Marcela Taboada – Women of Clay

Marcela Taboada

Women of Clay

As soon as I set foot in this village, I knew that I had entered to the heart of a Mexican truth: women feed the Earth and their life is made of clay. Clay ovens for clay pans and pots, everything is touched and transformed by hands which are also the color of clay. As they told me when I asked whether they owned some land: “Our land is inside our fingernails”. The Vatican gave these women 17,000 pesos to help for their living and they decided to do something constructive with their money as they lived in ramshackle dwellings, to build proper new houses. They altogether started building walls and roofs out of clay. This brought scorn and derision from the men and elders; now that they have built twenty houses of excellent quality, they are looked upon with great admiration.

San Miguel Amatitlan is a small Indian village in the southern state of Oaxaca where the drinking water does not last any longer than four months a year. The soil is dry, hard and bare; they are neither beans nor cornfields in sight: water must be carried from many miles in order to drink, eat, wash and make those indestructible clay bricks. All the strong men have left the village and have gone far away to the other side of the northern border, where they will try to earn a few dollars picking fruit in the USA. When they come back to the village, they are most probably infected by AIDS.

 

 

Due to this appalling social and economic situation, some young women have decided to cross the northern border, swimming to the other side of the river either with their babies in their arms or leaving them behind. The young men who are still living in the village are deep alcoholics. Since the Catholic religion plays such an important role in their daily life, the use of contraceptives are obviously unheard of, and the families are overcrowded, it is an almost impossible task to feed and educate so many children.

The history of these women is a lesson of life for all of us. In order to support themselves and the rest of the family, they sew footballs and receive 70 cents apiece for this work: they can make two balls per day if they sew from sunrise to sunset. Old people also make palm hats and are paid $2,50 for each. They have to make four hats to buy a litter of milk. Yet, these very same hands never stopped creating the finest dresses for their daughters or ironing a man’s shirt, never forgot how to give a caress to a young child or console a grief.
They have always found the time to put flowers in the church, these women believe in Mother Earth because it is inside their fingernails.

 

 

Bio

Marcela Taboada is a Mexican photographer based in Oaxaca (southern México).
Her work has been published in newspapers, magazines and books from Mexico and abroad. She has been a professor of photography at universities, high-schools and cultural institutions. Her work has been exhibited at museums and galleries and belongs to collections such as The Hasselblad Center, Copenhagen Fotografisk Center, Sonoma Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, The Wittilff Collection, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca, The Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center, among others. She has received awards, distinctions and scholarships such as Mexican Photojournalist Bienale,Hasselblad Foundation scholarship, National Geographic All Roads Photographers, Cultural Exchange México-Indonesia, Planet Magazine Price, Nikon juror of the International Photo Contest in Tokio, Hector Garcia Award, among others.
She currently belongs to the National System of Art Creators in Mexico.

 

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Marcela Taboada

 

 

33 Responses to “Marcela Taboada – Women of Clay”


  • This is glorious. Simple, beautiful, personal storytelling. This is what I always enjoy on burn. Nicely done!

  • Some of the best pictures I’ve seen for a long time.

  • I agree with both of the above. Lovely, connected, true…

  • What a beautiful essay! From the opening image I could tell this was going to be a powerful one and Marcela certainly didn’t disappoint. Well done.

  • Marcela,

    It’s been a long time and it’s wonderful to see you and your work featured here on Burn. Inspiring as always.

    Abrazos,

    Don Arturo

  • I watched this slideshow many times before reading the statement and tried to figure out what it was about. What I came up with was that it must be a play on Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo, in which it turns out that the story takes place in a village full of ghosts. The tip-off’s, I suspected, were the two pics with the veils and the fact that just about every single person in ever frame appears to be suffering from some kind of tragic sadness. Even little girls dressed as flowers look like someone just ran over their puppies.

    I was disappointed when I read that it’s just another story about an appalling social and economic situation. I think people could look at those beautiful photos for a million years and never figure out what it’s really about. Number 11, the least creative of the bunch, is the only one that actually provides a clue.

    And like Frostfrog usually mentions in these kinds of essays, where is the joy? As someone who’s seen some of the most miserable and appalling social and economic situations in the world, I find it hard to believe that everyone, especially the children, in that village are miserable all the time.

    So although the photography is great, I think it fails as a story if it really is intended to document social and economic problems. To tell the story that’s outlined in the statement, I think it needs to be dialed down a couple notches and told with more straightforward photos like #11.

    But if the photographer’s ambitions are more profound and it’s a complex tale told int the tradition of the region’s magical realism, then I think it’s great.

    The gulf between the earnestness of the statement and the artistry of the photographs makes me wonder if the statement was possibly dumbed down in the belief that that’s the kind of rhetorical conformity that someone from a developing nation has to do to get published in an international publication? Not burn of course, but in general?

  • beautifully done…

    thank you for sharing

  • I don’t know and I know that is never a good beginning …
    Most pics are well done imo , beautiful even , no complaints here but reading the story first and then to look at the pics it did not quite connect as whole .
    I had a big laugh at the earnest looking flowergirls but I am doubting if that was intented to be funny as the whole mood is somewhat more toward tragic .

    I do like impressions so it doesn’t have to be a logical order or a straightforward story but some focus would have been be nice to connect a bit more .

  • MW

    i will contact Marcella and have her answer you….

  • MW

    >>>…just about every single person in ever frame appears to be suffering from some kind of tragic sadness. Even little girls dressed as flowers look like someone just ran over their puppies.< << That is not what I see in these poetic images. As with most good poetry a feeling is elicited — a feeling that, in good photography, is also determined by what the viewer brings to the act of viewing. In my view, happiness or some joy can be seen in images no. 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 17, 20…together with other emotions as well. On the other hand, no. 3 is enigmatic (which is its strength) and no. 10 can be seen as reflective, while no. 13 could be little girls overcome by an occasion and no. 25 could be viewed as either apprehensive or anticipatory — anticipatory of happiness or of something else, again it depends on what the viewer brings to this image; and nos. 1 and 26 could also be a reflection of happiness. My other reaction to your statement of “where is the joy?” is that, even if the whole essay were completely devoid of happiness, I don’t think that would be a relevant criticism if the photographer’s intent were to depict an aspect of this village — just because a short essay, or even a whole photo book, depicts one or a few aspects of life doesn’t mean that there are not other aspects, like, joy, just because they are not depicted. DAVID >>>i will contact Marcella and have her answer you….<<< That is fine, but I don’t think it’s essential for Marcella to respond substantively. I would be quite as happy if she simply said, “I feel that I am speaking through my photographs and what I want to say about this is in the photographs themselves.” My feeling is that they are good enough to stand on their own. What we’re dealing with here is, I think, the idea of “a story” and the difference between “documenting” and “depicting”. To me that reflects what you wrote recently about your latest work from Rio de Janeiro…that you’re showing a certain reality but that you’re not documenting — in my mind you’re depicting. I wrote about this in the comments on Anton Kuster’s last book, where I raised the issue of some photo essays and photo books being organized by what I would call a “poetic sequence” rather than by a story line. I gave the example of Ralph Gibson’s early B&W books and by his first color book, “L’Histoire de France”, but I would also say the same thing about your own book “(based on a true story)”, which asks the viewer to organize his or her own story. MARCELA From the above, you can see that I like your photographs and I find something magical and poetical in them. I have two comments. First, while your artist’s statement does set the background to your photograph it also raises the expectation that the viewer is going to see an essay that documents rather than depicts — and I read MW’s comments in this way, although my own view is quite different. In this respect I feel that your statement, “…they are most probably infected by AIDS…” is more reflective of what the village woman fear rather than of a statistical likelihood — and, in my view, it would have been preferable to express this as a feeling of the women. Second, while I like that your pictures reflect “una realidad mexicana y un sentimiento mexicano”, they seem to be so much in the Mexican idiom that they remind me of Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. One can do a lot worse than that, of course, and I realize that it’s extremely difficult to present pictures from a provincial Mexican village that will have not have these aspects — the mosquito nets are there after all, as are the women’s white or black dresses. All I want to say, and sympathize with, is that it’s very difficult to photograph all this and create originality at the same time. I don’t mean this as criticism, though: I mean to say is that it’s difficult not to think of photographers like Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Álvarez Bravo when seeing photographs of such subjects. Mieczysław (“Mitch”) Alland

  • Hello everyone,
    Thank you very much for your positive comments regarding this work that continues to bear fruit.
    This story was made between 1999-2003. It was a tribute to these women who built 12 houses with their own hands. It is a very small town, which at that time due to emigration only women were, their children and the elderly which led them to build their houses in the absence of men. I focused my work on their daily lives and their families. Many of these children are now young people who also have had to emigrate because of the lack of jobs.

    I did it with great respect and admiration. In no time I tried to show their misery. On the contrary, they always gave me their love and shelter. Now they are my friends to whom I owe a great life lesson.
    I feel very fortunate to be Mexican. My country is rich in culture and stories like this happens every day, they are part of a reality in which we live and it is impossible not to see it.
    Photography is subjective and everyone is free to interpret the images according to their own lives and experiences.

  • I don’t know about this. It seems awash in religious reference, perhaps to contrast that with reality. Like MW, I think image 11, while a blunt object, gets closer to what I think the photographer is trying to say.

    I also agree that the depiction of these people’s lives is one dimensional. I always wonder about the photographer’s agenda when I see that.

  • It is funny, because when I looked over this essay, I saw people having a good life, enjoying themselves. It wasn’t until reading the text, that I began to project my views, experiences and thoughts onto the images, and they started to show feelings of sadness.

    Specifically this text:

    >> When they come back to the village, they are most probably infected by AIDS.
    Due to this appalling social and economic situation, some young women have decided to cross the northern border, swimming to the other side of the river either with their babies in their arms or leaving them behind. The young men who are still living in the village are deep alcoholics. Since the Catholic religion plays such an important role in their daily life, the use of contraceptives are obviously unheard of, and the families are overcrowded, it is an almost impossible task to feed and educate so many children.<>Photography is subjective and everyone is free to interpret the images according to their own lives and experiences.<<

    Thank you.

  • Oops! A load of my text disappeared on my message above… could you delete it?!

    It is funny, because when I looked over this essay, I saw people having a good life, enjoying themselves. It wasn’t until reading the text, that I began to project my views, experiences and thoughts onto the images, and they started to show feelings of sadness.

    Specifically this text:

    “When they come back to the village, they are most probably infected by AIDS.
    Due to this appalling social and economic situation, some young women have decided to cross the northern border, swimming to the other side of the river either with their babies in their arms or leaving them behind. The young men who are still living in the village are deep alcoholics. Since the Catholic religion plays such an important role in their daily life, the use of contraceptives are obviously unheard of, and the families are overcrowded, it is an almost impossible task to feed and educate so many children. “

    The thing is though, this is my projection onto the images. Not what is being shown.

    I’ve been wondering lately about the relationship of captions, purpose, and the photographs, and how some written words can radically alter my feelings towards the situations documented. In essays like this one, inclusion of AIDS, or the difficulties of education bring up mental images that are far far more powerful than photographs (I personally believe that mental imagery based on personal life experience, or what you’ve learn’t outweighs the power of almost all photographs). Perhaps instead less words would be better, as then we can relate to the feelings of joy and happiness that we’ve had in the past, and they’ve had captured.

    At the other end of the spectrum, when I first looked at Salgado’s photographs from the gold mines of Brazil, my thoughts where of oppression, and a controlling, bulling state, that was close to slavery. The commentary provided in the little book though, turned that around, into something that felt much more acceptable.

    Ultimately, Marcela, you’ve said it right though:

    “Photography is subjective and everyone is free to interpret the images according to their own lives and experiences.“

  • Perhaps it’s unfair to overlay big issues of photography onto a particular essay, but I think this work is good enough, and this photographer accomplished enough, to bear the burden.

    The big issue here, for me, is the dichotomy between documentary and art photography. Or to ask, if not the biggest question — what is the purpose of photography? — then, what is the purpose of this particular essay?

    Is its purpose primarily to inform or is it artistic? Not that informational and artistic are mutually exclusive. The greatest documentary work manages to be both. A lot of great artistic work does as well.

    Still, I think primary intent is important. If the primary intent is documentary, we evaluate the story one way. If the primary intent is artistic, we may evaluate it another.

    Often, the artistic works against, or outside of, the documentary.

    That’s what I question here. Do these beautiful, artistic, images obscure, or get in the way of, the documentary aspects of the story?

    Reasonable people can no doubt disagree about this particular work. In general, though, I think that if the story is primarily documentary, the photos should tell a story that is consistent with the text. If the story is primarily poetic, why even have any text? And if so, the less said explicitly, the better.

    And while it’s true that everyone is free to interpret images according to their own lives and experiences, for the great majority of storytellers, and especially documentary photographers, that’s not a desirable outcome.

    If we have something to say, it’s best that our audience at least gets some sense of what we’re trying to communicate.

    If what we’re trying to communicate is indescribable with words, then don’t even try.

  • BTW, it’s a great compliment for me to say this essay reminds me of Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s and Latin America’s greatest fiction writers. His stories mostly take place in depopulated rural villages like the one in this photo essay. The stories manage to achieve a universality and make powerful statements without ever being explicit about anything.

    This article I found in the Guardian gives a taste.

    Turns out he was a photographer as well.

  • JIM POWERS

    nice to hear from you..as usual…and as usual we disagree a bit…but no matter..if we all thought the same, it would be pretty damned boring…i just do not care one single bit about the photographer’s agenda..photographers without a point of view for me are just not very interesting photographers….try to make a subject multi dimensional and i imagine a lifeless photographer..authorship by its very nature is perhaps “one dimensional” OR put another way is described as having a point of view…want another dimension? go look at another photographer..are not all the greats possessing a singular drumbeat???

    cheers, david

  • The explaining helps me somewhat cause to me personal at first I found it all disconnected like the story did not connect , the pictures as series did not connect , some weird balance , almost if it was made by two persons .
    The timeframe , the people present, avaiable is a factor here , and helps to connect the dots a bit in terms of balance .

    I still don’t see the story as quite relevant , sure it is about expectations of the viewer áfter reading the words , but to me a whole tsunami of hardship in the words … when viewing the photo’s , it could be also sunday morning in a ( maybe not so welcome ) catholic village .

    There is beauty , there is content , if they come together , I still don’t know . Why make it macro when you went for micro ?

  • Honestly, I almost never read the photographer’s text. I always view that as an additional resource to describe what I’m seeing, but only as I need it. Since this is pretty straight-forward, I still haven’t read it.

    So many people here get hung up on the words, so maybe don’t read them. Writing and photographing are such distinctly different disciplines, we probably should get all that hung up on the words.

  • I’m with Brian here. Words are over rated. At best they are flag posts that point you in a direction. I rarely look to photography for information. A great image or essay does just the opposite. It stops the mind noise. I don’t want to talk to myself as I’m experiencing art. I want silence in my mind.
    I don’t care so much about intent. If anything I’d rather know something personally about the artist. About who they are. Not what they intend to depict. Once I’m experiencing photos….they are mine to do with as I please.

  • artists with intent do care about intent

  • Have photographers ever presented a body of work be it essay or group of pictures without words?
    Just the pictures….?!?!?!

    If I were to submit an essay to the EPF could I just do it without writing a single word?

    Having asked that…I feel the same as Brian and Virgil but what really sparked this question in me was MW’s post.

  • Well, I think this is a subject about which reasonable people can disagree, and there are certainly many permutations, and if we got down to specifics, we probably would agree more than disagree. So I don’t in any way mean to be contentious. Just chatting amicably, while procrastinating on writing for which I’m actually getting paid.

    Anyway, to Carlo’s general question, I’ve noticed that the more accomplished photographers are the least likely to write anything about their own work. I get the impression that most photographers don’t like writing artist statements, but that the publications generally require it (my experience with burn has been that they don’t require it, but they encourage it).

    Why do publications require, or at least encourage, these writings? Presumably, it’s because their readers enjoy and expect it.

    Whether it be photography, other visual mediums or literature, I’ve found I usually prefer forwards written by professional writers who like the work or by experts in the field who write well. When an accomplished creator writes a forward, it seems it’s usually more about how the work was made than what it is about.

    Not always though. There are plenty of notable exceptions where the creator explicitly wants the viewer to know what the work is about. I respect that.

    Much too often, however, the photographer doesn’t want to write about his or her work, which is artistic rather than expository, but just throws down some boilerplate bullshit about “bringing attention to this important issue” and possibly saving the world and all the humanity, just to appease an editor or publisher.

    That’s the kind of thing I have no use for and am happy to do as Virgil suggests and allow the mind noise to stop.

    Or you have things like David’s “Based on a True Story,” for which the intent is to let the viewer come to his or her own conclusions. Personally, I have never written about my own work, preferring viewers like David and Virgil who are thoughtful and probing to those who just want to be told what to think.

    But there are also photographers like Salgado or Nachtwey or Sean Gallagher or countless others who tackle important issues for whom it is essential that the viewer understand something about the creator’s perspective on what he or she is seeing. Looking at starving people in the Sahel or children dying horribly from tuberculosis and seeing only great composition and camera skills is, imo, not a good approach.

    Regarding Brian Franks’ comment about not reading the words, I understand where he is coming from as I almost always read the words after I have viewed and contemplated the essay, or novel or whatever.

    But the reality is that when a creator explains what a work is about, those words are de facto part of the work. All effort should be made to have them written to the highest professional standards and as appropriate for the work they seek to describe.

    Cause jeez, who wants the peanut gallery talking about a lame artist statement rather than the photos themselves.

    Your mileage, may of course, vary.

  • MW

    It seems to me that whether a foreword or a postscript or an artist’s statement is desirable or helpful depends on the photographer’s intent: essentially, as I wrote above, if the essay or book is depicting rather than documenting then words are not necessary. On the other hand, words are often desirable to place the photographs in context — again, a matter of intent.

    I rather like the idea of photo books that have no words at all, although I am sure that many of us would like a foreword or postscript by DAH if we published a book…

    The Salgado issue that you refer to — that the beauty of his photographs of tragedy can betray the subject — has been ably dissected by Ingrid Sischy in her 1991 New Yorker article in which she argued that aestheticizing suffering can anesthetize the feelings of the viewer. Many people have attacked Sischy by arguing that her view implies that less beautiful images would not betray the subject and that Salgado’s photographs would be more “authentic” if they were not beautiful. Actually, Sischy’s article attacks more the writing in the publicity presenting the exhibitions and books — how Salgado was being “sold” at the time — more than the photographs themselves. The point for our discussion here is that Sischy was essentially saying that the words around Salgado’s pictures took something away from the photographs, although she also suggested that some of the photographs were overly sentimental.

  • Intent is everything. The words can be superfluous and mean nothing. They can be vital, essential to one’s greater understanding of the essay and the message its creator seeks to convey. If one does not wish to understand images taken in a context he knows little to nothing about but prefers just to look at the pictures and create a fantasy in his mind that may have nothing to do with reality then perhaps there is nothing the creator can do about that but accept the fact that among such viewers his intent will never be realized – but maybe, if he uses the right words, other viewers who seek to understand more will be rewarded.

  • CARLO

    in general i write quite a bit…yet not for my books….this answer to your comment is longer than most of my intros…Divided Soul had the most words of any book i have done….Cuba just an intro….(based on a true story) zero words and it got the most recognition of any book i’ve done……for BeachGames i will have a very short mood setter….Tell It Like It Is only an explanation of how it came to be…Haenyeo just a short polite intro…..yes, i did three books this year!! crazy ..i wont try that again!!!

    when i see long text in a photo book, i just don’t read it…or very unlikely i will read it…when i open a photo book i am going for a visual experience only..if i want to read, i will choose the New Yorker or a good novel….and in that mode i do not want to see pictures…this whole idea of the “marriage between words and pictures” seemed to make sense for Life Magazine etc but i don’t think it has ever worked…trying to read NatGeo and see the pictures in NatGeo is something i bet few people really do…words and pictures work best in movies…..

    i did just buy a Jeff Wall book that has lots of words…pages and pages…very academic…his explanations for his pictures are indeed interesting and at the same time a bit self aggrandising and imo trying just a bit too too hard for that academic acceptance….which he indeed does get…so it does work in his case for sure….still big photo book pages with text i would bet get read by about 10% of the people who own the book….again, i love to read…reading is what got me interested in the world and into photography in particular….everything i do is based on literary references…which is why i go for a visual literacy if you will….pictures as the language spoken….

    cheers,david

  • Exception to the rule being Vietnam inc. of course.

  • JOHN GLADDY

    yes, that’s right….

  • When a chef makes me a meal, I don’t need a long backstory of the ingredients or the journey he took to discover the recipe. I don’t need him to tell me if I like it or not. A brief description in the menu is just fine. After that, I can decide if I like it or not.

    I’m not saying that’s what happened here. I still haven’t read the intro, but it’s happened so often, that most of the time, I don’t read introductory text written by the photographer.

  • An addendum to above…I will read what others wrote about a restaurant to decide if I want to visit.

  • BRIAN FRANK

    yes, a restaurant needs only to have great food……the word will get out…..a satisfied customer after eating the meal will be the best marketing agenda…you simply need to know if you are going to have Italian cuisine or Japanese sushi….after that, it’s all in the taste….

    cheers, david

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