Self-Portrait at Machu Picchu

Benjamin Chemel
September 01, 2001

Before dawn on December 26, 2000, I rose from my tent, perched on the steep slopes of the Andes Mountains, and hiked across stones laid centuries ago—the Inca Trail. The morning mist hid jagged peaks above me and shrouded the Urubamba River over 1000 meters below. I passed trees supporting life—orchids, lichen, and other epiphytes—on every square inch. This morning I was the first visitor to behold the ancient city of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. I set up my father's 30-year old Minolta camera on a tripod and ran down the trail, skipping steps and leaping terraces, to sit on a rock overlooking the empty ruins. The result was a picture capturing my spirit that day floating above the bird-shaped city in the clouds.

man sits in front of mountains

For my honors thesis research in photographic ethnobotany, I traveled alone for two and a half weeks throughout Peru. Studying ethnobotany, the cultural uses of plants in indigenous societies, gives one a direct link with the past. In these cultures plants' stories and histories are passed from one generation to the next. My intent was to document these ties by spending time in the Sacred Valley around Cuzco and exploring Amazonian shamanism and Ayahuasca medicine in Iqunitos. My research resulted in 7000 negatives edited digitally in the Digital Photography Studio at Penn State. Of these, 20 cultural and botanical prints, along with explanatory text, became an exhibition titled, "Photographic Ethnobotany: Plants and Peoples of the Andes and Amazon."

Benjamin Chemel graduated in May 2001 with a B.S. in general science and honors in visual arts. His honors adviser is Gerald Lang, professor of visual arts, 210 Patterson Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0444; His exhibition can be seen in the Ritenour Building at University Park from September 21 to October 21, 2001. Reported by Laura Driscoll Gatrone.

Last Updated September 01, 2001