In Latin America, women active in the world of photography are not just muses: they have created many of the works we have in front of us today. And yet, we are not sufficiently aware of their existence. We take a closer look at the lack of visibility and recognition of women in Latin American photography.
“No magazine would hire me because I am a woman. At the time, there were no women photographers in Brazil”: Claudia Andujar made this statement a few months ago as she was looking back on her career and the hurdles she had to overcome when she was starting out in the 1960s. Many women have gone through similar struggle to carve out a place for themselves. Photography pioneers in Latin America, artists like Claudia Andujar as well as Graciela Iturbide and Lola Alvarez Bravo, who are an inspiration to artists at home and abroad, paved the way for all contemporary women photographers.
Although things have changed since the early days of Claudia Andujar’s career, and it is quite common nowadays for a woman to be a photographer, the battle isn’t over. As photography gradually shifts from reporting and documentation to fine art, and it is no longer a question of working for a magazine but rather of being able to exhibit, Chilean photographer Zaida González laments the fact that, “despite over twenty years’ worth of intensive production and hard work, she sees men gaining recognition much more quickly, with less effort and smaller output.” Refusing the role of a victim, the artist chooses to fight by creating subversive work—
which sometimes gets censored or brutally barred from participating in publications and events. Her photographic work includes representations that are disturbing because they fall outside conventional expectations. The need to create such images (especially representations of sexualities considered marginal) stems from González’s conviction that “the intimate is collective. And [also from the fact that,] as a woman, she has often been discriminated against and ignored.” Her Trans Tarot—a tarot deck featuring, as the title indicates, transsexual people—is part of this approach. The artist seeks to “preserve the popular culture of Latin America, while combining it with themes that have survived from the era of colonization to the current socio-political context created as a result. [In her work], she tries to eroticize or empower those who are marginalized and discriminated against.”
“Courageous, strong, and determined”
Venezuelan photographer Jahel Guerra Roa similarly combines activism and art in the streets of her current hometown of Barcelona. Her projects Mujeres del Maíz and Nada que Celebrar consist of portraits of women. These women, who keep the artist going and inspire her, are often members of activist collectives she frequents: “the women I chose [to photograph in my projects] are very active in feminist and Latino circles.” The portraits celebrate women’s struggle and Latin American cultural diaspora, combining photography and concrete action in the field, as the artist also bring performance into her photographic work.
In one of the few projects in which she approaches photography from a documentary perspective, Lourdes Grobet spent thirty years following Mexican wrestlers—those “courageous, strong and determined women.” One day, as she went about photographing a freestyle wrestling tournament “without giving [the subjects] any heads-up, the way press photographers used to do,” the event’s organizer came over to chew her out, because she was a woman and because he could not understand what she was doing. The story has a happy ending: the two became friends, and Lourdes was granted permanent authorization to photograph the wrestlers.
It was thanks to her contact with the world of female wrestling that Grobet came to understand that feminism, “as imported from Europe and the United States, [was] far removed from Mexican women’s reality, and even more from the reality of women wrestlers.” She is now able to see how far she has come: “At the beginning of my career, it was very difficult to be a woman photographer. But women have slowly asserted their presence, even if [the struggle] is not over yet. I’ve always considered myself as someone who won’t let themselves be mistreated or be issued orders. I’ve always done what I wanted to do. It has been difficult, but I have made it.”
Platforms for visibility
The fight for equality need not always take the form of direct, on-the-ground activism or focus on topical issues. “It is often believed that women artists necessarily work around the theme of gender, but this is not the case,” rightfully notes Peruvian artist Solange Adum Abdala, who works on issues involving landscape and the materiality of images. Classifying a photograph based on the gender or background of its creator—identifying a photograph as typically “feminine” or “Latin American”—does not make much sense. The struggle for visibility and equality may well take other paths.
Confronted with a lack of visibility, some women artists have resorted to very concrete measures, for example, creating networks to boost the presence of women on the web and in public institutions. Verónica Sanchis Bencomo, a Venezuelan based in Hong Kong, ranks among them. In 2015, she created FotoFéminas, a platform inspired by the following simple observation: “I felt there was a big gap in the representation of Latin American women photographers.” The platform aims to overcome the invisibility of women photographers by creating online and brick-and-mortar exhibitions of their work, making them aware of photography prizes and putting them in touch with institutions she has partnered with, as well as connecting photographers with one another. Today, FotoFéminas has become a go-to network: “Its online format and the fact that the platform is bilingual, Spanish and English, has made it very accessible,” comments its founder. While Sanchis Bencomo is aware that “we have a long road ahead of us,” FotoFéminas has helped many photographers to put their art in the spotlight. Solange Adum Abdala testifies how important the platform has been to her, allowing her to launch her career outside the borders of her country: “[Such platforms] are absolutely indispensable. There is a growing need for more spaces (virtual and physical) dedicated to the dissemination of projects carried out by minorities, vulnerable groups, or those located outside the hegemonic structure.”
Subverting the male colonial gaze
Alinka Echeverria’s project Nicéphora examines the hegemonic perspective prevalent in photography, which since its invention has been practiced mainly by white males and thus showing the world exclusively through their eyes. “The male colonial gaze is intrinsically tied to photography, so much so that it is hard to tell them apart,” comments Echeverria, who identifies herself as an artist and anthropologist. Nicéphora was made in 2015 during a residency at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, as part of the BMW Award the artist had won earlier that year. Limited to the images in the museum’s archives, Alinka Echeverria worked to subvert the gaze of colonial-era photography. She discovered images in the majority of which women were the muses and men the creators who viewed the women as “exotic” or “other.” “Just like Pygmalion constructed a perfect woman with his own hands, colonial photographers immortalized a fantasized type of woman,” notes the artist. In Nicéphora, she splinters and offsets this one-sided, authoritarian view of women which held sway for hundreds of years. “I wanted to subvert and reframe the archive in order to initiate a new process of construction of otherness in accordance with our contemporary ways of looking,” she explains.
Frida Kahlo’s photography collection
Although she is much better known for her work as a painter, in her spare time Frida Kahlo was also a photographer. The artist further deserves to be noted for her activity as a photography collector, a fact discovered only recently. After all, it is not just photographers who keep photography alive: those who exhibit it, disseminate it, and preserve it also play an important part. In 2004, more than fifty years after the death of the Mexican icon, a collection of several hundred prints was found in her blue bathroom: there were portraits of Diego Rivera, his family, and friends taken by Frida herself as well as by some of the greatest photographers of the time—Man Ray, Brassaï, Pierre Verger, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Gisèle Freund, to name a few... Some of the pictures are inscribed by the artist, some bear traces of her lipstick…
Frida Kahlo is one of only two female artists in the world (the other being Sonia Delaunay) to outsell her husband. This is not just a curious factoid: may it be a source of hope to all Latin American women artists and photographers whose practice and lives are intrinsically linked to a struggle for equality.
By Elsa Leydier