Photography in Oaxaca: Reality or Romantic Vision

What does a photographer whose subjects were native Americans have to do with Oaxaca?  Read on.

1900’s photographer Edward S. Curtis sought to capture the vanishing American Indian.  The just published Curtis biography,  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan, documents Curtis’ quest over the next thirty years traveling throughout the American west.  The photographs are stunning, emotionally connecting, and compelling. They present us with a real image of native American Indian life at the time.

Or do they?  The book reviewer Josh Garrett-Davis, a Ph.D. student in American history at Princeton University, and  the author of “Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains” (Little, Brown & Company) brings to question whether Egan promulgates the romance of the Old West and the inclination of photographer Curtis to capture life as he thought it should be.

This is an important question for documentary photographers.  The discussion challenges me to think about my own photography of Oaxaca life and her indigenous people.  Each of us who holds a camera could benefit from taking a moment to ask ourselves if we romanticize our subjects in order to capture what we believe should be authentic in the face of unrelenting forces of change.

Curtis was given almost unrestricted access to the tribes he photographed, asked his subjects to pose, and often removed signs of contemporary life from his photographs in the darkroom in order to present his subjects in an idealized environment.  We are more easily able to do this today with Photoshop.

Garrett-Davis says, “As gorgeous and useful as much of his work remains, the project as Curtis conceived it was a fool’s errand. He hurried to salvage scraps of pristine Indian culture, because, he said, “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations, and it’s a tragedy.” He had been infected with the white American fantasy that Indians were the “Vanishing Race,” to use the title of the opening image of the entire series. It depicts a line of Navajos, barely more than silhouettes, riding away from the camera and into a dark oblivion.”

Photography is a powerful medium. Through the lens we get to chose the story we tell.  And, we cannot prevent change.  Societal pressures from within as well as from external influences direct the forces of change.  Positive change has opened access to education, health care, good jobs and discussion about cultural revitalization.

Now, on to showing more Day of the Dead photographs!

Oaxaca Street Photography starts January 16.


2 responses to “Photography in Oaxaca: Reality or Romantic Vision

  1. I take a lot of photos, but I am not a photographer. I am a painter, and I look through a camera as I look at a blank canvass – my main concerns are aesthetic. I have to admit, I haven’t thought much about the ethics of photography, except to ask people before taking their photo. This is an interesting question – do we have any obligation, beyond aesthetics, in taking our pictures? After all, we aren’t journalists. We aren’t sworn to uphold any sort of objective truth. I have always thought that my pictures are an expression of what my eye sees – personal, yes… even intimate, but ultimately more revealing of me than of my subjects. I would certainly be dismayed, however, to find out that the subjects of my photos saw the end result as inauthentic or somehow falsified.

    • Aimee, you raise an interesting point … as artists we always interpret what we see and that is the beauty of personal expression through any art form, be it painting or ceramics or photography. To photograph people is often a reflection of ourselves in relationship to our subjects. Old, weathered, wise women often capture my attention. As a hobbyist photographer, I choose my subjects based on my own interests and views of the world. But, somewhere in the back of my mind there is that nagging question: in this image, what am I portraying to the world when I publish a photo on my blog. I don’t know the answer. I only know the question. And, perhaps by continuing to ask the question that will be what keeps me “honest.” Early on when starting my blog seven years ago, I wanted to preserve what was authentic in weaving and in the Zapotec culture. I have come around to realizing that there is no such thing as authenticity. Life and people change and if traditions are altered then what was “authentic” is adapted to suit life as it is now. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in responding!

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