When friends tell you they just visited Peru, it’s easy to picture an exotic country full of unique places: sacred Machu Picchu, mysterious home of the Incas, voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World; the Incan city of Cusco, captured and rebuilt by the Spanish; mythological Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America at 12,500 feet above sea level; and the Nazca Lines, gigantic geoglyphs carved into the desert sand by a pre-Incan people around the year 600, viewable only from an airplane. These are the famous romantic attractions of the amazing land of Peru.
But there is another, darker, side to the country. Out of its 30 million inhabitants today, about 8 million live in extreme poverty, even though that number is a significant improvement over 15 years ago, when about half the population lived in poverty.
Peru is a land of enormous contrasts between breathtaking beauty and incredible bleakness. It is the home of Paco Chuquiure (pronounced chew-cure-ay), an up-and-coming South American documentary photographer who is drawn to using the camera to spotlight the hard truths about his country. He has little interest in shooting Peru’s tourist attractions or the country’s impressive Andes Mountains; nor is his camera attracted to colorful Amazonian jungle landscapes. Rather, he has long found fascination in documenting Peru’s “marginalized people,” the poorest of the poor who eke out their livelihoods in the dusty and gritty city of Lima, managing to survive despite having almost nothing.
Chuquiure devoted 10 years of his life — unpaid — to a project that captured his heart. In two phases between 2006 and 2016 he traveled several days each week to the outskirts of Lima to visit a community of crude dwellings that are literally built on a trash heap. The inhabitants simply “took over” a former dump in the early 2000s in what is called an “invasion.” This is the euphemism Peruvians use to describe the technically illegal land grab of empty space in many areas of the country (similar to homesteading in the days of America’s Wild West). Invasions have become so common in Peru in past decades that the government has been forced to allow them — sort of. A law on the books in Peru essentially states that if someone occupies empty land for 10 years, they can petition to own it and build a house on it. Hundreds of communities in Peru have been built this way, especially around Lima, as millions of poor people fled the rural countryside seeking work and better lives in the nation’s capital.
Chuquiure was drawn to this community, which is called by its citizens — affectionately, but paradoxically — Oasis. Beginning as a kind of “uninvited guest,” he eventually befriended the families, and they him. In the first five-year period of the project, he shot their weddings and celebrations, documenting how the poor can create happiness in the midst of immeasurable desolation. In the next five-year phase, he captured the chaos that occurs when as many as 5,000 poor people try to live without basic services, on a small stretch of land — broken families, teenage mothers and conflict. What drove Chuquiure to spend 10 years photographing the downtrodden of this invasion community? Perhaps, like many documentary photographers, the roots of his empathy for the marginalized extend back to his earliest years.