In Miami, Diaspora Women Artists Tell Their Stories Through Photobooks

MIAMI — Fifteen selected artists and photographers gathered at the Women Photographers International Archive (WOPHA) to participate in the 12-day workshop Photobook as Object between June 3 and 11, 2023. This workshop also inaugurated WOPHA’s Institute for Photographic Practices, Criticism, and Historiography. Taught in different parts of the world since 2014, this was the first time the workshop was held in the United States and at WOPHA. 

Co-taught by Tokyo-based independent photographer and curator Yumi Goto and Lima-based photographer Paola Jiménez Quispe, the workshop sought to discover what makes the photobook a unique medium. “As a curator, I was frustrated because putting up exhibitions didn’t create big changes. Not everyone could access these spaces,” Goto, who held her first workshop in Japan, told Hyperallergic. A turning point for her was meeting the Belgian artist Jan Rosseel at a Duch photo festival, where Rosseel presented a project about the murder of his father in the 1980s in the form of a researched book that included recreated images and scenes from eyewitness accounts.  

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“It wasn’t just a portfolio or a catalogue,” Goto recounted. Through the photobook medium, Goto saw someone tell a visual story about a social issue. “So I thought this could work,” she said. 

Photobooks by various artists on a table during the exhibition at the Women Photographers International Archive in Miami

“The medium of the photo book is ideal and provides a more democratic access,” said Aldeide Delgado, Cuban-born and Miami-based independent Latinx art historian and curator who founded WOPHA in 2018 to research, promote, support, and educate women and nonbinary photographers. “What you build is a narrative that allows the artist to go back into personal archives and generate a story that becomes an act of resistance against the stories being told to us,” she added. While studying art history at the University of Havana, Delgado asked her teachers where the women photographers were. “I was told they didn’t exist, or if they existed, they were not good enough.” 

In 2013, Delgado started the Catálogo de Fotógrafas Cubanas (Catalogue of Cuban Women Photographers), a live digital archive with the purpose of giving visibility to these otherwise forgotten artists. “Many of these artists never had exhibitions in spaces and had little critical validation,” said Delgado. After immigrating to Miami, she found that the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago had an unattributed photograph on their website titled “La familia Buendía. Havana” (1982); since no one in the United States knew the photographer’s name, the museum labeled the artist as “anonymous.” Delgado, who had spent years cataloging the work of women photographers in Cuba dating from the 19th century, recognized the work by Abigail García Fayat and contacted the museum to share the artist’s name. Fayat is one of the many woman artists Delgado has rescued from anonymity. 

Artists from the “Photobook as Object” workshop, with Yumi Goto, Aldeide Delgado, and Paola Jiménez Quipe; all participants: Zonia Zena, Melissa Guerrero, William Riera, Rose Marie Cromwell, Larissa Perez, Diana Larrea, Lisette Morales, Stacy Platt, María Martínez-Cañas, Laila Nahar, Irene Torrebiarte, Evelyn Ortiz, Elisa Benedetti, Carlotta Boettcher, and Andrea Sarcos

With these conditions that made, and continue to make, erasure possible, Delgado invited Goto to Miami after meeting her in Tokyo in 2022 while giving a talk at Goto’s gallery, Reminders Photography Stronghold. The purpose of the workshop was to provide the cohort of artists with the support they needed to become authors of their own stories. 

On the first day of the workshop, participants printed their images, spread them on a wall, and took turns talking about their projects. “It doesn’t matter how good the photographs are or the quality of the images,” Goto said. “What we want to find is the story.”

Diana Larrea’s images on the wall from her photobook I Left Too Soon (2023)

Melissa Guerrero, one of the workshop participants, brought hundreds of photographs from her archive. Her photobook Everyone in Florida Has a Pool (2023) expresses her frustrations as a Venezuelan immigrant who saw others enjoying what she could never afford. “During the [COVID-19] pandemic, we spent much time outside on the patio. We could never afford a house with a pool, but with an inflatable pool, plants, seashells I collected, and still-life objects, I created a world for my kids,” she told Hyperallergic. Documenting her disappointment with the American dream’s promises, Guerrero’s work also tells a story about divorce, the Catholic social stigma that comes with becoming a single mother, and three generations of Venezuelan women in her family who are also divorcees.

Lisette Morales’s photobook titled Cantos Cósmicos (Cosmic Chants) (2023) (image courtesy the artist)
Melissa Guerrero, Everyone in Florida Has a Pool (2023) (image courtesy the artist)

Another participant, Lisette Morales, came in with an idea to document the agricultural community’s life and struggles in Immokalee, Florida, focusing on the workers’ relationship to the land and their demands for better working conditions. Goto advised her to use a first-person perspective to elevate the voices of this community through her own family’s Indigenous history and recipes. “By weaving together the threads of ancient cosmogonic narratives and my own lived experiences, I tried to create a testament of resilience,” she told Hyperallergic. Titled Cantos Cósmicos (Cosmic Chants) (2023), the work also became about her. “There is a layer where we had to own our own narratives,” Morales said. 

Morales lost all family albums when the Sandinistas turned her street in Managua, Nicaragua, into a refugee camp in 1979. Only one photo of her mother survived, which she included in the book. To make up for the absence of family photos, Goto suggested that Morales use illustrations and Indigenous recipes from her mother. At times, her search brought moments of irony. Looking for illustrations of the creator deities from the Nahuatl cosmovision, she looked up the Codex Borgia, one of the few surviving pre-Columbian painted manuscripts at the Vatican Library. Due to copyright, Morales had to write to the library director and ask for their permission to use the image of her own ancestors. “Why are the sacred manuscripts of Indigenous people at the Vatican?” she wondered aloud. “I see this as cultural colonialism.” 

Andrea Sarcos presenting images from her soon-to-be-assembled photobook titled Ephemeral, Preserved (2023)

Andrea Sarcos, who explored her family’s history across Ecuador, Venezuela, and the United States in Ephemera, Preserved (2023), faced a different challenge. A family album that her grandmother kept under her bed was mostly destroyed in a flood, leaving behind only a few faded photos. In Sarcos’s photobook, these surviving photos are weaved with words, archival documents, and alternative process prints. 

Goto’s partner in the project, Jiménez Quipe, started out as a participant in one of the workshops in 2018. The final outcome is Rules for Fighting (2022), which tells her story of growing up without her father, who was murdered in Perú in 1998.

María-Martinez Cañaz, Identity Denied: Deconstructing the Image Object (2023) (image courtesy the artist)

Maria Martinez-Cañas’s described her project Identity Denied: Deconstructing the Image Object (2023) as a “photobook about a book.” The artist superimposed portraits of herself onto images in August Sander’s Persecuted / Persecutors: People of the 20th Century (2018) to ask questions about gender identity and expression. 

Diana Larrea, who immigrated to the United States at age 19 from Perú, wanted to reconstruct her immigrant experience using family archives and personal images. In I Left Too Soon (2023), she worked with themes such as absence, distance, and the passing of time to explore this narrative. “In these reconnections, I explore a sense of belonging through memories and nostalgia. Trying to understand why I left,” she said.

During the final exhibition night, the rain showers finally stopped, bringing back a dense blanket of humidity that I have also felt during some evenings in Havana and Buenos Aires. Artists who presented their work spoke about vanishing times and places that are central to themes of immigration and change. But I also saw a dynamic presence operating within a visual culture where stories of marginalized groups are still absent. When I looked at the photobooks, I saw people claiming that presence and, in vivid, intimate ways, fighting back. 

“What about the book cover? How will it look?” artists started asking as the end of the workshop approached. “Don’t worry,” Goto repeated, “The cover will reveal itself.” 

Zonia Zena, “Gitana,” from her photobook titled Nada muere una vez que entra en el aire (Once it touches the air, nothing dies) (2023) (image courtesy the artist)


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