From Yalálag: An Interview with Citlali Fabián

From Yalálag: An Interview with Citlali Fabián

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.

Citlali FabianClaudia 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.
Yalálag, Oaxaca. Credit Citlali FabiánCP: 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.From the series Mestiza

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.

If you want to check out more of her work follow her on Instagram and/or her website.





153: Interview with Lodoe Laura

153: Interview with Lodoe Laura

“The act of resistance has two faces. It is human and it is also the act of art.

Only the act of resistance resists death, either as a work of art or as human struggle.”

Gilles Deleuze

On February 27, 2009, the third day of Losar (the Tibetan word for New Year), a young monk by the name of Tapey set himself on fire. In an act of protest against China’s Tibet policies, Tapey ran into the streets and lit his gasoline-soaked robes. While in flames, he raised a Tibetan flag with a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Then he was shot by Chinese military police.

153, Lodoe Laura’s solo show at the Ryerson Artspace, addresses the events that occurred that day in February and the subsequent deaths of more than 150 Tibetans that have chosen the path of self-immolation, following the steps of Tapey. Collecting images of those who sacrificed their lives as desperate acts of protest against the Chinese violent rule in Tibet, Laura makes them visible to Western audiences through a series of hand printed in incense images. In this body of work the young Tibetan-Canadian daughter of a refugee prevents us from forgetting them and stresses the importance of art as an act of resistance.

I reached out to Lodoe Laura to learn more about her work and the process she followed to create 153. The following is a conversation that took place over email.

Claudia Pretelin: What got you into art? How did it all start?

Lodoe Laura: Initially, I was interested in documentary photography and photojournalism, but through my studies at the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University, my work has shifted to be more conceptually based. So in addition to photography, I also work in video, installation, and sculpture.

CP: How do you choose the topics you want to explore?

LL: I explore themes of cultural crossover, collective memory, and the intersection of cultural and political practice. At times my work is highly political and I am trying to work through the representation of conflict and of community. Then, other times it can be highly personal. For example, the last work I made was a two-channel video piece of my dad teaching me the Tibetan alphabet. I choose to make work about what I’m thinking about, and I use my artistic practice to communicate my thoughts and things that I feel are important.

Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura

CP: What sort of processes do you use to create your work?

LL: It starts with an idea. Usually it comes from conversations, experiences, or from my reading. Then, I spend time researching whatever it is I’m interested in. I look at other artists of many media – poets, writers, visual artists, and performers – who may have responded to similar events or experiences. Then, the process develops and changes as the work starts to form. I work across many media, which allows me the freedom to experiment and to use the right method for the topic I am addressing. Oftentimes, I use unconventional materials or I use traditional materials unconventionally. 153 are photographs hand printed in incense, and I’ve worked before with colored sand and concrete as materials.

CP: How do you employ new technologies and social media for your work?

LL: For 153, the images are sourced from different activist and exile groups. It can be very difficult to find photographs or information on the Tibetan self-immolations in the West. This is due in large part to the Chinese government’s communications crackdown inside Tibet. Discussing or displaying images of the people that have set themselves on fire in protest of the sociopolitical climate inside Tibet is in direct opposition to the narrative authorities attempt to present – that is, as a Shangri-la paradise in the Himalayas; an idealized, mythical, utopian land. It is far from it, and the actions of the self-immolators are just one of many ways Tibetans inside Tibet are undermining that narrative. Therefore, activist and advocacy groups in exile collecting and publishing online the photographs, dates, and stories of the self-immolated, is an act of resistance to the presented narrative. I do want to recognize Woeser, who is an author, activist, and blogger inside Tibet. She bravely posts about the self-immolations and her blog and most recent book, Tibet on Fire, were primary sources for information – names, dates, and images.

CP: Can you tell us more specifically about the materials and the process to create 153?

LL: Charcoal is used in a Tibetan Buddhist prayer ritual called Sang – a smoke offering ritual similar to incense. The first part of my project involved going to several monasteries and homes of the exile community where I collected their charcoal and incense ash from the Sang offering. Because of its use in prayer ritual, collecting this was, for me, a way of

Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura

collecting the prayers of the community. Then, with my father, I milled, dried, and sifted the mixture so that it was a fine powder. Once I amassed an archive of photographs of the self-immolators on my computer, I started going through and looking at them. Because of the lack of free flowing information from inside Tibet, this number varies depending on your source, but through my research 153 was the most complete list I could compile.

Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura
Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura

Most of the images the activists were able to recover were from cell phones, and were of a very low resolution. So I turned each image into Bitmap files – what this did was turn the images from full color photographs into an image made only up of black or white dots. Then, I printed them onto transparency film, which was used to print onto silk-screens in the darkroom.

Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura

Once the silk-screens were made, I went back to the incense I collected from the exile community. I mixed the fine charcoal powder with traditional ink making gum medium to create handmade ink. Then, using the screen as a negative, the charcoal and gum were pushed through to make a positive image on paper. This created the final positive images of the self-immolated, which are displayed at the Artspace. If you look closely at each image, and especially one of the heavily black images, you can see the granules and texture of the charcoal and incense ash. Because of its use in prayer ritual it was, for me, a representation not only of the burning protest, it was also a representation of the prayers of the exile community. So for this reason it was important that the texture was still visible in the final prints.


Courtesy of artist Lodoe Laura

CP: And there is also a video along with the prints.

LL: I made a video, which is a database of the dates of the self-immolations. The hand printing of the prints was a very slow, labor-intensive process, and I wanted to make something that contrasted the slow repetition of the hand printed images. This video displays the dates of each self-immolation in rapid succession. It flips quickly between extreme light and extreme dark. Because it switches so quickly between the two, your eyes don’t have time to adjust to either. This is intended to create the unsettling effect of an after-image, so the dates are visible even after you’ve stopped looking. I first came across the idea of an after-image after viewing Alfredo Jaar’s Geometry of Conscience at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Art about political protest will necessarily be insufficient. My work exists only as one thread in a larger, complex conversation that is being held in Tibetan society about self-­immolation, protest, and what it means when these actions are taken.

CP: I read that you are planning to graduate this year. What’s next for Lodoe Laura?

LL: One of my goals now that I’ll have more time is to improve my Tibetan language skills. I’m assisting one of my favorite professors, Clare Samuel, in some of her undergraduate classes, and am interested in teaching in the future. I’m looking into graduate programs in Canada and abroad. I’ve been in Toronto for seven years, and even though it’s starting to feel like home, I’m hoping for a change and new challenge.


Lodoe Laura

Exhibition Run: September 1st- 25th, 2016

Ryerson Artspace

Gladstone Hotel 1214 Queen Street West, Toronto.

Lodoe Laura is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Toronto, Canada. She was a recipient of a Magnum Photo scholarship in 2015, and is completing her BFA in Photography at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. Her work has been recognized with the AIMIA AGO Scholarship Prize, and most recently was a winner of The Magenta Foundation’s 2016 Flash Forward Award.

If you want to check out more of her work follow her on Tumblr and/or her website

Claudia Pretelin is a writer from Mexico City and currently resides in Rochester, New York. She holds a B.A. in Communications and received her M.A. and a Ph.D. in Art History from The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).