, in the negative image stage, with a red-toned veil retouch on the subjects' faces.

Chemical test to identify cocaine chlorhydrate produced in a clandestine laboratory. "The lost steps," 1996. Courtesy of the artist and Rolf Art, Argentina

You use a wide range of photographic techniques. How do you match a photographic process or technique to a subject?
Photography somehow brings up psychological, philosophical concerns, probably because of its intrinsic representational qualities. Most of its mechanics or techniques touch on these concerns, as do certain historical facts, I try to match them with the particular intention of the works. In the 1996 series The Lost Steps, a XIX-C technical lens limitation was proposed; optical photographic lenses didn't yet cover the complete area of the negative, creating a dark aura around the object photographed. I worked with this to present images of supposedly everyday objects—a fork, a skirt, but objects with a dense weight to them—since they were presented as evidence in trials for criminal and terrorist acts, crimes of passion, and other felonies. The objects were from the archives of the judicial system in Lima.

Many of your projects come out of archives. Is historical specificity important to you?
Only if it relates to the project proposal. I've worked with a few institutional archives quite some time ago, but I'm most interested in suggesting notions to the observer; if historical specificity is essential to achieve that, then I will certainly allude to it. There are still details to be discovered.

The viewer takes a step back, a physical or mental distance, while observing the photograph, perhaps coming to the realization that things are not always what they seem to be.

You often isolate and photograph objects in a way that heightens their resonance—in The Lost Steps, for example, which you mentioned. What attracts you to the object as subject?
The Australian scholar Susan Best wrote of that series that the depiction of objects is often symbolic of the still life genre, but a singular focus of an isolated object might be more suggestive of portraiture, as is the case in The Lost Steps. I feel that by observing the objects, we are directed to the individual.

What do you want your work to trigger in a viewer?
Hopefully, a response—that the viewer takes a step back, a physical or mental distance, while observing the photograph, perhaps coming to the realization that things are not always what they seem to be. There is a moment, when looking at a photograph, that something in it—a detail, a recognition, a personal memory, a texture—leads to a shift, to a paradigm generated by what we're observing, inevitably "transporting us" somewhere else, to a concept, feeling, or illusion.

"Bulletproof (Denim)," 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Rolf Art, Argentina

You often work with physical layering. For example, the images in Last Things are covered in wax. Tell me about this impulse and its role in your work.
Again, it's perhaps related to the way we observe, how we "look" critically. There are always layers to be interpreted. It's a bit like looking through a veil. We see differently than when the veil is no longer there. Optimistically, art helps us to "see" differently, helps us contemplate human experience, and as a result, we can make up our minds about it.

One of photography's earliest uses was in codification—in establishing typologies, for instance in criminology. Do you view your work as a kind of "de-codification"?
Indeed, once one has the chance to apply their thoughts, beliefs, their personal history to analyze or de-code a work of art, I believe the better the potential to communicate its intentions—the better off we'll be.

How do you think the role of the photograph and of the camera has changed in the digital age?
I tend to think that we are expressing, transmitting our thoughts, our emotions, more often than not through photographic images, because of the advent of cell phone cameras. Image language is evolving, and that's quite exciting, to be able to examine this swift evolution.

What are you working on now?
New works, citing some other "ways of seeing," reading and reflecting on them. What I've enjoyed recently is teaching, lately at the ICP-Bard MFA program. I appreciate being in contact with younger artists and hearing their opinions. The learning is a two-way channel.