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Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Portrait photographer brings Kansai face to face with Peru

Staff writer

KYOTO -- Thirty meters above the Peruvian rain forest, Lisa Mahoney Beltran was suddenly reminded of Tokyo. Everywhere she looked there were trees that were home to thousands of species, just as everywhere one looks in Tokyo there are buildings that are home to thousands of people -- a concrete version of the Amazon jungle.

News photo
This portrait of Peruvian El Señor Carlos laughing is featured in the exhibition "Face to Face With Peru" in Kyoto's Gallery Terra museum.

The contrast was a revelation. Beltran, a professional photographer who now lives in Kyoto, described her trip last year to her husband's native Peru as "life-changing," not only because of her Amazon experience, but because of the photos she took of the people in the country's hinterland and in Lima.

These photos are included in the "Face to Face With Peru" exhibition being held at Kyoto's Gallery Terra. Though several of the images are of the Peruvian Amazon, most of the photos, as the title implies, are of people she met during her stay.

"I've always been interested in portraiture," Beltran said. "For me, there are two basic types -- set up portraits, of which there are many in this exhibition, and environmental portraiture, which is people photographed in their homes with the environment helping to show something of the subject's personality. There is also documentary photography, which interests me, but for the last six years I have focused more on portraits."

News photo
Photographer Lisa Mahoney Beltran discusses her "Face to Face with Peru" exhibit in Kyoto.

At age 16 in her hometown of Canberra, Beltran decided she wanted to become a photographer. She packed her gear and moved to Brisbane to attend art school. She then spent several months backpacking around Europe.

"At that point I wanted to make a further commitment to my art work and pursue photography as my life," she said. "I was interested in coming to Japan because I knew being here I could find some answers. I just knew it before I came because Japan is such a visually rich place."

Her first destination was Tokyo. But after a few months she tired of life in the metropolis and moved to Nagano. She later settled in Kyoto, where she has lived for the past several years. Unlike many artists who live and work in the Kansai region, she is not interested in showing "typical Japan," but its atypical residents, foreign and domestic.

As a woman, she said she found it important to have the support of other women and joined the Women Artists Association in Kyoto in 1995.

"As a photographer, it is important to make contact with other photographers, and for me, that's been English-speaking photographers," Beltran said. "There is a nice group of photographers here and although we don't get together that often, when we do it's fantastic."

Though equally at home in black-and-white or color film, Beltran says she prefers black-and-white when photographing people.

"Black-and-white captures the light, and photography is all about light," she said. "I find it quite challenging to photograph here because the light is so flat. I was very excited in the Andes and in Australia because the light is very contrasty. But here the light is soft, perfect for portraiture. I've pushed my photography to suit the light."

Last year was Beltran's second trip to Peru. Including her travels through the Amazon, she has now photographed in each of the country's three geographic regions -- the Andes, the Amazon and the coast. With her Nikon FE she brings us into the hearts of her subjects, such as El Senor Carlos, the salsa-dancing octogenarian with a huge smile and a ready laugh.

"Taking that photograph was a joy," she said. "Most of the time with photography, you know whether you've got it when you click the shutter. His photo sums up the warmth of the Peruvian people."

In this regard, Beltran's photos are more than just display; they bridge cultural differences and perceptions.

"Exhibiting in Japan is important because of the political situation (in Peru) and what's been going on in the last couple of years," Beltran said. "I hope the Japanese can get a positive image of Peru and of the Peruvian people. I have also taken photos of Japanese that I'd like to show in Australia because of the history that's gone on there. Basically the message is that everyone is a person, everyone has a soul."

The "Face to Face With Peru" exhibition continues until Sunday. For information, call (075) 257-1755.

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