San Juan Chamula

While shooting in the town square, a tour guide approached and told me I should put the camera away. He said the police would take my camera and throw me in jail. At first, I thought he was just trying to get me to pay to join his tour.

The town enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. Chamulas have their own police force. – Wikipedia

A few minutes later, I was eating a bowl of chicken soup at a streetside restaurant. The texture of the chicken was unlike any I'd ever eaten. It was more chewy, almost spongy. After a few bites, I realized this chicken leg was previously attached to one of the many running freely nearby. It wasn't the couped-up, hormone-filled, force-fed flavor I was used to. The visceral experience gave me a sudden respect for my surroundings and I didnt take the camera out of the bag again.

View more photos of San Juan Chamula.

Video recorded September 19, 2007



  Gravatar Chris wrote @ October 29th, 2007 at 11:44 pm

Great video. I liked how it transitioned into the slideshow.

  Gravatar Lily wrote @ October 30th, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Precioso lugar, espero poder visitarlo muy pronto.

  Gravatar ChrisN wrote @ November 1st, 2007 at 9:11 am

I always laugh when people ask me if I’m scared of eating food in foreign countries – it was just running around a few minutes ago! They usually eat better than we do.

Re the camera – is this just suspicion of the govt? Or a local shakedown by the police?

  Gravatar Nathan wrote @ November 1st, 2007 at 11:17 am


What I forgot to mention was that we were there during a religious procession. The ceremonial outfits are part of their tradition. They’re extremely proud and protective of those things. They don’t allow anyone to photograph inside the church whatsoever. We went to the little tourist office they had there to ask if we could buy a pass to photograph and the guy behind the desk actually laughed at us. He said no one was allowed to photograph people in religious dress. There are civic leaders, dressed in ceremonial garb, that would be the ones who would bust me. We didn’t know how to spot them, so it seemed like a better idea to play it safe.

After I ate my soup, I downloaded the photos I’d already taken to my portable drive just in case.

  Gravatar Marco wrote @ November 4th, 2007 at 11:59 pm

Interesting video…I was just thinking that the girls should have answered that they’re still waiting for Mexican Independence day (in their indigenous accents)…just a thought:)

  Gravatar Nathan wrote @ November 5th, 2007 at 12:46 am


Good point. It wasn’t really a fair question to ask — our nephews in Tijuana that are the same age and older than these girls didn’t know the answer either. I was going to cut it out but thought it was still an interesting clash of perspectives…

Also, the girls had been badgering us for about 10 minutes, trying to sell us stuff, giving us free bracelets if we promised to come back. I have a lot of compassion for their situation, and their sales pitch was pretty well rehearsed. They asked for shoes (which they clearly needed) and money, anything we could give. Once we hinted for them to pick a pair of sandals, the word spread and little kids surrounded us. We had to be discrete about giving anyone anything, or buying anything or we got mobbed.

We didn’t go to the town with a tour. We hopped on the local taxi colectivo from San Cristóbal de las Casas. No locals treated us with disrespect (as far as we could tell), but then again, the majority of the people in the town square were selling something (including a lot of drugs in San Cristóbal). The irony of a town like this is that it’s wrapped around tourism, selling handmade Zapatista dolls.

  Gravatar oso wrote @ November 7th, 2007 at 6:55 pm

Rosario!!! Seguro que la pobre estuvo bien avergonzada cuando la preguntaste porque solo estaba en el tercer año de escuela.

Y … todos saben que el dia de independecia es el 5 de mayo.


[…] English translation of Nathan’s video, “San Juan Chamula.” […]

  Gravatar Michele wrote @ July 23rd, 2008 at 4:08 am

Interesting video..I’ve written about San Juan Chamula. They are quite serious about the no photo policy and several years ago a tourist taking photos in the church was actually killed. I noticed that you are accompanied by someone talking up the girls while you shoot the video. I’m doing a story on taking photos when you travel and wonder if you find that helps to break the ice or do you just shoot from a very far distance at times?

  Gravatar Nathan wrote @ July 23rd, 2008 at 7:52 am


As far as my comfort level goes, it doesn’t make a lot of difference in approaching someone because I’ve gotten used to it. But I think you’re probably right that it is generally easier with a partner. I tend to shoot from a distance with a zoom lens to capture faces without them noticing. I also shoot from the hip a bit with a wide angle, sometimes lifting the camera up over my head or around an obstacle without looking. Every once in a while I get something good, but since it’s digital there’s no harm in trying.

  Gravatar nathan wrote @ February 10th, 2009 at 7:53 pm

I was in chamula recently and, out of respect for the town, left my camera in the truck. After drinking posh with the locals and praying in the church, we left. The local headmen were very friendly with us, I think because we took their space seriously and participated, rather than trying to photograph and observe. I would encourage those who go to chamula, whatever your spiritual beliefs may be, to take the experience seriously, and be in the moment, this leaves very little time for photography. Also, I think it’s best in places where you know people disapprove of photography, to be honest with the locals, and earnest in your interactions, rather than trying tricks like shooting from the hip, wide angles, telephoto, hidden cameras, etc. When we left the church we were approached by a headman, who invited us to still more posh and then volunteered to be fotographed with us, in fact he said he wanted us to. I believe this is the only respectful way to get photos in Chamula.

  Gravatar nathanwise wrote @ February 10th, 2009 at 7:54 pm

sorry, not to be confused with the author of the site, I am a different nathan ;P

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