“To me it’s more important to get to know the worlds I travel in.”
For Graciela Iturbide, being a skillful photographer sometimes means sacrificing an image and letting the moment pass. Iturbide learned this paradoxical lesson during the 1970s, while living among Indigenous populations in Mexico. She recalls, “I was in many places where I became aware of an interesting photographic opportunity but didn’t take advantage of it because I was talking with one of the women. It depended on what was most important at that moment. I probably lost a few good photos, but it was so important to be with Señora X, who was right there.”
Iturbide’s process might initially appear surprising, especially for an artist who cites Henri Cartier-Bresson as an influence. Cartier-Bresson’s principle of the “decisive moment”—which he described as requiring “a sharp eye, a silken touch”—privileges the photographer’s ability to swiftly capture a spontaneous moment that distills the essence of a scene. Indeed, many of Iturbide’s early works, such as ¡México…quiero conocerte!, Chiapas, suggest just such a street photography approach. Nevertheless, Iturbide has never had trouble forging a path apart from her mentors. She first trained in photography with Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Starting as his student at the Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), then becoming his studio assistant from 1970 to 1971, Iturbide absorbed Bravo’s poetic style but simultaneously developed her own approach to the photo essay.
In 1978, Iturbide received a commission from the Ethnographic Archive of the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico to document the lifeways of the Seri peoples, a formerly nomadic Indigenous group that lives in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico. With the anthropologist Luis Barjau, Iturbide stayed in the 500-person community of Punta Chueca for two months. “I lived with them in their homes,” she recalled, “so they would see me always with my camera and know that I am a photographer. In this way, we were able to become partners.” It was during this time that she made Mujer ángel, Desierto de Sonora. In it, a Seri woman on a hillside assumes a mythic persona, appearing to almost float over the land. Yet the tape recorder she carries in her hand—received from Americans in exchange for baskets and carvings—ties her to the contemporary moment. Iturbide would ultimately become so close to the women in the community that they would ask her to participate in traditional Seri painting, which she documented in a self-portrait, Autorretrato como Seri, Desierto de Sonora.
The following year, Iturbide received another photographic commission, this time in Juchitán, a town located in the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Part of the Zapotec culture, the Juchitán people are an Indigenous community in Mexico known for elevating women to positions of authority in society. Over the following six years, Iturbide spent extended periods of time in Juchitán, sharing meals with the “strong, liberated, marvelous” women who lived there, attending marriage ceremonies, having her hair braided, and assisting vendors at the market. In 1989, she published her photographs of these experiences in the book Juchitán de las mujeres. Among the many images to emerge from this series is Mujercita, which portrays a young girl carrying a dog. The expression on her face, which could be read as one of determination, is emblematic of the powerful role of women in Zapotec communities.
Iturbide’s steady, respectful, unintrusive approach to representing Indigenous communities is informed by personal interactions. As she has said, “To me it’s more important to get to know the worlds I travel in; this knowledge is so attractive that the photography almost takes second place.”
Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2021