Winner Of W. Eugene Smith Award 1987
Our Lady of the Iguanas
Graciela Iturbide, a Mexican photographer, was awarded the Grant for her work in Juchitan, a small, culturally autonomous, fiercely independent city of 150,000 inhabitants 900 miles southeast of Mexico City where political, economic and social power is for the most part controlled by women.
When the Mexican painter and printmaker Francisco Toledo contacted Iturbide in 1979 to ask her to photograph life in his native Juchitán in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, she found a project in which to indulge her desire to photograph the vitality of women. The small city in the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the most purely indigenous community in Mexico. The Zapotec women there are economically, politically, and sexually independent and have been idealized as a source of national strength for more than a century. Their bright, embroidered apparel, rich gold ornamentation, and elaborate coiffure identify them as part of the exotic-seeming Tehuana tradition.
Iturbide’s approach to photographing life in Juchitán was not the traditional distanced one of the documentarian. She chose to get well acquainted, to make the women “complicit” in the way she would photograph them. As Iturbide said herself about her experience among the “big, strong, politicized, emancipated, wonderful women” of Juchitán, “They adopted me in a way. They let me take my pictures and let me know about the various fiestas. I would go on pilgrimages with them….It wasn’t only that they gave me permission to take photographs, they also suggested themes and showed me things. I discovered the Zapotec people through their eyes, and through my own at the same time.”
Iturbide’s photographs from Juchitán also document the region’s rich life of religion and ritual. Iturbide sees an analogy between these rituals and her own practice of taking photographs:
“It is the only way we have to transcend the mundane in life….Perhaps I have been marked by my religious education. When I was a girl, in order to get away from my family, I went to a convent to act. There was an atmosphere filled with disguises one can find years later in my work: the transvestites, the figure of death, the two faces of Janus. I don’t pretend to mythologize indigenous peoples like many people believe I do, but what I love about them is their way of mythologizing the mundane. Maybe, when you come down to it, photography serves as ritual for me.”
Graciela Iturbide married the architect Manuel Rocha Diaz in 1962. She had three children from this marriage. She studied cinema at the CUEC film school in the University of Mexico. Iturbide’s six year old daughter died in 1970; this led her to inner search, which in turn led her to discover her interest in photography. Between 1970 and 1971, Iturbide collaborated with famous Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Additionally, she had studied filmography at Mexico’s “Centro Unversitario de Estudios Cinematograficos”, a division of the UNAM university. While working with Alvarez Bravo, she also learned photography techniques used by the celebrated photographer.
Along with Alvarez Bravo, Iturbide began to explore Mexico’s indigenous areas–Indigenous influence would surface later on in her career as a photographer. In 1974, she received the Eugene Smith grant for humanitarian photography, and a scholarship at the Guggenheim college.
In 1979, Iturbide was asked by a man to photograph his village. Interested by the proposal, Iturbide released her first collection, titled “Mujer Angel” (“Angel Woman”) and shot at Mexico’s portion of the Sonoran desert. Her first experience as a photographer shaped Iturbide’s views on life, making her a strong supporter of feminism.
Some of the inspiration for her next work came from her support of feminist causes. Her well known collection, “Señora de Las Iguanas”, (“Our Lady of the Iguanas”) was shot in Juchitan, Oaxaca, a city where women dominated town life. Her work in Juchitan was not only about women, however: she also shot “Magnolia”, a photo of a man wearing a dress and looking at himself on a mirror. It was “Magnolia” that has led many photography experts to say that Iturbide also explored sexuality among Mexicans with her work.
Graciela Iturbide liked Oaxaca, and in 1986, she returned to that area for more photos.
Iturbide also worked in Argentina (during 1996), India (where she shot another well known photo of hers, “Perros Perdidos”, or “Lost Dogs”), and the United States, where she did her last known work, an untitled collection of photos shot in Texas.