THE TOWN THAT TIME FORGOT
Over the last century life has been changing at a dizzying pace. Not so, however, in the small Tyrolean colony of Pozuzo nestled and long-forgotten in the Peruvian rainforest.
In 1859 Peruvian President Ramon Castilla came up with a scheme to populate the rainforest with European immigrants in order to exploit the local resources to the benefit of the Peruvian economy. Funds were lacking, and then Castilla’s government fell, so that the few settlers who had made the arduous journey from their homes in Prussia and Austria were abandoned to their own resources deep in the rainforest.
Isolated from the rest of Peru, time practically stood still in Pozuzo as the inhabitants preserved their traditional lifestyle and customs until 1976, when the only road to connect them to modernity was completed. Even today, due to the region’s weather and geography, the town is still severed from the rest of the country for several months due to the precarious conditions of the road during the rainy season.
Imagista contacted Peruvian photographer Eduardo Hirose at his home in Lima to discover how he came to capture this fascinating tale of the town that time forgot.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you first hear about Pozuzo?
Around 1995 I read about Pozuzo in a local magazine. I remember I was fascinated both by the article and the photographs that accompanied it. I had no idea that there was a European colony in the Peruvian jungle. For us, Peruvians, that is exotic.
Why did you decide to photograph life there? Was it a personal project or a paid assignment?
The first time I went to Pozuzo was in 1997 after a long trip through the Sierra and Amazonia. Pozuzo was the last stop, so, having almost no money left, I could only stay for two days. Nonetheless I vowed to return one day.
In 1999, we celebrated the 100 year anniversary of Japanese immigration to Peru. Remember, Peru has the second largest Japanese population outside of Japan (Brasil has the largest). I became very interested in doing a project about cultural identity. You see, those of us who are of Asian descent are not viewed as Peruvian. That same year I went to Japan for six months, and I discovered that there we are not seen as Japanese either.
Though I wanted to, I wasn’t able to stay in Japan, and I decided to return to Peru, but now with a clear idea about doing this Pozuzo project. So the following March (2000), I packed up all my gear and made my first trip. Having just returned from Japan, I didn’t have a good job or much money in the bank, so my budget for the project was very limited. Fortunately, being resourceful I was able to survive for a month on about $100 (US), which would just cover my room and meals.
What kind of camera did you use?
My main camera was a Hasselblad, but I also carried a 35mm and a couple of small point-and-shoot cameras. Unfortunately, in 2006 all my equipment was stolen in Lima, so for my last trip in 2008 I took along a new 4×5 camera, as well as my first basic digital SLR camera.
Did you shoot by yourself or did you have an assistant with you?
For some reason I can´t work with an assistant, so I carry all my own gear. However I now have problems with my back because of it.
Did you also develop the film and make the prints yourself?
Always. For me it is very important to realize the entire process from beginning to end.
Were the villagers open to being photographed? Or was it difficult to gain their trust?
At the beginning it was hard. In 2000, Pozuzo wasn´t used to receiving any tourists and suddenly there I was this long-haired stranger.
On top of that, the first trip was during the presidential elections. In Peru, especially outside of Lima, the political climate can be very tense at the best of times, so you can imagine what it is like during elections. I didn´t want to be mistaken as a press photographer, so I spent a few days just walking around the village without my camera. Then, I spent a couple more carrying the camera, but not shooting anything. One day I got lucky and met someone from Lima who had been living in Pozuzo for several years; and they were kind enough to introduce me to many of the people you see in the photos.
Often the people I met were very difficult to converse with, especially some of the older people and those who lived further away from the town proper. Remember, the town was totally isolated until 1976, and even after that, almost nobody visited it. But times have changed. Pozuzo is now very well-known, very touristic—they even have a big Oktoberfest! However, back in those early days I think we had a lot in common and the fact that we both felt like outsiders helped us to connect.
What is the story behind that rather iconic shot of the wedding party?
I would stay in Pozuzo for about one month at a time, so I would have to calculate the number of rolls of film that I would need. I used a medium format camera and as you know one roll only has 12 frames, so for one month I would need about 60 rolls.
In July 2000, I had an opportunity to see the local festival celebrating the immigration to Pozuzo from Europe, so I was using a lot of film. I still had a few rolls left, when I met a photographer I knew at the festival and he kindly gave me a couple extra rolls.
I heard that there was going to be a wedding a few days after I had intended to leave. But as I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, I decided to extend my stay and tried to save what little money I had left by going without breakfast or dinner, in the hope that I could survive until the day of the wedding. Of course, I also had to conserve what little film I had left, so I was shooting as little as possible. Even then, by the time the wedding came all that I had left were those two rolls that my friend had given me. So I had to make each of those 24 shots count!
How many years did you spend going back and forth to create the series?
Well, my first trip was in 2000, as I mentioned, and the last one was in 2003. During that time, there was a photographer from Oxapampa, which is the last village before Pozuzo, and he occasionally would go to Pozuzo to photograph special events such as birthdays, political ceremonies, festivals and the like. I often noticed him, but we never met or said hello. Every year, during the rainy season, the road that connects the two towns is closed due to landslides. I don’t remember which trip it was, but during one stay I noticed that he wasn’t around. When I asked about him, I was told that sadly he had perished in a landslide. And I realized that somehow I had become the new village photographer.
Did the life of the villagers change over the years?
Life there has changed a lot since my first visit. In 1997 there wasn’t even a telephone in the town, only a shortwave radio. Messages were relayed by voice, and often it was like that game “broken telephone” where one passes a message from one person to the next and the last one gets a message completely different from what was actually said. In 2000, a few families had a telephone but there still wasn’t any internet. In 2008 I actually went back to continue the series and document how life had changed. And my how they had changed! I took along my 4×5 camera but this time the villagers just laughed at me for having an “old camera,” when they even had cameras on their mobile phones. Now they have digital cameras and share photos on Facebook like everyone else, so I suppose they don’t need a photographer like me anymore.
Photographer: Edi Hirose
Writer: Michael Tweed