Photographs of Mexico have helped to define its people and culture. The purpose of Mexican photography is to create a cultural definition that represents the Mexican people so that one may appreciate and understand the message being conveyed. Culture can be defined through the narratives photographs create, through the content of the image, and through the way the photo is taken and/or edited.
The individual components in a photograph work together to influence the viewer’s perception of that image. What may appear to be a self- explanatory image may contain a deeper significance with symbols that may first be overlooked. Some critics, such as Olivier Debroise, feel that photographs of Mexican culture are “often described but seldom appreciated for its symbolic values” (Debroise, 27). For example, Tina Modotti’s photo, Composición con Maiz, Cartuchos y Guitarra, although appearing to be realistic, actually represents the values of Mexican culture by focusing on three ordinary objects. The bullets represent the revolution as a constant struggle to protect Mexican values, the corn is a symbol of sustenance, and the guitar represents Mexican popular culture. Thus, what may appear at first glance to be an unassuming picture may, in fact, have a deeper cultural meaning through the association of familiar objects with a whole culture. It is believed that “Photography in Mexico has been an instrument of surface definition and critical unmasking: it has both helped to circumscribe visual identity and to integrate the construction of such imagery and the gendering of ethnicity” (Segre, 158).
Photography has allowed the Mexican people to explain social inequality which since the Mexican Revolution has been a significant component of Mexican identity. Photographs do not only serve as a visual representations, they are also valued for their capacity to create deep social commentary. According to John Mraz, “Social relations are also documented in photographs, which can speak volumes about class, race, and gender” (Mraz, 36). What the photographer chooses to capture is not only based on objective reality but also on the message she or he is wanting to convey. As stated in Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico by Debroise (2001, 40) photographers often use things like costuming and props to manipulate and transform reality into the desired result of conveying a specific definition for the image being captured.
The way a photograph is taken also contributes to the definition of the Mexican culture through the photographers’ manipulation. Photographers experience their subjects first-hand and additionally they are aware of the cultural values they may be conveying to the viewer, such as truth. “Photography [in this sense] becomes the most active agent in enabling the truth value of [an] image” (Folgarait, 15). Photographers choose their subjects and the content of their images. For example, A Victim of the Executing Squad, by Walter H. Horne captures the intense brutality of a soldier’s death where the focus is between pools of blood centering the dead man. Capturing this photo in this strategic way develops an intense emotional connection between the spectator and the lifeless soldier.
For a picture to be able to define an entire culture the photographer must take into special consideration all of its components including “subjects… dress… presentation… surroundings” (Albers & James, 145) that all help to create a unified definition of, in this case, Mexican culture. All four of these components define how Mexican culture is perceived as a single entity. As explained by Albers and James in Travel Photography: A Methodological Approach (1988) photographers consider the content of the picture, the entirety of the photo, and the composition, the placement and organization of these components in relation to each other in order to create a cohesive photo. These considerations ensure the photograph’s components are structured to help define what is being captured. The photographer has the ability to structure the photograph in such a way that allows the audience to view Mexico in a way that is easily understood because of the apparatus of representation. In other words, “photographs are the result of an active signifying practice in which media-makers select, structure, and shape what is going to be registered” (Albers and James, 136).
The formation of the photo contributes to how Mexican culture is portrayed, not only by the content but also how the photograph is taken and manipulated. The message of these photos is not only conveyed by the elements of the photograph and the way it is taken but also in what is not included in the picture. These “pictorial elements are represented as symbols; they are devices that allude to meanings and understandings outside the picture” (Albers and James, 141) leading to curiosity about what is not captured because it is still significant to the subject. However, photographs are only read as an appropriate definition of the culture when their subjects are easily identifiable and their messages clear.
Kelsey Atkinson – Derasp
Albers, Patricia C, and William R. James. “Travel Photography: A Methodological Approach,” Pergamon Journal 15 (1988): 134-158.
Debroise, Olivier. Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Folgarait, Leonard. Seeing Mexico Photographed. London: Yale University Press. 2008.
Mraz, John. “Picturing Mexico’s Past: Photography and “Historia Grafica.” The South Central Modern Language Association 21 (2004): 24-45.
Segre, Erica. Intersected Identities: Strategies of Visualization in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Mexican Culture. New York: Berghahn. 2007.