Marzena Wystrach “Cholitas Escaladoras”

Marzena Wystrach

Cholitas Escaladoras

My project is about a group of a women called Cholitas Escaladoras from Bolivia. Cholitas Escaladoras means Cholitas Climbers. Cholitas are indigenous women, mostly from the ethnic group of Aymara. You can recognize them mainly by their distinctive traditional outfits. These women are part of a group which was officially set up in December 2015. Before, most of them had been carriers and cooks at mountain hostels, and their husbands, high mountain guides, have been climbing peaks with tourists. Yet, there was always this curiosity in them asking: how does it feel to stand on a peak? Finally, they decided they would do it, they would climb the Huyana Potosí peak. When they set foot on the peak, in their skirts at that, they felt as happy as ever. They decided they wanted to climb the other six-thousanders in Bolivia. With mountain climbing, Cholitas Escaladoras fight stereotypes, sexual and ethnic discrimination, as well as motivate other women to change their life and reach for their dreams. It’s important to me, to not just show how pretty they are in the mountains with their skirts, but also talk about their daily life; in work, with children or grandchildren, how they live. Everyone has their own stories and worries. They have a different thinking of what it means to be a Cholita.



When and how did you get started in photography?

I have been traveling and taking photos for years, mainly to retain memories and document my travels. Conscious photography appeared in my life rather late, about three years ago, during a two-month solo trip around Turkey. It was then that I started to photograph more from an internal need to express emotions, not just for capturing memories. People began to ask me if I had taken any courses or what camera I bought that caused my photography to develop and make such sudden progress. And from there, I just found the need to photograph. From that moment I started to learn intensively: participate in workshops, submit photos for a variety of evaluations, analyze the master’s of photography. Although in the beginning these were singles pictures, not stories.


What did photography give you?

Photography puts me into a state of amok, concentration and admiration. It’s my favorite tool for telling about the world. It allows me to see more and to cross barriers, to be and do things that I wouldn’t do without the camera.
At some point in time it was hard to find people in my pictures, I was very afraid to take pictures of them, although I always wanted to. I overcame this fear – which also affected other aspects of my life – so I could say that photography has become also a sort of  therapy for me.


What do you think makes a truly great image?

I think that a good photo is one that stirs emotions and that you can’t forget about quickly.


Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?

At the beginning I took inspiration from wherever I could. I watched the world’s masters of photography-legends, Magnum photographers. I tried to get to know as many different kinds of photography as possible; however, from the beginning, I was attracted to photojournalism. One of my early inspirations was Tomasz Tomaszewski, who was National Geographic Magazines’s photographer for years. He ended up being one of the first who believed in my project.


What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?

Before I started this topic, I traveled a lot through South America. When I was in Bolivia, I found a video on the Internet about Cholitas Escaladoras. In the country of machismo, where Cholitas have been fighting for equal rights for years, they left social roles to reach peaks as their husbands did. I really wanted to get to know them. At first the photos were only an addition to the reportage I wrote about them.


How do you build relationships with your subjects?

At the beginning my protagonists were suspicious, because many people came, took pictures, promised to send them and later broke off contact. When they saw that I was keeping my word, they began to treat me differently and I think that it broke the barriers. I often did not take pictures at all, and we just spent time together, talking, drinking, eating. It was not only for the purpose of my project, we made friends.


What was a typical day of shooting in the field like?

It’s hard to talk about a typical photo day. I just lived with them and accompanied them in everyday life. I tried to keep the camera with me all the time. When they were going to the mountains, I went with them. When they won the summit, I won it with them.


How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?

At first, I was affected by my admiration of them and their outfits in the mountains. I didn’t plan to make a long term project. So I photographed them in the mountains and  returned to Poland. However, I felt that I had showed only a tiny aspect of their lives, rather superficially. So I decided to come back and photograph them, to break through this beautiful cover, look into their everyday life. It was also a challenge, because until now they were photographed only in the mountains. So I needed to gain their trust so that they would let me into their everyday life. The challenge was also to make them stop noticing me and posing for the camera like they were used to.

There were of course, strictly physical challenges as well. The whole group lives in a city above 4 thousand meters above sea level, they are well acclimatized. For me, this height was difficult, not to mention the mountains. The challenge was to gain 6,500-strong peak with them and think about frame while I was fighting for breath…


What did you enjoy most about fulfilling this project?

I am glad that I managed to touch their backgrounds and ordinary everyday life. I learned a lot about working on a long-term project, more than I could through any course.


Has receiving a Lucie Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?

Without the Lucie Foundation Scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to finish my project, certainly not in the coming years. A lot of editorial offices from around the world started to contact me, including a publication in El Pais. I’m in the process of preparing the exhibition and photographic book of the project.