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Recording Injustice in Chiapas : Gertrude Blom’s remarkable photos give evidence of the roots of the strife

Virtually all of the photographers whose work is displayed in the Armand Hammer Museum’s exhibit “Mexico Through Foreign Eyes"--among them some of the great names in the history of photography--went to Mexico just to visit. One who went to stay is the extraordinary Swedish photographer Gertrude Blom, who devoted half a century to documenting the beauty and defending the rights of the Lacandon Indians of Chiapas.

Blom, who died last December at 93, never considered herself a professional photographer, but there is no more haunting photograph in this exhibit than her 1959 portrait of Lacandon men standing traumatized on a tract of newly cleared land.

The Lacandon, whom she met in the early 1940s when they were thriving in a still-virgin rain forest, have lost their home and their identity to the world’s appetite for mahogany and beef.

Blom, an activist as well as a photographer, fought to save the forest and the Lacandon people alike from the loggers and the ranchers. But 1 million clear-cut acres later, when she was 82 years old, she told an interviewer: “I was a fighter all my life, but that’s a sad story. The Nazis came; then we tried to avoid the war and the war came. I fought for the Lacandones and the forest, and that’s lost too.”

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The violent uprising by the indigenous people of Chiapas against the Mexican government last January, still a mystery to U.S. observers despite the best efforts of the press, has everything to do with that loss; and for deep background on the revolt, Blom--the founder of Na-Bolom, a Lacandon study center in San Bartolome de las Casas--deserves rediscovery.

The Hammer Museum has performed a service by including her in its exhibit. Its bookstore has performed another by laying in a supply of available books on the exhibited photographers: Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz and Karl Lumholtz, among others.

Also on hand: “Gertrude Blom Bearing Witness” (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), which includes a selection of her photographs as well as a bibliography of her writings.


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