Coral dresses herself, item by item, in the corridor of the La Carlina brothel in Santiago, Chile, apparently unconcerned with who is watching her. The sequence of images shows a meticulous, assertive diva. All she had to do was to rest her left hand on her hip while standing at the brothel door for the sensuality of her body to be revealed, the same body which, wearing a knitted sweater and a beret, could suggest something opposite – the presence of a man of the people. In front of the camera, Coral transformed into what she wanted. And it is with difficulty that the eyes of the observer can turn themselves away from her defying features, as portrayed with delicate mastery by the Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz.
Between 1983 and 1987, Errázuriz, accompanied by the writer Claudia Donoso, recorded the daily routine of transvestites, like Coral, in the brothels of Santiago and Talca. She captured the fascination in every transfiguration, the challenge of identities submerged in a brutal police state, the small, cell-like cubicles they inhabited instead of bedrooms, where every- thing had its place, from the pin-up calendar to vibrant makeup, the dream objects on the bed. To a stranger, being there was risky, including death, as that way of living remained completely forbidden for others to see. Errázuriz, however, never waited for an authorization to work. What she did – recording the extraordinary characters who were confined to the brothels while running risks – can be considered a revolution, as she immortalized an aspect of humanity which seemed to die in the Chile of those days.
Intolerance to homosexuality, in particular to transvestites in brothels, was prevalent in the country while the authoritarian regime that killed and tortured those who opposed it lasted from 1973 to 1989. Authoritarianism permeated everything, but Errázuriz decided to resist the situation. To live in Chile during those repressive times meant committing to herself and to society. Taking a political position, as she says. “I am happy that I remained in Chile during the dictatorship. It was not easy but, on the other hand, the organization of my work and my way of living was in my own hands. This helped me clear my mind and gave me the courage to do what I did, as a citizen and an artist.”
She first photographed women in the La Palmera brothel in Santiago. However, they did not allow her to publish the photographs, fearing reprisals on their families. It was in 1981, in this brothel, that she met Evelyn, who belonged to a group of transvestites, allowed to work alongside women. Paz decided to seek them out, as someone who sympathized with the extreme oppression. Coral, as well as Evelyn, Pilar, Deborah, Mirabel, Andrea or Macarena, revealed their sorrows and their smiles to her, which the artist took as her own.
Errázuriz turned photography into an exercise in empathy. “Sharing moments of these people’s lives was a privilege, following them so closely allowed me to be part of their lives.” As a primary school teacher who obtained her teaching certificate in 1966 from the Cambridge Institute, England, when she was only 22 years old, and graduated in 1972 from the Catholic University of Chile, Errázuriz found herself excluded from her profession. “After the military coup, I was forced to leave the schools where I taught. This moment, paradoxically, brought me freedom, as I was then able to devote myself to photography. I learned from friends how to use the dark room and I dedicated myself to earning a living, taking portraits of children and families.” That was when she had her second son. And in 1974 she published what is considered today to be one of the first Latin American photobooks, Amalia, with texts and photographs for children.
Photography was her way of facing the darkness. “Curfews were part of everyday life, and I had to spend a lot of time at home with my children. The military coup meant, for us, constant fear and horrors. Many friends had to leave the country or were persecuted. At that time, we had a pet hen which moved around freely around the house, so I made a story about it. The writer Isabel Allende, who ran a children’s publishing house, asked me to write the story as well. That is how Amalia came about, a little children’s tale about our hen, a proper story with a beginning and an end.”
As she worked on the book, Errázuriz showed her images to Bob Borowicz, a family friend and one of the few photographers working in Chile at that time. “He told me that a housewife could never be a photographer. And that was how I started.” So she began going out onto the streets of Santiago and taking photographs when the curfew was relaxed. In 1981, she became the co-founder of the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI), an important organization of professional photographers, especially photojournalists, who covered protests and political events during the dictatorship. “I decided, from that moment on, to become a professional photographer. I had my first exhibition that year, part of it had the title The Sleepers, and it was about people who slept on the streets throughout the city. I saw Santiago as a sleeping city, one that did not react to the military. The rest of the exhibition was of photographs of patients in a psychiatric hospital.”
To be taken in by transvestites working in a brothel seemed to be another step in the direction of professional commitment. The brothels were prohibited and actively suppressed by the dictatorship. But Errázuriz decided to ignore the ban. What the oppressors called minorities were, in her view, part of the vast majority. She would go to where the transvestites were, in a way cloistered, to hear their stories, but she did not put them inwriting. The author Claudia Donoso was responsible for the words. Errázuriz did not have the freedom to photograph what happened at night. The clients would hardly allow that. In any case, she was much more interested in the transvestites’ transformation, in the light of day, than in the relationship they had with those who paid for their sexual services.
The photos, however, were not taken immediately. The photographer replaced them, in the beginning, for chats, in order to get closer to them, to get to know them, and win their trust before photographing them. She chatted, ate, and smoked with them. It was only towards the end of that period, between 1986 and 1987, that she was awarded a grant by the Guggenheim Foundation which allowed her to organize the material which she had slowly produced over the years. “I never think my projects will be finished. Perhaps because they are only mine, none of them are paid for in advance. I focus on resolving the difficulties I experience at the beginning by myself. That is what happened with The Heart Attack of the Soul (1992), which became a beautiful book about love in a psychiatric hospital, with a text by Diamela Eltit, and which is already in its fourth edition. I never showed that work in public, but I once exhibited the photographs inside the Putaendo Hospital, where I worked.” Errázuriz is now Chile’s best-known photographer, and has won important prizes, such as the Ansel Adams Award, by the North American Chilean Cultural Institute in 1995, and the Artistic Career Award of the Chilean Art Critics Circle, given in 2005. In 2015, her work was selected for the 56th Venice Biennale. Her works are always founded on her respect for her characters. “The subject I photograph is the person who allows me to be a photographer,” explains Paz. “And sometimes they allow me to steal a little of their soul, as they say.”
The photographer herself can be glimpsed in the images she takes. Her silences, sometimes her shock, her natural goodness, her contained gestures, and the elegance that is close to serenity are all just as present in people she portraits. She speaks quietly and little, but a restlessness is to be seen in her lively eyes and in the way she nods her head when the person speaking to her brings up a new subject. Errázuriz lives what she sees. “Photography allows me to become closer to others. It is a master key to establishing a specific relation- ship which will have a determined effect. A careful and respectful relationship, as, in some way, I claim it to be my own that which I find in the other.” If this is the case today, at 73 years old, it cannot have been different when she started working on Adam’s Apple (La Manzana de Adán, in Spanish; it’s a reference both to the male Adam’s Apple that the transvestites couldn’t hide, even with heavy makeup, and to the district housing the brothels, as manzana can be translated as either “apple” or “city block”). Her book with photographs of the project was the first and last one produced by the publisher Zona, in 1990. The spectacular portrait of life on the margins of society was boycotted by all the bookstores in Chile. Published a year after the end of the military regime, it sold, in fact, just a single copy. It was only in 2014 that it became available again, in a bilingual edition published by the Fundación AMA in Chile, with the inclusion of previously unpublished texts and original colored photographs.
Errázuriz understands that Adam’s Apple is a self-portrait. “Photographing others is a silent dialog. It is at this point that I feel portrayed.” The book was warmly praised by the American writer Susan Sontag during a trip that Errázuriz made to New York, before its launch. “This meeting was incredibly important to me. Imagine that! I showed her the photographs and some of the text. She thought that the book should not have any text, just photographs… I didn’t agree with this opinion. I was working with Claudia Donoso, who was responsible for the texts, which I could not look after myself. Susan was also interested in the project in which I photographed boxers.”
The Coexistence and the portrait
Errázuriz does not believe that the photographic portrait is essentially an artistic pursuit, even though her portrayals of subjects like Coral are profound and even electrifying. Coral is the only surviving member of the group and they still talk regularly, while Coral undergoes treatment for HIV, having given up prostitution. “I do not consider myself a portrait artist, even though most of my photographs are portraits,” she says. “I consider myself a documentary photographer, because, in my own way, I stick to reality. I do not follow models or structures. I have an intuitive liberty to address certain issues. What interests me, above all, is the human being.” She goes on to say: “Coral tells me that she treasured Adam’s Apple, but did not know if she should show it to her parents. Some friends of the people I portrayed ended up asking me to tell their stories too.”
In Adam’s Apple, which does not avoid difficult moments, the prisons, the humiliation that transvestites suffer from the hands of the police, the figures of the dressmaker Mercedes Paredes Sierra and her daughters, Pilar and Evelyn, stand out. Pilar tells of all the difficulties they experienced working in Chile in those days: “The policeman arrive, and don’t ask anyone’s name. They see you in the street and throw you in the back of the police van. They beat us if we are pretty, if we are ugly, because we wear makeup, or because we don’t. They always ask me: ‘Why are you dressing like a woman, idiot, if you have that deep voice?’ They took Nirka because she had breasts. They wanted to take her nipples off. They cut her false eyelashes off with scissors. They aimed a hose at Susuki at 3:00 am in the police station yard. They forced us to give them a show, they stripped Susuki and made her open and close her legs.”
Pilar also speaks of the raids by the military police on the transvestite brothels. Dozens of them would get out of the coach. “That is the moment when we forget our rivalry: it is when we are truly friends. We hold hands, trembling in fear. We pray, begging that nothing happens to us.” The pacos (military police) banged on the locked brothel door until they broke it open. Pilar tells of an occasion when she was violently assaulted, even though the police promised her that nothing would happen. “You can’t win with them. Either you run, get caught and beaten, or they arrest you, saying: ‘Why didn’t you run, you son of a bitch fag?’ They break you. They break down the doors and furniture, destroy wigs, steal your money, sticking their noses in everything. That’s why we live in fear.”
In such circumstances, living with Pilar and Evelyn in the brothel showed courage and unprecedented love. Their mother, Mercedes, de- cided to go and live in the brothel because she had suffered all sorts of persecution in the middle-class districts in which she worked, because of people’s rejection of both the identity and the work of her daughters. Evelyn, extraordinarily beautiful, and Pilar, the happier one, brought a family atmosphere back to the brothel. Like Mercedes, Errázuriz had separated from her husband, the writer Cristián Huneeus. She was living as a single mother when she produced the book. “Mercedes became very important to me,” the photographer says. “I thought her an exceptional mother to be able to live and cope in this extremely tricky situation during all the time of the dictatorship, when her children and friends were persecuted by the military and the police. Friends and fellow workers of Pillar and Evelyn also went to Mercedes’ house and were received as her own children.”
The Paredes Sierra family were close to them. Evelyn, however, faced up to the presence of her mother in the brothel in her own way. “Mum stayed with me and Pilar because she realized that we were transvestites and that we would never marry. She concluded, therefore, that we would never leave her.” Evelyn was often pointed out as someone who kept her distance from the other transvestites, but opened up to Errázuriz’s camera and in her chats with Donoso. “Before, we would receive here another sort of people, some really handsome men,” Evelyn says. “I used to wonder: why do they come here if they are so handsome? The truth is that everyone has their fantasies; no one is completely male. I asked them why they sought us out here, and they said they did this to deceive life. They look at the face of a woman, but know that, behind it, there is a man. They do not want to accept that, in truth, they like men.”
The relationship between the clients and the transvestites in those brothels was also explained by Andrea Polpaico: “It isn’t good working alongside female prostitutes. They laugh at us, and it puts the clients off,” said Andrea. “Of course, a woman is no match for a transvestite, because we have a better idea about what to do in bed. Some men have told me that women do not have any glow. They seek us out because we have more imagination. When I make love, I am totally perverted.” Polpaico’s photographs, along with those taken by Errázuriz inside the La Jaula brothel in Talca, were not included in the first edition of the book. It would have been too expensive to print those happy images, in which the subjects were preparing for the night ahead, dancing, posing, and amusing the clients in the midst of smiles, drinks, or card games, in color. “The reason why I took the colored photographs is simple,” says Paz. “I didn’t have enough black and white film. At the time, it was difficult to obtain photographic material. That color film had been given to us, members of AFI, by foreign photographers who came to Chile to cover the political protests. I had to use flash because of the situation: the small cubicles were poorly illuminated. The brothel was a simple place. In the second edition of the book, I included the color photographs and some more black and white images because I was free to produce a more complete work, with texts such as those by the essayist Juan Pablo Sutherland and a special chronicle by Pedro Lemebel.”
Paz is researching transsexual children for a future project. “I don’t know yet how I will approach the subject, because necessarily I will have to adapt myself to conditions I don’t know or handle well. It is a phase of study and getting closer.” Again, the children say something to her restless soul. Errázuriz’s first camera, an Exakta, came from Germany so that she could photograph her experience in Cambridge, especially the teaching techniques used with children. After the birth of her first daughter, she also wanted to photograph her, along with the other babies in St Mary’s Hospital. However, at that time, her world was that of her husband, who was immersed in academic life and politics, and she gave up on the project.
Her intuition for the future always centered on art, which she had passionately wanted to study in her youth, but from which she was prevented by her father. She began to study philosophy because she thought that studying psychology was not an option for a professional career in the society of at that time in conservative Chile, which did not accept women psychologists. Paz lived under the restrictions which were, little by little, overcome by her, as a sort of constant aim.
This important contemporary observer of the human figure keeps only one photograph from her childhood. Her father had a camera, but only enlarged part of the photographs. “The only photograph of me that he kept was that of my first communion. The image, however, is not complete. It was taken in such a way that my head was cut off above my mouth.” A reason, perhaps, to look for the face that was hers, in others. ///