21 August 2019
21 August 2019 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Following the daily adventures of three young Mayan children in rural Yucatán, Tania Barrientos re-visits games and memories from her own childhood where nature and a sense of curiosity always inflamed her wanderlust.
Whilst looking for an embroiderer in Tahdziú in southern Yucatán, Mexico, Tania Barrientos met a man who offered her a place to stay in their Mayan family home. The Mexican photographer explains that when she first arrived, she did not have a photographic project in mind, but while living with the family she kept documenting the lives of the three children in the house; Yasmin, Erik, and Laura. She notes that Mayan families involve children in almost all of their chores, and therefore making it difficult not to notice them.
Coinciding with her visit to Tahdziú, Barrientos’ maternal grandparents passed away, bringing childhood and family memories back to the forefront of her mind, perhaps most vividly her travels to Rancho el Japon- the house of her grandparents in rural Guerrero, Mexico. Doce Viajes al Japόn is a representation of her collected childhood memories that she often found reflected in the games and spirited personalities of Yasmin, Laura, and Erik.
Tania, I am rather intrigued by the title of your series, Doce Viajes al Japón - could you talk about how it arose?
The title of the series is linked to a stage of my childhood in which I made a series of road trips with my parents from Cancun, Mexico - where I grew up - to my grandparents' house in the state of Guerrero, where I was born. The trips and that place known as Rancho el Japón remain in my memory as the first contact with nature and my heritage in a way that would only happen in that period of my life.
My memories are marked by the music we listened to and by the images of the landscapes we passed during the two days of travel that it took to reach the south. The excitement grew when the first mountains of Guerrero appeared on the road and my mother played the tape by Joan Sebastian on the car stereo as a song of celebration for finally having arrived in her beloved land. Summer meant meeting cousins and uncles in that house in the middle of the fields. My grandfather was a farmer and my grandmother a merchant. One of its main activities was the tomb of the coconut.
What I remember most is the great yard of the ranch full of the harvest of the fruit that they put to dry in the sun, while my cousins and I rushed to make our own harvest of sweet coconut apples hidden inside the shells. Family reunions with many people at the table, endless days of games with everything we found in our way, taking walks in the orchards in search of juicy mangoes, bathing at a nearby stream or beach, and looking for ancient clay figurines that rain made appear on the "Camino Real" - all this seemed to be destined to disappear as we grew older. The effort of my grandparents remained in those lands now abandoned and their illusions left with each farewell. I don't know exactly when or why the tradition of making those trips disappeared.
In my photographic process, I discovered that what helped me to penetrate the childish universe of Yazmin, Laura, and Erick, apart from immersing myself in their games, living with the nature that surrounds them and observing their relationships in their family, was to connect with my own memories, especially the ones from those trips. I think that memory and imagination are territories where we can connect and empathise especially working with children.
In your statement you mentioned how Yasmin, Erick, and Laura reminded you of your own childhood. Would you say you found out something about yourself that you were not aware of?
In doing this project, I have reflected on many things: about my own origin, the passage of time, about giving affection in the family and about my own identity. However, there is one thing in particular that I have discovered through it and about which, paradoxically being a woman, I had little reflection upon. I am referring to femininity, which, in addition to being very present in the project, I realised is a subject that I need to talk about from my own experience as a woman and that of the women closest to me.
Do you find that this series is a recreation of your childhood?
I agree that somehow certain images in the series are the product of an attempt to revisit my childhood memories. One such example is the shot of Yazmin with her parakeet Sokoro on her head during an afternoon of games and laughter. When I was a kid, my parents easily bought me more than ten parakeets, which I played with as if they were dolls. However, the series is still imbued with the spirit of each of the children, the wild personality of Yazmin, the duality of Erick, and the sweetness of Laura. They are themselves the inexhaustible source of inspiration to create those images where our children's worlds live together and find their similarities.
Part of the project has been to encourage them to explore themselves and their environment by making their own photographs. I think this also allows the project to become collaborative. Yazmin is the most active in taking photos. By this I mean that my intention in making this series has not been to recreate my childhood, although, perhaps initially I felt reflected in them. Instead, what really interests me is talking about their own stories, deepening their personality, and that in front the camera they show themselves sometimes as they are, and at other times as they imagine themselves to be.
I find the series has such a lovely rhythm between documentary and conceptual photographic styles - was this a conscious act you had in mind while working on the project?
Since I chose to focus on these three children, I knew that their world could not be told in a purely documentary way. In itself, the world surrounding a child is always loaded with magic and fantasy, much more so in those who have grown up surrounded by the mysticism that comes from the Mayan culture. A girl whom her mother calls Xunaan (Queen) for not being born in the cornfields, butterflies that borrow the house to protect themselves from the rain, or snakes that drink breast milk: there are stories that denote their devotion and respect for nature; stories that come to them through storytelling, from their parents or grandparents, and which in turn have been transmitted to me to reactivate my own imagination and the mystery of everyday life. I think that when you are surrounded by all this magic, you can create conceptual images intuitively or without planning so much.
Could you talk about the photographers who have inspired you and influenced your work? Any thoughts on the women photographers in Latin America?
I admire many classic and contemporary photographers, but I think since I started looking and taking pictures, the ones who have inspired me the most are great photographers like Flor Garduño, Graciela Iturbide, and Maya Goded. And it is not because they are all Mexican women, but because I think their works contain a perfect balance between documenting culture or social issues and showing their own inner world. I also feel a lot of admiration for other Latin American photographers such as Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mara Sánchez-Renero and super young talents like Koral Carballo and Juanita Escobar.
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.
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.