Shadow of the Past

Photographer Robert Clark discusses the shadowy origins of a hotel owner's Wari pot.

This story appears in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Robert Clark has shot a lot of archaeology stories for the magazine, including several in Peru. But he calls this month’s feature on the northern Wari people (“Untouched”) “just amazing. By far the richest dig I’ve ever been on.”

A 1,200-year-old tomb known as El Castillo de Huarmey—unlooted at a much plundered site—is yielding new insights into South America’s first empire builders. Yet mysteries remain. One was in Clark’s hotel.

“Behind the front desk was a Wari pot,” he says. “The owner said he bought it from a tomb raider, like a lot of people around town had.”

Over the next three weeks, as Clark photographed the dig site and objects being studied in a lab, he thought about the pot. “I wanted to show its beauty,” he says, “and I wondered about its history. Where has it been? And who looted it? It was a shadowy figure, in my interpretation.”

On his last day in town, minutes before leaving for Lima, he brought that image to life. Drawing on his past experience as a portrait photographer—“that’s where I learned about shadow and lighting”—he took this shot of a hotel employee holding the pot, silhouetted against a wall.

“It was the very last photo I made,” Clark says, “and it happened really quickly. A lot of times you preplan and preplan. But sometimes a picture just comes together in the moment.” —Jeremy Berlin