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Bringing life to Peru’s ancient mummies

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Lorry Salcedo took portraits of Peru's mummies and tried to highlight their human emotions

"The mummification process was simple but highly spiritual," Salcedo said

CNN  — 

Many years ago, photographer Lorry Salcedo embarked on a daunting mission, one that led him through nearly the entire craggy coast of his native country and involved models considerably older than most: Peru’s mummies.

“They appeared, appeared, and appeared … everywhere,” said Salcedo, who carried his mobile studio up and down the Andean mountain chain in search for these ubiquitous figures. “They were in private homes, in derelict museums and even in schools. This was a completely unscripted experience.”

Spending long hours photographing embalmed bodies and documenting their lives and stories was frightening before it became hugely exhilarating, Salcedo said.

“I was afraid at first,” he said, describing his first encounter with a 1,000-plus-year-old mummy in a derelict building. “But I had this unexplainable, unconscious impulse that drove me to them. … And when I saw one at first, I felt I knew why I was there.”

Photographer Lorry Salcedo

He was there, Salcedo said, to bring to life the voices of the hundreds of ancient mummies who represent his people, relics now threatened by grave robbers and delinquents.

“I consider what is happening here to be similar to what the Taliban did in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have people here with no respect for our past. It is amazing what we continuously find here. But there is no money to recover these mummies, and when we do recover them, there is no money to preserve them.”

After photographing dozens of mummies, he became attached to these characters, highlighting the humanity of each individual with his use of natural light.

“I am a fine-arts photographer with a passion for portraiture, and that is how I approached this subject,” said Salcedo, who wanted to highlight their human emotions.

“You can see their happiness, their passion, their sweetness, feelings of timidity and a whole range of everyday emotions,” he said.

He has a few favorites.

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    “‘Old Man Sleeping’ particularly fascinates me,” said Salcedo, referring to photo No. 4 in the gallery above. “I found him about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Lima in a makeshift museum. He was locked in a room that hadn’t been opened in years.

    “When we broke the lock, there he was in this dark room, resting in the same position he had been for more than 1,000 years.”

    Salcedo said the mummification process in Peru was not as advanced as Egypt’s, but the dry coastal area helped preserve the bodies.

    “The mummification process was simple but highly spiritual,” Salcedo said. “The families would parade their embalmed loved ones as if they were alive in festivals, gave them food and took them to public outings. When the Spanish arrived, they said this was heresy.”

    The stories we learn through Salcedo’s photographs create a stark contrast to how Western culture often perceives death. In Latin American mythology, these mummies are part of a phantasmagorical art form, a sort of “magical realism” that allows the occult into the so-called rational world. Salcedo embraces it all.

    “Many times you can feel the presence of these mummies,” he said. “(People) carried their dead loved ones like a precious artifact, parading their ancestry with pride.”

    Lorry Salcedo is a photographer based in New York and Lima, Peru. You can follow him on Facebook.