How to represent oneself to the world is a fundamental question in the history of photography. By analyzing her own traditions and through her distinctive images, Citlali Fabián addresses issues of cultural identity using classic photographic techniques. She is part of a young generation of photographers exploring and pushing on the possibilities of the medium, willing to experiment and to produce pictures that are unique and original. I met the artist during her time living in Rochester, New York where she kindly invited me to write an introductory text for her solo exhibition Mestiza at Centro Cultural San Pablo in Oaxaca City this past March. This invitation initiated the following conversation pursuing my interest to learn more about her creative process and her ideas about identity and photography.
Claudia Pretelin: During the past few years, there has been a revival of the daguerreotype and the production of wet-collodion plates among younger photographers interested in making artistic use of early photographic processes. What led to your interest in daguerreotypes, wet-collodion plates, and even Polaroids?
Citlali Fabián: Something vital for me is for my work to be distinctive. In the digital era, I wanted to offer this alternative that, I believe, creates a closer and more intimate connection with it. This interest was born from a personal search, from experimentation, from using a digital camera, and from realizing that it was not part of my creative process. My creative process is slower and this kind of photography requires me to take the time to make it, to be a little more selective when you see behind the lens.
“I’m interested in documenting any cultural transformation, not only in Yalálag, but also in other places where Yalaltecos have migrated and replicated their traditions.”
CP: In the series I am from Yalálag, you photograph the everyday life of your community. In today’s globalized world, how do Yalaltecos keep their local traditions and how do you choose which traditions to document?
CF: These traditions are part of everyday life. It is impossible to be isolated from the outside world and changes are inevitable. However, I think we’ve assimilated these changes and transformed them within our community. For example, we have “The Dance of Santa Claus” and “The Dance of Superheroes” [Performative dances by Yalaltecos to celebrate patron saint days in which performers embrace the image of superheroes such as Captain America, Wolverine and Santa Claus] which are satirical enactments of American figures in a traditional celebration from Yalálag. I’m interested in documenting any cultural transformation, not only in Yalálag, but also in other places where Yalaltecos have migrated and replicated their traditions. This is a long-term project.
CP: Other photographs taken in Yalálag, such as Lola Álvarez Bravo’s come to mind when thinking about your community. Does this work have influenced you or do you think that you have an inside look that gives a different perspective of Yalálag?
CF: Lola Álvarez Bravo’s images are not so well know in my community. The most well know is “Burial in Yalálag”. While I was studying photography they became a reference for me. Perhaps what interested me the most about her trip to Yalálag were the small texts I read about her experience. In those texts she describes what she saw in Yalálag. Even with the time gap between our images, what she describes is completely familiar to what I remember from Yalálag. Perhaps the images by Julio de la Fuente are more familiar to Yalaltecos. These photographs were taken before Lola’s with a more anthropological point of view.
CP: How did you come up with the idea of Mestiza?
CF: I came up with the idea of Mestiza while I was living in Mexico City. At the time, I was enrolled in the Master’s program at UNAM and I was directing my research project towards the production of wet-collodion plates. I was interested in studying the technical and historical aspects of this process. Prior to this, I had worked with self-portraiture. However, due to technical difficulties it was not possible to continue with self-portraits. I had this idea to make representations of Zapotec deities, to represent elements that were part of my identity. I also began to make portraits that allowed me to develop a relationship with and an immediate reaction from the people that posed in front of my camera.
CP: How did the project evolve as you created the portraits of your subjects?
CF: This process allowed me to start a collaborative conversation. I talked to my models, close friends of mine, about how they felt seeing themselves in these pieces. I got similar responses. There was certain skepticism about these images. Some did not recognize themselves in those images but felt a certain echo from the past. Something from the past was connecting with us through these portraits. I remember the first time I asked someone to pose for this project; it was my close friend and also an artist, Gabriela Zubillaga. I had previously helped her to document some sculptural and performance pieces. We had established a close friendship and a photographic connection. In that session she appears like a goddess, wearing a peñacho de Totomostle [a headdress made out of corn]. It was like seeing Mayahuel [The Aztec Goddess of the Maguey] in front of me. The project was developing in front of my eyes, guiding me to continue. Then I started to work more with corn as a key element in my photographs. I called my close friends and family and together we developed these representations of our identity as a way of acknowledging and unifying our roots.
CP: What images have you lost along the way? Maybe something that you’ve witnessed but you didn’t have your camera to capture it?
CF: More than not having the camera in my hand, there are certain moments in which emotionally I can’t make an image. The moments that I remember the most are when my grandparents died. From those moments I only keep images and memories in my mind.
Citlali Fabián is a visual artist from Yalálag, a small town in Oaxaca, southern Mexico. She holds a B.A. in Photography from the Universidad Veracruzana and a Certificate in Photographic Preservation and Collection Management from the George Eastman Museum. Her ongoing work Mestiza was featured on The New York Times’ Lens blog and her most recent project addresses the image of the American flag in the landscape of residential neighborhoods in the United States.