Inhabiting, interpreting and subverting icons of the Catholic faith, the many womxn that populate MADRE celebrate the complexity of contemporary Bolivian identity. In her powerful portrait project, Marisol Mendez pushes up against the reductive representations of womxn in her home country, working closely with her sitters to dream up images of resistance that reimagine the religious figures of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary.

Full of references to Bolivia’s syncretic culture, MADRE weaves Andean folklore together with Catholic iconography to empower Mendez’s protagonists, each transfiguring their chosen icon into a living, breathing character rife with contradictions and experience. In portraying the “mother matriarchs, devout witches, emancipated wives, devilish virgins and dancing widows” of MADRE, the photographer found a way to reconnect to her own female lineage after time spent studying abroad.

In this interview for LensCulture, Mendez speaks to Sophie Wright about using photography as a tool to pause and reflect, the collaborative process that underpins her portraits and resisting a colonial, patriarchal gaze.

“Matriarca” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

Sophie Wright: Can you tell me about your beginnings in photography? When and how did you become interested in the medium?

Marisol Mendez: I stumbled upon photography and fell in love instantly. Originally, I wanted to become a screenwriter. Since words were my first source of expression, I thought my stories would manifest as scripts. However, I soon realized that in order to compose a film I needed to also master the construction of images as well as sentences. I took photography lessons and something clicked (pun intended). And just like that, the activity that was supposed to improve my writing skills became my passion.

I believe what attracts me to photography is that it’s a medium that demands brevity and pause. You only get one shot to organize a universe within the frame, so you have to be precise and instinctive.

“Sin” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: Exploring the female experience and how to picture it feels like a running current through all your projects. How would you describe the key concerns that drive you as a photographer? And why is photography your chosen way of exploring them?

MM: I think that curiosity drives my practice and intuition guides it. I’m interested in the poetic power of images and how they can shape reality into very concrete forms. The act of photographing helps me focus and build trust. We live in such a fast-paced, dizzying world that stopping to consider just one frame in time is a welcome pause to reflect. When holding my camera, I feel I can get closer to others or gain new perspectives about a situation. Photography is the tool that allows me to gain insights about myself whilst looking out.

SW: What was the starting point of your project MADRE? Did it mark a point of departure from your previous work or did it grow out of things you were already thinking about in your practice?

MM: I think that MADRE was a natural progression from previous works. It condenses and refines earlier explorations around memory and identity but has deeper roots. The project was born out of multiple frustrations. I was angry at the lack of nuanced representations of womxn, especially in a multi-ethnic and pluricultural country like mine. I was finding it hard to connect to my Bolivian identity and felt helpless in the face of machismo.

MADRE was my way of addressing all these concerns. It allowed me to celebrate the diversity and complexity of my culture while raising questions about patriarchal rule and gender discrimination. Simultaneously, the project became the cathartic experience that allowed me to (re)connect to my female lineage and through it (re)verse the history of Bolivia.

“Miss” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: You had been living in Buenos Aires then London before starting MADRE. How did the return back to Bolivia shape the project? Would you say the time spent away had a strong impact on how you approached it?

MM: Completely. Before I left Cochabamba, I hadn’t even flirted with the idea of exploring narrative through photography. I wasn’t familiar with the language of images so I didn’t recognize its potential. I was introduced to image-making and thinking through cinema in Buenos Aires, and fashion in London. I learned to look, reflect and compose before setting new eyes upon my culture and heritage.

This exposure to different ideas, thoughts, and worlds outside of my native one helped me realize that the womxn in my society were still viewed and represented in phallocentric, heteronormative, and colonialist ways. MADRE lays out a narrative through a multiplicity of bodies, symbols and times that subverts religious icons, relating them to indigenous culture. The heterogenous variety of images invites us to question the white, patriarchal canon that prevails in the representation of womxn in Bolivia, alongside the presence of the class struggle and religious influence.

“Ñaupas” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: When thinking about this plurality and the creation of a diverse portrayal of Bolivian femininity that is at the heart of MADRE, what kind of representations were you working in opposition to? Did they come from an international gaze on Bolivia or a local one?

MM: At its core, the project explores representation and how context contaminates it. Bolivian faith is a complex interlacing of Catholic ideals and ancient pagan expressions. The images are intended to reflect on this syncretism. In MADRE religious iconography and portraits of Bolivian womxn are confronted to contrast the unchanging nature of effigies to the plasticity of flesh and the spectrum of gender.

I thought it would be fitting to defy the sexist orthodoxy of Catholicism by (re)appropriating its religious imagery; responding to its language to oppose the message it bears. The womxn in MADRE are depicted as multiple versions of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary; depictions that confront Catholic iconography with the echoes of Andean folklore. In doing so, I believe I was working in opposition to a colonized gaze and working through an internalized patriarchal gaze.

“Dual” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: The project has a powerful cast of different characters. Can you tell me more about the range of womxn you chose to photograph and the process of finding and collaborating with them?

MM: When I set out to make portraits for MADRE I had two conditions in mind: to photograph everyday womxn and to make the process a collaborative one. Finding sitters was something that happened organically. I would go about my life and approach womxn I felt connected to. I found them at coffee shops, in the streets, at the theater, in public transportation, during dance lessons and even at protests.

The goal was to get to know them as well as possible before the actual portrait session. I feel I developed a special bond with each of my subjects, spending hours over coffee, engaging in conversation, and discussing our place within Bolivian society.

“Pelusa” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: There is an interesting interplay between the very real issues your sitters face as womxn and the mythical way they are portrayed. How did gender-based oppression inform the way you took the images? How did you approach balancing strength and vulnerability?

MM: From the first talks with the sitters, I realized that even though everyone came from a different background, some were strong and some were vulnerable—but all of them had faced some form of gender discrimination. However, what struck me the most, was that even the ones that tackled the harshest oppression didn’t present themselves as victims.

I wanted to honor the integrity of the womxn I met while making the project and highlight their agency and resilience. It felt natural to have them return the gaze. Bold and proud, or delicate and demure, all confront the viewer.

“Our Lady of Plaster” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: As you said earlier, many of the portraits revolve around the iconography of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Tell me about the working process of the portrait sessions. Did your studies in fashion photography shape your approach at all?

MM: Before the sessions, I would have a meeting with the subject. In it we would discuss the project at large. I always asked the womxn which religious figure they related most to and which one they wished to interpret. Some would have the same answer to the two questions. Yet others felt like Virgin Marys but wanted to play Magdalenes or vice versa. Once I became better acquainted with whoever I was photographing, I’d propose some ideas about the portrait, but let them build upon, defy, or transform them. The sessions themselves were very relaxed. It was mostly just me, my mother and the sitter exploring different possibilities.

I believe that although they remain anchored to a sense of reality, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as a painting or a poem. Fashion photography does not try to disguise this. On the contrary, it operates through metaphors and symbols. This is the aspect of fashion that I enjoy the most, creating moods and constructing worlds through fabrics, colors and textures. When putting together the outfit of a staged portrait I always try to take into consideration the political and social implications of the garments. Through cinema and fashion, I learned that clothes are powerful signifiers. In Bolivia, the way women dress is a social marker. And while this can be positive, for example in indigenous groups where attire is linked to ancestral practices and traditions, this can also lead to racism and exclusion.

“Madre” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: There is a sense of protest in the way you use and subvert religious symbols and invoke native mythology to talk about the contemporary conditions for womxn in Bolivia. How does this imagery persist in shaping the representation of womxn in the country?

MM: When the Spanish colonizers imposed their religion, not wanting to renounce their beliefs, Bolivian natives observed their traditions under the guise of Catholic liturgy. Andean gods were masked behind Catholic icons and Andean divinities became the Saints.

Our religion is syncretism, our aesthetic is Andean baroque, and yet Bolivia remains largely Catholic. Unfortunately, Catholicism promotes a reductive understanding of womxnhood; one that reinforces society’s deep-seated Madonna-Whore complex and overlooks the contradictions and complexities of the female experience.

SW: Can you elaborate on these two sources of inspiration and the process of translating them into a new, liberating context?

MM: Often relegated to the extremes embodied by the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, Bolivian womxn grow to both defy and perpetrate traditional gender roles. I wanted the images to allude to these contradictions. As a result, womxn in MADRE are mother matriarchs, devout witches, emancipated wives, devilish virgins, dancing widows. They’re unconquerable, ungovernable and undetermined.

“Efigie” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: There are several images where traces of a machismo culture can be seen. Where and how do men and masculinity come into the project for you?

MM: I wanted this particular project to revolve exclusively around womxn and the female experience. Men were not allowed in the project with the exception of Jesus, simply because his existence transforms the Virgin Mary into the holy mother.

Since MADRE challenges sexist representations of Bolivian womxn, machismo and patriarchal stigmas are presented as context.

“El Marido Sin Cabeza” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: Tradition casts a shadow across the work, emerging especially in several archival images. Can you talk a bit about these pictures and their role in MADRE?

MM: The archival images in MADRE belong to my family album and depict my female relatives. Rummaging through archival material allowed me to become acquainted with my genealogy and better understand who I am in relation to where I was born. Including my own family pictures was important because these provide intimate windows to the past. I made interventions into them, subverting meaning and adding layers of symbolism. It is my way of commenting on my family history and questioning the hierarchies we assign to images. By generating conversations between different temporalities, the project defies the linear perception of time.

SW: One of these images is of your own Grandmother, and I read somewhere that your mother worked with you on MADRE (as well as being its namesake!). To what extent did your own family history inform the project?

MM: I just feel immensely lucky to have a mother that supports me like mine does. She has always encouraged me to realize my ideas and, during the making of MADRE, became my partner-in-crime. She was so complicit, she didn’t even question when I made a collage pairing between my grandma’s first communion stamp and the image of a dead bird. My family history is a point of departure. Just as it informs who I am, it provides a frame for the deconstruction of a past and a reconstruction of history.

“Primera Comunión” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: Did you have any influences whilst making the project?

MM: My mom and sisters are the inspiration and driving force behind MADRE. They taught me passion and courage and continue to accompany and support me during all my processes.

I believe that cinema and literature are where I go for ideas. I watched Lucrecia Martel’s entire filmography over one weekend and became obsessed with her gaze. Her last film Zama was definitely important to me and also her debut La Ciénaga (The Swamp). I would cite Felisberto Hernández as an inspiration too. His stories defy classification, oscillating between fantasy and realism. I also read El Paraíso de los Pájaros Parlantes by the Bolivian art historian Teresa Gisbert which discusses the representation of the Other in Andean culture.

SW: How long did you work on the project, and what are the next steps?

MM: I started MADRE in 2019. Over the years, I’ve seen the project grow and transform. Currently it’s a book dummy. I’m eager to make the project visible as a fully-fleshed idea, hence, I’m working to find a book publisher to help me materialize my vision.

“Assumption” from the series “MADRE” © Marisol Mendez

SW: MADRE has been exhibited widely abroad. What do you hope people take away from the images? Has the work been shown in Bolivia and if so, what has been the reception?

MM: I’m more interested in making images that raise questions than provide answers. I hope that the project challenges outdated notions people have regarding gender and gender expression. I would be very glad if this project makes people feel curious about Bolivian culture and moves them to find out more.

The project hasn’t been exhibited in Bolivia yet, and although it has circulated more than I could have ever dreamed, to this day I haven’t had the chance to be present at any exhibition of MADRE. I mention this because I believe it’s important to demystify art and art-making. I come from a background where it’s not easy to subsist as a creator. Even though festivals and exhibitions are valuable platforms to make connections and find opportunities, at the moment, my visa and my financial status do not allow me to move around easily.

I’ll end on a happy note because even if, for now, the reception happens online, it has been a very incredible and nurturing one. The thing I’m most grateful for that MADRE has granted me, is the chance to engage with so many wonderful people from around the world.