Capturing Tradition

 Mexico has one of the largest and most diverse Indigenous populations in Latin America. It represents 15% of the country’s inhabitants, with 68 distinct groups each speaking a unique language and living by their own traditions. These communities are increasingly urbanised, 1.2 million live in Mexico City alone, but many continue to exist on ancestral lands and follow customs that have been unchanged for generations. Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) is one of the best-known photographers of her generation, famed for exploring ideas of Mexican culture, identity and belonging. Her black and white photographs juxtapose rural and urban, traditional and modern, documenting the Seri people of the Sonoran Desert and the cholo gangs of Los Angeles and Tujuana. Her work, spanning 50 years, has painted a sensitive picture of a country built on a rich history that is also in a state of constant transition and modernisation. Now Shadowlines, a retrospective of her work, is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.  

Iturbide began to study photography in 1970 under the mentorship of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, one of the most influential figures in 20th century Latin American photography. Bravo’s explorations of folk art and rituals, especially burials and decorations, urban streets and everyday interactions are echoed throughout Iturbide’s oeuvre. He helped refine her poetic and introspective style, and, like her teacher, Iturbide captured a culture in constant flux, melding together the deeply engrained Catholicism and the pre-Hispanic rites that defined the nation at the time. Another, more tragic, catalyst for her photographic career was the death of her six-year-old daughter, Claudia. The echoes of Iturbide’s grief are felt in her early works, which often involve ‘angelitos’ – children or infants who had passed away, and their burials. It wasn’t until 1978, when she came across the body of a dead man whilst following the procession of a baby’s funeral, that she left the motif behind. In an interview with The Guardian, she said: “I felt as if death has appeared and said, ‘That’s enough! Don’t keep living your suffering in this way. Stop it!”  

Yet, in the years that followed, Iturbide’s photography continued to teeter on a knife-edge. She says: “I notice the pain as well as the beauty … I am interested in taking pictures of people with dignity.” Her subjects were often indigenous tribes, and Shadowlines includes her most iconic series Juchitan de las Mujeres (1979-1989). Here, she offers a sensitive glimpse into traditions and struggles of the Zoptec of Tehuantepec, including their matriarchal system. Many of Iturbide’s pictures capture the women who lead all aspects of social life. She often crouches to take photos, elevating them to a position of power. The iconic Angel Woman, taken in the Sonoran Desert, does just this. A female figure overlooks the Mexican landscape, with a stereo grasped in one hand. Dark hair cascades down her back and her arms are spread as she strides forward. It captures a feeling of strength, with the stereo acting as a metaphor for the 20th century. In another photo, Our Lady of the Iguanas, a Zapotec woman defiantly gazes into the distance as she carries a crown of live iguanas on her head. There is no questioning her regality.  

The ethics of documentary photography have long been brought into question. Do subjects have agency over how they are depicted? Who should tell their stories, how and why? Iturbide’s approach is one of collaboration and understanding. She immersed herself in the lives of the Zoptec of Tehuantepec for a decade, and her photographs reflect this. Whilst she was influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” – the instant you choose to take the photograph – she has long discussed what it means to tread the balance between snapping the perfect shot and maintaining authentic relationships. “I was in many places where I became aware of an interesting photographic opportunity but didn’t take advantage because I was talking with one of the women. It depended on what was most important at that moment. I probably lost a few good photos, but it was so important to be with Señora X, who was right there.” In Shadowlines, relationship-building and sensitivity emerge as cornerstones of a distinguished career.   

Shadowlines is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 14 June – 22 September.

Words: Emma Jacob

Image Credits:
1. Angel woman (Mujer Angel), Sonoran Desert, 1979. Collection Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. © Graciela Iturbide
2. Cemetery (Cementerio), Chiapas, 1975. Courtesy of a Private Collection © Graciela Iturbide
3. Our Lady of the Iguanas (Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas), Juchitàn, Mexico, 1979. Collection Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. © Graciela Iturbide