Roberto Tondopó: A Photographic Act of Atonement

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Healing and Ritual Bath in Cumbujuyuy’ 2017 from the series ‘Tránsito (Holy Glorious San Sebastián)’

I identify with the psychological and cultural situation of people that occupy intermediate states of being.

Introduction

The home is a place of intimacy. It is larger than the individual but smaller than the community. While in many ways it is a closed unit, it can be shaped by the traditions and expectations of that wider community, but it can also be a place where the will of a single individual dominates the lives of all those who share that domestic space. As a place to bring up children and grow old in, it is always evolving while the young mature and leave home and parents become grandparents and, in time, pass from life. The intimacy of home can be a comfort, or it can be a prison; a place of nurturing or of domination; of tenderness or trauma.

It is the ambiguity of domestic intimacy that sits at the heart of the work of the Mexican photographer, Roberto Tondopó. His earlier photographs revisit his childhood home through an observation of his niece and nephew as they engage with the domestic space. For them, it is an environment where fantasy permeates reality in the ebb and flow of the adolescent imagination as they negotiate the transition from childhood to maturity. They create for themselves a liberating private reality as a way to escape the oppressive reality of their circumstances. For the artist, it is a place haunted by darker memories of his own childhood. His photographs use imaginative fiction as a perspective from which to address the psychological realities of this domestic sphere and explore the intimate emotions of the human condition.

Meanwhile, his more recent images explore the gender shifts enacted during the Grand Festival of Chiapa de Corza in the mountains of southern Mexico. Here, every January, the men of this firmly patriarchal community cross-dress as women in a collective act that explores the more radical branches of identity while remaining firmly rooted in tradition. It is in this ongoing project the artist discovers a form of redemptive transformation.

Alasdair Foster


© Roberto Tondopó ‘Novia que te vea’ [Blind Bride] 2011 from the series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]

Interview

What inspires you to make photographs?

I am drawn to certain subjects intuitively, many times without really knowing why. Then, when I look back at the finished images, I see that there are conceptual and emotional threads that run through and connect all my work.

I identify with the psychological and cultural situation of people that occupy intermediate states of being; people who are not simply one type of person or another. It might be an ethnic, racial, religious or secular hybridisation. An intertwining of stories and identities. The images themselves also occupy this intermediate, hybrid place; one that blends reality and fiction.

What do you seek to achieve through this hybrid approach?

I want to create a tension in the viewer; to generate some discomfort or suspicion about what is being looked at and how to approach it. Is this a performance or is it a documentary? I want the viewer to ask questions…

I like photography without labels or categories. I like photography that dares to go beyond limited parameters, without prejudice. It might draw on poetry, or childhood literature, or real life; stories from a family album or the tropes of cinema or fashion.

This is certainly the feeling one gets looking at your series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]. How did that series come about?

When my father died, it marked the end of an era for our family; the ‘Casita de Turrón’ project marked the beginning of a new one. My father loved us inordinately, but he was a domestic tyrant. We lived in fear. It was a fear that became the basis of our family belief system because no one could contradict it. His was a suffocating, domineering, over-protective sort of love. Many of the photographs are, in a way, a reconstruction of him, not as a person, but in terms of the claustrophobic atmosphere he maintained in the house.

When I first began to travel, I realised how difficult it was for me to make decisions for myself. I had grown up in a closed world of half-truths, charged with violence. Life at home had many layers with complicated rules and narratives. Much remained below the surface, dangerously so… it could explode at any time.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Huella animal’ [Animal Tracks] 2010 from the series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]

Who are the two children in the photographs?

They are my niece and nephew, Andrea and Ángel. Each day, after school, they spent the afternoon in their grandparents’ house. They were always very restless, though it was never quite clear to me why this was. That uncertainty left the way open for intuition. It opened up an intermediate space in which I was sometimes documenting their actions and sometimes they were performing a kind of theatre for the camera.

In these images, are they a surrogate for your own childhood self?

No. My intention was not to reveal the mystery that surrounded my own childhood and adolescence in that house intertwined with the experiences of my niece and my nephew. Rather, I wanted to suggest how memory acts, and how experiences are built during that stage of human development from childhood to adolescence. I wanted to recreate the experience in such a way that an adult spectator could experience it as a child would experience it: the way in which a child would interpret a silence; how that silence would give meaning to fragments of conversation; how the child would reconstruct everything that was not directly understandable. There is a restlessness that I wanted to navigate. I wanted to suggest that the idea of a monster can nest within us as the manifestation of our own anguish. There is no greater fear than fearing fear itself. I wanted to identify ourselves (our family) within the emotional and psychological process of growing and maturing in such a cloistered domestic context.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Bailando con frenesí’ [Frenetic Dance] 2010 from the series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]

My niece and nephew infected me with their courage, strength, security and ferocity. They have Marfan syndrome [an incurable inherited disorder that affects the heart, eyes, blood vessels and bones] and that is why they had to wear those thick lenses to see. Yet they knew how to deal with their limitations, how to handle their peers, and how to be treated without judgement. They manifest sensuality, eroticism, desperation and brutality. Sometimes behaving like adults and at other times like children, they combined innocence and experience with great vitality. They reminded me of the importance of being authentic and true to oneself. They demonstrated the importance of difference and the value of dysfunctionality in the way it can operate as the engine by which to shake up rigidly fixed ideas. They make evident our innate capacity to overcome the challenge of difficult situations.

How challenging was it for you to turn an emotionally charged period from your own life into a fictional narrative?

I do not think this was an act of defiance. For me, it evolved in a natural way. But it took time for the pieces to come together. My sister and her children (my niece and nephew) had recently returned from living in another region of Mexico. Rediscovering ourselves to each other was a spontaneous interaction of affection growing directly from the need once again to connect and respond. It was, for me, an exceptional experience.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Astronauta’ [Astronaut] 2010 from the series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]

In the beginning, though, the project left me feeling discouraged. I felt that I was not capturing the full emotional universe of childhood in that house. The images seemed fragmentary. What was both difficult and stimulating was the way in which the images employed fantasy and play to suggest deeper and darker realities. For me, fantasy had become a kind of shelter; a defence against a universe so overwhelming and plagued with violence that it had become, over the years, completely normalised for me; invisible. I could only recognise it when I was able to step outside of that universe. Perhaps the most difficult thing was to wake up from that state of immersion and to recognise my domestic situation (as I perceived it) for what it really was.

How much of this personal domestic background do you intend the viewer to understand from the images themselves?

My personal history is the backdrop that sets the scene for the protagonists, Andrea and Ángel. In the book of this work there is a folded sheet of texts hidden inside the back cover. These short texts, arranged like a domestic encyclopaedia, throw the images into relief, setting a richer counterpoint and context for the strangeness of the photographs themselves.

The images have a very particular ‘palette’ both in terms of colour and in the interplay of patterns.

The colour emulates the Kodachrome process used by my father. He was an amateur photographer and our family albums are filled with his photographs of important family events, the social rituals of school and birthdays… ‘Happy times’ that were not really happy and sometimes involved intense conflict. The distinctive Kodachrome colours give a sense of cheerfulness and melancholy at the same time.

When I returned to the family album in order to unravel the domestic universe that formed me, I remembered the textures and patterns that filled the house during my childhood: old papers, the texture of the sheets, the geometric pattern of the curtains, my mother’s dresses, psychedelic shirts, tablecloths… These materials reconnected me with the past.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Leche’ [Milk] 2013 from the series ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House]

How do you see the relationship between the lives of your niece and nephew and your own domestic childhood?

Over the five years that I developed the project with my family, the re-reading of our family album triggered memories that I did not know I had. One memory led to another… I wanted to understand my niece and nephew, to know what they were experiencing at that age so that I might remember a little more about my own childhood. This brought repressed events to the surface of consciousness and the photographic act became one of exorcism or, perhaps, atonement.

Your new series of work, ‘Tránsito’ [in transition], takes a different approach to the roles of family and community life. In it you explore the Fiesta Grande, an annual festival in the town of Chiapa de Corza in southern Mexico, in which the men of the village dress as women, becoming ‘Chuntás’. How did this project come about?

‘Casita de Turrón’ was a reflection about my identity, memory and childhood based on the family environment. ‘Tránsito’ is, for me, a natural follow-up to that previous project, and a transitional space. This is an ongoing project, and its full meaning is still being revealed to me.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Consecration of the Feminine, Allegory’ 2018 from the series ‘Tránsito’

The Chuntás are men who cross-dress as women and dance during the celebration of the Fiesta Grande of Chiapa de Corzo, located in the Grijalva River valley of the Chiapas highlands in south-eastern Mexico. The festival is held every January and it is the town’s most important celebration of the year. The dancers are honouring an ancient noblewoman from the colonial era, Doña María, who helped the villagers in times of famine. The cross-dressing men take on the role of her ‘servants’. But, there is also a religious context in which Saint Sebastian and other Roman Catholic figures are honoured. The celebration is an outburst of joy that lasts for the whole month. For most of the year the village is very traditional; men are men, conservative and masculine.

Yet in January they dress as women?

These characters can be seen from many points of view, but especially from the way that those in a traditionally masculine community empower their feminine side, transgressing the notion of gender. The Chuntás are symbolic characters in a celebration that is part of the framework of the local culture. The festival is a celebration that empowers a traditionally masculine society through femininity. Once the party is over, the society once again becomes conservative. I am fascinated by that transition.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Josejosojosa’ 2015 from the series ‘Tránsito’

How did you develop the project?

Chiapa de Corza is not far from my hometown. My father, whose name was Tránsito, was from this place and, in the five years since his death, I have joined the celebration. Thus, the name of the project honours both my father and the annual celebration. I wanted to be more than a spectator; I wanted to capture the collective soul of the celebration by becoming Chuntá myself. There is a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about this festival, so the idea of ​​documenting it is important to me. Many ideas come into play in these images … about personal identity, about the relationship of parents and children, about death and religion. I see these ideas as seeds that have been planted, and now I see them grow and see how they branch and interconnect.

This is also a personal project for me. The death of my father was a personal catharsis that made me re-evaluate my own sexuality, and think about the construction and demolition of the father figure. As this series develops, I can see a lot of intertwined memories that have shaped the way I understand the world. They combine daily life and personal experience with Roman Catholic rites: prayers, oral traditions, religious mysteries, rituals of celebration and rites of death.

[Left] © Roberto Tondopó ‘Felipe Blue Sky’ 2016 from the series ‘Tránsito’
[Right] © Roberto Tondopó ‘Manliness’ 2016 from the series ‘Tránsito’

So, this is an interplay of opposites, like Yin and Yang?

Mexico is a country full of contradictions and veiled realities that make it very complex. On the one hand, it is apparently permissive; on the other hand, it can be repressive. The Fiesta Grande originates, in part, from the historical trauma of the violent process of colonisation and conquest. But there is also a spontaneous liberation; a cathartic process that’s difficult to understand. I am inspired by the idea of exploring this scenario in which anguish is released, while old habits persist in a society that simultaneously conserves its traditions and faces a new culture. The ongoing realisation of this project involves a metaphorical and poetic visual language that fuses the symbolic representation of ritual and celebration with the myths of place and my own personal and domestic history.

You take part in the festival yourself. What was your personal experience of this temporary transformation?

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Dance in front of my Parents’ Altar’ 2020 from the series ‘Tránsito’

The feminine clothes, the make-up… all those elements turn you into a whole different person. Cross-dressing is uninhibiting, but it can also be challenging. I joined the celebrations as an offering to Saint Sebastian the martyr. In Chiapa de Corza, the people who dress to dance as Chuntás, usually do so for both religious and personal reasons. They offer their dance to saints, especially to San Sebastian, who is the patron saint of the January Festival. It’s a kind of pact with divinities to receive blessings in exchange for offering the dance with devotion, care, gratitude and sacrifice (because they dance for a long time each day wearing heavy dresses and offer the dance for a minimum of three years).

But the act of becoming personally involved changed things. Seeing my friends dressed as Chuntás was very different from becoming one myself. When I first put on women’s clothes, I felt a strong inner presence of my mother. My memories of her became more vivid. I felt feminine… And the more I got involved, the more conscious my decision to embrace my feminine side. To witness those contradictions in myself was something violent because it is not permitted from a cultural point of view. This ritual elaboration of the act of reconnection is a bonding with the presence of my father through the ancestors and the Chiapaneca culture, where I deconstruct my concept of masculinity in ways learned through my transformation as Chuntá. This starts by healing the wound of colonial binarism so that we may recognise ourselves as subjects without divisions.

You began by describing the intuitive way you initiate a photographic project. You are drawn to a subject without fully knowing why, only later recognising the conceptual and emotional significance of the images. What have you discovered through the making of ‘Casita de Turrón’ and ‘Tránsito’?

These bodies of work are an attempt to expand the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction through the confrontation between death and transition. In ‘Casita de Turrón’ I am trying to understand the sense of fear my father engendered in our family and his absolute dominion over our domestic lives. In ‘Tránsito’ I am drawing a connection between his death and my transformation into a Chuntá. My father’s physical death has become a symbolic one. This experience has led me to reflect on how, by embracing alternative identities, one can destabilise the domestic authority figure traditionally imposed by the patriarchal culture to which I belong. The transformation has allowed me to observe the patterns of the dominant masculinity with which I grew up, while becoming a Chuntá has given me a way to overthrow it.

© Roberto Tondopó ‘Healing and Ritual Bath in Cumbujuyuy’ 2017 [detail] from the series ‘Tránsito (Holy Glorious San Sebastián)’

Biographical Notes

Roberto Tondopó was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, México, in 1978. He has a degree in graphic design from the State University of Puebla (2004) and graduated in photography from the National Centre for the Arts in San Agustín, Oaxaca (2010). In 2011, he won a fellowship from the Tierney Foundation in New York. His work has been shown widely in México and internationally including Los Angeles, Madrid, New York and Paris, and published in many magazines and online, including ‘The British Journal of Photography’ and ‘The Sunday Times Magazine’ (UK). Roberto Tondopó’s photobook ‘Casita de Turrón’ [The Gingerbread House] was published by La Fábrica (Spain) in 2015. He lives and works in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, México.

photo: ©Roberto Tondopó and Fer Castro


This article was initially published in Chinese, in the July 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was the domestic.