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26 March 2020

The Influence of Race and Religion on the Representation of Bolivian Women

26 March 2020 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

Bolivian photographer Marisol Mendez returns to her homeland after years living abroad to reconnect to her ancestry. She describes this personal journey as a liberating and cathartic experience.

© Marisol Mendez, from the series MADRE

MADRE is a personal project by Bolivian photographer Marisol Mendez. She defines her project as an introspective journey in relation to her female identity and origin. Although Bolivia is a multicultural country, the representation of women remains whitewashed, Mendez explains. The South American photographer sought to challenge this inherent machismo and celebrate the diversity, complexity, and contradictions of her homeland through the portrayal of its women. She explains how the project became an incredibly cathartic experience that allowed her to reconnect to her country, and how much her mother has played an important inspiration and impact on the development of the project.

How would you describe what it was like to work on your project MADRE?

Upon returning to Bolivia, I faced the struggles that many migrants encounter when relocating to their country of origin: a deprived sense of belonging and a fractured sense of identity. MADRE was a means of reconciling with my Bolivian roots, a way of making sense of a culture that felt familiar, yet distant.

I had spent several years studying abroad, but in Bolivia little had changed with regards to the representation of women in media - it remained whitewashed and uni-dimensional. London’s eclectic cultural scene, and (mostly) inclusive environment had taught me the importance of acknowledging and giving a voice to the other.

Working on MADRE is both challenging and liberating. Photography in Bolivia has a lot of limitations. Visually, it clings to that old school style of documentation and, in terms of working conditions, resources and incentives are scarce. In this sense, the project was difficult to execute. For example, many people here grow suspicious if I ask them for a photo and even more walk away without understanding the type of work I’m producing. I’ve also struggled to work with analogue processes because there’s no proper photography labs in my city. As an anecdote, I’ve had to fabricate my own negative holders from popsicle plastic wraps because you can no longer find any in Cochabamba. But in spite of these difficulties, creating MADRE has steered me away from fixed structures allowing me to exercise freedom. That is why my images are loaded with iconographic and performative gestures, but still allude to a shared history.

In your project you have portrayed elements of religion and race. Could you talk about how the notions of these concepts have influenced your visual work?

To this day, Bolivia remains largely Catholic. Unfortunately, Catholic dogmas reinforce society’s deep-seated Madonna-Whore complex. Such reductive understanding of womanhood overlooks the contradictions and complexities of the female experience. I thought it would be fun to defy this sexist orthodoxy by appropriating religious imagery.

In the series women are depicted as multiple confronted versions of Mary Magdalene and The Virgin Mary, versions that echo Andean culture and traditions. In Bolivia, most women not only struggle with macho-patriarchal structures, but they also face racism. Although we’re a pluricultural nation, we have a history of inequality that manifests the under and misrepresentation of indigenous and mestizo people, especially women. I wanted to raise questions about this blatant imbalance of power and to make visible the less visible.

© Marisol Mendez, from the series MADRE

What would you describe as your biggest influence for this project?

My mother has been the major influence on MADRE. To begin with, she introduced me to literature and film, which are the foundation of how I see the world. Filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis and Lars von Trier have impacted my practice in different ways, as well as writers like Roberto Bolaño and Chris Kraus. Furthermore, my mom assisted and encouraged me throughout the whole process. She’s the inspiration and driving force behind the project.

I like the fact that you have decided to locate your project between fiction and documentary, however, one can't see what’s been recreated. What motivated you to work like this? Have you always had this approach to your photography?

I negotiate between several dynamics of making photographs depending on my environment and the nature of the work. For MADRE, I wanted to study the tension between truth and fiction, the tight relationship between what a photograph creates and the (sur)real it comes from.

I employed a broad range of visual languages to tell the story expecting the mixture to yield an experience similar to that of a mystical journey where the viewer is challenged to absorb and reflect on the links that emerge across the images. After all, South America is the continent of magical realism and Andean Baroque, where reality is intertwined with myth, where new and old cohabit. With my photography I’m constantly exploring these liminal spaces. As a result, my images oscillate between candid and staged, naturalistic and surreal.

© Marisol Mendez, from the series MADRE

I know you have a background in fashion photography. Would you say this experience has impacted the way you have approached MADRE?

My background in fashion photography has definitely influenced the way I approach image-making. Anais Nin famously stated “We don’t see things as they are: we see them as we are” which rings especially true when I think about photography. Although they remain anchored to a sense of reality, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as a painting or a poem.

Fashion photography does not look to disguise this, quite the contrary, it operates through metaphors and symbols. This is the aspect of fashion that I enjoy the most, creating moods and constructing worlds through fabrics, colors and textures. When putting together the outfit of a staged portrait I always try to take into consideration the political and social implications of the garments. In Bolivia, the way women dress is a social marker. And while this can be positive, for example, within indigenous groups where attire is linked to ancestral practices and traditions, this can also lead to discrimination and exclusion.

© Marisol Mendez, from the series MADRE

Lastly, what's next for the project? Are you looking to make a book or exhibit it? What are your hopes?

I wish to turn MADRE into a book. I have always been attracted to the physicality of photography, and I believe that this format will grant the project enough space for the themes to consolidate, the styles to develop, and the relationship between all the images and the subjects to emerge and embrace the viewer.

I’m currently working on producing more images for the book. Until now the series has focused on women of the western region of Bolivia (where I’m from) so now I’m aiming to include eastern women, their symbols and traditions.

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Marisol Mendez is a Bolivian photographer currently based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Her work touches the strains of fashion and documentary photography. She has exhibited her work across Europe, Argentina, and Bolivia and it has also been featured in international media magazines including The British Journal of Photography, Vogue Italia and The Independent Photographer. Follow her on Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.


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