Paz Errázuriz: the subversive potential of photography

Eleanor Pitcher 27 January 2019
Image credit: Nacho Rojas, for ED Magazine

Quinta Normal’s Museo del Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago, Chile is temporarily home to Ropa Americana, an exhibition in which Paz Errázuriz embarks upon her first work in fashion photography. Errázuriz is a renowned Chilean photographer who is best known for using her photography as a subversive tool of political defiance, recording the lives of marginalised people and communities during the Pinochet dictatorship.

The name of the shoot, American Clothes, is inspired by a phenomenon under Pinochet whereby American clothes were brought to Chile and resold for a lower price. Western fashion became more affordable for lower class members of society, thus clothing was able to become a more accessible form of self-expression. This became the concept behind the whole collection: With the clothes made by the models themselves, the shoot conveys that clothing is an available and pioneering tool to help construct individual identity. Clothing is transformed into political instruments, as they are utilised by the models to challenge society’s heteronormative stereotypes. The statement Errázuriz makes is especially significant in Chile because only a couple of decades ago, the country was heavily weighed down by authoritarianism and severe breaches of human rights. The collection, therefore, is portrayed as granting people with the power to trespass into previously untrodden territory in Chile, and serves to widen the debate surrounding clothing as being a potentially combative form of self-expression.

Divided into three themes, ‘Gender Fluidity’, ‘Accessories’, and ‘the Street’, the collection seeks to create a discussion surrounding gender identity and the process of finding a place in society. The exhibit consists of 30 photographs of 20 models, all of whom identify as non-binary, as Errázuriz seeks to undermine the conventional standard that a bio-mujer, or a stereotypically ‘feminine’ woman, should represent the subject in fashion photography. The clothes and accessories chosen by the models are either second-hand or hand-made, showing how fashion does not need to be luxurious, but more importantly should be creative and resourceful, and serve as a means of making a statement.

Image credit: Paz Errázuriz

“I was always interested in exploring identity, especially in the context of a homogenised society. Through looking at the identities of others, I began to discover my own” – Paz Errázuriz

The stark contrast of the model’s colourful, wacky garments against the grey and oppressive backdrops of cemeteries and hospitals, is an exhibition of the models’ endeavour to forge a place for themselves in a still conservative society, where remnants of a brutal and unaccepting dictatorship loom. Yet the contrasts do not seem forced; the models are at ease in their clothes, suggesting that the clothes represent an extension of their identities. In the photo on the left, the figures on the model’s dress are not clearly gendered. I also noticed that the designer used both blue and pink as make-up on the figures, which are colours that conventionally allude to the gender of a child. The dress therefore is exceptionally thought-provoking, because to me it is a political statement which undermines prescribed gender norms.

Errázuriz famously develops personal relationships with her subjects. Her shoots seem to resemble ethnographic studies, as she enters their communities and lives with them for prolonged periods of time. I am sure that the models do not simply represent an aesthetic display of rebellion, but instead, each photo contains the enduring stories of accomplished artists and impressive individuals. There is a profound humanity to this collection: it is entirely organic, and represents a natural disengagement with reactionary, binary approaches to viewing gender.

Paz Errázuriz depicts how clothes form part of the complex maze en route to constructing one’s identity, and represent an empowering tool for people who have been stuck in the margins of a conservative society. Her epochal approach to self-expression through clothing is what Chile needs and deserves after years of liberal repression. Through Ropa Americana, Errázuriz seeks to overturn traditionalist and antiquated ideas, allowing the spectator to observe the insurgent potential of photography.