Chiapas Photography Project: Empowerment through pictures

by Melanie Davis
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Julie Cortez El Hispanic News Portland, OR — When Carlota Duarte, a nun with the Society of the Sacred Heart, an artist with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a dual Mexico-U.S. citizen thanks to her Yucatán-born father, spent three years travelling Mexico in the mid-1980s, she was amazed by how central indigenous culture was to the nation’s identity. She was on what she calls the “ultimate field trip “ as part of a small research team with a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, compiling a reference book of Mexican pictorials. She encountered many photographs of indigenous communities, but none of them were actually taken by indigenous people. That disparity stuck with Duarte until she found herself in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, in 1992, again travelling under an arts grant. With her artistic background and religious commitment to justice and equity, she realized, “I could contribute something to Mexico.†She wasn’t interested in merely teaching English, and her fellow Sacred Heart sisters’ were mostly doing “pastoral and popular education-based†work. “I remember the moment, I remember the block I was on†in San Cristóbal when it occurred to her that she could put her artistic skills to work to empower Mexico’s indigenous people to document their own lives and culture through photography. “It was just an idea. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have any money,†she recalls.
That idea evolved into the Chiapas Photography Project (CPP), and nearly 20 years after its inception over 250 Maya have learned to use cameras to document their lives and their culture. The organization has published five books, developed a portfolio for private collections, libraries, and museums, and has created touring exhibits. One such exhibit, “Nuestra Comida,†is among the CPP contributions Oregonians can experience when Duarte and two Maya photographers, Juana López López and Antonia Santiz Girón, visit the state in October. “Nuestra Comida†will be on display at the Walters Cultural Art Center in Hillsboro, Oct. 4-Oct. 28. The center will also host a reception and lecture in conjunction with the exhibit on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. “We like this show a lot because it’s about something very fundamental,†Duarte says, the preparation, ritual use, and everyday interaction of the Maya with their food. Other free CPP events include two receptions featuring lectures by Duarte and photography displays,  one at the Miller Gallery in Portland Art Museum Mark Building on Oct. 19, 6 p.m.-8 p.m., and the other at the University of Oregon EMU Student Center on Oct. 26, 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Duarte and the two photographers will also lead workshops with youth and adults on documenting and preserving culture at the Native American Youth Association in Portland and Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove, in addition to presenting work and exchanging ideas at the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Duarte says the primary intent of such visits is to highlight “the reality of indigenous persons all over the world, and that they have something to contribute to humanity.†She also hopes to encourage “dialogue that can prompt thinking in new ways.†Duarte, López López, and Santiz Girón will all be visiting Portland for the first time. “I anticipate this trip to be enriching for all of us, but for the two women, Juana and Antonia, especially,†Duarte says. She expects the experience to help the women, who “desire to become part of the bigger world,†to feel more confident in their storytelling, and that the diversity of the audiences they will be addressing will allow them to both discuss the specifics of their situation, as well as the common issues and struggles shared by people everywhere. The benefits gained by the two women are an example of what CPP is truly about. “It’s really an empowerment project,†Duarte says. To that end, Duarte has always been more focused on giving the Maya access to photography than on teaching them how to be “good†photographers. Participants learn how to use cameras and computers, they learn to use public transportation and to be more comfortable travelling from their small communities to the big city. But they do not learn photographic composition.
Tortilla making
“Whose ideas are those, anyway?†she asks. Duarte does not want to impose Western ideals that lead to self-judgment. “The idea was not to judge anything.†And that lack of judgment extends to working with people from diverse backgrounds — some of whom have been historically and continue to be at odds in Chiapas. Protestant evangelicals are often expelled from their communities for disrupting the ritual practices that are an integral part of the daily lives of a people who have long blended their traditional indigenous beliefs and practices with Roman Catholicism. Yet at CPP they work together. Women expand beyond their strictly proscribed gender roles, and even pass on their photography skills to men. Zapatistas have worked alongside those of diametrically opposed political leanings. So while CPP is on its surface about helping the Maya document and express their culture through photography, Duarte is deeply gratified that over the years it has expanded into “promotion of gender equality, ethnic equality, religious equality, and political [harmony].†For more information on the Chiapas Photography Project, visit