The past decade has seen a rise of Latin American photography: from the inception of collectives and museums, to the development of regional workshops and festivals. As the region is taking full ownership of its own visual legacy, young and established photographers are being recognized internationally as well as celebrated at home.
What’s more interesting about the development of the photo community in the region is that artists are challenging lingering clichés about the continent. While their work is often provocative and poetic, it also forces us viewers to engage with our perceptions.
Rich and varied in its choice of artists, online platform PHmuseum’s new curated collection of images is focused on contemporary Latin American photography, capturing the spirit of this blossoming community. For the platform, which was founded back in 2012, it’s an intimate affair: PHmuseum (Photographic Museum of Humanity) was started in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and sees the collection of images as an expression of gratitude to a community that has supported them from the beginning.
The artists featured cover a whole array of communities within the region: from Northern Mexico, to the south of Patagonia, this vast variety of storytellers reinforces the multi-faceted theme behind the exhibit. The curation features work by renowned photographers; many have been published in major publications and have been exhibited at home and around the world too.
As a whole, however, the collection revolves around one theme: the power that symbolism holds when trying to express many identities, free of clichés and static representations. Take the work of Leslie Searles from Peru, which hasn’t got a clear narrative. Rather, her photography evokes a more poetic approach to visual storytelling. Her work feels uncanny and surreal, making us viewers linger for longer as we deconstruct its message.
Searles’ image seems like a satellite photo of a faraway galaxy. However, when we get closer, the constellations slowly become something else; bursts of red lights, perhaps fireworks? Ultimately, we don’t know what we’re looking at but the nature of the picture makes us feel suspended in time and space, giving us a sense of serenity.
Someone else in this cohort of Latine photographers whose work evokes themes of poetry and magic realism is Prin Rodriguez. His image depicts a surreal landscape: a bright cloud hanging from the sky right on top of a road. Again, the use of light, (or lack thereof), the high contrast and blue tones set the stage for an alien landscape. His work conveys an idea of solitude and tranquility with ethereal elements that makes us wonder: where are we? And does this place really exist?
Throughout the exhibition, we also encounter work that rejects lazy depictions of Latin Americans, in their majesty or in their misery. In contrast, portraits give those in the pictures an entire canopy of human emotion and existence. Characters have intricacies and multi-layered identities, making the viewer slow down and look closely, questioning our own prejudices.
The work of Bolivian photographer Sara Aliaga, for example, explores the identity of the “Chola” from a vantage point of empathy. Aliaga builds her body of work from the need to reclaim the stereotypical image of this Bolivian woman. While at it, she challenges globalized ideas of beauty, rejected by the mestizo women from the highlands of the South American country.
Aliaga photographs the Cholas by focusing on details that represent who they are: their clothing, their shiny black hair in braids and the other decorative props they sport. “The ultimate goal,” says the photographer: “is dignifying everything that they represent, as women carriers of cultural forces.”
We also encounter this defiant gaze in Portrait of Erik by Guatemalan photographer Juan Brenner. “Erik is a newly released prisoner from Chimaltenango’s jail, and he’s trying to get back on his feet by cleaning streets and fixing potholes on the main road,” says Brenner on the portrait. In the image, Erik is wearing a scarf on his head, hiding his face and therefore his identity. And while we meet Erik and his story, his hidden identity reflects on the many Eriks that go through the same experience and have the same fate as him, making his story both more personal and more universal at the same time.
In this enigmatic portrait, Benner analyzes the residue of Guatemala’s colonial history and the repercussions of such barbaric happenings. His portrait embodies the “inevitable scars” of more than 500 years of disadvantage, slavery, and unfair conditions. Likewise, the intimacy of the portrait, its symbolism, and its representation of a bigger problem in Guatemala speaks to a larger audience and a collective history.
Karen Navarro, an Argentine-born multidisciplinary artist living and working in Houston, has developed a powerful, unique approach to the portrait, also refusing a single reading. “Through unconventional portraiture, my multimedia practice investigates the intersections of identity, self-representation, race, gender, and belonging. Using digital photography as a foundation, I transform traditional prints into three-dimensional visual objects by cutting and incorporating tactile elements, such as wood, paint, and resin,” says Navarro.
“The labor-intensive techniques I apply to create these sculptural objects not only allow for a physical deconstruction of my images but also become a form of meditation that reflects my efforts in trying to reconstruct and make sense of my own identity. At once colorful and minimal, my constructed portraits are meant to invite viewers in, while touching base on sensitive issues,” she continues. With her work she invites us, the audience, to challenge our own perceptions, our own biases, while at the same time, highlighting the complexities that make up who we are.
Here again, the face of the person being photographed is hidden, or cut through the middle. In this way, each individual’s face is often shown hidden or dissected, to refer to Navarro’s subjects’ complicated and multifaceted identities. “These interventions reference elements from cubism and surrealism, genres in which I find an unexpected kind of magic and strange beauty. I use photography as the basis for three-dimensional objects as a means to challenge our visual perception. Often implying that identity is, in fact, a cultural and social construct,” concludes Navarro.
Another theme these artists collectively deconstruct is the approach to masculinity and femininity in the region and how artists are questioning standards of beauty and challenging gender roles through their photographic practice. In I’m not my father, Brazilian photographer Adriane de Souza brings light to the effects of the concept of masculinity taught to men of color—something that compartmentalizes men’s feelings and emotions. “This work tries to encourage the creation of content that goes beyond the stereotype of what masculine behaviour should be, and that men must be ‘strong’ and protect, disregarding their feelings and affection. Creating a never-ending cycle that affects men, women and children,” says de Souza.
New York-based, Dominican photographer Ana Espinal uses performance art to confront her viewers with notions of beauty. By posing herself and taking self-portraits, she acts as character and photographer at the same time. This tension is enhanced by the elements that make up her images: the armpit hair that shines through stands next to a feminine dress, making us question our own conditioning and beauty standards.
Using photography to confront viewers with their own biases related to femininity, beauty standards, and body image, she tackles themes that are close to many women and imposed on many in Latin America. By exposing something as mundane as body hair, she reveals how females conform to societal pressures related to beauty standards. “I want to convey the hidden reality of the female body, the pain, and the imperfections that are not openly talked about and remain invisible,” says the photographer.
With LATINAMERICANA, PHmuseum celebrates regional talent, while supporting independent artists from the region. The collection reflects what Latin American photographers are capable of doing: exploring personal and universal themes, conveyed through ethereal, symbolic and contemporary photography that represents the intricacies of the region and the many ways in which the Latin American continent reveals itself.
— Laura Beltrán Villamizar is Director of Photography and Founder of Native Agency, a remarkable resource for discovering great photographers and visual storytellers from under-represented regions all over the world.