What does it mean to be a woman? Moya Goded has searched obsessively for an answer to this question. And she found her answer not among virgins or maternal figures, but among the broken exponents of a gender that is accustomed to enduring. For years, this artist has dedicated herself to capturing the pain and silence that becomes embedded deep within a body, at both the individual and the societal level. The result is a body of work that names, illuminates, and accompanies an endless line of flawed lives. One of those essays is Sex-Workers, an unflinchingly honest record that reflects, with tenderness but not concession, the least proper face of femininity.
By Pablo Corral Vega and Josefina Licitra
Some photos hurt her. Some people she meets â and then photographs âhurt her. Consequently, when she stands in front of some of her images, she feels a lot of sadness.
âSeeing my photos, for me, can be torture. And having to speak about them publiclyâat a conference, for exampleâhas started to be horrible. I have been depressed. Your life is there in those photos. You are there in those photos.â
Maya has taken photos since she was fifteen, when she realized that the language of images was more accessible to her than the language of words. Since then Maya, now forty years old, has created countless works that can be summed up in a single story line: that of herself. The story of Maya divided and reflected in the lives of hundreds of women (because her stories are, for the most part, stories about women) who let themselves be captured by an injured and redeeming eye. Thus Tierra Negra (Black Earth), her first essay, was born in 1993. This work captured the faces and daily lives of a community on the border between the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Although it included photos of both genders, the essay reached its greatest intimacy in the tales of women. Her other photographs followed from there: images of women who disappear in the desert outside JuĂĄrez city; the religious fervor embodied by the practices of witches and shamans; prostitutesâin short, images of a universe that is tremendously turbulent and human. The critic Eduardo VĂĄzquez MartĂn summarized it perfectly: âThe world of Maya Goded is one of images and experiences that are like wounded dogs on the highway; agonies that we prefer not to watch.â
âThere are things that you have to resolve in your life, and I feel that photography has been a way of ridding myself of ghosts and fears that haunted me as a girl,â Maya allows. âPhotographing certain ghosts has been a way to exorcise them and understand them. It is not something instantaneous. You go out, you take pictures, and then, sometime later, you understand the why of certain obsessions.â
What does it mean to be a woman? Maya searched persistently for an answer to this question. She did not find an answer among virgins or maternal figures, but among the improper exponents of femininity. This artist, who belongs to the contemporary school of Mexican photography that includes Manuel Ălvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, dedicated herself to portraying the women who dignify and at the same time survive their profession. One of her most acclaimed works is Sex-workers: a harsh and honest essay that won the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Fund Award. Sex-workers, from which various photos are reproduced for Nuestra Mirada, chronicles the days and nights of the prostitutes of the La Merced barrio of Mexico City.
âI always work with the same themes: violence and the body, transformation, sexuality. Violence and the love that violence can contain. They are obsessions that are very complex and that I am still investigating after all these years. If you start to look into the subject of women itâs very impressive how far that path will take you.â
Good women. Maya grew up in Mexico City, where Catholic morality decreed what a âgood womanâ should be. According to this view, mothers and virgins are idealized and mythologizedâas if the condition of your body truly determines your value as person or your destiny. But what, then, defines a âgood womanâ? When Maya became pregnant, her need to find an answer outside the religious canon became more urgent.
Sex-workers is the result of that exploration. It is also the consequence of a path that forced Maya to transform herself into a quiet butterfly capable of slipping silently into the cracks of La Merced: a neighborhood filled with cheap hotels, children, thieves, temples, drug-traffickers, churches, and prostitutes. âAll these circumstances allowed me to delve deep into the root causes of the topics that keep me awake at night: inequality, transgression, the body, sex, virginity, motherhood, infancy, old age, desire and our beliefs,â wrote Maya in a presentation of the series. âI wanted to talk about love and lovelessness. I wanted to know about women.â
Maya photographed prostitutes, their johns, and the barrio. She did so through a prism that sheathed her subjects in equal doses of severity, respect, and gentleness. In many cases, she initially got close to her subjects through a courageous gambit: Maya would pay women to come with her into cheap hotels. Rather than creating distance between the photographer and her subject, payment accomplished the opposite: the transaction established Maya not as a main character, but as part of the story.
âWhen I take my photos, if it is at all possible I like to spend a lot of time chatting and living together. That way you have a better idea of what to photograph, you rid yourself of prejudices, and you can get away from the clichĂ© of the prostitute standing in the street.â
There is a very beautiful photo that shows a woman with a client who has been coming to her for fifty yearsâŠ
âThat is a very special photo. I thought it was lovely to document the long-term relationships that develop through prostitution. That woman would talk to me about her clients all the time, and I realized that she loved her clients much more than she loved her husband, whom she didnât bother to talk about. I remember that I felt ashamed the first time I approached that woman. It was distressing to say to her, âHey, how much for a room? Letâs go up there and Iâll take some photos of you.â It saddened me because she was an older woman and we have these preconceived ideas about old age, right? I remember that we entered the hotel and, instantly, as we walked across the corridor, she was no longer the little old woman who had been knitting in the street. She was a woman who had been a whore her entire life.â
The âlittle old womanâ was the first story Maya undertook. After that first impetus, she began what would become a long journey, in both the physical and the emotional sense. For five years her camera was the door that permitted her to entrance into that silenced universe, a world whose inhabitants, in societal terms, should push past her with bared teeth.
âThose five years taking photos taught me what I am and what I am a part of. They say that documentary photography does not have to do with your own life, but putting yourself in contact with reality, facing it, makes you more familiar with yourself. It heals you; it makes you reevaluate your own history.â
Many documentary photographers favor keeping oneâs distance and photographing without involving oneselfâŠ
âWell, that does not happen in my case. When I photograph, I feel a sense of chaos that I do not know how to adapt to. I get myself into bedrooms, into peopleâs lives, and then the huge problem of limits comes up. Getting myself so far inside has many consequences. That part I still cannot figure out.â
You also take off your clothes when you take those photographs.
âYou have to open yourself up to the other person. I believe that the type of documentary photo that is worth the trouble is the one that results when you try to understand the subjectâs humanity, her fears, and her passions. And that, for me, is a very beautiful exercise. Most importantly, because the complexity does not immediately reveal itself, you must also get involved.â
Your most intimate photos occur when women, as a result of that rapport, have invited you into their homes.
âYes. And I find the results of that connection can be very lovely. In Tierra Negra I said to one of the women I was living with, âPlan out a photo that you would like me to give to you.â One day I arrived at her house, and she was in a tight dress and all her grandchildren were there. Then she began to dance the cumbia in front of her grandchildren, and water fell down over her dress. To me, the scene seemed immensely sensual. When you make people participate, when you let reality surprise you, everything becomes more rich, more complex, and further from any clichĂ©.â
According to Maya, chance, when it interrupts, makes for extraordinary images. As an example she invokes the story behind the portrait of the girl in the ballerina dress next to the Santa Muerte statue. The picture was taken when Maya was photographing the father of the girl for a series about Santa Muerte. The photos were fierce and gloomy, she recalls. Then a door opened unexpectedly, that child dressed in pink appeared, and Maya was won over.
âInstantly, I forgot about the father.â
Above all she forgot about herself. And there, in that instant, the worldâthe entire world that explodes in an imageâbecame present.