In conversation with Graciela Iturbide

If she had had her way, Graciela Iturbide would have been a writer.

She still cites as influences writers like Emily Dickinson and the controversial Mexican social commentator Elena Garro who, she says, “was one of the greatest writers of our times”. Yet a literary career was an impossible dream. “I was brought up in a very conservative family, but I always felt somewhat rebellious about that upbringing … My father, who belonged to this bourgeois and conservative society, refused to let me study literature.’ Still, try as he might, her father was unable to hide his own artistic interests. ‘At the same time, he was an amateur photographer, and I slowly grew interested in the portraits that he took of us. He kept them in a closet, and I frequently stole them, despite the punishments that he gave me.”

The photographer’s job is to synthesize, to make strong and poetic work from daily life
— Graciela Iturbide

Marriage at a very young age was her route away from parental restrictions and into photography. “I married a liberal architect  with whom I had the freedom to study cinema. Then I met Manuel Álvarez Bravo at school and became his assistant, which was crucial for my development as a photographer.” As her calling grew stronger, Iturbide realised that she needed a way out of her marriage ‘to be able to dedicate myself to photography and film’. Not an easy road but a profoundly important one. “My divorce caused a scandal. But when I got divorced, despite the fact that I had a good relationship with the father of my children, I felt liberated. I was able to do my jobs, both in photography and in film”. She never regretted or felt guilty about the breakup. As for her children, they were always with her, either in her small laboratory or on some of her trips. “They loved that I was a photographer, and I shared all my work with them. I felt very happy to be myself, to be free, and to be alone. Photography was my passport; it enabled me to get to know my country and its native peoples.” Iturbide happily acknowledges the influence of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Josef Koudelka, Diane Arbus and Francesca Woodman in the creation of her own special photographic language. “They teach you; they help you grow as an artist.”

In 1979, on the invitation of the artist Francisco Toledo, she followed in the footsteps of another group of her artistic heroes – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti – and travelled to Juchitán, a small town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Here, she would make some of her most important work, in what she describes as a state of complicity with the indigenous Zapotec people. “I was lucky that Francisco Toledo, one of our great artists, called me on the phone one day and offered me to do a job in Juchitán. He gave me two works of his to sell, and with the proceeds I paid for my trip and my material to work in Juchitán. When I arrived, since Francisco is from Juchitán and was deeply loved by the people, I arrived with his family. I fell in love with the personality of the Juchitecos, especially the women, I felt the love they had for me.”

Photography was my passport, it enabled me to get to know my country and its native peoples
— Graciela Iturbide

For nearly a decade she was a regular visitor, immersing herself in the community, spending long periods of time with Zapotec women and cultivating friendships. Rather than merely documenting people from an outsider’s perspective, Iturbide photographed her own interactions and encounters with the community.

I need to be close to the people … I need their complicity … I learned so much about life from them
— Graciela Iturbide

Her Juchitán photographs highlight the culture’s powerful women and muxes, men who identify as women, a third gender that has been celebrated since pre-Hispanic times. In Juchitec society, women hold significant political, economic and spiritual power. Muxes are similarly revered in Zapotec culture – they are believed to have special intellectual and artistic gifts.

For Iturbide ‘the photographer’s job is to synthesise, to make strong and poetic work from daily life’. The photographs she made with the people of Juchitán are some of her most lyrical and iconic. They include the famous Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), Juchitán, 1979, which expresses the independence of the community’s women and their complex identities. This photograph depicts Zobeida Díaz. ‘I spotted her in the Juchitán market. She was carrying the iguanas on her head and was planning  to sell them. I asked her to wait a moment while I took a roll of 12 photographs. Only one or two negatives turned out well. The iguanas, an important cultural symbol of the Zapotec, encircle Díaz’s head like a  halo. It is an image of reverence for Zapotec women.’ The people of Juchitán came to call this photograph the ‘Medusa Juchiteca’, because of its significance for them. ‘They have made a sculpture of it in the town, and they make huipiles (traditional garments) with her image. I feel that this image wanted to fly, not because  I promoted it – the town felt that it belonged to them.’

Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas is a strong and poetic celebration of the diverse cultural heritage of Zapotec women. It marked an important staging post in Iturbide’s photographic journey. ‘My first job as a photographer was to get to know my country and  work with native peoples. From which I learned to know my country.’ Only later did she begin to get to know the landscape and the objects that she found there. ‘In the end, I am photographing birds, stones and volcanoes. I am coming to photograph the beginning of the world, curiously at the end of my life.’

Although not in a way she might have at first envisioned, Iturbide’s childhood dream of a literary career was finally realised. By refusing to compromise and single-mindedly following the urgings of her  muse, she has made a great poetic chronicle of the  lives and landscapes of her Mexican homeland.