The hard taming of the Mapocho

The river Mapocho is, along with the imposing cordillera of the Andes, the most characteristic geographical feature of the city of Santiago. As usually happens with rivers that cross big cities, the gaze of creators from different genres has come to rest repeatedly on its turbulent waters. One can trace its presence, either in a starring role or as supporting actor, in many significant works of literature, music and visual arts.

This river possesses a symbolic nature of wide resonance. Its name recalls the past of the city which the Spanish Conquerors strategically founded on its banks in the XVI century. In evoking its torrents, a variety of different materials come up to the surface: from very bitter memories, like floating dead bodies, to entertaining stories like the recurrent project to make it navigable, in the image of the Thames or the Seine, and which by extension, one might think, would transform Santiago into a European capital

In 1997 Mauricio Quezada decided to make a study of the Mapocho river for his final project to obtain the qualification as a photographic journalist from the School of Photography ALPES. Among his most direct influences was the account by Sergio Larrain of the homeless children living along its banks; pictures which were taken for the Hogar de Cristo, which Mauricio had access to after a chance meeting with the ex-girlfriend of the Chilean member of Magnun Photos.

Shortly afterwards, in one of the ironies of fate, some of Quezada’s photographs were wrongly credited to Larraín himself, on the occasion of their full-page publication in a prestigious Chilean cultural Sunday supplement.

With this background, and with the sole intention of focusing on a river much-maligned by the citizens of Santiago in their everyday conversations, Mauricio set off to do his job. Using the narrative techniques and strategies of classical documentary photography, the photographer focused on the indifferent gazes upon the river of the passers-by, on the humble inhabitants of its banks, on the workers who make a living by extracting sand and stones from the river bed, on the disturbing presence of the seagulls, on blurred edges of a socially fragmented city that, nonetheless, remains united by this vibrant ribbon of water.

On each incursion into the Mapocho, the river behaved like an inert element that allowed itself to be photographed and transformed into clean insolently brilliant monochrome images. Now and then, nevertheless, the occasional warning sign of a latent threat would appear; threats from the dark side of the river – historic refuge of murderers and thieves who escape to its banks after doing their misdeeds in the heart of the metropolis to share out their booty like true fresh water pirates.

One day in the summer of 1998 brought Mauricio an experience of extraordinary intensity by the Mapocho. It was hot and a group of children were swimming happily in its waters, at the foot of “Hill 18”. A group of them were playing with a raft. The scene, reproduced here in a double page spread, was something like a possible interpretation of Eden in Santiago; an extraordinarily happy scene, flooded with light, which manages to escape cleanly from the platitudes that maintain that swimming in a river whose waters are so cold and dirty is not recommended. The photographs have an almost audible intensity: One can hear the revelry of the children and the splashing of the water. Everything seems to suggest that Mauricio has shared the experience with the group, that they have conversed and laughed together. The scene appears flooded with energy.

In the following scene, the river awakes in a rage. Three of the youths that have been observing this placid scene of this contemplative photographer decide to attack. They confront him and block his way violently. Mauricio observes, aware that his work, the collection of images, is about to be engulfed by the current, just as the river has done so many times to the city. With extraordinarily reckless calm, the photographer confronts the adolescents, camera in hand and takes, despite the obvious risk, a photo of the trio that, with sticks and stones, is demanding he hand over his Nikon. “Hand it over” they warn him. Overcome by the situation and fearing dire consequences, Mauricio gives in to the threat and relinquishes his equipment.

What follows has all the rhythm of cinematic narrative. Stripped of his professional tools, fruit of privation and sacrifice, Mauricio decides to recover his camera and charges at the youth who took his prized possession. He catches up with him and, after a struggle in which he is injured, recovers the bag and is obliged to retreat under a hail of stones to the only safe haven in this threatening panorama: the river.

The waters of the Mapocho receive Mauricio like a baptismal font. The photographer tries, with difficulty to cross to the other bank holding his possessions above his head in an attempt to save them. But the river, which at this point is like a wild beast that resists being tamed, does not want to admit defeat and everything ends up sodden, ruined by the raging torrent.

Soon afterwards, feeling calmer, still shocked by what he has just experienced and while bitterly contemplating the wreckage, he rescues and processes the film with the photos of that fateful day. The result is a dramatic document. The images, included in this book, show the scratches of the water, like war wounds, and the physical marks of the sands of the Mapocho, which appear like bullet holes in the positive prints. The river, which until this point had been recorded by the optical mediation of the photographic process, has left its own direct imprint on the surface of the film.

The images, which bear the wounds of the river’s claws upon their emulsion, are graphic proof of the river’s resistance to attempts to dominate it and reduce it to a hygienic cultural product. They are also testimony to the iron will of a narrator who is trapped and becomes a victim of that which he relates. They also provoke the gratifying sensations found in the best documentary photography, that life has made its presence felt and a hidden truth has finally been revealed to us.

Miguel Ángel Felipe Fidalgo / La Marea,  junio de 2008

Translated by Richard Orton and Tessa Estévez