Mexico Notebook: Interview with Ramón Jiménez Cuén

From the series "Migrando en el Espejo" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

Post by Jessica Hubbard Marr

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I are collaborating 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.

Today we continue this series with an interview with Ramón Jiménez Cuén by Jessica Hubbard Marr.

Other posts in this series include:
Interview with Laurence Salzmann
Interview with Diego Berruecos
Interview with Mariela Sancari
Q&A with Eduardo Jiménez Román
Q&A with Claudia Arechiga
Q&A with Nahatan Navarro
Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca
Q&A with Aglae Cortés
Q&A with Maria José Sesma
Interview with César Rodríguez
Q&A with Nora Gómez
Q&A with Melba Arellano
Q&A with Jorge Taboada

From the series "Migrando en el Espejo" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

Jessica Hubbard Marr: To start, what do you do? Where are you based?

Ramón Jiménez Cuén: I'm currently based between New York and Oaxaca. I have been involved with the arts since I was a child thanks to family in Seattle, Washington, where I became interested in music, photography and also skateboarding. My uncle Federico, a jewelry designer based in Venice, California, has also been a strong influence.

Now I am working as a museum consultant, in a green project down on the Oaxacan coast and developing personal projects and studies.

JHM: What was your earliest experience with photography? What was your early photographic education like?

RJC: My father was a doctor; an oncologist, who used to take slides of his diagrams to present them in his medical classes. It was a Canon FTb. I started using this camera until I appropriated it. Then I lent it to a friend and it never came back.

Four months ago, I was walking around Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca and I found the same camera in the Friday's flea market. I love to think it is the same camera. I started taking pictures with it. It's like recovering the main source of energy that pushes you to take pictures.

As a child, I also met Ralph Bayles, a photographer from Seattle. The figure of a photographer has always been near the family. Anthropologists, musicians and artists have been always part of Christmas dinner as long as I can remember.

I studied medicine in school for about a year, but then I quit and started to do music at Escuela de Bellas Artes de la Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca; at the same time, I was doing media studies at a private university here in Oaxaca.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

By the end of my university program, I spent most of my time in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photography Center (now Francisco Toledo's home on Murguia Street). I did every workshop, from platinum and heliograph printing techniques to personal essay exercises with photographers such as Joan Liftin, Mary Ellen Mark and Allen Frame. All this began around 1998.

With Mary Ellen Mark, I start working on a project called "Carnales Bajo el Puente" ["Brothers Under the Bridge"]. Allen Frame encouraged me to show my portfolio at ICP, they accepted me and offered me a grant. I had a great year in New York; ICP used to be located on 96th Street, Uptown, a beautiful space. Amazing friends and photographers came from all over the world - all with fascinating stories and different visions.

Just before I graduated, I won a grant from the Alexia Foundation who also offered me a chance to study photography at Syracuse University, an offer that I refused in order to go back and work on my marriage. I was 24 at that time.

Thanks to the Alexia Foundation, my work got published in a book call "Eyes On the World" (2006) and was part of a great exhibit which traveled around the world starting at the United Nations, and then New York, China and a few other countries.

Upon returning to Oaxaca, I founded dRamedia (2002), a studio house focused on multimedia. I also started a new rock band call Elinor, and began working for galleries, museums and other artists composing music, designing and photographing art for multimedia platforms and web sites.

At that time, I got a call from Kathy Ryan, the photo editor of The New York Times Magazine. It was an assignment to photograph an international convention in Merida. I still have the voice mail recorded.

I wasn't really motivated. I decided to quit photography for a while. Something that never really happens, my archive is full of photographs, most I considered visual notes.

Going back to ICP for a minute, it was also quite confusing, because it was the year (1999-2000) when everything started to change quite dramatically in photography. Now I am really happy to be part of that generation.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: So you were in the generation that was on the cusp of analog and digital.

RJC: It was kind of hard to deal with that, it's still hard. Since then, I am always mixing all kinds of media, from analog to digital and vice-versa: scanning slides and then printing them in the dark room, for instance.

Now I'm quite happy, but at the time it was quite confusing because it was like I had to re-learn everything and not forget about analog in a way. Anyway, now its been almost about 15 years and I think the world is more about mixed-media; everything is an image.

After ICP, I was part of Pixel Press founded by Fred Ritchin. I learned so much during this period. He helped me to see further into the new age of post-photography, I felt released.

In 2009, I finished an MA in Media Art and Film at The New School in New York. This was a great opportunity to re-define myself as an artist. I loved it because I always had to struggle with this conflict of liking different mediums, so that made it easy to understand how everything is related in a new media world order.

I was very happy to accept myself as someone that liked to work with different media. I got the chance to understand the work of artists like Huma Bhabha and Wangechi Mutu. They were working with digital or analog and creating sculptures out of photography, mixing all kinds of elements and sources -- visual collections in all different kinds of formats.

I was very pleased to see this work at the ICP museum [in 2013] because it made me see that my path wasn't that wrong, I was playing with ideas like sound, sculpture and light. That inspired me a lot to create things with multiple types of media; unresolved projects that I still working on.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: I would like to look a bit closer at your first major photographic project, "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999-2002). Can you provide a general explanation the series before I ask more detailed questions?

RJC: This project is about street children addicted to drugs living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They are in poverty, extremely hard human conditions and ignored by their own community.

In Oaxaca, I found a group of kids running without direction, living as outcasts under the city. Their families sent them to work on the streets. They cleaned the windows of cars when the red light stopped them. They used almost all the money to buy drugs. They sniffed different kinds of solvents and glue. Sometimes they used marijuana.

They were between 12 and 22 years old. Almost all have been in jail. The police were always looking for them, even when they were clean. I wanted to capture a complete vision of their situation, follow their lives until they showed me the end. I wanted to capture the essence of their lives which has been forgotten.

JHM: What camera were you shooting with?

RJC: At first, I was shooting with a Canon Rebel but the one I worked with most of the project is a Nikon F5. It's a really heavy camera, but really fast.

But, I also liked to use a Nikon FM2, Leica m6, a Hasselblad, Mamiya, everything I could experiment and learn from; I also used cameras from different cell phones.

From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999) © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: What was your initiation process [into the "Brothers"]? I remember you told me that you bonded with the leader over beers? More specifically, how did you become one of them?

RJC: "El Mitra," who is the leader of this group of kids, I kind of knew because we used to play together in our childhood in the same river, now sadly polluted. The most important thing was that I used to be part of a rock band, so I had had long hair and I was accepted right away. One of them used to play the harmonica, so I would take my guitar and play a bit with him.

That first day with "El Mitra," we connected, went to a bar, had a couple beers, and that was the beginning. That was great because he was the leader and my protector at the same time. Of course I didn’t need it, cause I was one of them after a couple of weeks, and for the next two years. Every time Mary Ellen Mark was in Oaxaca, I was shooting intensely for 10–15 days. Pretty much all of it [the series] was edited by Mary Ellen Mark.

JHM: Edited in what sense?

RJC: The deal was that I was allowed to take the workshop for free, but I needed to process and develop my film and then print the selection that she decided.

JHM: Did the camera ever become a problem in any situation? Did anyone object to having his or her photo taken?

RJC: No.

JHM: Never, wow.

RJC: I was under the impression that they were happy with me because taking their photo made them feel important, a certain kind of recognition; society in general is blind to these scenarios. The camera was there to testify for them. It wasn't a problem.

At the beginning, I took portraits of them and gave them all copies. I was the official photographer for everything at the beginning so I was capturing things that were intimate and important. Then I became essentially invisible and I was taking photographs freely. I became banda, a carnal; a real brother.

No Hay Cihiivon, From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999) © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Can you tell me about this one image, No Hay Chiivion (1999)? What is the context of the photograph?

RJC: This guy, his name is "Takanga," that’s his nickname, and he was beaten by another kid, "El Chango," and they were fighting over a bottle of glue. The attitude was very much, "It’s all okay, we are still friends." After being beaten up pretty hard, he wanted to get across that he was fine and things were cool and that they were together as friends again. That happened like the fifth day after I started photographing them. Everything worked out fine with them and I wanted to testify to the importance of that moment. That was the story behind that photograph.

JHM: You previously mentioned to me that this project had both a political and social message but was also very personal, at a pivotal point in your life.

RJC: Yes. At that moment, I felt that my feelings were projected onto this story. I was going through a separation at the time, and these kids and going under the bridge was my refuge. In a way, I projected my feelings through these kids' stories. They became like my brothers in that sense and helped me through that emotional moment.

JHMThe series also went on to win several awards and as an exhibition, it travelled the world. Was this rewarding? How did you feel?

RJC: Well, there is no better feeling than holding a silver gelatin print on your hands, after that nothing really matters.

JHM: What did you do after this project? Where did you go?

RJC: After this I went to ICP and I did a lot of things. In terms of documentary photography essays, I did a project about the migration of Oaxacans in New York, "Migrando en el Espejo" (2000).

It was like a mirror exercise, looking both at the migrants and the family that they left behind. I did that in 2000, it's in color - Kodachrome. It has a totally different feeling to "Brothers Under the Bridge."

I also did a lot of fictional photo essays, and I of course was still working on my process of divorce and separation so I did a lot of personal work where you can really feel a little bit of loneliness. A lot of that features the streets of New York and is in black and white. I was very inspired by the work of a photographer called Michael Ackerman.

From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: You showed me his work, I remember.

RJC: I love his style and was really inspired by his work. So, that’s what I was doing in New York back in 2000. I presented this work in Galería Manuel García [in Oaxaca] with Alejandro Echeverría. We did like a multi-media presentation of that. Nice exhibit.

Then the exhibition "Brothers Under the Bridge" was presented LSE where it became part of their collection. Manuel Garcia published my fist book, "Carnales bajo el Puente." (2002).

JHM: Where does your Marianna Yampolsky research and essay "La Memoria de una Lente, Miradas sobre Mariana Yampolsk" (May 2012) fit into this timeline?

RJC: Then as you know, I was selected to be director of MACO (Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca) an amazing experience. I don't know why they selected me, but I am so grateful. By being there, I had all these connections with various artists. It was a great experience and I learned a lot of things.

I was invited to celebrate the anniversary of Yampolsky and be part of the panel discussion. I decided to write this essay that I really love. Some of the works that I included in the essay were photographs that she made in Oaxaca and the surrounding areas that I'm really familiar with because my family is from Tututepec, Juquila, Oaxaca. So I was very pleased and very inspired by that.

For example, Mariana's photograph, Huipil de tapar, was taken around Pinotepa Nacional and takes me to my grandmother's memory. She used to look exactly like the woman in the photograph.

JHM: As director of MACO, did you see any fusion between contemporary art and photography in Oaxaca? Or is it still rooted in the strong tradition of social documentary, straight photography? What changes do you see in Oaxaca in using photography in a different way?

RJC: Oaxaca has a strong tradition in surrealist moments influenced by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide and more photographers coming to Oaxaca for its exotic and tropical imaginaries. Fortunately now that is changing, new visions, especially from local artists are taking an important place in the contemporary art scenario, the work of Edgardo Aragon is a good example.

Installation of "Tropical Sur" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

Installation of "Tropical Sur" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Tell me a bit more about your piece "Tropical Sur" in the Galería Quetzalli exhibition, "Dreams and Memories."

RJC: It's a personal piece that resembles an encounter between my father and a woman called Leslie Grace. She's an anthropologist who owned a folk art gallery call La Tienda in Seattle, Washington for the last fifty years. She's a very important person in our family story, I must say, my second mother. She met my father in the 60s. Since then, we have built our life surrounded with beautiful people and life experiences. I try to manifest this in the piece throughout different elements. It's like a reconstruction of the past.

It isn't hard to represent the past, because it's still so present. The main element is a fruit from a Huanacastle (in Zapotec: "the ear tree" / "el arbol que todo lo escuha"). It is a common tree of the Oaxacan coast that is frequently used to build furniture; by cutting them down, erosion has changed all kinds of life forms. This is the type of tree I'm trying to cultivate on the coast of Oaxaca. My father and I began working on that project. He passed away six years a go.

Going back to the piece, there are mirrors printed with the fruit and three lines that I took from a book called, "I Chin," a trigram that represents the celestial father figure. Most of the piece is inspired by the lecture of a book call "The Radicant" (2009) by Nicolas Bourriad.

From "Tropical Sur" 2014 © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: How long did it take you to put together?

RJC: It took a while; it was more like a re-collection of thoughts, fruits, seeds and ideas. I have this peculiar seed that allowed me to photograph its shape in seven different manners held by it own structure. It is very particular because you can move it around and find different angles in it.

There are seven different photographs. On the mirror, I added all of these elements like the original fruit, a stone, and then some drawn lines that kind of represent the labyrinth of life but that at the end everything is connected.

JHM: Going back to going through all of your old contact sheets, are you finding images that before you didn't really know were there?

RJC: I like to archive pretty much everything, so I've found a lot of material about my personal life as well. I used to just save a lot of images for the sake of archiving, but now I think that a lot of them have a lot of meaning. I'm definitely going to include that at some point in some project. I've reprinted a lot of these images or printed them for the first time.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Who are some other photographers who have influenced you or inspired you?

RJC: Michael Akerman. Larry Clark, he created one of the best documentary series that I have ever seen. ["Tulsa"] influenced me quite heavily when I was working on "Brothers Under the Bridge."

Koudelka, Sugimoto, there are so many. I love Bruce Davidson. I love the book of the subway that he did in the 80s. I like Mary Ellen Mark, especially "Falkland Road." I love Ralph Gibson, his stuff is still so provocative.

Mapplethorpe, Gursky. Uma Bhabha, Elliot Hundley and now I love the work of anonymous photographers, photos from family albums, so honest.

Library Is Suicide, New York, 1999 © Ramón Jiménez Cuen

JHM: What is next for you?

RJC: I'm very involved right now with the museum, the Museo Belber Jimenez, so I'm trying just now to curate exhibitions involving local artists, to breathe life into this beautiful space. I'm looking forward to continuing to work mixing all kinds of media.

A month ago, it was George Moore's birthday and he invited me to play and we played some blues. It had been a long time since I played in a band so I was excited to pick up an old thing. Being in New York is not just about studying, it’s also about plugging into new coordinates and other things.


Jessica Hubbard Marr is a specialist in photographic imagery with a focus on Latin America, an interest that developed thanks to many nights in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo/IAGO library in Oaxaca over the years. As a result, she subsequently received her M.A. in The History and Theory of Photography at Sotheby's Institute of Art/University of Manchester in London in 2011; Marr previously earned her B.A. in English from Kenyon College in 2005. Prior to working in the photography field, Marr worked with the non-profit, 'Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art' from 2008-2010, as both a photographer and cultural liaison. 

Since 2010, she has worked for TransGlobe Publishing in London, researching and writing about contemporary art and photography in locations ranging from Brazil to the Middle East. In 2012, Marr was appointed to the Global Nominations Panel for the Prix Pictect Photography Prize as a specialist in Latin American Photography. Her original essay, "A Glimpse into Enduring Moments" was featured in the catalogue of photographer Nadja Massun's solo exhibition, Alice in the Land of Zapata, at the Hungarian House of Photography in Budapest in 2012.

Marr resides in the US after spending the past six years studying and working abroad in Oaxaca, Quito, London and Mexico City. She credits these experiences to both expanding and deepening her appreciation for and knowledge about the photographic medium across cultures. 

She works as an independent photography consultant, researcher, writer, editor, and art advisor for both art/photography professionals and practitioners between Mexico, New York and London. 

Marr's photographic work has been published internationally in a variety of art and literary journals. Her first published photograph was taken in Oaxaca in 2008. 

Coney Island, 2012 © Ramón Jiménez Cuén