Photographer captures ancient identity of Maya people

David Riley

For 20 years, photographer Bruce T. Martin has been crafting a portrait of a vanishing Central American culture, one picture at a time.

More than 10,000 photos later, Martin presents that portrait in his new book, "Look Close, See Far," with 100 black-and-white images documenting the world of the native Maya people of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico.

For many, the word "Maya" probably summons images of a long-gone civilization whose once-great cities have been abandoned to history textbooks and the surrounding rainforest.

But Martin, of Natick, Mass., details the lives of more than 5 million people descended from the Maya who still live in Central American villages, their languages and customs transformed by years of colonialism and threatened today, he says, by development, poverty and other pressures.

"There's a disappearing world down there, and it needs to be documented ... and preserved," Martin said.

Martin, 52, who mainly makes his living as an architectural photographer, began his career far from Central America in Upstate New York. He documented old buildings and sites marked for historic preservation.

The location was different, but the work sometimes was similar, photographing what Martin called "visual placeholders for events in our past."

"I didn't realize, but I guess I had a connection to it," Martin said.

Likewise, part of his goal in photographing the Maya is to document a culture that existed long before European and U.S. influence. These indigenous people have unique ways of seeing the world, such as their close relationship with the environment around them, he said.

These viewpoints can inform us, but they are fading as the rainforest disappears and the Maya are further cut off from their past, Martin said.

"It's about enriching our lives, how there are multiple viewpoints," he said. "Change that throws out the past completely is going to leave a future without a foundation."

Martin visited the Yucatan peninsula on his first trip, focusing mainly on photographing ruins. "Look Close, See Far" includes images of everything from massive pyramids to close-up details of religious stone carvings.

"It was really exhilarating," he said of that first trip. "Just the idea of looking at things that were non-Western was really fascinating."

Some early voyages were a learning experience, including one with a questionably qualified guide.

"Halfway through a hike, he turned to me and said, 'You think we're going the right way?"' Martin said.

In other places, Martin traveled through areas where he was not allowed to photograph and where rebel groups fought in the forest.

But Martin "just got caught up. Something just kept calling me back to that area."

On return trips, he began photographing more people, visiting the small rural villages where many descendants of the Maya live. "To get to know them, you have to kind of keep going over and over the areas, going back and meeting people and talking to them," he said.

Portraits appear throughout the book, and Martin hopes they capture the "cultural dignity" of the people in them. That dignity is threatened, he said, by the continued loss of rain forests, political oppression and other outside influences.

"I want people to see them as real people with dreams and ambitions and a quality about them that deserves respect," Martin said.

Other photos record religious ceremonies that blend ancient practices with Christianity, families at work in the fields farming and, in his most recent work, the lush landscape the Maya call home.

Sometimes the camera acted like a magnet and subjects would come to Martin, but other times finding someone to agree to be photographed called for patience.

"A lot of times, they will say, 'No, but so and so would be better,"' he said. "That day maybe you won't photograph anyone."

For more information on Bruce Martin, visit his Web site, His book also includes essays by Boston University professors Shoshuanna Parks and Patricia McAnany, Allen Christenson of Brigham Young University and a foreword by David A. Freidel of Southern Methodist University.

David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or