08 June 2016
08 June 2016 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Thomas Locke Hobbs travelled to the city of Iquitos in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon to photograph an LGBT community highly visible, yet extremely marginalised.
Iquitos, Peru is a city of about half a million people located on the Amazon river. There are no highways connecting it with the rest of Peru and it is only accessible by boat or plane. The city is an island with a culture that stands apart from the rest of the nation. Surrounded on three sides by water, the city itself mostly lacks parks and vegetation, in contrast to the dense jungle just beyond. The LGBT community in Iquitos is very open but also subject to homophobia, transphobia and violence. There is a manifest desire to transcend place and reality via imported and exotic fantasies which takes place against the backdrop of a city in many ways mundane.
Can you talk about your transition from economics to photography?
I was always very interested in photography, both as a viewer and hobbyist. I was vaguely aware that there was this thing called Art School, but for a long time it never occurred to me that photography was an activity that I could take seriously as a practitioner.
I moved to Argentina in 2008 and lived there for four years. I started taking classes at the Centro Cultural Rojas and then private classes known as talleres. I owe a lot to my teachers, Nacho Iasparra, Eduardo Gil, and Alberto Goldenstein, for encouraging me and providing me with informed critical feedback. Eventually I returned to the U.S. to pursue an MFA.
Why did you decide to focus on the Peruvian city of Iquitos, and more specifically the LGBT community there?
As a child I had a fascination with maps and I was aware of this city, Iquitos, that was isolated in the Amazon and accessible only by boat or plane, like an island. I travelled there in 2011 and was immediately struck by the openness and visibility of the LGBT community. That first year I started making portraits and I felt like I was on to something and so I decided to return. One trip led to another and I’ve now been going to Iquitos annually since 2011.
You worked on this project for six years. Can you talk about how you were able to photograph the young gay men in the city? How long were your visits to Iquitos?
I stayed for one or two months each time I visited. All my portraits are set-up. I’ll typically spend a few hours with the subject or subjects, working and collaborating with them to make an image. Initially I would approach people in queer social spaces and explain my project and my desire to photograph them. I have often stayed in touch with the guys I’ve photographed and in many cases taken their picture repeatedly across the years. I hope to continue this in the future.
In the series, there is a self-portrait you took with one of the men (pictured above). What motivated you to include yourself in a portrait within the series?
I’ve always been very aware of my status as an outsider. The photos are about both my desire to look and the subjects’ desire to be seen, to be visible. This dialog is present, I think, in a lot of the portraits, but I wanted to make this explicit. Including myself is a way of acknowledging my presence there.
Where did the name of the project come from?
Maravilla del Mundo means Wonder of the World in Spanish. In 2013 there was a global online campaign to elect the new seven wonders of the world. The municipal government of Iquitos put a lot of effort into promoting this campaign and encouraging people to vote. When the Amazon River was chosen, the people of Iquitos celebrated and a metal plaque was erected to mark the occasion.
I was struck by the contrast between the imagined ideal of a “wonder of the world” and the reality of a city that is poor and densely populated. It’s a far cry from the typically imagined picture of the exotic, edenic rainforest that is used to promote tourism and generate a sense of local pride. I do believe there is wonder in this place but it is not the image that one expects to see or that is promoted officially.
You have worked in Latin America for quite some time. What about the continent inspires you?
The intersections of history, culture, landscape and identity are fascinating and rich. I have a long list of projects and ideas I hope to one day work on.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.