They say an image is worth a thousand words, and it is true. However, behind any image there are also voices, stories and emotions. The forms captured by the lens need an exploring gaze, a way of seeing that does not hunt, but that is able to turn a moment into an eternity. In the following interview we’ll learn more about Eva Lépiz’s way of seeing the world. Through her lens and her ideas, this adventurous photographer has created honest and spiritual portraits and, at the same time, has proven that photography is not only an art but a means of expression, unity and self-discovery whose universal language is light.
How would you define yourself and your work?
I think I’m mostly a documentary photographer; I really enjoy taking people’s portraits. I guess what I really like is interacting with people, traveling around, being present where the action is taking place, or simply portraying things as they are. It’s about working with what you have at the moment as there are different kinds of photographers – there are people who build the picture and, there are those who conceive it in their imagination, but what I really like is going, meeting people and recording who they truly are.
What is the image that unleashed your passion for photography?
Well, I used to be an architecture student, I must have been around 21 years old, when through a university magazine I met Jorge Santiago, the photographer. He was my first contact. I was already considering photography, I was kind of tempted by it because I really enjoyed it but I was at a critical point as I was about to graduate from architecture school.
Besides this, there was also a photograph from Joseph Koudelka’s Gypsies series that had a strong impact on me. All the pictures in that series are amazing but there is one image in particular that is really beautiful: a person is lying on a bed, just beneath a window; She’s surrounded by adults and the children are in front, looking at the camera . The children’s gazes reveal the presence of the photographer and this completely blew my mind. I thought “well, this photographer, from a very different culture and socioeconomic level, had the commitment to go and live with them for a long period of time. He earned their respect, he proved he could be trusted”. I was amazed, and then I took all this into my life.
My family comes from Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, and Michoacán, where people tend to be very private and protective of their personal space. Thus, observing this made me question many things and realise that, to start with, that other realities are possible.
Oaxaca gives us a lot of visual stimulus, what are its most striking images?
I love landscapes, they don’t die, they renew each season and stay alive. I love going out of the city and visiting small villages, I love rural images. I guess this pleasure is part of my personal nostalgia. I grew up in the countryside in contact with animals, therefore the rural side of Oaxaca is a picture that is with me everyday. Mountains are especially beautiful for me, I feel they are like the middle point between heaven and earth.
You grew up in Oaxaca, what did you like the most about being raised here?
I like that the city is a place that is growing, but if you drive away from it, you’re back to the rural life, a very traditional, family oriented life. Being raised in Oaxaca was amazing. People are warm, and they always welcome you as if you were another family member.
What impact have you made as a photographer in Oaxaca?
More than making an impact, it’s about exchange. I’ve been lucky to have met a lot of people along the way. There’s always a picture in between, but in the process of making that picture there’s a conversation, a chocolate, a piece of bread… You arrive and show people something, give them support, kind words, and they always give something in exchange – their hospitality, their love. Exchange is stronger particularly in situations where women don’t have a lot of space for themselves, or are convinced that things are never going to change, then you arrive, on your own, freelancing, and suddenly you become a kind of hope in a way – you’re showing them that goals and dreams can be achieved.
And, when you take photos in these villages and show them to the people in them, how do you think they feel?
Well, there are all sorts of reactions, it depends on who’s looking at the picture. The classical reaction is “so you’re going to take a picture of me, and then you’ll leave and forget all about us”. It’s also very funny when you are looking at the picture and say “look at your picture, it is beautiful” and they say “For God’s sake, I’m so old, I look terrible”, and things like that. There are others who ask me to take pictures of their elderly relatives because they know they might not be around for a long time. A lot of things happen around a picture, especially ideas like “they are here, but soon they won’t be” or “he/she is in the States and we need to send a record of what we are living”
Have you taken any pictures that have changed your life approach?
Going back to Koudelka’s picture… That image really affected me a lot, so much so that I asked myself “well, if I had the chance to take pictures at a funeral or something similar, what would happen?” One day, maybe because I got a certain feeling, I went to Zimatlán. I arrived around 3 o’clock, when the sun is at its peak and everyone is inside their homes and the whole village is deserted, so I walked into the church – churches are the centre of everything in the communities. Suddenly I heard music approaching. I went out into the street and saw a funeral procession. I started taking pictures, in a respectful way of course, and from a distance, because I was convinced that taking pictures on such occasions was completely disrespectful. We went to the cemetery right after the mass, but I always stayed near the musicians. I felt like I had to stop taking pictures when the coffin was about to be lowered as it would be invasive so I just stayed there, distant. After a few minutes someone from the procession approached me and I was expecting her to reprimand me. However, the lady asked me “hey, how much do your pictures cost?”. I told her that I don’t sell them and she replied with a sad expression. She continued, “you see, I have family in the United States and this happened all of a sudden, and they couldn’t come. It would be very expensive, difficult and dangerous for them to make it just for the funeral, and I would like to send them pictures and video of what’s happening here, and how we are living”. Of course I didn’t charge her for taking the pictures, and she allowed me to come closer. This changed my perspective of things. I had always believed that photography was a “bad” activity, abusive, because you just go and steal something. However, in that moment I realised that photography can also become a gift.
There’s a photograph you took where the images are in layers, then I remembered you’ve visited Guatemala every year for the last 5 years to cover “The Holy Week”. Do you think time and depth can accumulate in images?
The kind of contact you establish with a person, the time you spend in creating intimacy, in getting to know the topic and reflecting the way this affects you, gives you a kind of maturity in the way you synthesise a great deal of information into one image. It’s been a very different experience that has also made me reconcile with religion and the way I had understood catholicism. I started to perceive it as a community, and a well-organised community can achieve great things. On the one hand there are communities that are easy to enter, they’re loving and welcoming, and then there are other communities that are more reserved. This year I was able to enter the most difficult one, so to speak. I was very happy, the members talked to me, took me into account, and published me.
Documenting Holy Week makes you think about people’s spirituality, do you think photography is a journey of self re-discovery?
Yes, definitely. Yes, because depending on the the moment I’m going through there’s always something going on in my head, always something emotional that triggers questions, and photography is a way of finding the answers to these questions. Sometimes I see pictures I took 10 years ago and I say “wow, how beautiful, but I can’t take these kinds of pictures anymore”. I mean I could, technically speaking, but now that moment has passed and I’m pursuing other things. Your view evolves and changes with time.
The photographer is an explorer seeking to capture life, do you think taking pictures is a personal or a collective ritual?
Photography is a whole world. It can be a very personal process, this happens to all of us you know, one day you wake up, look towards the window and say “wow, this is beautiful!”. It is the same window, the same light as every day, but that day you woke up with the disposition of observing small details you find beautiful. Then you get ready, go to work and you have to see 200 people and interact with them and take a portrait of each one. It’s very interesting how photography allows you to have this wide range, from the very private and intimate moments to all that which is related to community.
You have many portraits and pictures of intimate moments, however some people are reluctant to have their picture taken. How do you make them trust you and feel comfortable?
I think that depends on the characteristics of each person. For me, it’s easy to start a conversation and that helps people relax. Another thing I do before taking portraits is observe the person – observe how he or she sits, how they speak, their eyes. I observe where the light falls nicely upon them. For me, the key is that the person adopts a certain mood instead of a given posture. I never tell them how to stand, or move – I ask them to talk about their children, or the most interesting job they have done. Then the person brings memories back to life, their eyes start shining and they’ll be in the mood you have been looking for.
In Oaxaca and Chiapas people are even more reluctant to have their photos taken. Do you have any advice for travel photographers for facilitating this process with respect and consent?
I think we have to talk about exchange again. For example, if you’re in a market and the lady you want to photograph is selling something, you go and buy something from her. Or you can say, “hey, you sell beautiful hats, how do you make them?” and she’s going to tell you the story and you listen to it all because that’s how you’ll learn what she’s like, how she works. You have to allow this person to express herself, to tell you “I am”. It’s a matter of showing respect, and when the person feels respected you’re likely to create something out of the moment. I also work in different photography workshops and sometimes I see people acting as if they were in a marathon. Their attitude is “I’m going to take the most beautiful picture”or “look at how cute this indigenous man looks” or “look, poverty, poor people, I feel sorry for them”. That doesn’t make you more interesting or deeper. There are also times when you’re in a hurry and you have to create relationships more quickly, but despite that I still think it is important to find the most respectful way to establish them.
Koudelka’s work is, among other things, about detachment and uprooting, while many of your pictures portray moments of tradition and acknowledging roots. Do you think these ‘extremes’ meet at some point?
Definitely, they are two sides of the same coin, it’s simply a matter of belonging. I think it depends entirely on the person – some people have the ability to read into a picture and see what the photographer’s emotional state was when they took it. It could be a picture full of people but, at the same time it is about exile or solitude. What’s important is that the photographer is honest with himself, but also that the person looking at the picture is receptive enough to read the image.
Photography plays with analogue and digital methods, black and white, color… How do you balance and incorporate these elements in your own work?
Frankly, I’m not really worried about any of that. I think a successful photographer has to know which medium is best to achieve a certain image and express a particular idea. A photographer knows how to work with film, digital cameras, phones, medium and large formats… It all comes down to knowing how to work with different equipment and different mediums in order to convey specific ideas. This camera in your hands creates one thing, but in my hands it creates something else. The technical aspects respond to your photographic vision.
How do you think people in Oaxaca respond to photography? Do you think it has always been appreciated or has interest been increasing?
It has definitely been increasing but building interest has to be an ongoing, continual process. For example, initially, the CFMAB had to create a public – there was no audience for photography. Even today, 20 years later, it is still common that discussions about photography delve into the issue of creating an audience that consumes images, such as photo collectors for example.
What do you think about the trend of taking pictures and going viral on social networks?
I don’t think every image has to be super deep, or composed, or has to transcend. Communicating through images is very funny to me, it summarises a lot. For example, the classic memes – you have this beautiful kitten with big open eyes, and when someone asks you, “how are you?” you answer with the meme and that’s it, there’s not much left to say. Gifs are also amazing. I think we are at a stage where language has become something very visual.
You work independently and travel to many communities. As a woman, have you ever felt vulnerable or admired?
I often have to be on my own, to move around or travel alone. Sometimes you have to know how to use your charms. There are people who are very welcoming and treat you nicely just because you are a woman, but there have also been times in some communities and fiestas when I’ve felt threatened – when there has been a lot of alcohol and they want to flirt and I’ve answered “hey man, hold your horses”, and then they’ve wanted to get aggressive. And you just swallow, and pull yourself together and think, “well, let’s see who wins…” It is difficult. My tae kwon do knowledge helps a lot. I don’t practice it anymore, but it gives me a sort of serenity, security, you can look this person straight in the eye, but with no need to get violent, physically or verbally.
If you could be light, what time of day would you be?
I really like the light of dawn, just before the sun comes out because it’s a very soft, delicate light, pink I would say. The environment looks blue, a very faint blue, but people’s skin looks pink. It’s something very subtle and very beautiful.
Do you have a wish for Oaxaca?
Well, we should raise awareness on a personal level. We’re going through a very difficult situation, but we are always criticising the outside. Sometimes we see a difficult situation growing and instead of being calm, we go and add more violence. Everything starts in the way you phrase things, and not necessarily on a social level, but in the way you talk to your family or peers. I think we have to be able to listen to each other and foster dialogue. Dialogues don’t happen at a governmental or institutional level, they happen everyday, among us. They start with that person who cut you off with the car. Everything starts at a very small level. It is like a seed that grows -if you water it properly it can grow in many different and exciting ways.
* Originally published on January 14, 2017