This description of Héctor López's work was prepared when Héctor López was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
By placing cameras in the hands of some of Chile's most marginalized populations, Héctor López is using "social photography" to document their everyday realities and to identify and confront the social ills which pervade their lives.
The New Idea
A strong believer in the power of the image as an instrument for social change, Héctor has begun to develop a network of "social photographers" in impoverished urban areas in Chile. By providing citizens with free cameras, film, and processing, and by hosting workshops, discussion groups, and exhibitions, Héctor has enabled communities to record their own histories and to communicate them to a broader audience that would otherwise be unaware or apathetic. In so doing, the photographers begin to appreciate the value of their experiences and to become engaged participants in the struggle for social change in Chile. The photographs allow those behind the camera, as well as those viewing the images, to perceive their daily existence with a newfound perspective. The exhibits, in turn, create a new forum for dialogue about issues facing the community, and an opportunity for developing locally-conceived solutions. In addition, Héctor has established an "Image Bank" which serves as a documentation and resource center of social photography. This "Bank"the first of its kind in Chilenot only preserves the images generated by the project, but also allows citizens to use those images for research, dissemination, and the overall advancement of social photography.
Chile's poorer communities, like poor neighborhoods worldwide, suffer from limited community involvement by their residents. Neighbors don't know one another or discuss local issues, let alone collaborate.The larger society doesn't think much about those who have or are falling behind. The self-assurance of being Latin America's economic success story has made the poor more invisible than usual. Ironically the end to the need to unite to oppose unwanted military rulers has also reduced the social concern of most Chileans. Inadequate housing, education, and health care services, among other things, limit the options of Chile's urban and rural poor. Very rarely, however, are the images of povertysuch as shantytowns, or decrepit schools and hospitalsdisplayed outside of the communities that suffer. Until these problems are brought to the forefront of the national conscience, Chile's "tiger" image will persist as an illusion, and the government's commitment to "growth with equity" will remain more rhetoric than fact.
Through photography, Héctor is reinserting ordinary citizens, particularly poor ones, into the democratic process and is challenging the idea that all is well in Chile. In 1994, he founded the Center for Diffusion and Study of Photography as an axis around which to build his social photography project. He begins by placing cameras in the hands of those whose voices are seldom heard by politicians, the media, and other dominant institutions. With cameras and film that are either loaned or donated by local businesses and individuals, Héctor goes into a community and teaches citizens how to "point and click," how to take snapshots which record the details of their daily lives. In most cases, he chooses a community because he has been sought out and invited by community leaders who have heard about his social photography project. In other cases, he enters a community because he perceives a broader social relevance in that particular community's plight. He works in each community for an average of six to eight months. First, he sits down with community membersphotographers and non-photographers alikeand discusses themes to record. For instance, he will hold a workshop with 10 to 15 children and will ask them what the health care system is like in their community. He will ask them if there is a hospital, if there is a pharmacy. He will ask them what happens when an elderly woman is sick, or when a young boy breaks his leg. He will then encourage them to think about the theme visually, to take snapshots of images or scenes that capture some of the questions they discussed. When the photographs have been developed, they will be displayed at a local venue, be it a school library or corner store wall. Follow-up workshops are held to discuss what the photographers saw and what the community as a whole learned from the photographs. Héctor encourages the community to then devise and pursue solutions to the problems presented by the photographs, but he believes that it is not his role to force them to do so. In the case of the health care issue, for instance, community leaders may take the photographs to the Ministry of Health as evidence for the need to build a local hospital. After Héctor leaves a community, the project is continued by specially-trained local photographers and leaders. The themes that the project addresses are many. In 1995, Héctor carried out workshops in the now-defunct mining community of Lota, and with women and children in the población of La Chimba. In Lota, the project amassed some 2000 photos, which were put on display as a mural in the mine itself, and in the labor union. When the mines were shut down in early 1997, the miners marched in protest in Santiago, and used the photos as evidence of what had been stripped away from them by the closing. In 1996, he focused his work on four impoverished urban communities in Santiago, working to confront such issues as domestic violence, pollution, and drug addiction. On the one hand, Héctor is creating an ever-growing network of social photographers whose mission is to document the lives of their community and is providing them with the technical skills (film processing, etc.) which will enable the project to continue once he has moved on. In addition, he has created an "Image Bank" which collects and catalogues the thousands of photographs produced by the project. To date, the Bank holds some 15,000 images. The photographs themselves are the property of the photographers, who allow the Bank to administer them for five years. During that time, the photos can be used for commercial purposes, for instance by journalists who want to support their stories with social photography. The profits are split evenly between the Center and the photographer. The Center also produces a free magazine of social photography, which is financed through advertisements. Six thousand copies are given away through a network of 210 distribution points (bookstores, grocery stores, etc.) and a 200-person mailing list. The magazine's theme varies from issue to issue, and contains articles about social problems accompanied by photographs. Moreover, Héctor recently submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education to make the Center's photo collection available via the Internet and to set up links with other social photography and community organizations around the world. As the network of social photographers in Chile and beyond grows (Héctor was invited to give workshops in 1996 in Brazil, Mexico, and Texas), Héctor plans to continue building relationships with community and citizen organizations, as well as with businesses, government, and other sources of financial and technical support. He hopes that each of the activities he has developed and is spreadingthe workshops, the exhibitions, the Image Bank, the magazinewill help raise awareness of social problems and promote collaborative change from the photographers, their community, and the government and non-government institutions which impact their lives.
Over the past twenty-five years, Héctor has dedicated his life to his two great passions: photography and teaching. After completing his degree in design in 1978, he began working as a commercial photographer, and later as a freelance photojournalist. During his freelance years, he was able to travel a great deal, in both Chile and throughout Latin America and Europe, and witnessed all kinds of suffering, from extreme poverty to environmental degradation to political violence. These experiences opened his eyes to the documentary force and expressive strength of the photographic image. He began work as a photography teacher in 1983. In 1985, he became involved in a three-year project working in a población, or poor community, in Santiago. During this time, he worked to integrate social photography into community life, as a means of expression and communication. Inspired by the photos that came out of this project and the enthusiastic involvement of its participants, Héctor began to refine the workshop methodology that he currently uses and to seek out other communities (and funding sources) that might be interested in experimenting with social photography. His skills as a teacher and photographer, his leadership abilities, his warm personal spirit, and his commitment to social change have helped make Héctor a pioneer of social photography in Chile and beyond.