Having spent seven or so years in Buenos Aires and London studying audio-visual communication and fashion photography respectively, Marisol Mendez (@marisol___mendez) returned to her motherland Bolivia, where she found herself experiencing an identity crisis on two grounds. First, she felt isolated from the photography world. In London, she was surrounded by a flourishing photography community, a vast array of photobook shops, exhibitions, and talks that encouraged her to engage with the medium creatively and critically. In Bolivia, however, she admitted, all this is almost non-existent and in fact, at times, Mendez also experienced difficulties sourcing photographic supplies in the country for her projects. Second, on her return to Bolivia, Mendez struggled to connect to her cultural roots, acknowledging that 'It's natural for people who have lived outside their country for a long time to come back and find it difficult to relate to it.' Amidst this period of adjustment, Mendez noticed that the visual language associated with the representation of women in her culture has for long been outdated and scarce. Her exposure to different ideas, thoughts, and worlds in Buenos Aires and London made Mendez realise that the women in her culture were viewed and represented in very phallocentric, heteronormative, and colonialist ways. In order to challenge these representational conventions, she embarked on her most ambitious project to date, MADRE.
The project features a series of portraits, still lifes, and family photographs. Across these, Mendez reappropriates religious metaphors to critique notions of womanhood and femininity informed by religion and specifically, Catholic Christianity. Some of the women in her photographs for instance, embody the Virgin Mary, personifying holiness, purity, and the capacity to love unconditionally. Garbed in white robes, these women portray the unattainable ideal of femininity to which women in Mendez's society are expected to adhere. Contrasting this ideal, some of the other women in Mendez's photographs embody Mary Magdalene, personifying sin, infidelity, and lust. Juxtaposing these, Mendez challenges the Madonna-Whore complex which imposes Manichean models of femininity on women in Bolivian society.
In addition to critiquing a phallocentric, polarised, and heteronormative representation of femininity, through MADRE Mendez challenges colonialist representations of women in Bolivian society. Arguing that existing imagery surrounding Bolivian women only portrays 'slim, pale-bodied women, pandering to male desire, neglecting a significant part of the Bolivian female identity,' Mendez actively photographed women of varying skin tone and age. Her photographic approach also challenges colonialist approaches to photography, whereby an outsider, more often than not, photographed the people of a specific region distantly and selfishly. Quite contrastingly, Mendez developed a strong familial bond with each of her subjects, spending hours over coffee, engaging them in conversation, and getting to know them as well as possible. Finally, she merges the metaphors of Catholic and Andean cultures in her representation of women, foregrounding indigenous understandings of femininity otherwise eclipsed due to the advent of Christianity. The women in Mendez's photographs thus enact a complex, diverse, and heterogenous approach to womanhood. Posing boldly and confronting the viewer with their gaze, they present themselves as active participants and collaborators in Mendez's project.
On being asked why she chose the word 'madre' as a title for her project, Mendez responded that MADRE is Mendez's testimony to the ties that connect her to her motherland, to the strength of her relationship with her mother, to her politicisation into a feminist, to the women in her sisterhood who give shape to her activism and those who boldly feature in her photographs. At the same time as celebrating these bonds, Mendez chose the word 'madre' as the title for her project in order to critique the patriarchal view that women are reproductive systems and only worthy in society as mothers. Indeed, nothing else conveys the complexity of this better than her photographs themselves.
Marisol Mendez (1991) is a Bolivian photographer that uses the camera to study the tension between truth and fiction, the tight relationship between what a photograph creates and the (sur)real it comes from. Through her photographs she seeks to deconstruct hegemonic narratives and confront them with the friction of the heterogenous. Marisol employees a broad range of visual language to tell a story. The mixture yields an experience similar to that of a mystical journey where the viewer is challenged to absorb and reflect on the links that emerge across the images. As a result, her work oscillates between candid and staged, naturalistic and mythical.