The German missionary Martin Gusinde arrived in Tierra del Fuego in 1919. Although his initial mission was to convert the Indians among whom he lived, Gusinde in fact ended up doing the very opposite: he was to become one of the first Westerners to be initiated into the Indians' sacred rites. Over the course of five years, he studied the Alakaluf, Yamana and Selk'nam peoples, travelling from the canals of Western Patagonia to the great island of Tierra del Fuego. Gradually, the missionary became an anthropologist. Gusinde's isolation on this land at the end of the earth made his approach highly unique. Fascinated by what he saw, he took over a thousand photographs, all produced using a portable darkroom. The portraits he captured constitute a kind of genealogical and social tree. Unlike his contemporaries, Gusinde photographed mainly the body in extraordinary manifestations: feather-clad figures sporting high head-dresses made of bark, wrapped up in guanaco furs, or entirely covered with ritual paint... Captured in a landscape battered by wind and rain or covered in snow, in the heart of a natural world that Darwin celebrated for its wild and rough aspects, and framed in poses codified by ritual, these Indians bear witness to a society on the wane. Magic, spirits, communion with nature and initiatory rites draw the outlines of a world in which appearances vie with reality. The exceptional circumstances of the photos' creation coupled with the personality and engagement of their author make these images a unique testimonial.
Martin Gusinde (1886 - 1969) was a German priest and ethnologist famous for his work in anthropology, particularly on the native groups of Tierra del Fuego. He was one of the most notable anthropologists in Chile in the first half of the 20th century.