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Photography exhibit documents culture of Ecuadorian province

By Daffodil Altan
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 26, 1999
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Judy Blankenship was a photographer with a dream.

After working for six years as a popular educator and photographer in Costa Rica with a Canadian development agency, she decided to actualize her vision.

She wanted to be the local photographer in a small village, documenting marriages, baptisms, funerals and other events. But Blankenship wanted the photographs to be for her subjects, so that they could have a record of their own cultural history.

The result of several difficult years in formalizing her dream are now on display on the second floor of the Memorial Student Union in the photographic series "The Canari of Southern Ecuador."

"Most native people of Ecuador have a serious aversion to cameras," Blankenship writes. "Past experience has taught them that outsiders who approach them with cameras - foreign aid workers, missionaries, journalists and tourists - are looking for photos of people living in 'picturesque' poverty ... to show people how 'charming' the local people are, still living like their ancestors."

So, upon her arrival in Ecuador, Blankenship encountered a fair amount of resistance. But her break came when she volunteered to work on a research project in Canar, a province high in the Andes Mountains.

There she became acquainted with the Canari, the indigenous people of the Canar whose history dates back over 3000 years.

The Canaris were "experts in medicine," wrote Isidoro Quinde, the director of the National Institute of Indigenous Technology (INTI) and one of the collaborators on Blankenship's project.

"We practiced cranial and other types of surgery thousands of years ago and knew the use of anesthetics and disinfectants," Quinde writes. However, the disintegration of the Canari that began 500 years ago with the Incas and then progressed with the conquests of the Spanish, still continues today.

Despite Spanish influence, "we who identify as indigenous people maintain our customs and heritage with much honor," said Quinde.

It was this identification that Blankenship wanted to document. "Through books of photographs of North American Indians, I tried to convince them of the value of documenting one's own culture, of making photographs as a historic record," Blankenship said.

And, indeed, what emerges in Blankenship's photographs is not a romanticized rendering of impoverished indigenous life, but a chronicle of histories. Each photograph is accompanied by a brief detailing of the subjects of their lives or about the particular photograph.

Whether it is a formal portrait of a married couple or of a young woman addressing her environmental and educational concerns, Blankenship's photographs give the viewer a concrete sense of the Canari, of the daily events of their lives and of the parallels found among universal concerns.

UA graduate student David Stone writes, "I have come back several times to study the photos and to ponder Mercedes Majencela's words: 'In the future we will not be able to live without education.'"

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