The Distance in Between

While flipping through the pages of the book Fotografie Lateinamerika edited by Erika Billeter, I stumbled on the portrait of Chief Casimiro Biguá from the tribe of the Tehuelches (Patagonia, Argentina), made by the Italian photographer Benito Panunzi in the year of 1865.

Among the typical photographs of indigenous people made by that time by European travelers and anthropologists, — and when I mean typical, I mean men, women and children carefully staged either in their familiar surroundings, a neutral background or a painted backdrop, posing and looking straight into the camera — this particular photograph stood out from the rest.

The chief Casimiro Biguá stands in front of a neutral gray background. The head shot and its title may have had no other goal than to show and say: the one portrayed here is the chief Casimiro Biguá of the Tehuelches. And so it does. But the photographer also made the decision of including the right hand of Biguá, which he presses over the left side of his chest. It was precisely this partly shown hand at the bottom of the picture that made me stop on my quick look at the book and look at this picture closely and carefully.  

Casimiro Biguá is looking at an indefinite point in the distance. His hair and the band he is wearing around his head look a little bit messy as if he just had been called to be photographed. At the first glimpse I see resignation and sadness on his face. I see a man who had no choice but to accept to do what this foreign man with his camera asked him to do. But then, I also see his hand and I get an idea of his possible posture in front of the camera. I see his hand, his eyes and his mouth and to me this man no longer appears to be resigned but self-assured, sad but full of pride and certainty in spite of —or because of— the situation in which he is involved.

But, how can a partly shown hand change the way I read this photograph?

On the picture, the hand of Biguá resting on his chest builds a barrier that makes me take a step back and look again. I don’t get to see Biguá directly, I cannot access directly to him without being aware of that element that separates us.
His gesture creates a distance between us, but most of all separates him from the photographer who is studying him with the camera. I realize, that it is the awareness of the boundary Biguá marks between him and the photographer and not the one that I perceive as a random observer of this picture what makes me look at this photograph in a different way.

I continue to read about this picture in Billeter’s book and I find that she also alludes to the distance the hand of Biguá evokes. However in her interpretation she focuses on the late effect it may have on the observer. By including this gesture, following Billeter, Panunzi  delivered for the first time a non exotic portrayal of an indigenous by making his own interpretation of the genre of portrait.

Including the hand of Biguá on the picture was with no doubt a decision made by the photographer. Nevertheless it remains open to interpret the distance it evokes and that what makes this picture, according to Billeter, non exotic.

Indeed, the partly shown hand included on this portrait gives us the chance to see and know more about the portrayed situation. However, I may say that, if this picture is a non exotic portrayal, then this is more because of the possibility it opens to be interpreted as such than it is because of itself. Then, after all, Panunzi was studying the tribe of the Tehuelches using the classic anthropological research methods and tools of that time that carried out the colonial enterprise and which included: the examination, classification and domination of people that were “different” or “exotic” to the Europeans.

Looking at the picture, I see Biguá standing in front of a photographer, who is collecting information for his study. By acknowledging Biguá’s gesture while being photographed, I no longer see the picture of Biguá or his non exotic portrayal made by the photographer, but I see him standing in front of the eyes that see him through the lens of a camera. I see him staring at a certain point in the distance, I see both resignation and pride. I see his hand on his chest. I perceive his awareness of the distance between the two worlds that collide in that moment. Looking at his eyes, mouth and hand pressing over his chest, I see him saying to the photographer: you may have my picture, but you haven’t understood anything.

Billeter, E. (1994). Fotografie Lateinamerika1860 – 1993. (German edition).Warbern-Bern: Benteli-Werd Verlags AG.