A debt to the gazes relegated by history
Abraham Nahón has spent two decades researching the representation of historically marginalized communities in Latin American photography. In this conversation, the Mexican sociologist reflects on the political importance of self-representation and examines the presence of Afro-Mexican culture in the visual imagination of his country.
By Alonso Almenara
When Abraham Nahón began to investigate the representation of Afro-descendants in Mexican visual culture in the early 2000s, the material to be analyzed was somewhat limited: the sociologist started his research by combining ethnographic work with the review of family albums, amateur photography, and some pioneering projects by authors such as Maya Goded, Tony Gleaton or Jorge Acevedo Mendoza. Today, the situation has changed drastically. Not only have Goded’s images become canonical documents, but the variety and intensity of photographic proposals inherited from that first impulse invite us to think about the political significance of that long process.
Born in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, Nahón holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and is a professor-researcher at the Humanities Research Institute of the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca. His work with indigenous, mestizo and Afro-Mexican communities has resulted in influential publications such as Imágenes en Oaxaca. Arte, política y memoria (2017) and Afro, África-Cuba-México (2011). Nahón is also one of the authors of Africamericanos, a volume edited by VIST. For him, reflection and archival research are relevant. Still, nothing replaces fieldwork in the regions and communities. There, “the questions or issues change radically when the cultural and political dimension is intertwined with the different ways of production, circulation and uses of photography in contemporary times.”
His most recent project, carried out in tandem with Mexican photographer Judith Romero, is linked to ethnographic work with Afro-descendant communities in the Cañada region of Oaxaca. In this conversation illustrated with photos by Romero, Nahón discusses what connects the research he has undertaken over the last twenty years: the need to think of a different history of photography. A marginalized communities history of the global south, and above all, a record free of clichés and exoticisms.
What, in your opinion, justifies the emphasis given today to the subject of representation -or self-representation- in photography, especially when we talk about racialized people, women, or sexual diversity?
First, we must recognize the growing ubiquity and diversification that photography has achieved by integrating itself into all spheres of social and private life -scientific, journalistic, artistic, media, ludic, and intimate-making it essential to analyze its complexity. The capitalist economy and the speed of its industry have entrenched a hypervisual culture. Therefore, it is undeniable that the reproducibility potential of modern visual technologies has radically transformed how we look at, relate to, and understand our contemporary societies.
But the image production, circulation, and representation forms do not escape the power relations of the “trends” set by the cultural industry in today’s world. Still, visual discursivities plagued by stereotypes, exoticisms, and mythification of otherness continue to be privileged. Furthermore, in each nation or country, the dominant historical approach has implied a centrality that has excluded the microhistories and visual narratives of the regions. They had also forgotten the history of communities, belittling their existence, simplifying their ways of life, and violating their diversity.
Therefore, the visual representation assumed by racialized people is relevant, as well as by different LGBTIQ groups and collectives, diverse feminisms, native peoples, afro, etc. However, their representation is not free of contradictions, of different gradations, nor of the opposition of versions that may exist in the same homogeneous group or community. What is relevant, in general terms, is that their narrative was excluded, which opens the possibility of broadening our visual horizon and knowledge as their proposals, questions, and experiences emerge, especially if they are sustained with a critical, decolonial gaze.
People must question modernity with its dominant, whitewashed, patriarchal, and urban history. Those who make images can take a position, articulating a critical discourse that integrates other sensorialities, experiences, and ways of seeing and making the world. Furthermore, this reflection leads us to look at archives and historical photographs differently. Analyzing our present with a greater critical awareness irremediably alters our way of situating the visual documents of our past.
Is there not a danger of overestimating the political effectiveness of representation? Many images are produced today that can also be used to camouflage a lack of inclusion.
Remember that power groups have used images for their legitimization and control. I mean, although there are changes in their configuration today, the “aesthetization of politics” and “society of the spectacle” are still there. So it is clear that the image can be instrumentalized and used to maintain a current social order, stigmatize a social group, sell a product, support a political candidate, or manipulate public opinion. That again shows us the relevance that images can have. This type of use is why we should not leave them in suspense but question them, challenge them, and contextualize their meaning, construction, and intentions. Undoubtedly, they influence our personal, political, and social decisions and our emotions, desires, and imaginaries.
And although some photographs or videos are important in history, their impact is short-term and accompanied by political measures. Let us remember that images do not speak for themselves; they are polysemic and ambiguous, and we must reconstruct their meaning. Changes are due to the mobilization of bodies, consciences, and social subjects. Therefore, there are photographs that, with appropriate reading and contextualization, can help in the education, formation, and mobilization of consciences. That is where the possibility of showing a critical and ethical sensibility lies, which impacts other social processes.
You have worked in Mexico with Afro-descendant communities that represent themselves through photography. What lessons or challenges did you learn from that experience?
Since 2006, I have worked mainly for several years in anthropological research in Mixtec and Afro-Mexican communities in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca. But it was only in 2010 that I alternately integrated some visuals about the Afro-Mexican population into my analysis. Thus we concretized the book AFRO Africa-Cuba-Mexico (coordinated by Rubén Leyva and Abraham Nahón, 2011), including essays, photographs, and artistic and graphic works influenced by Afro-descent.
Years later, starting in 2018, I had the pleasure of participating in the Africamericanos project, conducting meetings, research, and fieldwork in some Afro-Mexican communities in Oaxaca and Guerrero with its general coordinator and curator, Claudi Carreras. There I rethought several questions of my study, trying to reflect on the contemporary visualities of the photographers considered for Mexico -Maya Goded, Manuel González de la Parra, Koral Carballo, Mara Sánchez-Renero, Luján Agusti, Hugo Arellanes, Yael Martínez-, as well as of the Mexican and Panamanian artists who intervened the mural in the exhibition: Baltazar Castellano, Olga Manzano, Gustavo Esquina, Manuel Golden. Without forgetting to analyze the correspondences with the images of the visual documentation archives considered, as well as photographs of authors from more than fifteen Latin American countries. It was undoubtedly an enriching exercise to glimpse into these graphic projects in the continent, which contain ethnographic, historical, and poetic gazes as forms of sensitivity and critical politicization in the face of the world.
The participation of black photographers and artists made possible the inclusion of unusual narratives, imaginaries, and significant experiences by activating a look “from within.” The strength of diversity emerged through intertwining cultural allegories, cosmovisions, rituals, or conflicting visions. It is necessary to reflect on images and the construction of memories as a field in permanent dispute for historical, political, and social significance.
The inclusion of black people in the Mexican visual imaginary is relatively recent. Maya Goded’s work dated from the early nineties and had a significant impact; but perhaps we can say that the “boom” of African-Mexicanity in photography is ten years old, fifteen at the most. I would like to know how you have thought through this process.
The photographs taken by Maya Goded in the early 1990s in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca and Guerrero are already a fundamental part of the visual history of black people in Mexico. Although, for example, Tony Gleaton or Jorge Acevedo Mendoza took photographs in the same region and at the same time, they were less widely disseminated than those of Maya. That tells us about the different visual proposals and the different registers, temporalities, and forms of circulation in which the photographs that emerged from that region are inscribed. For example, there are photographs by Armando Salmerón, Raúl Estrada, Enrique Hernández, Ruth Deutsche, Bob Shalkwijk, Ariel Mendoza, Alberto Ibañez, Blanca Charolet, among others. Without considering other images taken decades ago locally, family albums, or amateur records. Therefore, there is a need for more academic research on sociocultural and visual history in the region to approach its documentation from different perspectives.
With digital technologies and devices, multiple records have been made recently, which are impossible to identify with certainty. I believe this would deserve a separate analysis, on the massiveness of images in social networks, without ceasing to be critical or to consider that many of them also reproduce stereotypes, exoticisms, or visual clichés in their incessant production. In all this commotion, some photographers will emerge, which is hopeful: some social actors are appropriating the technologies and building their own visualities.
“There is a debt to integrate into the history of photography the visuals made from the regions. But we must focus not only on the production of images but also on the actors, processes, and research carried out in those contexts. We should not privilege Instagram curatorships, cabinet curatorships, or those who stay in the historic center of each city. We have to ‘put the body’ and give an experience and a critical look to the projects and the questioning.”
Your most recent work, in collaboration with photographer Judith Romero, is linked to that line of research around Afro-Mexican communities. How did that project come about?
In 2019 we started an anthropological research project coordinated by Dr. Salomón Nahmad (CIESAS) and myself (UABJO), together with a brief work team, doing a study on the Afro-Mexican communities in the Cañada region. The project lasted a year, achieving 2020 support from the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI). A fundamental part of the project was the visual documentation done by photographer Judith Romero, who carried out this research while developing her own documentary work. From 2021 onwards, she continued working with the community of Valerio Trujano with her resources, visiting it or staying for some seasons.
The region of La Cañada, in Oaxaca, has been little studied, especially concerning the Afro-Mexican populations that inhabit it. The community of Valerio Trujano is the one that mainly concentrates on the black population, preserving elements of its culture and its historical and social memory. The region has incredible biodiversity and fantastic desert landscapes that contrast with the dominant imagination about black peoples, which places them as close to the sea, inhabiting the coasts. Hence the relevance of Judith’s long-term documentary and visual work in this community has been made invisible. Dedicating long periods to constructing the images has allowed her to achieve a bond, trust, and close collaboration with this Afro-Mexican community.
What reflections emerged from that collaboration?
Being close to Judith’s documentary work has allowed me to reflect on the construction of photography, thinking not only about the resulting image but also about the relevance of its process. Faced with the speed of technological modernity and hypervisibility that privileges immediacy in the production and consumption of images, as an alternative, it is also possible to make photographs sustained by dialogue, stories, and the close relationship established with the community. Faced with the anonymity assigned to the people portrayed in most of the pictures circulate in the global culture, it is possible to give them a name and a story by recording the daily life of struggle, difficulties, and resistance assumed by its inhabitants. The layers of meaning and complexity of an image are not only on its surface -ambiguous, silent, anonymous- but in its context, in the way it is made, in the way it is linked, and in dialogues with the communities considered. In particular visual projects, it is possible to sustain an ethical, sensitive, experiential, and collectivizing condition from their elaboration and deployment.
This learning placed me again in some research veins I had reflected on in my book Imágenes en Oaxaca. Arte, política y memoria. I am deriving these renewed questions in the project “Senderos de la memoria. Photography and community” project, which includes the work of six photographers who have visually documented Oaxaca: Citlali Fabián, Conrado Pérez, Félix Reyes, Judith Romero, Luis Villalobos, and Octavio López. What is important to me is that they are located in authorial gazes, which from their belonging, immersion, or closeness to the territories and inhabitants, manage not only to generate images of community life but also to form, at the same time, a visual memory of the future.
In addition, it is essential to point out that for years I have researched and traveled through the regions and communities visually documented in this exhibition. That has made me wonder about the knowledge that working with the people in those territories and paths gives us. I have seen some curators who pretend to make exhibitions about regions (of Oaxaca or Mexico) that they do not know and do not get involved with the communities, despite considering integrating contemporary photography made in the localities by living authors. Of course, it is possible to do more archival work or with a methodology that inscribes the images in a broader visual history. But, although there is a debt to integrate into the history of photography the visualities made in the regions, we should not only focus on the production of images but also the actors, processes, and research carried out in those contexts. We should not privilege Instagram curatorships, cabinet curatorships, or those who stay in the historic center of each city, but “put the body” and give an experience and critical look to the projects and the questioning. Finally, images’ production, construction, or deployment must be enriched by the depth and uniqueness developed “with” the communities and regions.