Perspectivism: a theory from the point of view of otherness?

  • Moderator Arturo Gutiérrez del Ángel
  •  *

Receipt: July 14, 2023

Acceptance: August 3, 2023

Undoubtedly, the so-called perspectivist movement in anthropology has its greatest exponents in Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who propose that this gaze is a new anthropological theory and paradigm known as the "perspectivist" movement. ontological turn, multinaturalism, symbolic ecology, post-structural anthropology. The main approach is the questioning of being, its nature, which creates a division between the nature of human and non-human beings, a position that is constructivist in methodological terms and relativist in political and moral terms. Both researchers consider that, contrary to what Western science assumes, there is no single form of cosmogony or unified thought. It is not the human being alone that can have a point of view, but animals and other non-human forms or beings also have their own points of view, which would be equivalent. Therefore, it is important to know these points of view about reality in order to integrate them into different perspectives.

For some, perspectivism is a revolution in anthropological thought, while for others it is not a theory, but rather an ideology forged by bringing to the arena of discussion old, unearthed and outdated paradigms that were overcome long ago. More than a theory, it would imply a flirtation with metaphysics, which has generated a kind of academic orthodoxy with acolyte followers who repeat a formula without a solid theoretical foundation.

Do you consider perspectivism to be a theory or a continuity of other theories?

My knowledge of the subject is mainly limited to my attendance to the seminar "Cosmology and ontology. An anthropological approach", given by Philippe Descola (Collège de France) at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México on September 28 and 30 and October 2, 2009. I have also had the opportunity to read a few articles framed in this current and I have advised some graduate theses adopting the mentioned orientation. In my opinion, anthropological perspectivism is a theory in its own right, with a solid empirical basis in ethnographic research. Like any other anthropological theory, it contains elements of continuity with previous theories and elements of rupture. The most notable and novel component is the adoption of the gnoseological notion of perspective. In my opinion, such a concept can be referred to Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas about the distinction between, on the one hand, Western thought, morals and sciences, which seek to obtain an objective knowledge of the world and life, and, on the other hand, the subjective mode of knowledge, which the German philosopher considered more genuine and revealing of the individual human will, something we usually call subjectivity. These ideas can be found in The genealogy of morals (1887) and in a few paragraphs of his Posthumous manuscripts (1888). I will quote some sentences that illustrate the Nietzschean notion of perspective, the summary of which would be the following: there are no facts, there are only interpretations:

"All knowledge is perspective, and there are as many perspectives as there are human beings in the world" (Posthumous manuscripts, 1887).

"Morality is a perspective, not an absolute truth. Every age and culture has its own morality, and none is universally valid" (Genealogy of morals, 1887).

"Human beings do not have access to objective truth, but can only know the world through their own subjective perspectives" (Posthumous manuscripts, 1886).

"Truth is not something that can be reached through a single perspective, but must be viewed from multiple angles to be fully understood" (Posthumous manuscripts, 1885).

"Perspective is what keeps life moving. The same thing seen from different angles becomes a completely different world" (Posthumous manuscripts, 1886).

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Perspectivist studies stand out because of their heterogeneity and - it is worth the redundancy - because of the diversity of perspectives and interpretations of what a perspectivist approach to anthropological analysis is or can be. I will start with the trajectory of its main representative, who is at the same time the founder of perspectivism in anthropology: the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro. He is a specialist of the Araweté, to whom he dedicated his first ethnographic works. They are a people of hunters and farmers of the Amazonian forest of northern Brazil and are part of the Amerindian societies of the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family, which includes more than 50 different languages, spoken in groups settled in several South American countries, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, French Guyana, Peru and Venezuela. It should be noted that the Araweté are a small people: at the time Viveiros de Castro "ethnographed" them, he carried out population censuses that indicate that between 1981 and 1992 their numbers ranged between 130 and 168 people; in the last census carried out by the funai In 2023 its demography was estimated at 293 people.

In his studies on the araweté, Viveiros de Castro has noted that, from a relational approach between subject and object, every perception of the world implies the existence of a point of view. This relationship between the subject and the world can be illustrated with the following example: what for a human is a container of blood appears as a jar of beer to a jaguar, which also means that whoever perceives a jar of beer assumes a human perspective, while whoever sees a container of blood assumes that of a jaguar (Viveiros de Castro, 1992). The Amazonian model of "multinaturalism" coined by Viveiros de Castro entails the paradigmatic Amazonian exchange of perspectives, in which an exchange of substances is almost always implied. In order to distance himself from relativism and the notion of representation that it implies, Viveiros de Castro proposes that one perceives from the body.

Although it is common for anthropologists to study small groups in order to construct our more general theoretical interpretations, it is worth remembering these aspects of the work of the inventor of perspectivism, at least to leave the door open to reflections and questions about the universal scope that the myths, rituals and cosmology of this people may have. As Viveiros de Castro plans, a perspectivist metaphysics characterizes not only the Amerindian peoples of the Amazon, but extends to the entire continent and far beyond, in such a way that perspectivism elevates one of the various ways of thinking about the world found in a small Amazonian village to an anthropological theory of universal scope.

Faced with such a grandiose proposal, one may wonder how this Brazilian anthropologist came to formulate such generalizations and from what kind of intellectual formation and currents of thought this universalist approach may come from. It is worth remembering in this respect that the teaching of anthropology in Brazil - as Viveiros de Castro himself attests - is clearly inscribed - as in Mexico, incidentally - within North American culturalism and the legacy of Franz Boas as the founder of North American anthropology as a discipline. à part entière. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who taught anthropology in Brazil during the 1930s, was in turn heir to the North American and Boasian culturalist current. For Viveiros de Castro, Lévi-Strauss managed to establish bridges of thought between French sociological anthropology (Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss...) and North American cultural anthropology. He rescued from him the idea of savage thought and the study of Amerindian cosmologies through myths, the search for logics of thought alien to ours, the analysis of indigenous classification systems (taxonomies), with particular attention to language and the variety of its expressive modalities according to the contexts.

Perspectivism in anthropology is heir to both Lévistraussian structuralism and poststructuralism in philosophy. On the one hand, perspectivism implies that the relation between a subject and an object is more relevant than the definition of each term; here we see a clear inheritance of the Lévistraussian structuralist method of analysis. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, entitled The anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and schizophrenia (1985 [1972]), also serves Viveiros de Castro as an inspiration, especially to create the formula of the anti-Narcissist (Viveiros de Castro, 2010:11-81), as a critique of classical anthropology with its ethnocentric and egocentric point of view.

I consider then that, without detracting from its original character and like many other anthropological theories, perspectivism is the result of a synthesis of several previous theories, of which I have only mentioned a few.

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How is the biomedical discourse around bodies and identities articulated with other discourses and moral projects?

I consider that the greatest contribution of perspectivism in anthropology is to have refreshed, in recent years, two fundamental motifs inherent to the ethnological vision of human reality: first, the inseparable and complex unity of the human world with the natural ecosystems of which it is a part. This ecological vision of human societies has its roots in the thought of Jean Jaques Rousseau, who, as Lévi-Strauss pointed out, argued that through La PiedadThat is, through identification with all beings of creation, human thought is able to reach a broader and more sympathetic understanding of the world and of life. A second contribution is constituted by the firm non-objectivist stance with respect to the relations between the various cultures, formed by human societies, and the different non-human "natures" that these cultures have conceived.

As for the critique of the perspectivist-ontologist position, my point of view is based on a series of doubts rather than theoretical or methodological objections. I will enumerate below some aspects of the question that I fail to understand: undoubtedly, the notion of perspective condenses the subjective-objective vision that cultural anthropology has adopted since its beginnings. The notions of culture, cultural diversity, cultural relativity or worldview have been part of our discourse as anthropologists for a long time. The ethics of anthropological neutrality invariably leads us to respect the knowledge, convictions and beliefs of cultural "others". Therefore, the following questions arise for me: on the basis of what argument can we substitute these concepts for the idea of "native metaphysics or ontologies"? In what sense can the classical Greek disciplines about being and entities offer us a better understanding of cognitive and emotional phenomena than the study of classificatory systems or so-called ethnopsychology? Where is the effective novelty of this approach? I take it for granted that the intention of the perspectivist authors has not been simply to replace the term of Latin origin "culture" with others of Greek origin, such as metaphysics and ontology. Not having gone deeper into the subject, this question remains, for me, unanswered.

A second question refers to the position of perspectivist-ontologist anthropologists regarding the role of the anthropologist in relation to scientific thought. In the introductory text to this questionnaire, the following is mentioned:

The main approach is the questioning of the being, its nature; they create a division between the nature of the human being and the non-human being. A position that is constructivist on the methodological level and relativist on the political and moral level. They consider that, unlike what Western science assumes, there is no single form of cosmogony or unified thought.

Does this mean that all human groups have developed some form of reflection about such abstract and idiosyncratic notions as those of the ancient Greek tradition, based mainly on the presence in Indo-European languages of the copula verb Being [είμαι, "eimai"]? Is there not, perhaps, an ethnocentric nuance in the idea that all human groupings have developed an investigation about "being," the "entity" and all its derivations? In my humble understanding, only the Western tradition has developed a thought about being. The modes of categorization of the natural and human world that operate through "thinking in the wild" are testimony to this diversity of ways of conceiving the world. If we accept the reality of innumerable ontologies, would we not be returning from the hard-won contemporary human science to the previous state of a notional knowledge, mainly verbalist and logocentric, like that of metaphysics?

Finally, the introductory text to the present questionnaire mentions the following: "It is not the human being alone who can have a point of view, but animals and other non-human forms or beings have their own points of view, which would be equivalent". The doubt, at this point, is of a methodological order: through what means could an ethnographer acquire the point of view of animals and other non-human beings? How could he even come to know that these perspectives are equivalent? Without denying the advances of disciplines such as the study of "animal communication" and biosemiotics, including the perspective of deep ecology, I find it difficult to conceive how the apparently insurmountable gap between the symbolic universe of human languages (verbal, gestural, etc.) and the radical otherness of the Real, which we humans process, symbolically and imaginatively, when we construct diverse and innumerable "natures" by populating them with signs, could be bridged.

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For the last twenty years, perspectivism has been discussed and questioned through various critical approaches, thus opening spaces for reflection, debate and reformulation. I will try to synthesize the main criticisms that have been addressed to perspectivism in order to answer the question, highlighting both the aspects that I consider questionable and the main contributions of this current of anthropological thought. I think it is important to emphasize that, although I agree with several of these criticisms, I consider that a positive aspect of these debates is that they have stimulated interesting and novel reflections not only for anthropology, but also for other sciences, from a theoretical, methodological and even ethical point of view.

Returning to the trajectory of its founder, from his first ethnographic works, Viveiros de Castro sought to broaden his horizons and began to develop comparative studies at the regional level. This initiative undoubtedly reveals in filigree the transformational analysis method of Lévi-Strauss. The next level of analysis consists in the search for universals of human thought in order to reach a level of anthropological reflection, following the hierarchy established by Lévi-Strauss between ethnography, ethnology and anthropology. This epistemological scheme, which is characterized by establishing a hierarchy between different levels of anthropological knowledge, deserves to be questioned for being too mechanical and discriminating. However, this hierarchical scheme continues to be in force in the studies of many colleagues, which is why, it seems to me, it has not been sufficiently criticized to produce a complete epistemological rupture.

Indeed, a crucial problem with this scheme is that it recognizes in it a nineteenth-century trace of the great armchair anthropologists which has often led to generalizations based on a specific ethnographic case. Suffice it to mention the examples of the shaman, the mana and the taboo, among other specific indigenous concepts that have been applied to societies of all latitudes and temporalities. In this respect I agree with the critical reflections developed by Pierre Déléage in his book L'Autre-mental. Figures of the anthropologist in science fiction writing. (2020), who recognizes affinities between Viveiros de Castro's perspectivism and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl's thought on the "primitive soul".

Following this order of ideas, Viveiros de Castro developed in his first ethnographic works comparative reflections that covered more societies in the region, with themes such as shamanism, cannibalism, kinship and Amazonian ritual systems. In broadening his horizons, Viveiros de Castro's theoretical and methodological stance also dialogues with the work of Marilyn Strathern (1988) and Roy Wagner (1981 [1975]) on some societies of Oceania, which seeks to show that every individual - or, rather, subject - is immersed in a series of relational networks that determine his or her position and identity in the world. According to this approach, it is through these relational networks that the subject can be defined. In this sense, it is not only the relationship established between the subject and the world that is determinant, but also the relationships that the different subjects maintain among themselves. From there, we seek to develop a dialogic or "symmetrical" ethnographic method (Latour, 1991) and focus our interest on examining the concepts used by this other, who is our interlocutor in an anthropological study.

What we are talking about then in perspectivist works is the conception of the other in its deep nature, what Viveiros de Castro and other contemporary authors call "ontology". This philosophical concept was formulated long ago by Aristotle, who defined it as the study of being as such (from Greek onto- being, present participle of the verb "to be"). Since then, the application of philosophical notions, such as ontology, to ways of being and of thinking about the relationship of the human being with the world that are different and foreign to these notions, are inherited from a long Western tradition that has not ceased to redefine and reformulate them over the centuries. A notion so distorted in Western thought was adapted to anthropology by Viveiros de Castro.

Curiously, when the works on Amazonian perspectivism and multinaturalism became known in Mexico, what Mexican anthropologists who were interested in this current (Saúl Millán, Johannes Neurath, among others) rescued most was this concept of ontology (Hernández Dávila, "The concept of ontology", "The concept of ontology", "The concept of ontology", "The concept of ontology", "The concept of ontology" and "The concept of ontology"). et al., 2018: 71-196), which, in my view, is the most problematic for several reasons. One of them is that there are ethnographic realities that escape from this scheme of thought, to which numerous studies, both in Mexico and in the world, attest . . Another is due to a problem of simple logic or coherence in terms of its critical discourse on classical anthropology: if what is sought is to understand the perspective of the other in order to encompass the multiple ways of living in and conceiving the world, why use as a reference criterion a classical philosophical conception of western culture whose metaphysical definition of being as an entity in its essence is hardly malleable when confronted with other ways of thinking about the world? Indeed, it is worth asking whether the dichotomies implicit in studies on perspectivism and ontologies, such as subject/object or human/non-human, are valid for the cosmologies we study.

There is an abundance of anthropological work, both in Amerindian societies of Mexico and other peoples of America and various latitudes, as well as from the approaches of Alfred Gell (2016 [1998]) on art as agency, in which it has been shown that an object can become a social subject in certain contexts, thus questioning the dichotomy between subject and object. In the case of many societies that have been included in the Mesoamerican area (here I will not enter into this debate), numerous studies by Mexican anthropologists (among others, those of Jacques Galinier, Danièle Dehouve, Gutiérrez and many others) have concluded that we are faced with a system where not only the distinction between culture and nature is not relevant, but also the distinction between humans and non-humans, given the anthropomorphized conceptions of both nature and deified entities.

And yet, in a certain Mexican anthropology, the term "ontology" came to substitute in discourses and essays the concept of "cosmovision" and to be used practically as a synonym of another term that was commonly used in Mexican anthropology influenced by the works of Alfredo López-Austin, Johanna Broda and others (2001: 47-65), focused on the search for the "hard core" of Mesoamerican thought.This is how a fashionable effect took place in Mexico about 20 years ago, inspired by themes that in other places (mainly Brazil, United States and Europe) had already been formulated and discussed since the 1990s. This response of Mexican anthropology, also of culturalist tradition, echoes the discussions started since 2008 on whether the concept of ontology should not be understood "just as another word to refer to culture" (Carrithers et al., 2010: 152-200).

Indeed, it seems that, in spite of describing interspecies and intercultural relations in all their fluidity and dynamics, the concept of ontology seems to be a return to an essentialist and static vision of beings, which can be seen as an atavism of the culturalist tradition. Descola, in his book Beyond nature and culture (2012 [2005]), argues that there are four ontologies in the world: animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism, in which all the societies of the planet are distributed. To pigeonhole all the societies of the world into four major categories, it seems to me, denotes a disproportionate ambition that borders on speculation. Universalist and generalizing speculations that had been questioned by Boas and Lévi-Strauss in their criticisms of evolutionists who, it should be remembered, formulated the first theories on animism and totemism, names of two of the ontologies established by Descola. In the face of the criticisms that have been directed at this totalizing scheme, this author has more recently conceded that in certain cases and specific contexts several ontologies could be combined with each other. However, in doing our work as anthropologists, we continue to encounter subjects and things in the world - "existents", Latour (2012) would say - and other cosmologies that escape or go beyond these theoretical-methodological constructions based on observations made in Amazonian and Oceanian societies mainly.

Of course, both Viveiros de Castro and Descola and other representatives of perspectivism in anthropology have been responding to the criticisms that their colleagues have addressed to their initial proposals, dialoguing and finding new grounds for fruitful discussions (Viveiros de Castro, 2014: 161-181; Descola and Ingold, 2014). As a result of these critical exchanges around perspectivism and multinaturalism, debates and reflections on novel issues such as multispecies, multiverses, the anthropocene or cosmopolitics have now been developed, thus exceeding the limits of the anthropological discipline and putting it into dialogue with other areas of knowledge. Questions have also been developed and expanded around the distinction between human and non-human, recognizing the existence of hybrid beings that do not fall into any of these categories (Latour, 1991; Houdart and Olivier, 2011). In relation to the above, contemporary phenomena such as "technological non-humans", transhumanism or artificial intelligence technologies are also being reflected upon in order to rethink the limits of the human and anthropocentrism, from different disciplines. From the approaches of Viveiros de Castro, Descola and Latour, it can be said that a multitude of new anthropological and interdisciplinary proposals have appeared that question our contemporary human condition. New paradigms of thought about the world around us have emerged that have profoundly transformed anthropology and other sciences and even cultural, political or social movements in the last decade.

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How has this trend influenced your work?

Despite its current relevance, this current does not influence my work because my research is part of another theoretical-methodological tradition of anthropology.

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When I studied Anthropology in Paris in the late 1990s, the perspectivist current and the ontological turn were predominant, especially at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences).ehess), in which she was enrolled to write a report of dea under the direction of Philippe Descola. This is when I began to familiarize myself with the work and academic discussions of various researchers who followed this line of thought, many of them invited by Descola in courses and seminars. Among these guests I remember, for example, listening to Viveiros de Castro, Carlos Fausto, Stephen Hugue Jones and Els Lagrou. Both the work of the guest researchers I have just mentioned, as well as that of French researchers working on related topics, such as Anne-Christine Taylor, Dimitri Karadimas or Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, to mention only a few for lack of space, were enriching sources of learning, allowing us to learn about and explore topics such as Amerindian cosmologies, native thought systems, indigenous taxonomies, kinship systems, shamanic chants, anthropology of the senses, social role of ritual objects such as masks, etc.

On the other hand, as I developed my ethnographic reflections and research, I realized that in many cases it was difficult to apply the theories and methods proposed by perspectivism in Amazonia to Mexican contexts. As an example, I will mention some reflections that led me to an analysis of the figure of Kauyumari among the Wixaritari (Huichol), because there are mythological and ritual figures that are "good to think about" because they escape precisely to any ontological circumscription: we have a character of the type tricksterambiguous, contradictory, paradoxical, imperfect, who does not even know himself if he really exists, since his name literally means "the one who does not know himself". In other words, he is a being and a non-being at the same time (Kindl, 2019: 134). How to make use in these cases of the concept of ontology? This example interrogates both the concept of ontology formulated by Viveiros de Castro and Descola's (2006) concept of ontological figuration.

Certainly, the contributions of perspectivist studies have had an impact on my work, as well as on anthropology in general, to think about the possibility of a decolonizing theory and practice within the social sciences. A radical questioning of the "coloniality of knowledge" applied to ethnographic practice in which the discourse and worldview of the native (Viveiros de Castro, 2016 [2002]: 29-69), i.e., our interlocutors in the field, are "taken seriously" (Viveiros de Castro, 2016 [2002]: 29-69). Viveiros de Castro's approaches invite us to reflect on whether cultural anthropology should not be an intercultural and perspectivist anthropology, that is, a truly intercultural anthropology and not simply a cultural anthropology that reflects on interculturality. This part is, in my opinion, the most salvageable part of perspectivism. However, from my Mexicanist point of view, there is still much to discuss, question and rethink about the question of ontologies and dichotomies between subject and object, human and non-human.

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Broda, Johanna and Félix Baez-Jorge (eds.) (2001). Cosmovision, ritual and identity of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Mexico: Economic Culture Fund.

Carrithers, Michael, Matei Candea, Karen Sykes, Martin Holbraad, and Soumhya Venkatesan (2010). "Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory." Critique of Anthropology 30, pp. 152-200.

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Hernández Dávila, Carlos Arturo (coord.) (2018). "The ontological turn: a (possible) dialogue with Mesoamericanist ethnography." Cuicuilco. Journal of Anthropological Sciencesvol. 25, no. 72, May-August, pp. 71-196.

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Kindl, Olivia (2019). "Effets de présence et figurations rituelles dans le 'désert magique' de Wirikuta. Kauyumari ou le Cerf Bleu, entre les rituels, l'art et la vie", Trace, 76, July, pp. 130-166 [On line].; DOI: 

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Gabriel Bourdin PhD in Anthropology (unam). Professor and lecturer at universities in Mexico (enah, unam, uic, Sor Juana, among others), Argentina (uba, Luján, uner, unsm), Spain (University of Granada), France (Sorbonne-Université-Paris iv, Université Bordeaux-Montaigne) and Bulgaria (University of Sofia). Member of the National System of Researchers (sni-conahcyt). He is a full time researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas de la unam. Research member of the Association Marcel Jousse, based in Paris.

His area of study is the anthropology of language. He recently published The anthropological jungle. An introduction to Marcel Jousse's anthropology of gesture and pampering. (unam, 2019); and the first translation into Spanish of The oral, rhythmic and mnemotechnical style of the verbo-motors, by Marcel Joussepreceded by an introductory essay (unam, 2020). He has published several books and articles on the subject of the body and emotions in the Mayan language. She coordinates the Permanent Seminar on Anthropology of the Body, Emotions and Expressive Gesture (IIA-iia-unam).

Olivia Kindl is a professor-researcher in the Anthropological Studies Program at El Colegio de San Luis. Born in Paris, she has a degree in Ethnology from the National School of Anthropology and History. She obtained the National Prize "Fray Bernardino de Sahagún" for her thesis "The Huichol jícara: a Mesoamerican microcosm". Her PhD in Ethnology was awarded by the University of Paris X-Nanterre. His research has focused, from the anthropology of art and theories of ritual, on the analysis of the visual arts of the Wixaritari (Huichol), which he compared with those of the Coras, Tepehuanes and populations of the Potosi highlands. More recently, his analyses have been linked to the theories of the performance and the anthropology of techniques. He has also ventured into ethnoarchaeology and historical anthropology. His scientific and popular works have been published in Mexico, France, Germany and the United States. For more information, see

Arturo Gutierrez del Angel is professor-researcher of the Anthropological Studies Program at El Colegio de San Luis. He has been a member of the National System of Researchers (SNI) since 2008. His research has revolved around mythology, religions and rituals. She has specialized in visual anthropology, particularly in the relationship between photography, plastic and cultural expressions. He has worked with groups from western and northern Mexico, such as the Wixaritari and the Na'ayari. He has published five books as author and six books as co-author, in addition to publications in national and international magazines. He has exhibited his photographic work in museums and galleries; he has 20 exhibitions of photographs related to Asia, "El instante de la mirada: 5 países de Asia".


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