Bill Muirhead came from rural Illinois to the Lake Atitlán region in 2004 with a keen interest in the daily lives, labor, farming practices, and customs of the Maya who live there. His photos record the lives of Lake Atitlán residents from virtually every town in the surrounding area. Following are selected photos and text from his soon to be published book The Lords of Lake Atitlán, which explores eight important themes of Mayan culture lakeside.
The natural splendor of Lake Atitlán and its environs has inspired Aldous Huxley and others to declare it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Yet it is the region’s inhabitants, their custom, color, and ceremony, and their astounding character and correctness which grace Lake Atitlán with a beauty beyond the reach of Becoming. I don’t know if what Huxley said is true. Certainly claims can be made for Lake Como or Lake Geneva. I myself, an Illinois farm boy, remain tied to my own Lake Michigan. But what I think makes his claim irrefutable is the rich cultural diversity of the many villages and hamlets that rim the lake and dot the mountainsides surrounding it. The real beauty and grandeur of Lake Atitlán is its people, the Maya Kaqchiquel, Tzutujil, and, through later migrations and colonizations, the Quiché.
For 4 ½ years, it´s been my honor to photograph the indigenous of the Lake Atitlán region. My focus is small, the Department of Sololá and parts of the Departments of Quiché, Chimaltenango, Sacatepéquez, and Quetzaltenango (Xela). My technique is less photographic than it is social and interpersonal. I never take photos without permission. I always give copies of the photos to my models. I hardly ever ask to take a photo. What normally happens is a person recognizes me by reputation, or already knows me, so asks me, often demands me to take photos of them. As such, I shoot many photos I don`t want to shoot, but I keep my models smiling. I give them the photos they want for their personal and family memories. Later, we meet in the onion fields, the cafetal (coffee plantation), the public market, or a religious procession, and they give me the photos I want.
My models are happy that I remember their names, where they live, in what fields they work, in which markets they sell their produce, and the feast days of their respective towns` patron saints. They appreciate that I arrive at activities important to them when expected to do so; that when they attend events in other towns, I´m there too; that when we meet, I inquire about particular family members and neighbors; and that when I say I`m going to deliver their photos, I always do, almost always late but always. Distributing photos is more important to my avocation than taking them. Keeping people happy, paying respect, working the crowd – these are my skills, ones that place me in a position to take increasingly better shots. When people see their photos, they gain confidence not only in me but in themselves. They see what I see. People allow me to shoot freely because they know just how beautiful I think they are and how rich I think their culture to be.
A 16th century Spanish judge, Alonso de Zorita, penned A Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain to describe daily life and labor in Mexico directly before and after the Spanish Conquest. Since friendship and respect are the keynotes of my photographic style, I´d like to borrow from Zorita. I entitle my work The Lords of Lake Atitlán, to pay homage to my indigenous models and their culture and to acknowledge that they are the natural rulers of the region. Simply put, I like the Maya, and I hope you will like them too.