An Exploration of Mexico Through the Lens of Graciela Iturbide
After studying to become a film director at Universidad Nacional Autónama de México and later going on to work as a photographer’s assistant to Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide has grown to become one of the most iconic photographers to emerge out of modern Mexico.
Her photography focuses predominantly on ethnological explorations of Indigenous Mexican communities, considering also ethical issues of Indigenous Othering, the woman’s position in society, and the deconstruction of gender binaries. Photographing exclusively in black and white, Iturbide’s photography often includes motifs of spirituality, religious and ritualistic symbolism. In particular, her photographs of Juchitán de Zaragoza, where she spent a decade residing in the Indigenous Zapotec village in the state of Oaxaca, are celebrated for its defining contribution to the community’s visual identity. In light of her nomination for Outstanding Contribution to Photography at the Sony World Photography Awards 2021, we take a look at photographs of Mexico from Iturbide’s oeuvre.
Perhaps one of Iturbide’s most famous works from her series in Juchitán is Nuestra señora de las Iguanas (1979), which has been reproduced in the form of sculptures, road signs, posters, and murals around the world. Adding to the allure of these photographs is the story behind the matriarchal social structures that characterizes Juchitán de Zaragoza. Defying the “Machismo” culture of masculine dominance and pride, women in the town of Juchitán often control elements of family affairs ranging from finances to deciding whether their husbands are allowed to buy cigarettes or go out drinking. Although men continue to be the breadwinners and maintain their space in farms or factories, they are often socialized to hand their earnings over to women. To this effect, men provide the raw materials whilst women run and oversee the selling of products in the market, where men are forbidden to enter. It was exactly here in the mercado, where Iturbide was working, when she encountered Zobeida, the vendor of iguanas who is pictured in Nuestra señora de las Iguanas. Iturbide manages to reflect this notion of female empowerment in her delicately crafted balance of portraying Zobeida as humanized yet strong. Iturbide’s upward gaze establishes a sense of dominance in her subject, whilst the medusa-like crown of the iguanas allows for Zobeida’s majestic qualities to come to light.
In 1980, Iturbide was comissioned by the Ethnographic Archive of the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico as part of a project documenting the lifestyle of Mexican Seri people, a formerly nomadic Indigenous community. Residing in Punta Chueca in the Mexican state of Sonora, Iturbide spent a month and a half living with the Seri people in their homes to develop a close relationship with her subjects and establish her presence as the community photographer. During her time in Punta Chueca, Itburbide observed the Seri’s traditional way of life and the Western influence that capitalism has had within their community. “Mujer Angel” (1980) depicts an almost mythical female figure wearing traditional Seri clothing as she walks through Mexico’s Sonoran desert, carrying a tape recorder. The Seri’s would exchange artisanal crafts such as baskets and carvings for tape recorders with Americans so that they could listen to Mexican music. Iturbide recalls that the Seri’s were able to assimilate to elements of American culture without losing their autonomy and traditions.
Iturbide’s gaze is not one that imposes a dimension of Self and Otherness and her work is based heavily on complicity. In part, this is a reflection of the relationship that Iturbide forms over getting to know her subjects intimately, but more importantly it mirrors Iturbide’s honest intentions of portraying a society that she resonates with, and one that allows her to discover facets of her own Mexican nationality. Iturbide shows that by taking the time to live within these communities and understand their culture, her photography has become a reflection of her own experiences - she explains that she views photography as “a regard within a regard - between the gaze of the photographer and the gaze of the subject, the image becomes a reflection of the person taking the picture”. As both Juchitán and Punta Chueca are one of the few areas in Mexico that have preserved their traditional customs, it enables Iturbide to unadulteratedly improve her understanding of her Mexican heritage. One of the reasons she became a photographer “was to get to know [her] country and its diverse cultures", and her imagery certainly gazes upon her subjects with a fervent sense of national pride.