American, b. 1974
La Cordillera Colquepunko, Peru, from the series Snow Star, 2004, pigment print
Like alpine mountains worldwide, the Andes have experienced severe glacial recession with dramatic consequences for an important Peruvian celebration and ritual, called Qoyllur Rit’i (Snow Star). Eirik Johnson and Martin Chambi have photographed this centuries-old pilgrimage, which reflects a mixture of Catholic and pre-Columbian beliefs about regeneration. In juxtaposition, these photographs make clear the dramatic loss of ice on the slopes of Mount Colquepunku.
Martin Chambi, Pilgrim at Qoyllur Rit’i, 1930s, black-and-white photograph
Chambi, the first indigenous photographer to document life in his own country, captured the annual festivities in the 1930s. In Pilgrim at Qoyllur Rit’i, he interprets a contemplative moment during the pageantry. From a rocky promontory, a man surveys the gathering that attracts thousands of people. After climbing to altitudes of more than 16,000 feet (4876.8 m), participants continuously sing and dance to ensure well-being and prosperity.
In La Cordillera Colquepunku, Johnson presents an expansive alpine panorama, the sublime backdrop to the human activities in the Sinakara Valley. The pilgrims are now mere specks within the mountain sanctuary grounds. In the distance, snaking lines of people define a path to the glaciers.
A selected group of young male dancers, called ukukus, trek to the glacier to retrieve pieces of ice, which symbolize health and fertility. An essential component of the ritual, the ice is believed to possess magical healing powers. The Andean glaciers, shrinking since the mid-1970s, have retreated approximately 600 feet (182 m) in the last twenty years. The ritual collecting of ice has now been abandoned. By photographing the spiritual life of the Andean people, Chambi and Johnson call attention to the importance of glaciers and the cultural implications of climate change.