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When life imitates art

In Cambridge exhibit, indigenous artists share culture through photographs

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
When life imitates art
The procession for the feast of San Idelfonso, patron saint of Tenejapa. — PHOTOS: JUANA GIRÓN INTZÍN

Through Feb. 27, the walls of the Friends Meeting at Cambridge building are lined with photographs from the Chiapas Photography Project’s “Respeto/Respect” series. The CPP provides technical photography lessons and equipment to indigenous Maya people in Chiapas, Mexico.

Marigolds adorn a tomb in San Andrés Larrainzar during Todos Santos. PHOTO: ALICIA LÓPEZ RUÍZ

Marigolds adorn a tomb in San Andrés Larrainzar during Todos Santos. PHOTO: ALICIA LÓPEZ RUÍZ

CPP founder Carlota Duarte says she established the project because she noticed while doing research on indigenous people that none of the photographs included were taken by the people themselves. In this way they were not given the opportunity to characterize themselves. “People should be able to represent themselves, not have outsiders speak for them,” says Duarte. “My interest was in who has agency, who has control.”

“Respeto/Respect” features the work of Maya women in particular, further emphasizing the voices of those who are often silenced. Duarte says she’s careful not to impose any creative ramifications on the artists. “My colleagues in Boston said, ‘Aren’t you going to teach them the history of photography?’” says Duarte. “And I said, ‘Well, whose history is that?’” What they shoot and how is up to them. The images in the exhibition show architecture, religious ceremonies and the friends and neighbors of the women behind the camera.

Musicians in Tenejapa. PHOTO: ANTONIA SÁNTIZ GIRÓN

Musicians in Tenejapa. PHOTO: ANTONIA SÁNTIZ GIRÓN

Since the program was established in 2013, Duarte estimates they’ve worked with more than 500 participants. Some of the photographers have evolved to participate in exhibitions, be showcased in books or become artists in their own right. One even opened the first photo lab in a local town. CPP has also done a few offshoot projects, such as a three-month course at a federal prison in Mexico.

But the project isn’t just about teaching photography. It’s a way for people from different towns, indigenous groups and religious sects to learn about each other. “It’s been very striking to see how the images have addressed social conflict in their communities,” says Duarte.

In “Respeto/Respect” the social conflict addressed is religious divisions. The photographs allowed women from opposing sects to see that their practices were not so different. Duarte gives the example of a photograph of one man baptizing another in a river. When the photographers came together to discuss their work, they were able to talk about their religious practices, like baptism, without fear. In this way the project is bridging the gap between communities in Chiapas and worldwide.

Pigeons in flight over the San Cristóbal Cathedral. PHOTO: CATALINA JIMÉNEZ PÉREZ

Pigeons in flight over the San Cristóbal Cathedral. PHOTO: CATALINA JIMÉNEZ PÉREZ

“The project is incidentally about photography,” say Duarte. “It’s really about social sharing and building confidence as people of different ethnicities work together.”

On the web

Chiapas Photography Project: https://chiapasphoto.org

Friends Meeting at Cambridge: https://fmcquaker.org

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