Macduff Everton spent the last 40 years photographing generations of Maya families in the Yucatán Peninsula. He documented their culture, listened to their stories, and developed lasting relationships. Beginning at age 19, the work has shaped his life, and while among many other successes, this project is his most spectacular achievement.
After his first two decades photographing the Maya, he published the first book, and now, another 20 years later, he’s published the second, The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán.
We asked Corbis contributor, Macduff Everton, to share more about his experience.
CORBIS: In four decades you watched the Maya culture evolve; how did you capture those delicate changes in still frames?
MACDUFF EVERTON: When I first arrived in Yucatán, there were few roads, villages didn’t have electricity or potable water. I could read accounts of Precolumbian life and see many similarities including ceremonies. Yucatán had long been separate from the rest of Mexico both culturally and geographically. Swamps and jungle cut off the peninsula and made it feel as isolated as an island. The primary way to reach Yucatán had been by boat and in the twentieth century, for those that could afford it, by airplane. Yucatán was connected to Mexico by rail only in 1950 and by a paved highway only in 1961.
What did that mean in terms of visuals? People had to walk to get to villages and, without roads and automobiles, streets in villages revealed foot traffic and maybe bicycle tracks. People could hang out in the streets. Without potable water, all the women, and some men, especially bachelors and boys, had to go to the neighborhood wells to draw water everyday. Villagers used these times to also exchange news. Some people also rode horses, and horses might be turned out to graze without worry that a vehicle would hit it. Without electricity, people entertained themselves, got together and visited each other. Village fiestas and the arrival of the circus were huge events in the annual village cycle. People went to bed earlier and birthrates were high. Roads, electrification, and potable water changed this. People didn’t gather around the well. Families started watching television, which changed social habits. With electricity people could stay up later and not everyone in the family went to bed at the same time. I remember going to the market at 6 am, and then it started opening at 8 or 9. When I first arrived, it was cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy new ones. Men wore blue denim pants, blue denim shirts, sandals, and palm-leaf sombreros. Most carried a rifle or a shotgun along with a machete, and they handled them as tools rather than weapons. Maya women dressed in huipiles – commodious garments in the form of a billowing T, brightened by an embroidered bouquet of flowers and designs across the bodice and hem. Cheap synthetics changed that. The huipil looked elegant on Maya women, and synthetic dresses looked ill fitting and cheap. Men started wearing T-shirts and baseball caps and cheap pants. Regional styles disappeared.
NAFTA put nearly 3 million Mexican farmers out of work. For the Maya, who had an agrarian culture, this had a devastating effect — so much of the knowledge that is in their culture is connected to the way they farm. When they stop farming, they lose the understanding of their relationship with the land that’s built into their farming system. If the young people of one generation aren’t learning in the field with their parents, that information is lost. Farmers in southern Mexico are maintaining the genetic diversity of corn by growing hundreds of different varieties. If they stop growing them, the world is in danger of losing these varieties. Then there are the Evangelical sects who forbid their members from participating in most community activities in which the entire village had taken part. And tourism became the major industry, transforming the Caribbean coastline into some of the most valuable real estate in Mexico. Now the Maya are the masons who build the hotels and the maids, gardeners, janitors, bellboys, drivers, bartenders, and waiters and waitresses who serve the more than 10 million tourists who arrive each year to explore the Yucatán Peninsula, visit its archaeological sites, and relax on the white sand beaches along the Riviera Maya. When the men went off to work on the coast, with only women, children and older people living in some of the interior towns. All the men were working in Cancún. Other towns became nearly ghost towns.
Some of this I could photograph but much of these changes I needed to discuss in the text – even extended captions wouldn’t adequately cover the material. That is why I wrote the text.
CORBIS: How do the Maya respond to being photographed, and how did that influence your approach?
MACDUFF EVERTON: Cameras and photographs are ubiquitous in U.S. culture, and often snapshots define our memories. It’s hard to think of a world without a Kodak moment, but that’s exactly what I ran into when I first started photographing in Yucatán. No one in a village had a camera, so the few photographs that people possessed commemorated special events such as weddings and baptisms. Villagers went to the nearest city that had a photo studio. They stood at attention in front of the camera in their best clothes, stiff as soldiers, with nary a smile or twinkle. No one owned snapshots. We had no common background to explain the documentary work that I wanted to do. They’d never seen the “Day in a Life” photo essays that Life magazine had made famous. The idea of making a photographic recording of their lives didn’t make sense to them on several levels. Not only had they not seen anything like this among their family and friends, but they also had never seen Maya appear in movies, commercials, or advertisements. When I went around with my camera, at first they treated me like the village idiot: tolerated, indulged, and humored. But being the village idiot was a great entrée into village life in many ways, because no one considered me a threat. So they let me photograph them. Everything changed when I came back and gave them photos. Over the years my friends became increasingly sophisticated in their critical appreciation of photography and began to understand what I was doing. They started to suggest photos. They would invite me to photograph not only ceremonies or special occasions, but also daily occurrences. For my part, I learned that they were uncomfortable with silhouettes of themselves, or with any photograph that made their skin color appear dark, so I tried to give them lighter prints.
I first photographed Fernando Puc Che in 1971. Several years later, in 1976, his mother died and was buried. In 1980, according to local custom, his family dug up her bones, freeing the cemetery plot for another burial–a common enough practice in areas of very rocky soil. The bones were put into a small white box to be kept in his father’s house. That evening there was a rezo, a service and celebration in remembrance of his mother, accompanied by ritual drinking. About 3 A.M. Nado (Fernando) and I were finishing off an umpteenth bottle of rum. He had been reluctant to let me photograph him years before. But as we drank in the jungle darkness outside of the house, he told me, “Macduff, you are one sumbitch.” He passed me the bottle, and I waited to hear what he would say.
“Today we dug up my mother,” he continued, “and my children don’t even remember her. But because of you, because of the photographs you took of me, my children–and their children, and their children’s children–will know who I am, and what my life was like.” He reached for the rum, took a swallow, and raised the bottle in a toast. “You’ve made me immortal. People will remember me.”
When I first came down, it might be a year or two before they saw a photograph. Now with digital, I can be in a village and then drive to a town that has photography shop, or a COSTCO, and have 5×7 prints printed in an hour – and return and give them the images. It is a lot different.
CORBIS: Why did you choose to shoot The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán in black and white?
MACDUFF EVERTON: Color can be so seductive and beautiful that the content can become secondary, and I didn’t want that. When I started this project, B&W was the color of social documentary work. Also, technically, in 1967, color film speeds were ASA 50-64. Tri-X was ASA 400. Going from village houses out into the jungle or farm, it was really nice to have the flexibility of a faster film and hand holding the camera.
I worked on National Geographic’s Maya story in 1973-1974 so I carried two cameras – one with B&W film, the other with color for National Geographic. The truth is that often I would have two cameras with color film if I felt the material was more for the Geographic story (it was easier not having to change lenses), but when I was working with my friends, I had B&W in one camera.
CORBIS: How did the Maya families respond when they got to flip through the pages of the book, and see their lives documented?
MACDUFF EVERTON: When my wife Mary and I were just down handing out copies to our friends, it was bittersweet. We would turn a page, and they’d point to a photograph and say, well, so-and-so died three weeks ago, and then turn the next page, and I’d find out that another friend had died in January. The problem with visiting friends you’ve known for a long time is that you see yourself getting old through them– they hold up a mirror.
I’m trying to get a Spanish edition of the book. Although Mayan is their first language, a Spanish language version would be great. They would like to read the book because it is their story. Bringing down one copy of the book isn’t enough either. Some of my friends have great-grandchildren now, and I keep getting asked, don Macduff, can you bring me a book — it’s my family album too.
I’m thinking of publishing it with the imprint of the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo – the Maya intercultural university, and profits from selling the book would go to the Maya. I’m going to try KickStarter.
CORBIS: You began this project at 19, a very young man, and worked on it for four decades; how did the project influence your own growth?
MACDUFF EVERTON: This project has shaped my life. I never planned on working with the Maya. I’d come to Mexico at nineteen on my way to South America to record archaeological sites and make ethnographic studies for an educational film company that had provided me a huge itinerary and a minuscule budget. They’d offered me the job because I knew how to travel cheaply, having worked my way around the world when I’d left home at seventeen. I’d picked up a camera in Europe and sold my first photo stories when I reached Japan. I was learning photography by doing it every day. I was also learning to become an ethnographer while becoming a photographer. Because I’d seen devotees worshipping at ancient living temples in India, Ceylon, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, I could visualize the American archaeological sites as active temples.
When I returned to the states, I had culture shock. You don’t hear about that much now, with MTV and KFC’s and McDonald’s nearly everywhere, but it was very much a condition then. So I’d go to the library and look at books — This is Japan, or This is India, for example, but the books didn’t speak to me about the countries that I’d visited. They were more about composition and design and the people were objects rather than individuals with a story. So I wanted to do a definitive book about a place. My first choice was Ceylon, Burma, or Nepal, places that were beautiful, had a lot of history, and where I’d really enjoyed the people. Magical places.
Then I came to Yucatán. Although I was just learning Spanish, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, even as my first impression of Yucatán was that I didn’t like the flatness and the forest felt claustrophobic. But Yucatán entered my dreams and my imagination. Even though I was a stranger, the Maya invited me into their homes and made me comfortable and welcome. I felt that Yucatán’s real treasure was its people. I decided that I wanted to work on a book project portraying the living Maya. Most history chronicles the famous, but my book is about the lives of ordinary people who are the soul of their culture. “Facts that go unreported do not exist,” writes the Italian reporter Tiziano Terzani. “If no one is there to see, to write, to take a photograph, it is as if these facts have never occurred, this suffering has no importance, no place in history. Because history exists only if someone relates it.”
My friends opened up their lives to me and let me live with them. In exchange I promised that I would document their lives. I thought I would finish the project within a year. The longer I was in Yucatán, the more I discovered that I had so much more to learn and to witness, and my friends kept suggesting more to photograph. After five years, I went to NYC to show editors the images, and some were interested but wanted to know if I worked with a shaman who took drugs — they were looking for a book that might sell like the very popular don Juan series that Carlos Castaneda had written purportedly about a Yaqui peyote eating shaman. When I told them that drugs weren’t a feature of my reportage, they wanted to know if they were involved in a war so that there might be battlefield images, or at least dead bodies. When I also answered in the negative, they asked about sex.
It was hard to get funding for an extended project, so I found it easier to work for periods, and then return to Yucatán. I had more time than money. I took seasonal jobs. I was a muleskinner and horse wrangler and ended up running a pack station out of the Golden Trout Wilderness in the Sierras and then I worked as a whitewater river guide. I had to pay attention to weather living in the backcountry and it really honed my skill at predicting whether I might have good light and clouds.
In 1991 University of New Mexico Press published twenty years of my documentation but so much happened after publication – NAFTA, the Evangelicals, Cancún, narcotraficantes — that I had to keep working. I had promised that I would document my friends lives, and they were changing dramatically. There aren’t many documentaries of the same people that extend over such a period of time.
I hadn’t gone to college and at one point someone mentioned to me that no one would take my work seriously if I didn’t have a degree, so I thought, if that is all that it takes, I’ll go. While I was getting my MFA at UCSB, I met Ulrich Keller, the photo historian, and he worked hard for the publication of the University of New Mexico book and museum shows across the country.
I’m probably better known for my panoramic fine art and editorial work than for my B&W documentary images but I bought my first panoramic camera so that I could better try to give a sense of place in Yucatán, especially the archaeological sites.
This project has certainly affected my family. For years I was a single father raising a son who, besides joining a regional family traveling circus in Yucatán with me when he was six, also became a wrangler and whitewater guide. I’ve brought my wife and stepdaughter to Yucatán to meet my friends. I spent many a night in the darkroom or working on the text and that they all still have an affection for Yucatán is a testament to the graciousness and hospitality of my friends.
CORBIS: What do you hope your photos of the Maya civilization reveal?
MACDUFF EVERTON: The Maya were a culture that blossomed in Mesoamerica, a cultural-geographic area that extends from northern Mexico into Central America as far south as Costa Rica. The Maya could read and write using hieroglyphs, had books, charted the universe and the movement of the planets (especially Venus), used a complex and accurate calendar, built pyramids, and domesticated corn, beans, chili, tomatoes, cacao, and squash, among other crops. Few civilizations have lasted as long as the Maya–their world flourished for more than three thousand years.
So often when we talk about other cultures, it is so abstract, and they are seen as “the other”. I hope that my images and text reveal real people whose hopes and dreams are often similar to our own.
CORBIS: What is one characteristic of the Maya culture that you wish was inherent in everyone?
MACDUFF EVERTON: Their love of puns.
On another note, I discovered that there is no ‘nature’ in Mayan. They have to borrow the Spanish word naturaleza. Traditionally the Maya don’t see it as a threatening presence to be dominated or destroyed. Their cultural and natural world are the same, so that there isn’t a dichotomy between the two as there is in the Western world. They don’t make such distinctions.
See more of Macduff Everton’s photographs at Corbis