In Langscape Magazine Articles

Understanding the Meaning of Food and Work through Community Photography in Peru

April 07, 2019

by Rebecca Wolff, Francesco D’Angelo, Gonzalo Urbina, and Malena Martínez

preserving potatoes

Chuño is a way to preserve potatoes. They are exposed to frost and then, on a sunny day, are laid out and women step on them and separate the peels with their bare feet. Photo: Ruben Amaya, 2018

Peru has earned a name for itself as an international culinary destination. But the focus is often on the nation’s capital, Lima, as opposed to the Indigenous and rural areas of the country. In the region of Cusco, chef Virgilio Martinez has been using food to change the narrative around notions of identity and representation.

Since September 2017, Virgilio Martínez has been working to open a restaurant that focuses on interpreting the Cusco region through food. At his restaurant, MIL, every dish is inspired by Andean cultures and ecosystems. Local connections to food are so important that Martínez has a research team called Mater Iniciativa, who work and live alongside two rural Quechua communities that border the restaurant.

One chef has been trying to change the narrative around what is considered to be Peruvian food.

In MIL, the idea of what food means is clear. For the staff it is a way of life, work, and livelihood. For guests it’s a gastronomic cultural experience. The local crops and diets of the communities surrounding the restaurant provide the inspiration for many dishes served. We began to wonder how food was perceived by the restaurant’s neighboring communities, on whose very crops and culture the menu is based. This was the idea our team sought to investigate through a collaborative research project with Mater Iniciativa, and one of their partner communities, Kacllaraccay.

At 3,700 meters above sea level, rolling hills and mountain views surround the community of Kacllaraccay. Most community members are bilingual in Spanish and Runasimita (commonly known as Quechua in Spanish), which is their primary language. The community used to practice only subsistence agriculture, but now they have strong relationships with the main market in Urubamba and also participate in community-based tourism and artisan craft-making.

As researchers for Mater Iniciativa, based at MIL, we felt a need to better understand the importance of food to Kacllaraccay. We wanted, however, to avoid creating unequal power dynamics, as it is the continual goal of both MIL and Martínez to encourage the restaurant and community to work side by side. So we searched for investigative methods that would decolonize the research process, making it more about open dialogue, learning, and knowledge sharing. We chose a method called PhotoVoice, in which people are given cameras and told to document anything they feel is relevant to the research. Everyone involved in our research process was considered a collaborator and encouraged to use the camera to take photos of what they considered to be “food” and “work.”

Every community member collaborating in our research was given a camera and encouraged to take photos of what they considered to be ‘food’ and ‘work.’

We collaborated with four men and two women from different generations so that we could see if interpretations of “food” and “work” varied depending on age and gender. After the collaborators had had cameras for a week, we used their photos to hold open discussions about why they had documented specific foods, landscapes, or scenes. Before the start, we had created a list of discussion questions to help guide the dialogues, but they were extremely open-ended to encourage the sharing of ideas and perspectives.

We used the images they took as prompts to hold conversations about why certain foods and work were important. Within a few days of using the cameras and reviewing photos, certain themes began to appear. The first is that in Kacllaraccay, the chakra is the center of daily life.

Chakra, which translates to “a farming field,” is where the food for most families is grown. Potatoes, hawas (Quechua for “fava beans”) and corn are traditional staple crops of the area. Today, many people in the community choose to sell their crops for money. Research has found that transitioning away from subsistence lifestyles can affect local diets, as families now have money to purchase goods at stores. Based on the results of our project, this also seemed to be the case in Kacllaraccay.

While showing and talking about the photos they took, the collaborators explained to us that you have to work in the chakra to have food. Part of this food is then consumed, part is saved for seeds for the next harvest, and part is sold in the market every week. Once families have money, they spend it in the markets and local stores where they can buy items that are relatively new, such as pasta, rice, and vegetable oil. Photos of food showed that these more contemporary ingredients are being added to typical foods or dishes.

Once families have money, they spend it in the markets and local stores where they can buy items that are relatively new.

Analí, speaking for her 76-year-old grandfather Cansio, told us that “new foods have appeared, for example, rice and pastas, that maybe people weren’t accustomed to eating in ancient [Incan] times, or at least before sixty years [ago]. [They attribute] the change of their food with the modernization of life, [and accordingly] their work in chakra also changed. Because in those days, for example, people worked naturally. Now they don’t work as they did before sixty years [ago], in natural ways, or really, it’s [now] all chemical. Before they never put fertilizer on potatoes, but now you do. Now there are more chemicals, and for this reason, food has changed.”

Cansio, who at seventy-six was the oldest person with whom we worked, explained that he now craved things such as pasta or rice, items that have probably been integrated into local diets only within the last sixty years. Although Cansio’s chakras continue to provide him with potatoes, corn, and fava beans, he still chooses to spend his money on dishes made of pasta or rice. He explained that he does so because he wants to.

soup with pasta

Soup with pasta. This is what a typical family in Kacllaraccay now eats several times a week. Photo: Ruben Amaya, 2018

Through photos and discussion, we learned that the notion of food was not just about what you ate, but how it made you feel and whether it fueled you for a hard day to come. In Kacllaraccay there is a belief that you need “strength” to work in the fields and perform long days of manual labor. For example, drinking chicha, a fermented corn beer, is a traditional way of giving yourself the strength to work hard in the chakra. As Ruben, age thirteen, said, “When I’m tired I will drink chicha, nothing else.”

But strength was also associated more strongly with diet. Mario is thirty-three, a young father, who eats pasta in his home. He explained through his photos that his wife cooks it because it’s fast; however, he didn’t consider pasta to be an actual food “because when you eat pasta you have no strength, no, no. Instead, when we eat hawas (fava beans grown in the chakra), yes. We work in this because with beans you get lots of strength.”

It became clear that to work hard you needed to eat natural foods, yet people continued to use processed ingredients, such as oil and pasta, because they are tasty and convenient. Paradoxically, people would use money they made from selling natural food from their chakras on these processed items, despite believing they aren’t good for you.

People would use money they made from selling natural food from their chakras on processed items, despite believing they aren’t good for you.

We also wanted to learn about how food related to the notion of work. We assumed that being in the chakra and farming in the fields would be a good way to begin discussion around what tasks people considered work. To us, “work” was a broad term that could mean anything from farming to doing dishes. In the end, we discovered our assumptions were entirely wrong.

In this part of the project, we struggled with misinterpretation. “Work” in Spanish is translated as trabajo, but most people we investigated thought we were referring to trabajoso, meaning laborious or hard work. Thus the idea of doing work was interpreted as anything that made you sweat or work hard, such as manual labor or other such tasks.

Men rest while working

Men rest while working at the fields. They usually drink chicha and eat mote (boiled corn and boiled fava beans) and picante (spicy sauce), which they will share. Photo: Ruben Amaya, 2018

“To suffer is work . . . you suffer for food . . . harvesting corn is laborious,” Cansio told us. “With potatoes it is also work. The farmer is always working hard because if you don’t work what will you eat? If you are working and suffering, you are suffering for food, and this is how it is.”

Interestingly, it seemed that gender roles of both men and women strongly shaped how people perceived what work or working meant. The majority of photos that people took to represent work showed them in the chakra or pasturing their animals. In most of the photos, we saw that it was only men featured in the shot. It was explained to us that men and women had to perform different tasks when farming. For example, the men were more likely to work with tools and walk behind the bulls to plow the land, whereas the women were in charge of sorting potatoes or guiding the bull as it plowed by walking in front of it, telling it not to stray by saying “waka waka” and hitting it with a stick. In the fields the woman must always be in front of the bull because if she were behind it trying to guide the plow, the bull could pull too hard and end up pulling her down. This is why men always go behind and women in front.
When we asked if doing such tasks as cooking or cleaning were considered work, men would often say no. They did not perceive this work as laborious, but their wives had different opinions.

preparing soil

A man and a woman prepare soil for planting. The man breaks the soil with a yunta whereas the women guides the bulls. Photo: Ruben Amaya, 2018

bulls pull yunta

Bulls pull the yunta that is driven by a man. Working in the fields is often done with the help of animals. Photo: Danny Pilcop, 2018

So while both women and men work in the fields during the day, they perform different tasks and have different obligations. The women we spoke to felt they had longer and more strenuous days than men. When we asked if doing such tasks as cooking or cleaning was considered work, men would often say no. Men did not perceive this work as laborious, but their wives had different opinions.

When we asked if doing such tasks as cooking or cleaning were considered work, men would often say no. They did not perceive this work as laborious, but their wives had different opinions.

“Women always have lots of work, not equal to men,” said Claudia, age forty, the wife of Mario. “The men leave to work with their tools, when they get up they go happily to the chakra. The women are tired, maybe just finishing cooking [breakfast], and then you also have to cook, clean, clean the rooms . . . then you clean again, you bathe the kids, send them to school. For many women this all [is] more difficult than what the men do.”

During this project the community received several rounds of foreign visitors as part of a community-based tourism program. Several people took photos of these visits, so we asked if hosting tourists for day-long visits to the community was considered work. Many people felt that while community-based tourism paid well and provided income, it wasn’t actually the same as working. Ruben explained to us that hosting tourists involved “only walking and dancing, nothing else. To work is to use tools.”

women in traditional dress

Women wearing traditional everyday dress greet tourists visiting their community. At these events men play music and women sing. Photo: Ruben Amaya, 2018

Nely, a 41-year-old mother who had also taken photos of the visiting tourists, explained she made more money during the visits than selling crops from her chakra. When asked if she could participate in only one activity, which would she choose, Nely explained, “I would choose the chakra, because it is our chakra, we always work there, and with this we can live.”

Her words and beliefs again reiterated to us that the chakra is extremely important to life in Kacllaraccay. The chakra seemed to be connecting to what was considered natural food and also a source of work and a hard day’s labor. Despite there being other ways to earn a living, everyone’s photos and discussion always circled back to the chakra being most important.

Despite there being other ways to earn a living, everyone’s photos and discussion always circled back to the chakra being most important.

The experience of doing this PhotoVoice project was challenging but incredibly valuable. Using their words and visuals, the people of Kacllaraccay were able to convey their own beliefs and values around the importance of food in their community.

As Kacllaraccay continues to grow and change with time, it’s possible that the community’s relationship to food and its ideas of what it means to work may change as well. Communities and cultures are dynamic: they grow and change with time. Since collaborating with MIL, Kacllaraccay has been absorbed into a dynamic and ongoing journey in cultural exchange. Only time will tell what this means for perceived relationships between work and food, but it’s certainly a unique experience for both one rural Peruvian community and a restaurant.

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Acknowledgments. We are forever grateful to the people of Kacllaraccay. Without their interest and support, this project could not exist.

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Rebecca Wolff is a National Geographic Explorer who has worked on research and journalism projects over the past 6 years. As principal investigator, she carried out fieldwork and managed the Kacllaraccay project. She’s an Indigenous health researcher and outdoor educator in Peru and Canada, working to decolonize research processes and Canadian curriculum.

Francesco D’Angelo is the head anthropologist with Mater Iniciativa, a research organization created to protect Peruvian plant species and support collaborative community-based research. Francesco has carried out anthropological and photo elicitation projects in the Sacred Valley and was co-investigator on this project and community liaison with Kacllaraccay.

Gonzalo Urbina is the project director of Mater Iniciativa, guiding the field team in the research design and analysis. He supports both local and foreign investigators in the field with Mater Iniciativa.

Malena Martínez is the founder and director of Mater Iniciativa. She works across Peru in ethnobotany, identifying new species of plants that are valuable to local communities and cultures. She continues to oversee field work with Mater on all projects ranging from anthropology to gastronomy.


Further Reading

Bunten, A. C. (2014). Tourism imaginaries: Anthropological approaches. New York, NY: Berghan Books.

Cohen, M. (1987). Food and evolution: Towards a theory of human food habits. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Patel, R. (2009). What does food sovereignty look like? Journal of Peasant Studies, 36, 663–706.

Wang, C. C. (1999). Photovoice: A participatory action research strategy applied to women’s health. Journal of Women’s Health, 8, 185–192.


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