I want to make believe that our world is a little bit more magical, a little bit more special, than it actually is.
Dulce Pinzón’s photographs hover in the liminal space between reality and fantasy. The concerns addressed in each image are very real – racial prejudice, low-paid workers, environmental damage – but they are presented as latter-day fables that entice the eye with a view to capturing the imagination and so engaging the mind.
She came to international prominence with a series that highlights the international circulation of money powered by low-paid Mexican workers in New York. ‘The Real Story of the Superheroes’ dramatises the selfless determination of a handful of Mexican immigrant workers in the city; the few to stand for the many. The portraits document the individual at their usual place of work, but in each case the artist has dressed her subject in a costume of one of the comic-book superheroes popular in Mexico and the USA: Superman, Cat Woman, Hulk, Spider-Man, Batman’s sidekick Robin and so on. Each image carries a concise caption that details the name, origin and job of each worker, and the amount of money he or she regularly sends home.
Each individual is presented as doubly heroic: they not only support the US economy by undertaking jobs many Americans will not do for such low wages, but also remit a considerable share of those wages to their families south of the border, effectively helping to maintain the Mexican economy as well. Indeed, according to the World Bank, in 2005 (the year this photographic series began) Mexican émigré workers sent home over US$18 billion, making them one of Mexico’s top ten sources of foreign income. But, while this is a significant contribution to both societies, these men and women who labour so long and hard are barely acknowledged. As Dulce Pinzón has noted, it is not just the extent of their efforts that makes Mexican immigrant workers so remarkable, it is that this double dependence remains so unremarked.
Her subsequent series explores another, very different, manifestation of Latin-American culture in New York, this time among Manhattan’s stylish and extrovert party crowd. Later, returning to her native Mexico, she created a series of contemporary ecological parables among the abandoned displays of a former natural history museum. These images are sexy and strange, engaging yet enigmatic, but always with an underlying message reminding us that we should respect each other and the planet on which we all live.
Meanwhile, the Mexican migrant workers continue their daily labours, barely noticed. They are a new and necessary kind of hero: unassuming, tenacious, hard-working, altruistic. They are more real, more effective and more deserving of our respect and admiration than any comic-book fantasy, for they truly are saving the world, one tiny bit at a time.
Alasdair: Much of your work has looked at issues around ethnicity and diaspora. Tell me about your early series ‘Multiracial’. How did it begin?
Dulce: The idea for the project came to me while I was babysitting a child and hanging out at Washington Square Park in New York. A Japanese woman was proudly taking care of her baby boy, a kid with indeterminate features whose father happened to be Hindu (the woman later told me).
‘Multiracial’ was my first formal project. It consists of a series of sixteen colour portraits of people of mixed ethnic origin photographed in front of primary-colour backgrounds. The images challenge the concept of race by contrasting the stark differences between the various primary colours and the ambiguous and artificial – yet commonly accepted – divisions between ‘races’. The project asks the viewer to question whether ‘race’ really exists in nature. The tone is neither confrontational nor ironic, but rather it is unassuming in its straightforwardness. I wanted to retain each subject’s humanity.
Is this a big issue in Mexico?
Yes. When I first saw the book of ‘Castas de la Nueva España’ it totally shook me! [‘The Castas de la Nueva España’ is a 17th-century pictorial taxonomy of racial types and ethnic mixes in the region we now call Mexico. It gave specific names to each group depending on their racial mix.]
The project arose from a deep curiosity about my own background. I wanted to express how, in Mexico, we live our lives without really understanding our racial background. We Mexicans tend to be a very racist and class-conscious. We have a habit of thinking in stereotypes and judging everyone who is different from us without being conscious of our own racial identity. The project was very important to me at that moment because it introduced me to a much more diverse ‘racial aesthetic’ than I had previously known.
How did you find your subjects?
I placed an advert in The Village Voice [newspaper] and met some of the people that way. Others, like Richi, I met on the subway; I was so impressed by the way she looked that I followed her for a couple of blocks so I could ask her to pose for me.
The next body of work has become your most famous so far. ‘The Real Story of The Superheroes’ takes a very different look at the life of Latin-American people in New York City.
The project began after the ‘9-11’ attacks on the World Trade Centre. I saw how much attention the media was paying to many of the people who were helping to re-build New York; meanwhile the nation was forgetting the less visible ones, the immigrants.
I was working as a union organiser at the time and saw there was a big need to recognise the work and achievements of Latino immigrants; people who not only do the lowest-paid work and pay taxes but also somehow manage to send money back home to their communities in Latin America.
Why did you choose to represent these people as comic-book superheroes?
I felt it was important to lift immigrant workers out from invisible anonymity to confront the audience. I was inspired by the union work I was doing and an emerging concept of the worker as a hero. Then, while I was back in Mexico visiting my family, I saw a Spider-Man costume at the market and the whole Superhero concept fell into place.
Are these super heroes popular in Mexico?
Yes of course! We are in a global economy… and these are global superheroes!
How did you connect with the various people in the images?
At the time, I was working at a community school called Casa Mexico where I taught ‘English as second language’ and educated people about labour rights. The people in the photographs were students of mine, workers I helped unionise during my years as union organiser and workers I got to know in my neighbourhood.
How did you go about matching the costume to the individual?
First, I chose the individual I wanted to highlight and then thought of a fitting Superhero for him or her depending on their real-life job and the characteristics of the fictional character.
How has that work been received?
I haven’t made a quantitative study about it, but I have thousands of emails like this:
Thank you very much for bringing your vision to life because, as a Latino from Texas, I was having problems adjusting to seeing my fellow Latinos as the ‘underground service’ to the city. But I see now that my vision was distorted and see them now as having a little superhero in them.
Muchas gracias.Albert Cruz
Emails like this make me hope that perhaps my project has encouraged viewers to think about the importance of the people in the pictures and everyone like them.
‘People I Like’ took a different approach, focusing on stylish Latinos in New York…
Yes, that work started as a sort of accident. At the time, I was very concerned that I had finished ‘The Superheroes’ series and feared that a new project might not be as successful.
Time went by. I was producing Fresa Salvaje, a party where I met lots of new Latino people who were more integrated into the New York scene. Some were very hipster.
I was accepted into a studio program, which required me to generate a project over a six-month period. To begin with I had no idea what I would do. My friend Marcelo, who was also involved with the Fresa Salvaje parties, asked me to shoot the cover for his demo. I invited him to my studio along with a well-known makeup artist called Karhlo… and that is when the project really began.
I photographed divas, rock stars, partygoers, drama queens and artists; people that fascinated me… all of them Latinos.
So, you are a part of this larger-than-life group – photographing from the inside?
I would like to believe that. I think that is why I was able to get their attention and why they were happy to be photographed in the way I did it. I believe they represent a breakthrough in the Latino cultural scene of New York. These alter egos [they perform in the photographs] are their artmaking, and through them they are all injecting the city with fresh, interesting and chic energy. My photographs build on these alter egos to create what I think of as universal stereotypes in a timeless space.
In ‘Historias del Paraiso’ (Stories of Paradise) you play with our sense of history. Where were they shot?
At a former Natural History Museum in my childhood town of Puebla in central Mexico.
Who are the people in these images?
Many different people with many different stories…
The first image is of me and my first child, Mariano. When I found out about the possibility of shooting in these disused museum dioramas, I thought immediately about a self-portrait with a child, both dressed as bears. From that day on I became obsessed with the place. The series built up around the stuffed animals that had been abandoned in the defunct museum.
What ideas are you exploring in this series?
I am using these timeless and decontextualised elements to create metaphorical images through which I want to encourage the audience think more sensitively about our planet; caring about the kind of world we will leave to future generations. My approach refers to environmental issues and concerns I had from an early age. The images are based on the Cycle of Life and, through the conventions of staged photography, I want to raise questions about the state of the planet we inhabit and how we are affecting our environment.
Right now, there are many problems affecting Mexico, but I am frustrated and indignant about the severe environmental problems we are facing. I want to find ways to focus on these issues in the hope of leaving a better legacy for my country and my sons: the possibility of creating a better and cleaner environment for all.
[Left] © Dulce Pinzón ‘Rubber Duckies’; [Right] © Dulce Pinzón ‘Girl in the Wood’ from the series ‘Historias del Paraiso’
In your work you seem to be drawn to ideas of the perfect, the heroic, things beyond the everyday: divas, super heroes, paradise. What draws you to these subjects, as opposed to documenting the world as it is?
I want to make believe that our world is a little bit more magical, a little bit more special, than it actually is. I daydream about living in a Green world where everyone dresses expressively and behaves in an ecologically responsible way. It’s a daydream, but it is actually making a very powerful statement.
What is your latest project?
I have three that I am working on, all at the same time: ‘The Wonderful Life of Andy’, ‘Gayland’ and a project that is so new I can’t even describe it yet, it is still developing…
Tell me about ‘The Wonderful Life of Andy’.
Moving back to Mexico brought me the gift of new ideas and new aesthetics, along with a new home.
The protagonists in this story are Andrea and Vincent. I first met them while briefly living in Mexico City. They lived in the same building as me. One day I saw them hugging in the hallway and fell in love with that moment: a couple dressed as if time had suddenly stopped in the 1950s… That moment was so strong that I just had to ask them to pose for me. The first image I made is called ‘Nostalgia’ and forms part of the ‘Historias del Paraíso’ series. I continued to photograph them and in time this became a new series: ‘The Wonderful Life of Andy’.
[Left] © Dulce Pinzón ‘Riki Razo’; [Right] © Dulce Pinzón ‘Hector’ from the series ‘Gayland’
Tell me about the series ‘Gayland’. What are you exploring in this work?
It’s a work in progress. I still have no idea…! [laughs]
What, in your view, makes a successful photographer?
A person with the ability to transcend time, space and language; someone with a unique voice and lots of perseverance.
Dulce Pinzón was born in Mexico City in 1974. She studied Mass Media Communications at the Universidad de Las Americas in Puebla, Mexico, and Photography at Indiana University in Pennsylvania. In 1995 she moved to New York where she studied at The International Center of Photography. Dulce Pinzón has published and exhibited extensively around the world. Her work has featured at Les Rencontres d’Arles (France), PhotoIreland (Dublin) and the Más allá de la Reportería Fotográfica (Bogotá, Colombia).
She has won many prestigious awards including the Jovenes Creadores/FONCA grant (Mexico, 2002); the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Photography (2006); The Gaea Foundation/Sea Change Residency Award (2010) and the Perrier acquisition prize at ZonaMaco (Mexico, 2011). Her work is held in many public and private collections including the National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago), the Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh), El Museo del Barrio (New York) and Centro de la Imagen (Mexico City).
In 2015, Forbes Magazine named Dulce Pinzón “one of the fifty most creative Mexicans in the world”.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.