Pulling Back the Curtain: An Interview with Photojournalist Marcela Taboada

By Corianne Brosnahan, February 25, 2014


Marcela Taboada

Marcela Taboada has never been interested in final results. If her subject is ballet, she’ll ignore the pirouettes and focus on how a dancer laces up her shoe; sent on assignment to the ballpark, you’ll find her in the dugout; and if she’s photographing a wedding, she just might follow a bride into the bathroom. “The presentation for me is boring,” Taboada says. “I love to see backstage.”

It’s hard to think of a statement that more defines the attitude of photojournalism than that one, and yet Taboada’s path to photography was a circuitous one, art and artist circling each other for years before giving in to one another’s embrace.

Taboada, who currently lives in Oaxaca, was born in Puebla, a cosmopolitan city in South Central Mexico known for its baroque architecture. She was one of six children. Her mother, whose dreams of becoming a doctor had been discouraged by her own parents, took care of the children and volunteered with the elderly. Her father was a businessman whose true passion was flying. Every Sunday he would take off—first in a glider, later in a Cessna—and more often than not he would invite his kids to join him. One early flight Taboada remembers particularly well: “Suddenly I looked down and there was blue,” she says. “Then, when I raised my eyes, I saw the ground!”

She describes her father as creative and hyperactive. As a boy, he and his brother had conducted their first flight experiment by jumping off a three-story building—a ploy that prompted his overwhelmed mother to send him off to live with his godfather. This godfather was a “strict, brilliant, and eccentric” bachelor named Domingo Taboada. Don Domingo, too, was fascinated by the world above the horizon—though his attention was focused quite a bit higher than the clouds. As a child in 1910, he’d watched the passage of Halley’s Comet, the same one said to have led Moctezuma II, the last Aztec emperor, to mistake the arrival of Hernán Cortés for the return of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. It was the most fantastic thing he’d ever seen and he decided then and there that he would become an astronomer and dedicate his life to observing the skies.

Reputedly buying his first telescope in exchange for a car, the self-taught Don Domingo would eventually build a home observatory that Taboada describes as “a small castle,” from which he reported to NASA, documenting estrellas variables or “variable stars,” as well as satellites. Considered “the leading amateur astronomer of Mexico,” Don Domingo would be formally recognized by the Harvard College Observatory for his work as “an observer of the sun,” and, according to his grandniece, is still on the books at NASA as an “honorable something or other.” As a child, Taboada made frequent trips with her father to “see the stars” at her grandfather’s observatory. These trips also served as an introduction to photography, which Don Domingo used to record the night sky, making his own glass plates and building what Taboada recalls as a very sophisticated darkroom in his basement.

Her own father, who’d worked at Don Domingo’s observatory in his youth (it was, in fact, at the observatory where he met Taboada’s mother, hired for her exemplary handwriting to keep the star charts in order), also dabbled in photography, toting a Minolta on his Sunday jaunts to surrounding towns. A man of many hobbies, his interests eventually shifted over to film, at which point he decided that his daughter would become the official family trip photographer and showed her how to work the Minolta. The first pictures she ever took were of some water skiers: “It was nothing special,” Taboada says, “but when I saw the final photograph—how they had been flying and I stopped their movement with the shutter speed, I was amazed.”

And yet it remained nothing more than an activity she did sometimes, usually at a friend or family member’s request. When one sister got married and another couldn’t make it to the wedding, Taboada promised the former that she would document the event. This was when she discovered that she loved to go backstage, to capture the realities behind the superficies—much to the dismay of the bride, whom Marcela followed into the bathroom to “document” the difficulties of relieving oneself while wearing a wedding dress.

After finishing a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Arts, Taboada worked at a design studio, where her knowledge of photography made her the go-to girl for any relevant assignment. Still, she says she wasn’t conscious that she was going to become a photographer—at the time she just wanted to earn money.

The decisive moment came years later, in a nursing home, at the foot of her great-aunt’s bed.

This great-aunt’s name was Clementina. She was approaching 80 when she lost her house through some murky turn of events that no one quite remembers, and—having no children of her own—was passed around to various members of the family before a collective decision was made to put her into a public nursing home, the only kind in Mexico at the time. At first, it didn’t seem like such a bad choice. Taboada has some 80 cousins and everyone took turns visiting and taking Clementina to the beauty salon or the cinema. Somewhere along the way, Taboada got married and went to live in Oaxaca. Three years after her aunt had first arrived at the nursing home, she went to visit.

She couldn’t believe what she saw. She remembered her aunt as a joyful person with an excellent memory who “always came walking very straight”; the figure lying on the bed was “like a mummy.”

“Something had happened to her,” says Taboada. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how did my joyful great aunt end up like this? I was really so sad thinking about the lack of love and the depression that maybe had led to this, and I felt an impulse to start taking pictures of this place where she was living.”

It was a personal plight as well as a public one. In Mexico, the elderly had traditionally been looked after by their families and—in accordance with indigenous tradition—treated with utmost respect. This was, however, changing, and Taboada points to both rural-urban migration and the “movement of eternal youth” that was popular at the time as key in the country’s shifting perceptions regarding the care of the elderly.

“My great-aunt was not prepared,” Taboada says. “She expected that we could keep her because this is what people had always done in the past.”

It seemed to Taboada that an entire generation had been abandoned and she set about documenting the effect. Granted permission from the doctors to roam the hospital freely, she spoke to patients that could speak and sat with ones that couldn’t, taking one intimate portrait after another. She found administrators remarkably open to what she was doing and soon she was “going backstage” at other nursing homes in Puebla.

Eventually she would show these photographs to the celebrated American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who had come to Oaxaca with a small group of students to teach a workshop. Mark suggested that she photograph old age homes in Oaxaca too. Taboada would do so, continuing to hone her skills while also working with Mark to organize more workshops—a collaboration that lasted for the next 16 years.

Once she had finally finished her nursing home project, Taboada would embark upon her next long-term undertaking when her friend, the Oaxacan painter Francisco Toledo, suggested that she photograph Oaxaca’s brand new baseball team, the triple-A Guerreros de Oaxaca, or “Oaxaca Warriors.”

Taboada would spend an entire year at the ballpark, given front row tickets to every game. It was a perfect-sounding setup except that the only place Taboada wanted to be was backstage, i.e. the dugout and the dressing room, where the manager initially forbade her to go. Undaunted, she continued to pester him for access, and when he finally relented— “it’s at your own risk,” he repeated no fewer than three times—she squeezed in with the players on the bench. The game started and the first Guerrero struck out. He returned to the dugout “as a beast,” Taboada recalls, and she snapped a picture just as he threw down his helmet. The player had seen the flash go off and suddenly turned his wrath on her. “I felt like a small mouse and hid in a corner,” Taboada says. “I was really shaking.” The other players in the dugout had seen this “evil action” however, and rushed to comfort her. From then on, she was treated like everybody’s little sister. The Guerreros would go on to win the championship and Taboada herself would win an award at that year’s Photojournalism Biennale.

The years to come would yield many more exciting moments, including the 2006 Oaxaca teacher protests, a trip to Indonesia, and features in the New York Times, GEO Germany, and Cuartoscuro. Still, the work that’s been closest to Taboada’s heart is that which turned her into a photojournalist in the first place—making visible those disenfranchised members of society who would otherwise remain in the shadows.

In 1999, an earthquake that clocked in at 7.4 on the Richter scale hit Oaxaca. The impact was most strongly felt in the southwestern part of the state, and in the small village of San Miguel Amatilán—already besieged by poverty and near-constant drought—many lost their homes. It was around this time that Taboada’s friend Juan Jose Santibañez, an architect who specializes in traditional building techniques, received a call from a group of a dozen women from San Miguel Amatilán who asked him to teach them how to rebuild their houses. He turned them away at first—they had no money and, frankly, he didn’t believe that women could build—but when they returned with 70,000 pesos ($1100) that they had received from the Vatican (intended, originally, for a sustainable agriculture project), and insisted that the architect help them, Santibañez finally agreed. Upon hearing about these women from her friend, Taboada decided to go to San Miguel Amatilán to meet them.

Budgetary constraints demanded a simple, inexpensive solution, so the architect had decided that the women would build their homes with adobe bricks, the material scooped from the sun-baked earth of the town itself. “They were full of clay,” Taboada remembers. “It was under their fingernails—everywhere. I knew that I had entered into the heart of a Mexican truth.”

For Taboada, who received a stipend from the camera company Hasselblad to do the project that she would call Women of Clay, it was also a life lesson. Many of the women of San Miguel Amatilán have been left to raise their children while their husbands look for work across the border in the United States; they live in one of the poorest towns in the poorest state in all of Mexico, a town where nothing grows and drinking water is only available four months out of the year; people had laughed at them when they’d announced their intentions to reconstruct their damaged dwellings—and yet here they were, offering her a taco and lugging one brick after another beneath a merciless sun, using the earth to build homes that were nothing short of beautiful. “It is,” Taboada says, “something I will never forget.”

If her previous subjects have been hidden members of society, her latest project takes this concept to a whole new level. For a year now, Taboada has been photographing nuns in convents throughout Mexico.

When I asked her if it was difficult to gain entry into this veiled world, she laughs. “The first reaction is absolutely N-O in capital letters!” she says. “But then I kept going around to monasteries until they said yes.

Initially attracted to the purely visual—the architecture of the monasteries, the clean lines of a nun’s habit—she quickly became curious about the reasons these women had for joining the cloister, and started bringing along a tape recorder to interview them.

“Before I started I expected that they wouldn’t be so happy,” she says, “but their lives are fuller than I ever imagined.”

Some had received the call of God; others trusted marrying Jesus more than they trusted marrying a mortal man (domestic abuse rates are high in Mexico); still others, like the pair of sisters that used to have a rock band, had simply found themselves unsatisfied with the lives they were leading and come to the convent is search of deeper meaning.

Gaining their trust has been a long time in coming; Taboada, who’s received a grant for the project and expects to be working on it for the next few years, has stayed at the monasteries for up to three days at a time, waking with the nuns when they start their day at 4:30 in the morning, and following them through their daily prayers and chores until they go to sleep at midnight. There are some who don’t like her, others who are frightened of her, and still others who consider her a kind of camera-toting godmother and tell her they’ll pray for her. If a photograph can take you backstage, these relationships, the ones that a photographer might only develop over the course of years, are the backstage of the backstage. In the end, a great photograph is a record of an invisible connection between photographer and subject—whether it’s made in half-a-second or a half-a-century—that takes its form as much from the heart as from the eye.

The first time I met Taboada, she had just finished teaching a workshop for blind photographers. When I asked her how they decided when to click the shutter, she said they relied a lot on sound, but more importantly, “they just feel it.” There was only one student in the workshop who had been blind since birth. He lived on a farm and for one assignment he’d taken a portrait of his favorite horse. “It was,” Taboada says, “a masterpiece.”

To see more of Marcela Taboada’s work, visit www.marcelataboada.com.

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