Feminist, Nonbinary Collective Portrays Latin American Culture In Unique Fashion

While challenging sexist and colonial narratives deeply rooted in the region, these women — image makers — are creating a safe space to put themselves on the international map as photojournalists.

RUDA, named after the potent rue plant, is a collective of 11 female and nonbinary documentary photographers from Latin America. It formed in September 2018 as an answer to the lack of female representation in the region and the need to portray social developments from the female and local gaze.

While challenging sexist and colonial narratives deeply rooted in the region, these women, image makers, are creating a safe space to put themselves on the international map as photojournalists.

Each member of RUDA comes from a different Latin American country, where they currently reside: Bolivia, Paraguay, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Members are based in their respective country.

Mayeli Villalba from Paraguay and Isadora Romero from Ecuador met in Asunción when Romero was invited to a local festival and stayed in the country working on a personal project with Villalba. After discussing the lack of representation in the community, they decided to form the collective. Both invited other female photographers from the region with whom they share the same ethos to join RUDA. As a group, they have formed a multinational alliance with the intention of generating and disseminating narratives reflective of their personal experiences.

Photography has a history of being controlled by the male gaze and while female photographers have existed and thrived, who gets visibility is still in the hands of men, according to data from the World Press Photo State of Photography study.

As a result and for the most, society’s collective visual archive has been built on a masculine imaginary view of the world. This is further emphasized through images that make it to the front of the world’s leading newspapers and win prestigious awards perpetuating an often victimized view of Latin America.

On Oct. 2, 2019, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno announced a series of economic measures, affecting the population at large. Most Ecuadorians turned to the streets to protest. The unprecedented demonstration around the country, led to social revolts around the region, in Chile, Bolivia, and Colombia respectively. Demonstrations in which women and the indigenous communities took a prominent role. RUDA members have been set to cover the demonstrations in their own way.

“We are concerned about the absence of diversity from which the stories of our peoples are told and disseminated,” the group told NPR in an email about confronting a reality in which the power structures and production spaces are in the hands of foreign media (non-Latin American) and foreign correspondents telling the stories from the region.

In addition, this lack of diversity and representation deprive a wide variety of sectors of society of the right to tell their own stories and those of their people. Stories told directly from the experience of events, and therefore from the closest and most personal understanding of situations.

As a team, RUDA is interested in deepening its knowledge of problems and opportunities in Latin America, understanding that, although these developments have their differences in each country, the core structures — and challenges — are often the same.


Interview Highlights

Latin America is a vast and diverse region with thousands of narratives, stories and peoples. What kind of experiences as Latin American female photographers connect you to one another?

Koral Carballo (Mexico): We’re connected because we are women and/or non-binaries, who are at a disadvantage by the patriarchal gaze within photography. For generations it was believed that there were no women capable of covering risky situations or that we could not fulfill assignments in hostile environments. Today, there are institutions that have empowered these voices, and celebrate the stories told from a patriarchal and white look.

Wara vargas (Bolivia): We have a common desire to show and highlight women’s roles across the region. Indigenous, female leaders are becoming stronger and stronger as they raise their voices and change history in the region. All of us in RUDA want to show the struggle behind each woman protesting during these revolutionary times.

Isadora Romero (Ecuador): We’re connected through the lens from which we see everyday life as a political act. We’re connected through the stories that, even though they might not make it to the front page of a newspaper, are nevertheless worthy of being told.

Finally, we’re connected through our understanding of the economic systems and historical structures that have been managed in a similar manner all over the region, such as: colonialism, dictatorships, war on drugs and mass migration.

How do you think the use of Instagram has helped you work as photographers during moments of popular movements?

Paz Olivares Droguett (Chile): Instagram has become an important tool to publicize part of our work. It is a very synthetic language, typical of social networks, but at the same time it is visually effective.

The immediacy and popularity of its use has created communication channels that do not necessarily depend on great economic powers. It has become an opportunity to have a voice and be able to act as developments unfold in our countries.

Isadora Romero (Ecuador): During the protests in Ecuador and Chile, Instagram became a fundamental tool to understand and expand on stories that only traditional media present to the public. It has been a tool that has allowed us to denounce human rights abuses, congregate people and share experiences. As an alternative source of information, it serves a huge purpose for the general public to corroborate stories.

If there is an absence of diversity from where the stories of our peoples are told and spread, we run the risk of hegemonizing our history.

What kind of visual narrative do you want to manifest or change?

Paz Olivares Droguett (Chile): The visual and aesthetic hegemony in Latin America still has a lot to do with the idea of the “photographic safari”, where European or North-American photographers with often a tourist visa, return time and time again with their cameras to tell the world “what this region is like and what we need to improve.” But many have not yet learned that we have our own thinking, our own culture, and that we produce our own visual archive without a need for validation from the north.

Isadora Romero (Ecuador): We want to go against the production of imagery whose sole purpose is to win traditional competitions. We want to talk about everyday stories, which are at the core of our societies.

Paz Olivares Droguett (Chile): I would like to propose a hopeful vision, but without being naive. Basically, another type of relationship with the stories we tell, one in which real links are generated, in which photography is understood as a vehicle and not necessarily as an end. Where communication is more of a collaborative act that combines voices, rather than an egocentric job that seeks recognition and validation.

In addition, I want us to keep on questioning ourselves about what kind of structures we are holding with our images. Structures from where we continue to discriminate against minorities, from where we victimize the victims, from where we repeat a discourse of eternal suffering.

We want to talk about social empowerment, we want to talk about the dignity of our peoples, about alternative ways of building ourselves as societies, from the collective and the eternal interest for the other and for ourselves.

Anything else you would like to share?

We are a collective under construction. In the short time that we have been together, we’ve seen the urgency of narrating what is happening in our region at this time. Just as the urgency of knowing where we are located as photographers and as Latin Americans.

Being a representative of each country allows us to debate about our general realities as a region and as individuals in our countries, by doing so, we’re continually expanding our perspectives.

It’s a lifelong lesson.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.
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