Mexico Notebook: Q&A with Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I have begun a collaboration to explore contemporary photography in Mexico. We're looking at trends and how they relate to traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers on what's happening currently. This collaborative project will feature a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Hannah Frieser is a curator, photographer and book artist and former Executive Director of Light Work. Jaime Permuth is a Guatemalan photographer living and working in New York City and a Faculty Member at the School of Visual Arts.

We have started the project by collaborating with photographer Alejandro Cartagena. Cartagena has overseen and executed a series of short interviews with photographers from Mexico that will be published over the coming weeks.

The first interview of this collaboration was between Cartagena and Jorge Taboada. Today we continue the series with an interview between Cartagena and Melba Arellano.

Alejandro lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues in Latin America. His work has been exhibited internationally in festivals like CONTACT in Toronto, The FIF in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, GuatePhoto festival in Guatemala City, FOTOFEST in Houston, the PHOTOIMAGEN festival in the Dominican Republic, Photoville in Dumbo, New York and UNSEEN by FOAM in Amsterdam among others.

Alejandro's work has been published internationally in magazines and newspapers such as NewsweekLe MondeThe GuardianThe IndependentNownessDomusDomus Mexicothe Financial TimesViewThe New York Times Lens BlogSternPDNThe New YorkerMonocle and Wallpaper among others. His book Suburbia Mexicana was published by Photolucida and Daylight books in 2011.

He has received the Photolucida Critical Mass book award, the SNCA-CONACULTA grant for Mexican artists, the Premio IILA-Fotografía 2012 award in Rome, the Street Photography Award in London and a POYi reportage award of excellence, the Lente Latino award in Chile, the award Salon de la Fotografía from the Fototeca de Nuevo Leon in Mexico among other awards. He has been named a FOAM magazine Talent and one of PDN Magazine's 30 emerging photographers. He has also been a finalist for the Aperture Portfolio award, the Photoespaña Descubrimientos award, the FOAM Paul Huff award and has been nominated for the CENTER Santa Fe photography prize.

His work is in many private and public collections including the San Francisco MOMA, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Portland Museum of Art, the Museo de Arte Moderno in Rio de Janeiro, the Fototeca de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico, the University of Maine collection and the Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca, Mexico. He is currently represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto, Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles and Galería Patricia Conde in Mexico City.

© Melba Arellano

Alejandro Cartagena: Where do you live and what you do?

Melba Arellano: I live in Mexico City and I am a photographer.

Alejandro Cartagena: ¿Dónde vives y a qué te dedicas?

Melba Arellano: Vivo en la Ciudad de México y soy fotógrafa.

: How did you get started in photography?

MA: I started studying photography after having studied cconomics and when I was working as an economic development advisor for several municipal governments. Until that moment, I had never taken photos, but I had always had a fascination for images, especially photographic ones. Since I was a child, I looked for them in books, magazines, monographs, the family album, etc. and collected them, and eventually I had the need to create my own. I think that when I entered photography school I already knew what images I wanted to make but I had no idea how. Later I decided to leave economics and dedicate myself to photography.

AC: ¿Cómo te iniciaste en la fotografía?

MAComencé a estudiar fotografía después de haber estudiado Economía y cuando me encontraba trabajando como asesora en desarrollo económico para algunos gobiernos municipales. Hasta ese momento nunca había hecho foto pero desde siempre había tenido una fascinación por las imágenes, especialmente las fotográficas, desde niña las buscaba en libros, revistas, monografías, el álbum familiar, etc. y las coleccionaba, después tuve la necesidad de yo crear las mías. Creo que cuando entré a la escuela de fotografía sabía que imágenes quería hacer pero no tenía idea cómo. Después decidí dejar la Economía y dedicarme a la foto.

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

AC: When and what made you start considering producing photographic work to explore your personal concerns?

MA: The process began when I was studying fashion photography in London when out of curiosity I signed up for a workshop in documentary photography in which we developed a small series of photos around the theme of the city. Through those exercises I began to know the city in which I lived and photography became the medium of exploration that allowed me to approach everything that sparked my curiosity. With my exciting new discovery, my only thought when I went back to Mexico was to explore the place where I had grown up. I had some memories of it, and there were places and people that still intrigued me. I started photographing them. At that time had no idea where this process would take me - I also think this question didn’t interest me very much. This work later became my first photo project "Carretera Nacional" (National Highway). The following projects were born in the same way, meeting a pressing need, an impulse to explore something.

AC¿Cuándo y que te hizo empezar a considerar producir trabajo fotográfico que explorara tus inquietudes personales?

MAEl proceso comenzó cuando me encontraba estudiando fotografía de moda en Londres, por curiosidad me inscribí a un taller de fotografía documental, en él desarrollábamos pequeñas series que tenían como temática la ciudad. A través de estos ejercicios comencé a conocer la ciudad en la que vivía y la fotografía se convirtió en el medio de exploración que me permitía acercarme a todo aquello que me generaba curiosidad. Con mi excitante y nuevo descubrimiento lo único que pensaba al regresar a México era ir y explorar el lugar en el que había crecido, conservaba algunos recuerdos de él pero aún había lugares y personas que me seguían intrigando. Comencé a fotografiarlos, en ese momento no tenía idea de a que me llevaría este proceso y creo que tampoco me interesaba mucho. Esto se convirtió después en mi primer proyecto fotográfico “Carretera Nacional”, los siguientes nacieron de la misma forma, satisfacer una necesidad imperiosa, un impulso de explorar algo.

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

AC: Tell us about some of your projects and the themes you approach through the images we are presenting.

MA: In "Carretera Nacional" I went back to the place where I spent my childhood and recreated the trips I took as a girl along this road. Basically I returned to those places that 20 years ago I was not allowed to go [because I was young and traveling with my family], but that aroused in me a strong attraction to them. I also looked at the people who caused in me this same type of attraction. One by one I photographed them. Later I went to all the villages that paraded before me in the travels of my youth in which I had never walked, to explore what my eye could see years ago from the family car.

The resulting images are the remnants of my journey as a performative activity in which I form new connections to these places. They are the creation of a representation that gives an account, symbolically, of my coming into the world. I rummaged around in the present, as a way to give life to something that no longer exists through representing it and by momentarily recovering the past.

In “Palacio Municpal" ("City Hall"), a work still in progress, I explore the subject of the smallest administrative and political unit of my country, the city hall. I am searching for power through its traces. I think it's still present in spaces that are so austere. The city hall interests me as the place of origin of the metastasis of the bureaucratic system and the misuse of power as its engine.

ACPlatícanos un poco de tus proyectos y los temas que abordas en las imágenes que estamos presentando.

MA:  En “Carretera Nacional” regreso a el lugar en el que pasé mi infancia y recreo los viajes que hacía de niña por ésta vía. Básicamente retorné a aquellos lugares a los que 20 años atrás no se me permitía ir pero que despertaban en mí una gran atracción, busqué además a las personas que me provocaba lo mismo, uno a uno los fui fotografiando. Después me dirigí a todos los poblados que desfilaban ante mí en mis viajes, aquellos en los cuales nunca había caminado, para explorar lo que mis ojos alcanzaban a ver desde el auto familiar.

Las imágenes resultantes son los vestigios de mi viaje como actividad performática en la que generé nuevos vínculos con el lugar, son la creación de una representación que da cuenta, simbólicamente, de mi irrupción. Hurgué en el presente, como una forma de dar vida a algo que ya no existe por medio de la representación y de recobrar momentáneamente el pasado.

En “Palacio Municipal”, trabajo aún en proceso, exploro el territorio de la mínima unidad político administrativa de mi país, un Palacio Municipal, voy en la búsqueda del poder a través de sus rastros, creo que está presente aún en espacios tan austeros. El Palacio Municipal me interesa como el origen territorial de la metástasis del sistema burocrático y el mal uso del poder como su generador.

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

AC: How do you think about the history of Mexican photography in your work?

MA: I think consciously or unconsciously it is part of my work, its practitioners, their work, everything that I've nurtured myself with. I admire the work of many and of various time periods, and those that gave a dynamic and authorial twist to documentary photography are especially inspiring to me, but its more accurate to say that as references I like the work of the present and the global contemporary discourses that generate diversity.

AC¿De qué manera consideras la historia de la fotografía Mexicana en tu obra?

MA:  Creo que consciente o inconscientemente estará parte ella en mi obra, los exponentes, los trabajos, todo de lo que me he nutrido. Admiro el trabajo de muchos y de varias épocas, especialmente quienes imprimieron un giro dinámico y autoral a la fotografía documental, son inspiradores aunque más bien como referencias me gusta el presente, los discursos globales que se generan, la diversidad.

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

AC: Do you believe that there is any relationship in subject matter, form or any other aspect between photography in Mexico and the rest of Latin America?

MA: Yes, on some points. In Latin America and Mexico the historical and current dynamics of the region imply assuming heterogeneity and marginality as part of existence against the centrality and homogeneity of Europe or the United States. In a way this frequently allows or forces themes and perspectives to have a more critical consciousness, and makes a social responsibility for photographers here clear. But even given this, I do not think that there are clear and fixed signs to identify a photography of the region or that has much in common (as I think could be done in the past). There is a heterogeneous production manifesting reality through many varied discourses, a scattered and fragmented view. At the same time I think it is important to try to retain some of its identity, a language that somehow reflects something of our origin and environment.

AC¿Encuentras alguna relación de temas, forma o cualquier otro aspecto entre la fotografía en México y la del resto de America Latina?

MA: Si en algunos puntos. En América Latina y México las dinámicas históricas y actuales de la región implican asumir la marginalidad y heterogeneidad como parte de la existencia frente a la centralidad y homogeneidad de Europa o Estados Unidos. Esto de alguna manera permite u obliga en cierta forma que las temáticas, las posturas, suelan tener un sentido más crítico y se hace evidente una responsabilidad social de los autores. Aún con lo anterior no creo que hoy existan signos claros y fijos que identifiquen una fotografía de la región (como creo que se pudo hacer en un pasado) y que haya muchos puntos en común, hay una producción heterogénea que manifiesta la realidad a través de discursos muy variados, una mirada un tanto más dispersa y fragmentada. A su vez considero que es importante que se trate conservar algo de identidad, de un lenguaje que en cierta forma refleje algo de nuestro origen y entorno.

© Melba Arellano

AC: What are the issues being addressed both in contemporary photography in Mexico and outside of Mexico that interest you?

MA: I am interested in topics that sensitize and raise consciousness about their context and to the presence of others. I am also interested in work in which the placement of documentary photography and of the photographer come ever closer together.

AC¿Cuáles son los temas qué están siendo tratados en la fotografía contemporánea en México y también afuera de México que te interesen?

MA: Me interesan los temas en los que se sensibiliza y se provoca la consciencia del entorno, la presencia del otro. Me interesa también el tratamiento, aquel en donde la fotografía documental y la de autor se acercan más.

© Melba Arellano

© Melba Arellano

: What do you feel benefits you or is a problem with being based in Mexico?

MA: I think the general picture has improved dramatically in recent years, there have been positive developments that have transformed photography in the country, such as the emergence of specialized training centers and more spaces for showing work. Today photography in Mexico shows many types of forms of expression and representation. It is the subject of collections in galleries of art, and it is published and consumed more than before. Furthermore, we have done more to have a stronger level of and a more focused critique and to have more research done in the area of photography. It’s still not in the ideal place yet but we have experienced gains. I think the main problem remains the lack of support for creation, both local and national, which limits production and thus all the other parts of the system.

AC¿Qué sientes te beneficia o problematiza producir desde México?

MA: Creo que el panorama ha mejorado notablemente en los últimos años, se han dado fenómenos que han transformado positivamente la fotografía en el país, como el surgimiento de centros especializados de formación, más espacios de circulación del trabajo. Hoy la fotografía en México muestra diversas formas de expresión y representación, es objeto de colecciones en galerías de arte, se publica, se consume más. Adicionalmente se han llevado a cabo más esfuerzos para contar con una crítica mayor y más especializada y tener más investigaciones en la materia. No es el terreno ideal pero se han experimentado avances. Creo que el principal problema sigue siendo la insuficiencia de apoyos a la creación, tanto locales como nacionales, lo que limita la producción y por ende todo el engranaje del sistema.

MA: Anything you'd like to say about contemporary photography in general?

MA: Contemporary photography proposes interesting challenges to those that make it now having gone beyond the limits formerly imposed by typologies, beyond the convergence of artistic media and the greater awareness of the variety of possible forms of the work as well as the vastness of possible topics and the great number of photographers demands a more intelligent, reflective and more personal vision for its creation.

AC¿Algo que quisieras comentar sobre la fotografía contemporánea en general ?

MA: La fotografía contemporánea propone un territorio con interesantes desafíos a quienes la generan ya que al haber rebasado los límites impuestos por las tipologías, la convergencia de los medios artísticos y una mayor consciencia por la variedad de posibles soportes de la obra así como la vastedad de temas y de autores demanda una mirada más inteligente, reflexiva y más personal para su creación.

© Melba Arellano