Mariceu Erthal García, a Mexican photographer who uses her lens to reflect on humanitarian issues. Her project Letters to Gemma sheds light on the violence and criminality in her country. She’s one of the five recipients of the Eugene Smith Grant 2020.
One day in 2011, Gemma Màvil, a girl in her late twenties, left her home in the Mexican city of Veracruz to get to a job interview. A few hours later, her father, Pedro Màvil, received a phone call: on the other end of the line, he heard the screams of his daughter and a stranger demanding a ransom of a million pesos. Pedro Màvil was unable to raise the money in time, and he never saw his daughter again.
In Mexico, where one person disappears every two hours, the abduction of Gemma Màvil is far from being an isolated incident. These heinous crimes often go unpunished, with 98% of them left unsolved.
As a Mexican woman, Mariceu Erthal García has to live with the constant fear of falling prey to a violent crime. As a documentary photographer, she is compelled to tell the stories that, like Gemma’s, are often left untold. The Màvil family welcomed her into their home and visit after visit, she grew closer to the memory of Gemma. Through her photography, she channels something of her soul: her poetry, the places she inhabited, all of the small and intimate objects that make us who we are. The result is a deeply emotional project that reflects upon absence, longing, and grief.
What poetry can say about violence
When you first look at Mariceu Erthal García’s work, you’re struck by the softness of it all: her world is one of poetry and symbolism. She tells a story of grief through harmonious compositions, where each innocuous detail is loaded with significance. The terrible truths she’s reporting on are only implied. But as you dive into the Letters to Gemma project, the political dimension of the photos become obvious. It is also the aspect of her work that Mariceu Erthal García is the most eager to talk about:
“I like to do activism with my photos. Most people tend to ignore the things that terrify them, and this is part of the reason why the voices of the victims and their families are never heard. I think their voices matter, and this project is my way of doing something about it.”
In Mexico, the problem of abductions is a structural one. Violence is everywhere and takes on different forms: from domestic violence to organized crimes. But what makes the case of Gemma so compelling is the added layer of injustice that her family had to endure.
“The government doesn't have a structure to find these people. Gemma’s family feels like she disappeared twice. Once on the day of her abduction, and once when her genetic profile disappeared from the government's database, making it impossible to identify a body that was found through an anonymous tip that her father received. The people in charge of the case didn’t do their job. It’s not only a problem of violence, it’s also a problem of incompetence.”
Building intimate bonds
When Mariceu Erthal García first decided to work on missing persons, she had no idea she would focus on only one case for three years. “When I started learning about Gemma, I just couldn’t move on to different stories. I felt such a deep connection to her. Through her, I can talk about everyone else who has also disappeared.”
Mariceu Erthal García wanted to cover the case of a girl who was her age at the time of her disappearance. She knew that she would do her best work if she was able to relate to the victim, bringing in personal emotions, building intimacy. “I feel very close to Gemma. I found blogs with some of the poems she had written, and through them, I felt she was talking to me directly. It was very touching. This project is proof that you can know people even if you haven’t actually met them.”
Mariceu made the bold choice of using self-portraits to talk about Gemma. One of the project’s most striking photos is of her wearing Gemma’s Quinceañera dress. “When I saw a picture of Gemma during her Quinceañera, I knew that her parents still had the dress, as it is customary in Mexico to keep such important outfits. I started taking pictures of the dress and soon felt this urge to wear it myself. Her parents agreed. It was such an intense, emotional moment for all of us, but it was confusing. At the time, I didn’t really understand why I did that.”
Now, Mariceu Erthal García says Gemma is a part of her. She frequently remembers her even on the days when she’s not working on the project. The only photo that wasn’t taken inside Gemma’s home is of flowers she encountered on a day of climbing: “I wasn’t thinking of her that day, but then I saw this blend of beauty and sadness, and it reminded me of her.”
How to capture an absence
At its core, the project Letters to Gemma reflects on the possibility of photographing an absence, a lack. Mariceu Erthal García wanted to show Gemma’s life, suspended like it was on the day she left home for the very first time. Her mother turned her room into a shrine to her missing daughter. To this day, it remains untouched, and even the photographer wasn’t allowed in. This room she was never able to photograph leaves the mystery of Gemma intact. “I find a lot of symbols in the house. For example, the place where she used to grow flowers, and that is now abandoned.”
Gemma’s parents are the subjects of some of the project’s most touching photos. Gemma’s father immediately opened up to Mariceu Erthal García, but it was harder to connect with her mother at first. Gradually, she was able to appreciate Mariceu’s progress. “The last time I visited them, I gave them a magazine that showed the project and I read a letter I had written to Gemma. Her mother said she wanted to keep it: this was highly symbolic for me.”