Tatiana Lopez’s lush cyanotype portraits of Sapara women portray the intertwined connections between dreams, body, and nature.

“When I was a kid, I used to dream a lot,” begins Tatiana Lopez as she introduces her most recent photographic work In Between Dreams the Forest Echos the Song of the Burning Anaconda. For Lopez, an Ecuadorian photographer, artist, and visual anthropologist, dreaming is an important part of her process.

“I used to have dreams that would somehow happen. When I told my family and friends they would say, ‘They’re just dreams.’ With time I forgot about them but when I went back to Ecuador, and I started working with the Sapara women, they showed me that dream study can be a guide to your life.”

The Sapara women of the Ecuadorian Amazon speak of witsa ikichanu, or good living. “Good living is three things: water, forest, and wind. Those three things give us life as people,” a woman in Lopez’s ethnographic film, Naku Ikinyu says.

Water, forest and wind are central to their understanding of both the physical and the spiritual world and the inherent connection between the two. They are also central to the struggles of the Sapara people against the destruction of their environment, brought about by the illegal extraction of fossil fuels.

Good living has a deep connection to the protection and care of earth. Good living is rooted in trans-corporeality, the notion that all things are intertwined with the physical, changing world that transforms—and is transformed—by them. For the Sapara, human identity is not outside of nature, but rather within it. In fostering a connection to the spirit world, the physical world can be protected. Dreaming is a way of understanding these worlds.

Ishawna. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Llushian. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Apamama Mukutsawa. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Mukutsawa. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Auneka - Tobacco Woman. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Ipiak. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
Nema. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez
YIA. Cyanotype photography with intervened embroidery. © Tatiana Lopez

Lopez has been exploring body-temporality across her work, most recently in this series of cyanotypes. Bodies are affected when territories are affected; one cannot separate the two. Using hands-on processes, Lopez has created an experiential suite of portraits that depict more than a single person, rather a sense of time and space, women and their wider worlds. Lopez would show the work to the women she photographed, explaining decisions, asking opinions, responding to their experiences. Collaborative methods of storytelling are an important aspect of her work, from her ethnographic films to her mixed media and documentary imagery, as she explores how to visualize collective consciousness.

The portraits themselves become cyanotypes from digital negatives. Lopez notes, “with cyanotypes you have to go through a whole physical, elemental process. The sun is one energy, used for the exposure, the water is another used to wash the image, and finally the air that dries it. The process is very meaningful to the work and the concept itself.”

Taking the work a step further, she embroiders patterns, and weaves in leaves, feathers, and other natural items. The process of the work reflects her belief that there are no simple dualities, that we must break this way of thinking. The physical and the sensorial are linked, creation is not just a contrast to destruction. As Lopez herself says, “photography is a journey of self-discovery, connection, meditation, understanding, and transformation.”

A sense of connection, between her subjects and their environs, fills the work. In Ishawna, a bright green leaf frames the upturned face of a woman. She looks content, or transported in thought, the reflection of the sun on her face shining through the deep blue ground. A swirl of red and white embroidery dances around the edges. There is a sense of reverence in the image, both for its subject and its material.

The cyanotypes’ deep blues represent bodily waters, various leaves and plant matter represent the forest, whilst the red embroidery represents ancestral lineage. The stitching forms patterns throughout the images, speaking to experience as well as to dream interpretation. There is a sensual quality in the forms, emanating across the picture, entwining the leaves, haloing the women. The dappled sunlight in the portrait Nema, draws the eye to the embroidered border, as plant life stands out crisply against the blue. Her eyes angle upward as if studying the forest canopy, referenced in the stitched forms. The images ask for more than just seeing; they speak to touch, to the wind’s rustle through the forest, its caress against skin. In Apamama Mukutsawa, a woman appears to grasp a red stitched leaf or plant, offering or receiving it, a look of delight playing across her features.

In writing about the work and the Sapara community, Lopez looks towards a space where we can move beyond objectification and towards new ways of engaging with the land. When asked about the work out in the world, she says: “I’ve never tried to impose what I want my work to do, it’s always open to interpretation but I hope it opens up conversations on how we connect to nature, how we can go back to our roots, our ancestry, how we can look beyond a colonial mindset.”

In reflecting on the work, Lopez told me, “in the forest there is a feeling, as if you are in another world.” Throughout these images we are given a glimpse of this world, in which “each stitch is a metaphor for liberation.” Perhaps in confronting the disconnection that we feel, from ourselves, our surroundings, our dreams, we can embrace our own transformation and connection, and share in this other possible world.

This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Art Photography Awards 2022. See all of this year’s winners.