Pablo Delano's work on Honduras featured in NYT blog

Click title to see original including Pablo's powerful photos: Showcase: Cultural Tapestry, Under Wraps
January 26, 2010, 12:01 am

Pablo Delano set out in 2007 to compile a portrait of the varied ethnic groups of Honduras. He traveled to villages and cities, weaving a tapestry of multiple cultures, rather than producing tourist-pleasing shots of Mayan natives, frozen in time.

But after this summer’s coup against President Manuel Zelaya, Mr. Delano’s project, too, was frozen. His collaborator and patron in the Honduran government, Darío A. Euraque, was ousted by the new regime. It seemed their project — which challenged long-held stereotypes and presented ethnic groups as living beings rather than as static postcard subjects — had unsettled the government.

“The oligarchs saw these cultures as threatening,” said Mr. Delano, who teaches photography at Trinity College in Hartford. “Their only interest in them was to find ways to exploit them as tourist attractions. It’s the same way people treated so-called ‘native Africans’ 100 years ago, having them set up villages and dancing circles for a paying crowd.”

The impetus for “A Portrait of the Honduran People” came from Dr. Euraque, a history professor at Trinity who became director of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History in 2006. He had examined the influences on the Honduran national identity of groups like the Garifuna, the Pech and the Lenca.

“We were emphasizing living cultures that survived conquest but remained marginalized,” Dr. Euraque said in a telephone interview from Tegucigalpa. “We emphasized the archaeological heritage beyond the Maya, because the Maya in Honduras is actually a very small group.” Under the influence of Maya-driven tourism, he said, even Hondurans think most of the population is descended from the Maya.

To broaden that picture, Dr. Euraque enlisted Mr. Delano and Guillermo Anderson, a musician who has mastered various folk styles. Over two years, they traveled to villages where native languages were facing extinction or where people were struggling to survive after having been pushed to the margins of national consciousness. Their goal was to produce an illustrated book that would be distributed throughout Honduras.

Mr. Delano was a natural for the project. He documented immigrants in “Images of Washington Heights.” More recently, he published “In Trinidad.” The Honduras project particularly appealed to him, he said, because he had tired of the usual photojournalistic portrayals.

“I find it very sad to look at the work of photographers who have come from outside Honduras and focused on issues like gang violence or prostitution,” Mr. Delano said. “They are skilled and have done good work, but there is so much more to Honduras than that. Honduras may be desperately poor, and at times oppressively sad, yet I found so much beauty there, too; so-called ‘ordinary people’ with dignity and resilience.”

You could say he was born into the family business — his father was Jack Delano, one of Roy E. Stryker’s photographers at the Farm Security Administration.

“There are these ties to traditions in photography to the point that it’s kind of scary,” Mr. Delano said. “I look at some of these pictures I took in Honduras, and compositionally they are almost identical to some of the pictures my father took in Puerto Rico and the United States.”

The younger Mr. Delano’s experience in Honduras felt like a throwback to the bad old days in more ways than that. While at a beachfront restaurant, he witnessed tourists from Tegucigalpa demand that two Garifuna boys dance for them.

“Their attitude was stunning,” Mr. Delano said. “It was like the American South in the 1950s. They were teasing these boys, telling them to dance.”

The boys, he said, refused.

“Then one of these guys just smacked them,” he said. “Smacked them!”

The project was about two-thirds complete last summer when “the coup put it on ice,” Mr. Delano said. The minister of culture, Dr. Euraque’s boss, had to flee the country. By September, Dr. Euraque was himself pushed out, after he refused to house a military reserve unit in the National Archives building, over which he had jurisdiction. Among the charges brought against him was that he was paying insufficient attention to the Mayan ruins at Copán.

“So now they will go back to promoting tourism to the Mayan world,” Dr. Euraque said. “Our project has come to a halt.”

But it has found a second — if incomplete — life through Mr. Delano’s efforts, since he retained ownership of his work. Late last year, there was an exhibit in Hartford. A catalog of that show, with an introduction by the novelist Francisco Goldman, has been circulating in Honduras, too.

“The project was uprooted,” Dr. Euraque said. “But it’s still moving around the world. It’s getting out.”