Ruth Prieto

Safe Heaven

This work is the second chapter of a documentary project about Mexican immigrant women in New York. Some of them have indigenous backgrounds so that Spanish is not their first language. I decided to document their lives during their free time at their homes.

Homes have deep emotional meaning. Through their homes we get to know them, their motivations, their thoughts and aspirations along with the conditions they live in that reveal how much they have achieved and struggled. They have painted and decorated their rooms according to their own personal story and choice. I am exploring the notion of safety and confidence in relation to space. This project is a new interpretation of immigration using color as a unifying metaphor of diversity and acceptance. Each woman will be identified with a color palette so that a mosaic of color represents diversity and the beauty of it.



With these images I want to present different moments in what could be one person’s story. My motivation for this project is to create a dialogue about migration and xenophobia to develop solutions to related social issues. Through these images I go beyond the public scenario offering a deeper knowledge of the living conditions of one of the major labor forces in the US.

Furthermore I want to communicate in a level that is common to all: the bittersweet journey of life in which moments of struggle and joy take place.

This project is an extraordinary window to the live of Mexican immigrant women where they can be masters of their own world, where they can control their time and their choices, where they have a safe heaven.




Ruth Prieto Arenas was born and raised in Mexico City. She studied Communications and worked as a juniour account executive in visual media. Later on she worked in the film industry as a production manager and script supervisor. She was an intern in the cultural research department at Magnum photos in New York in 2011.

Ruth graduated from the program in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in 2012.

She has published her work at Picnic, Ojo de Pez (to be published in summer 2013) and in the book New York Stories a collaboration between the International Center of Photography, and Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin.

I began this project with the curiosity to understand the process that Mexican migrants go through when crossing the border. Being Mexican myself, allowed me to form a bond with my subjects so that we could build a connection that translates into the intimacy of my images. I am focused on women because of their central role in the development of the Mexican family and because I look at them as icons of identity and culture. Moreover, I think it is important to create projects that motivate a dialogue about migration and xenophobia to develop solutions to current social related issues.

Currently I am still working on this project with the great support of the Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund.


Related links

Ruth Prieto


21 thoughts on “Ruth Prieto – Safe Heaven”

  1. RUTH:

    Congratulations on being published at Burn. As i watched this essay for the second time, my three-legged black labrabdor let out a long series of mournful howls that lent a melancholic soundtrack full of aching longing to the 38 (38?) photos that appeared one after the other, each more woeful than the one before.

    And this, THIS, is the problem. You show and tell us what you want us to see, and it´s always a heavily edited story. Ruth, i get that you want to open a dialogue to promote/foster solutions to social issues and help end xenophobia. Are you afraid that if you show these ladies dancing, goofing off, laughing, having a great time that the viewer will identify too much with them? That the reaction will be that the immigrants are having too much fun and so what´s the problem?

    The problem is that you are perpetuating xenophobia by illustrating all the ways these people are so different from their (North)American neighbors. You inspire pity, not acceptance. You inspire the viewer to continue to behold these people as “other”, to be appalled at the crowded condtions, the multitude of babies, the tortillas and beans on a tiny TV tray, the child practically with her nose pressed up against the window of a claustrophobic apartment window, the cheap bric-a-brac that simulatenously recollects their Mexican history and their embrace of the American dream.

    I get that these women work a lot, that they share apartments with numerous other tenants, that their personal space is miniscule, that they share their beds with their kids. In many ways this is just a re-creation of their environments in Mexico. Not saying it was your environment, but without a doubt it was theirs. So, far from being pitiful, many, if not most of these immigrants find great comfort being surrounded by a multitude of others. Or if not confort then great familiarity. And if offered a grand new apartment for just one mother and her baby, i know that it would soon be full of the raucous happy din of extended family and friends.

    Ruth, this is such a limited story i can´t believe with 38 photos you failed to make your case for acceptance and understanding. These women are just like so very many other apartment dwellers in NY, just like so many other newcomers of any ilk, be they Midwesterners or Ukrainians. Yet i see these photos and feel like Mexican immigrants are all pobrecitos that i should pity and give a donation. They would be the FIRST to complain about your portrayal! These are proud, strong women, not porbrecitas. I would love to have felt an inkling of pride in their achievement by seeing them at play, whether in a park with their children, at a birthday party, a Saturday night dance dressed in something other tan a stained sweatshirt.

    How could i look at these photos and feel anything at all in common with these immigrants? How could my xenophobic heart be persuaded toward empathy? And yet i have SO much in common! I know their lives well, having married an ilegal immigrant dishwasher from Central America, having hosted numerous newcomers straggling over the border wan and haggard carrying nothing but a gym bag. And then tracking their advancement from bewildered lost soul to the quinceneras for their daughters that cost almost as much as a new car. But to see them here it´s as if it´s all a bone-numbing joyless grind.

    I understand this is one part of your Project. I saw another part on NY Times Lens magazine. I like your colors, your compositons and your poignant observations. What i do not like is your edit that promotes your own and our stereotypes of what it means to be an immigrant, Mexican or otherwise. I hope you will take my comments as that of a devil´s advocate, to think about what i am saying and if it resonates anywhere inside you to take it into consideration on subsequent edits. Please look at your photos as a non-Mexican and ask yourself WHY you should feel anything at all in common with your women and whether, with your shared national heritage you could do so much more for them than than you are.


    Kathleen Fonseca

  2. I had a similar reaction as Kathleen. So much reality is edited out of this essay — particularly happiness, or even smiles — as to make it dishonest. And I gotta wonder how much of that is necessary to get published in the New York Times Lens Blog or the like (burn excepted, at least when Harvey’s involved), which seem to favor an endless series of photo essays depicting how those who have somehow failed to be born on the upper east side suffer the tortures of the damned… the tortures of the damned… it bears repeating. These tales of un-interupted misery are propaganda, not realism, and like most propaganda they are likely to have the opposite of the intended effect, or be irrelevant, at best.

    And it’s unfortunate because the reality of the Mexican ex-pat community in New York is far worse than anything we see here. Men are working themselves to death so their children can attend relatively good schools and they can support their parents and grandparents back home. Legitimate images of the good times they find among all the hard work and struggle make that reality so much more poignant than all feigned misery possibly can. Without those realities, which are there for anyone that’s paying attention to see, it’s just not reality.

  3. Kathleen. Thats a very measured and intelligent critique. Your passion came across clear as a bell.

    I watched this before reading the Blah.

    I figured I was seeing; single parents, probably south/central american, location seemed like new york(the fire escape), cheap appartments filled with cheap tat. seems there was enough information in the pictures to get that over.
    And that was my problem; they just seemed like information. Not one single picture that I felt.
    And then I read the blah and thought; really? dialogue about xenophobia? Okay I’m ready for that. where exactly is it? going beyond the public scenario? what is that? and how does this set of pictures achieve that? An extraordinary window in the lives of mexican women…at which point I stopped reading the blah and went and put the kettle on instead.

    congrats for being published

  4. …i am so affected by this..not the essay as much as my own inability to really nail the problem with it. What i wrote was as obvious as what the essay depicted. But it goes much deeper than her subjects´ dour countenances. It´s more than the limited portrayal that gnaws at me, it´s WHY the limited portrayal? Why the superficial treatment of those who share the photographer’s language, traditions, national song and heritage and who, by all rights, should have trusted her implicitly? Why the failure to capture the complexity of the lives, the relationships, the interactions and the intimacy that all this claustrophobia would surely generate? Beyond failing to achieve her stated goals, why such a superficial study?

    There are three possibilities that i see:

    1)As Michael observed her edit is transparent attempt (and John indicates was a complete failure) to manipulate the viewer´s emotions, 2), despite the shared Mexican heritage, economically, socially and culturally Ms. Prieto may as well be on Mars to her subjects´ Venus or, 3) She is still shy and finds it easier to compose lovely colorful frames than to go deep into the psyches of her subjects.

    Xenopobia is an interesting word. It can be directed at groups within a society just as easily as to foreigners. And it can be expressed either in unreasonable intolerance and hatred or by promoting unreal stereotypes of certain exotic groups. Ms. Prieto´s mandate is to demonstrate the uniqueness of her subjects, to permit them their unique voice and personality, to REVEAL something to us beyond what we already know, i.e. that immigrants work hard, have little and struggle greatly. If she cannot or is unwilling to show who these people really are then we will NOT care.


  5. Sorry, I was apparently feeling a bit cranky earlier and my first take was overly influenced by the statement’s academese, which I think is indicative of much of what’s wrong with contemporary photography. But the images themselves… on further reflection, I don’t see the essay as terribly gloomy, and “dishonest” was certainly a word I was wrong to throw around. But I don’t see it as particularly enlightening, either. The photos just tell us that these people, on a superficial level at least, live pretty much like everyone else. I doubt if any xenophobes will see that and change their mindset. But I trust there are interesting stories there. They are just difficult to see, obscured as they are by the statement. And perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe the story is imposed on the subjects and it doesn’t fit quite right. Maybe it is not their own story so they come off as not entirely invested actors in someone else’s production. Nice sets, but it’s gotta be tough to play a metaphor for migration and xenophobia. Especially with the academese nature of the script. Maybe it needs a little more Faulkner or Garcia Marquez type mentality and less of the classroom.

  6. Ruth, congratulations on this amazing essay.

    Kathleen, so wonderful to have your passionate self back here.

    From where I come from, which is not a place familiar with these people, or these issues, I find these photographs beautiful and up-lifting. I see humanity, love of family, hope rather than despair, strength rather than despair. I love this!

  7. I’m sympathetic to all the views expressed but I lean towards Gordon on this.

    When I was on the PJ Program at ICP many moons ago, we had a Mexican couple with whom I became quite close and I am reminded of their work and their endeavours from this essay. They were very focused on issues of migration and they would admire this work.

    I think there is likely much more work to be done on this essay but it’s certainly well on its way.

    Good start.

    – Paul Treacy


    thank you for taking the time to think…..and reflect..always a good thing

    yet in this case, are you not putting one heavy load on one photographer who is showing us but one chapter in a larger body of work? does one vignette really need to be an encyclopedia or a whole “day in the life of” Mexican women in New York?

    this is one woman..i do not see dour…and i do not see “limited”….way way greater is the problem of photographers trying to show everything…trying to explain “all” in one essay is a more serious common mistake than simply giving us a glimpse a peek a feeling…

    what great film or book your have ever seen/read that gave a broad view? tell me.

    it is always the little pieces that grab us …this is simply a slice not the whole pie…photographers trying to bake the whole pie in one essay seem to fail….i have yet to see an all encompassing essay that struck any kind of chord at all….should there really be a checklist for any story?

    i also suspect Ms. Prieto knows a bit more about this subject than any of us, so i would lean just a bit please in her interpretation of a “safe heaven”…isn’t it possible to just sit back and see one interpretation of one life without somehow inflicting the burden or assuming the necessity of explaining the complexities of the entire immigration issue? immigration stories are a bunch of little individual stories not an epic wrap-up of the whole.

    i do think Ms. Prieto needs to step up her visual literacy…needs to be more powerful in the actual making of images…and maybe if her images were stronger you would not feel you were missing something…most of us when presented with terrific imagery, feel no need to see what is not there…..

    again, all of us have totally different ideas of what photography is supposed to DO….it’s FUNCTION…some go for aesthetic appeal only, some need reference and explanation, some only want a visceral reaction….so your lament on this essay is a normal and predictable lament….so i am only suggesting that there are different ways of reading as there are different ways of expressing….

    i am so so pleased to have you back in the critical mix here on Burn…

    thank you

    cheers, david

  9. though aesthetic appeal goes a long way to let the audience into the realm. Images of war and plunder are usually aesthetic rich

  10. DAH:

    Thanks for your feedback, as always very considered and considerate.

    The problem i have with the essay is the same problema i have with the coverage of poor barrios and the depiction of dirty kids with snot running down their chins. The viewer thinks, OMG, those poor kids. What they don´t realize is that the kids are playing and in an hour most of them will be scrubbed to within an inch of their lives and wearing clean clothes. But clean kids in a poor barrio doesn´t empty wallets in Topeka.

    I had an opportunity to shoot a grade school in a notorious barrio here where even the ambulances won´t go. i had the usual preconceptions of what these kids would look like and how they would act, not to mention a fear for my life just entering this war zone. And wrong doesn´t begin to describe my apprehension. The kids and the school were indistinguishable from other more affluent areas. Actually, there was a difference, this school had a big kitchen and sprawling dining room where the kids happily slurped down a daily hot plate of food. Feel sorry for them? Nope! I was PROUD of the single moms who got those kids out the door everyday, proud of the achievment of this community to bring a normal education process to these children. Proud of the committment of the teachers and proud of the helping hands from outside. These children were empowered not beaten down. And to portray them as otherwise would have been to cancel every good thing happening in that school.

    I would never dictate how a photographer portrays their subject. I do have a problem when Topeka looks at this essay and sees a bunch of sad looking immigrants in tight quarters and bleach-stained sweatshirts because, well, that´s what Topeka expects to see. While certainly an essay need not be filled with smiling immigrants as that would be just as much of a lie, why pander to the usual expectations of the viewer? How brave is that? What could she hope to accomplish? Some here see the essay as uplifting, as wonderful. I have no argument with that. Her essay is not awful, is not offensive though 38 photos of somber looking immigrants and their children, various plates of half-eaten food and the insides of bedrooms is an extremely narrow perspective.

    I am asking, probably demanding more from Ms. Prieto. And maybe that is not fair but she has the public´s eye, now what is she going to do with it? The same old, same old? Can anyone here seriously say they saw something unexpected? Something they have never seen? Something that makes them feel differently about Mexican immigrants? And that´s the saddest part, that this is ALL we ever see and she is just another person showing it to us.


  11. I agree with Imants that these photographs are rich visually. To me the colors reflect the richness and values of the Mexican color culture as expressed in the country’s visual and decorative arts. Also, I think that the pictures say a lot, as long as one reads _out_ of them rather than reading things _into_ them, as I feel a couple of comments above are doing. Perhaps this is encouraged by the following sentence: “My motivation for this project is to create a dialogue about migration and xenophobia to develop solutions to related social issues.” That’s too heavy a burden for a photo essay to bear; better to let the photos speak for them themselves, since they already speak eloquently.

    Generally, I feel that artists are under too much pressure to write an “artist statement”. Better just to state the context of the work and let the photographs speak for themselves.

  12. “a bunch of sad looking immigrants in tight quarters and bleach-stained sweatshirts”

    Wow, Kathleen, I’m not from Topeka, but I really can’t see what you’re seeing. I see clean children being tenderly cared for by determined hard working moms, I see healthy food, and tidy homes cheerfully painted and decorated. Where is the squalor?

    Yes, we’ve seen our share of misery essays, and one starts to look like another, but this is not one of them.

  13. The first time I went through this, I suffered claustrophobia. So, my thought was if the photographer sought to give us a sense of a strange world bearing down and encasing these women in their little safe “heavens,” then she had succeeded, though of course I wondered about the use of the word “heavens,” rather than “havens” and if it was clever word play on the part of the photographer or a mistranslation of an English word going through a Spanish speaking mind.

    Nothing really looked all that heavenly to me, yet I thought of times when I have been out in about in severe, unfamiliar physical environments where I am an alien and how wonderful it can be to find a safe and warm space of your own, even if tiny and cramped, to retreat to. That little space can, indeed, feel like heaven.

    I didn’t really get the narrative though, so I went through it maybe three more times, then finally the photographer’s working theory seemed to fall into place for me, a room introducing little stories vaguely, then expounding upon them. The sense of claustrophobia did not altogether go away, but I also got the sense of possibilities beyond.

    I felt hope.

  14. Gordon

    I did not say squalor. Not at all. The food, the babies, the cleanliness, all is as it should be. What is missing is anything remotely resembling happiness. This edit has rigorously elminated any suggestion that an immigrants´ life in NYC is anything but harsh and joyless. Or, um, determined, if you will. Why? That´s what i am asking. Why in 19 out of 38 photos is there no joy? If your heart is uplifted by 19 photos of somber immigrants and if you see some mother grimly dressing her child as tender, loving care, well i can tell you that my reaction was something entirely different. This essay is 50% of an immigrant´s life. The other 50% is giggles, music, bickering, talking, telenovelas, boyfriends, cousins, Saturday nights out and Sunday birthday parties in. There is NONE of that here. Zip, zero, zilch. Not even a whiff or a hint of any of it. This is not quality of life, regardless of the artist´s statement that home is a safe heaven. More like hell to me.

    And that´s really all i have to say about this. I have said too much already.


  15. Andrew Edward Smith

    Amazing work. I find it amazing how the space we live can be a direct reflection of our lives. I really liked the small details photographed. The final image in the series I found very powerful and inspiring. Again great work!

  16. Some really beautiful photography! Congrats Ruth for such an intimate look into these woman’s lives. #17 is a masterpiece portrait! The essay wanes towards the end – I preferred the first three in depth ones to a mmore cataloging approach. The small details a re glorious. Keep working on it!

  17. Hello everyone,

    Sorry for the delay in the response. I have been travelling and could not get to this earlier.

    Thank you all for your passionate and thoughtful reflections. Kathleen Fonseca, David Alan Harvey, MW, John Gladdy, Gordon Lafleur, Photohumourist, Imants, Mitch Alland, Frostfrog, Andrew Edward Smith and Charles Peterson. The following is the result of the reflections provoked by your words.

    First, this project is an artistic interpretation towards a problematic that is rich as well as complex. Due to this, immigration allows a great diversity of views and interpretations. When I started this project I was aware (as much as possible) of the preconceptions (as in previous information not as a moral judgement) that accompanied me when developing my work. This also made me aware of a number of preconceptions we can bring along while looking at photographs. This means there is a a number of ways of what we understand as happiness, joy, work and struggle.

    Bearing this in mind, there are 3 things I would like to say:
    1) This is one interpretation, 2) this view is not an absolute, I am not trying to show the whole and 3) I do not pretend to do so.

    Regarding the metaphor, my idea is to depict how diverse Mexico and Mexicans are. Colours also show a part of the culture. Moreover, colours, textures and moods become more distinct when they are tinted by the experience of immigration. In this sense I acknowledge the fact that my personal experience is different from what my subjects have gone through. Though, we share the need of having a place where we feel safe. We both have dreams, hopes and goals. In this sense, I don’t think suffering or hard work are categories that only describe Mexican immigrants. In the same way that I don’t think telenovelas, parties or singing are the only ways of expressing happines or wellbeing.

    It is important to clarify that the title of the project was conceived in English and it refers to home as in the space where we feel safe. It is not a word play or mistranslation.
    I find fascinating the several endevours that came around when talking about photography, photographers and art. What is photography? What is art supposed to be? Is it an expression of ones own view of the world? Is photography a way to express concerns and preocupations? Is it propaganda or is photography a way of, as mentioned, manipulating viewers emotions? These questions are a life long pursue.
    Finally, I would like to thank you all for your fruitful insights. Not only did they point out the dimensions and complexities of this issue but also reached out to the ideas of what is what we do when making photography.
    Certainly, there are improvements to be made and a road of growth to go through.

    Again, thank you for your comments and insightful observations. These are very constructive.


  18. Pingback: PJL: June 2013 (Part 1) - LightBox

  19. Pingback: PJL: June 2013 (Part 1) - Cooklin's Blog | An Amalgamation of Photography

Comments are closed.