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By reappropriating Catholic imagery, Mendez highlights the impact of the colonial history in the ongoing sidelining of indigenous women in her home country
Marisol Mendez holds a small card in her hands, a flyer promoting a sex club. Behind some marketing text is an image of a topless woman, lying on her front, looking back seductively at the camera. “Things remain like this,” Mendez says, pointing energetically to the image. “These reductive depictions of women that I thought had gone are alive and well.” The card reappears in her hand a number of times throughout our video call – a reference point, focusing her thoughts as she delves into the incentives for her most ambitious project to date, Madre.
Mendez was born and raised in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she is based. It is a country with a rich, multifaceted history and deep-rooted traditions, which both invigorate its cultural tapestry and divide its society. Bolivia is majority Catholic, accounting for some 77 per cent of its nationals, and also home to the largest Indigenous populations in Latin America, groups who are stigmatised and scorned. Though progress has been made in recent years, with diverse voices entering parliament and women securing positions of influence, Bolivia is still, resoundingly, a patriarchal society.
“I felt isolated from the photography world and I was struggling to connect to my Bolivian roots. It’s natural for people who have lived outside of their country for a long time to come back and find it difficult to relate to it.”
It wasn’t until Mendez left to study abroad that she gained a perspective that led her to begin campaigning against these prejudices, using the camera as her aid. She first went to Buenos Aires in 2010 to study audiovisual communication at the Universidad de Palermo, which introduced her to storytelling and narrative-building. In 2016 she moved to London, where she completed an MA in fashion photography at the London College of Fashion, UAL. Mendez’s enamourment with the fashion industry was brief, but the training imparted new skills and confidence to the young photographer. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she says, a map of London hanging on the wall behind her.
Returning to Cochabamba after seven years, Mendez found herself between two worlds, confronted with feelings of displacement and experiencing an “identity crisis”, she says. “I felt isolated from the photography world and I was struggling to connect to my Bolivian roots. It’s natural for people who have lived outside of their country for a long time to come back and find it difficult to relate to it.” In London, a flourishing photography community surrounded Mendez. Photobook shops, exhibitions, debates and publishers drove the dialogue forward, creating a rich pool of resources for students to explore. “But here, the infrastructure is almost non-existent,” she says and, as an example, holds up a hand-made plastic sleeve, one she fashioned at home due to the lack of photo labs in the city.
Mendez also observed that the visual language associated with her culture was outdated and scarce. “We have inherited a preconceived idea, a colonised gaze,” she says. “We reproduce the depictions of ourselves that were created for European people, or North American people. I was angry that after being out of the country for seven years, I came back and things remained the same.” Manicured imagery of the slim, pale-bodied women continued to be splashed across media campaigns, pandering to male desire and neglecting to portray a significant part of the Bolivian identity. “There is a very big lack of representation,” says Mendez. “You never see darker-skinned models, and you would only see ‘cholitas’ [Bolivia’s Aymara and Quechua women, recognisable by their braided hair, bowler hats and billowing, layered skirts] when they were reported on in the newspapers.”
Charged with this sense of injustice, and in an attempt to reconnect to her motherland, Mendez began shooting Madre – a project which observes the nuances of Bolivia’s multiculturalism and spirituality, while celebrating the diversity and complexity of its women. “I realised that one of the things that has a big impact on how women are perceived, and what femininity should be, is Catholicism,” says Mendez, who was raised in the religion. The Bible, she explains, is one of the most potent literary examples of powerful imagery and compelling storytelling. By spinning this narrative, she “reappropriated religious imagery to be critical of it, and the project started to grow”.
“I was interested in this idea of photography as a construction, a hybrid, where genres intersect, incorporating elements of fiction. I believe that they help you tell a story more truthfully.”
Madre is composed of a series of portraits employing layers of metaphor and juxtaposition. To contradict the Bible’s dogmatic messaging, the women in her images embody a version of either the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene – two personas who are traditionally considered as ‘opposites’, one representing holiness and purity, the other sin and penance – personified through an Indigenous lens. The women vary in skin tone and age, carefully cast “from a street protest or coffee shop”. By merging the visual language of Catholicism and Andean culture, Mendez uses her sensibilities to set composition and styling to highlight the syncretism within the faith, and the harmony that can exist between the past and the contemporary. “I was interested in this idea of photography as a construction, a hybrid, where genres intersect, incorporating elements of fiction,” she says. “I believe that they help you tell a story more truthfully.”
In one image, a young woman with dark hair and raised cheekbones stands draped in a white velvet vestment embroidered with swirls of gold thread, delicate tassels hanging from the bottom of the fabric. She wears an elegant gold crown and a worn pair of combat boots. In another, a woman sits tall in a strapless, white, textured dress with restrained blue stitching, her black locks cascading over her shoulder, providing a sharp contrast against a single gold earring. One woman wears a wide-brimmed white hat and black collared shirt, adorned with ivory and silver beaded necklaces to complement her short, metallic hair, a flash of magenta lipstick on her lips. Elsewhere, Chelssy, winner of the Miss Bolivia Universo Transsexual contest in 2019, stands boldly in red underwear, topless but for her victory sash. The bright sunlight coming in through the window illuminates her, framing a strong silhouette against the bare wall behind. Undisclosed are each of the women’s personal stories, representing independence and progress, but also resilience.
“It’s very important that the work is reflective and that I constantly question myself. Through the act of photography, I am telling the story of Bolivian people, telling it in a way that escapes these preconceived ideas and the colonised gaze. I think it’s an act of decolonisation.”
In all cases, the poses are defiant – standing tall with hands on hips, or sitting up straight – with piercing stares that look directly into the camera. This power stance is important, says Mendez. Bolivia has the highest rate of gender-based violence in Latin America, with 70 per cent of women believed to have experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological harm. “Women [in Bolivia] are victims of violence, but I didn’t want to show defeated women. I wanted to show them not as victims but as people with agency. People who can control their destinies, people who are never afraid to face these injustices.”
Landscapes and archival photographs plucked from Mendez’s family photo album also play a part. The reference to her relatives is less important, instead they act as “windows into the past. I am speaking of these very old ideas, but through a very modern lens,” says Mendez, who has also collaged and edited some of the images. “Madre has to do a lot with understanding where we come from, and how where we are now is a result of that. There is ancestry behind me that has taken me to this place. So today, I am able to question Catholicism, and question tradition at large from a very modern point of view. We are taught history as fact, but really it’s an interpretation – everything is an interpretation.”
The lack of photography around Bolivian identity leaves Mendez with a sense of duty as an image-maker to create work that is truly representative. “It’s beautiful to have this fertile ground to work with,” she says. “But it’s also very important that the work is reflective and that I constantly question myself. Through the act of photography, I am telling the story of Bolivian people, telling it in a way that escapes these preconceived ideas and the colonised gaze. I think it’s an act of decolonisation.” She adds: “Yes, I’m a feminist, but at the same time, the problem is not men. The problem is a system that promotes these ideas.” Mendez, who also works as a teacher, says that education is the key to changing attitudes.
The photographer hopes that Madre will serve as a reminder that Bolivia, her home, is a nation of individuals who have a shared history, which she both honours and condemns. She will publish the project as a book this year, and continues to build upon the archive of this new visual documentation. “I want to use my photography to make a contribution,” she says. “The strength that we have is in our diversity and in the complexity that is our identity.”
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Managing Editor of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.