A photographer’s passion: chronicling 40 years of Maya

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As a young man traveling the world with little more than his surfboard, Macduff Everton picked up something he has hardly put down since: a camera. It was a discard from an American who didn’t want to look like a tourist.

Everton’s career as a photographer has been far from snapshot superficiality. He’s made a living with images he’s taken around the world. Based in Santa Barbara, his new book, published by the University of Texas press, is called Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatan. It’s based on 40 years of travel to and living in that area.

We corresponded via email:

KCRW: You first went to Yucatan as a young man after traveling the world. What made you connect to that particular place and the people so much that you kept going back?

MACDUFF EVERTON: I was hired by an educational film company to head to South America to create college level anthropological and archaeological filmstrips. I thought that I would spend a few weeks in Mexico.

Although I was just learning Spanish, I didn’t feel uncomfortable when I first came to Yucatán, even though my first impression was that I didn’t like the flatness and the forest felt claustrophobic. But Yucatán entered my dreams and my imagination. I decided that I wanted to work on a book project portraying the living Maya.

It was hard to get funding for an extended project, so I found it easier to work for periods, and then return to Yucatán. I took seasonal jobs. So I could work for six months and then return to Yucatán.

KCRW: Twenty years ago the University of New Mexico press published another book of yours about the people of Maya, subtitled “A Culture in Transition.”  Why did you feel it was important to publish another?

EVERTON: I planned to move on to another project. But so many significant events followed that I realized I had to keep telling my friends’ stories. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) put nearly three million Mexican farmers out of work. For an agrarian culture, this had a devastating effect — so much of Maya cultural knowledge, built up over thousands of years, is connected to their agricultural practices and ceremonies.

KCRW: How is the story of Dario Tuz Caamal, the first person you met in a farming village there decades ago, representative of the plight of others on farms around the world?

EVERTON: Dario learned agroforestry practices thousands of years old that were passed down from generation to generation. Because of NAFTA, few Maya farmers can compete with U.S. agribusinesses. Today none of his sons are farmers. They all live and work around Cancún. When I visited Dario a few months ago, he wasn’t planting his milpa this year. His knees hurt him. He has lost a lot of strength. He is making hammocks to earn a living.

Hopefully, Dario and other Maya forest gardeners are not the last generation, and that their knowledge isn’t lost.

KCRW: Extreme natural beauty and intense spirituality seem to be two important traits of Yucatan.  How is modernization/globalization impacting them?

EVERTON: There are still some beautiful areas of Yucatán that haven’t been exploited, but land values have increased exponentially, especially along the Caribbean, so if the Maya sell their land, they won’t be able to buy it back.

Their intense spirituality is based on their culture and participating in community events, ceremonies and rituals thousands of years old. If they lose their culture, they lose a lot.

The changes that I’ve witnessed over the last four decades have been tumultuous. Over their 3,000 years of continued cultural traditions the Maya have shown an ability to adapt and evolve. They survived the Spanish Conquest and the Caste War of Yucatán.  I remain optimistic that the Maya will continue to survive and keep their traditions and culture. Ironically, it might be tourism that could provide the Maya economic and cultural survival. They are discovering that their Maya culture and traditions are what tourists come to see — that conserving their culture has a long-term economic value. But today there aren’t many examples to back my optimism.

KCRW: Words versus pictures: You are an accomplished photographer whose work is held in important institutions. What’s it like to write to accompany your images?

EVERTON: I find writing to be incredibly rewarding, but difficult. I enjoy collaborating, and I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some excellent writers, such as Pico Iyer, Mary Heebner, and Bob Shacochis. For this forty year project, I ended up having to do the writing myself, with the help of a lot of friends who made comments and editors (who are also friends) who suggested changes.

I was lucky that I kept a journal and was taking a lot of notes, so when I realized that extended captions wouldn’t work, I had material to work with.

My sister had childhood diabetes and her health got much worse when she turned 30. I started writing her letters when I couldn’t visit. Little vignettes. And that is what this book is – forty years of vignettes that hopefully bring my friends to life.