No roads lead to Iquitos. Situated in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, on the Amazon, Nanay, and Itaya Rivers, the area is accessible to the outside world only by plane or boat. It is essentially an island, surrounded by jungle instead of sea. From a distance, it’s easy to build fantasies about such a place — to meld tropical mythologies into a sensual utopia. Iquitos is where Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo dreamt of an opera paradise. But this is not a theatrical fantasy, it is a real metropolis home to half a million people.
Its remoteness has fostered a unique culture. Europeans have been in the area since early Spanish colonial times, but the full weight of foreign influence and exploitation did not hit Iquitos until the rubber boom of the 19th century. As the city developed under the amoral eye of capitalism, indigenous traditions remained stronger, and Catholic customs weaker, than in much of Peru. Today the city is a prosperous tourist hub known for its nightlife and pop art, and it has a fairly liberal culture, including a relatively open and out gay community.
North American-born Thomas Locke Hobbs spent several years photographing Iquitos and young gay men who live there. In the resulting body of work, studio-style portraits and photos of the men in the city mix with urban landscapes and interior views. Hobbs mainly uses an 8×10 view camera, a slow and cumbersome setup which precludes casual shots. The photos are not documentary at heart. They don’t pry into the details of the men’s lives or reveal much about the city in which they live. This is a carefully circumscribed outsider’s view. Nevertheless, the work conveys the individuality and humanity of these men and the realness of this place.
These photographs portray — and problematize — a deeply human impulse: to escape the constraints of the everyday world in search of freedom and fulfillment of bodily expression.
In one photograph, two men sit entwined on a bench in what seems a tropical Arcadia. In another, a man in an overgrown yard pulls down his pants to reveal a severely scarred leg. Later, a young man, Beto, stares defiantly into the camera, wearing pink lipstick, blush, and glitter, looking equally tough and vulnerable. In the next image, that portrait is shown hanging above Beto as he poses provocatively in bed, beneath the cutout of a pink princess and a model of the solar system tacked to a bare plywood wall. Notions of tropical paradise and free-living idyll are countered by the marks of a hard life that can be seen on the men’s bodies, and by the plain, sometimes dingy reality of the place. Colorful flags and plastic basins fly above a dead-end dirt road. A gold statue of an indigenous man presides over a boulevard lined with palm trees, motorized carriages, and trash bags. A muddy street glows crimson in evening light.
Hobbs’s Iquitos is the meeting point for opposing desires. There is the outsider’s desire for an isolated tropical paradise, complete with beautiful, exotic young men. And there is the local’s desire for self-realization, free sexual expression, and connection with the world at large. The photos delicately balance these parallel desires, while hinting at their incompatibility. After all, the trope of the sensual native is typically a guise for exploitation. Hobbs acknowledges this power dynamic in several photos. In a self-portrait he shows himself in a mirror gazing coldly down at a soft-eyed and shirtless man seated against a brick wall. The apparent openness and flamboyancy of Iquitos culture has its dark side as well. According to Hobbs, the city has a reputation for sexual tourism. In one image, wallpaper gilds an interior column that features posters warning about the exploitation of minors.
These photographs portray — and problematize — a deeply human impulse: to escape the constraints of the everyday world in search of freedom and fulfillment of bodily expression. We can imagine the existence of a place where such dreams are possible, even as we recognize the troubling illusion.