Silence is a form of condemnation for those of us who are different, but we cannot live our lives as ghosts.
Ultimately, monsters are there to make you think. The word comes to us from the Latin monstrum (a divine omen) and derives from monere (to remind, warn, teach) that has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European root men- (to think), which is also the root for the Greek memona (I yearn). For the ancients of antiquity, deformity was a sign of divine displeasure, to be feared and shunned, a trope that carried through folklore in the European tradition where the good were beautiful and evil revealed itself in ugliness. That said, the Roman historian Suetonius considered a bird’s ability to fly as monstrous, because it seemed to him to be ‘against nature’. Monsters, then, are not simple creatures but the reification of tangled psychological states: a fear of difference and the unknown, a rejection of the unexplained, a stimulus to imaginative cognition with, perhaps, an undertow of longing. The butt of prejudice, the scapegoat of ignorance and a spur to fantasy.
Not all monsters are ugly on the outside, some hide their monstrous nature beneath a veneer of respectable normality. In recent years we have seen religious institutions that for centuries persecuted those who did not conform to their narrow dictates of sexual orientation or gender identity revealed as harbouring clergy who used their position to abuse children physically, psychologically, and sexually in the most monstrous ways. In communities of self-righteous rectitude, domestic violence remained largely invisible, shrouded under the sanctity of marriage, its victims rendered defenceless by the arbitrary but unbending definition of their gender.
For the Mexican artist Diego Moreno, monsters are the unreal actors in such real-world predicaments. Describing himself as a rebel storyteller, he sets convention on its head, revealing the melancholy charm of grotesques whose only crime it is to be less ordinary and the festering core at the heart of congealed convention. It is an inversion that yields no flash of clarity but rather stirs up the sediment of generational trauma, suggesting the essential turbidity of ‘truth’. What began for him as a search for personal identity has evolved into a latter-day visual mythologue that explores familial relationships and sexual orientation, prejudice and rebelliousness, in visually rich and engaging ways that find resonance with others far from his home in the Chiapas of Mexico. At the age of twenty-four, he was identified as one of the world’s most influential young photographers by The British Journal of Photography. Four years later, he represented Latin America at the sixth African Photo Festival in Addis Ababa and, this year, the Dutch photo-art magazine Foam named him one of their top twenty talents worldwide.
What, then, is the story behind the rebel and his monsters?
How did photography begin for you?
I started taking photographs because I didn’t want to commit suicide. I was a very solitary and introverted adolescent, I found it very difficult to communicate with people because I was so discriminated against in my childhood. When I was fourteen years old, I had my first cell phone, it had a camera included. The first photograph I remember taking was a self-portrait of my back after being hit very hard by my father. That image was very powerful… magical. I knew that I had an artefact through which I could see myself, even if I was in a lot of pain. Photography could help me build an image of myself.
Tell me about your series ‘Huésped’?
‘Huésped’ completely transformed my life. It began in a very intuitive, impulsive way and lasted ten years.
My parents abandoned me with my maternal grandmother Clemencia when I was three years old and did not recognise me as their son until I was fifteen. There was a great emptiness in me because I did not have a family album and there were many painful things from my childhood that remained unresolved. I started making self-portraits with my grandmother, simply as an act of affection. When I was fifteen, I moved to live with my parents and siblings. But this was not easy. I felt like an outsider, a guest, huésped. We had never had a close relationship; my parents and my brothers were very violent physically and psychologically.
Yet, making images with my grandmother, I realised that photography has the ability to make affection tangible. So, I tried to employ the same formula with my parents and siblings. I started with a lot of fear. But using the body and the nude was a way to challenge psychological bonds. When we are naked, we are vulnerable, and I think it was a way to create a deeper bond of trust with a large part of my family. My father was the only member of the family that I didn’t photograph for the series, but I included his story by writing about him and looking for clues in archival images.
Years after making these photographs, I realised that my entire family was surrounded by violence. It was then that I understood that this was a collective healing project for us all. I got to know the painful history of each family member, giving them their own voice in the project, to tell their story, to sublimate their own pain.
[Left] © Diego Moreno ‘Wounds’ 2015 from the series ‘Huésped’
[Upper Right] © Diego Moreno ‘The Watchman’ 2015 from the series ‘Huésped’
[Lower Right] © Diego Moreno ‘Scars’ 2015 from the series ‘Huésped’
Can you talk about the issues of machismo, domestic violence, and religion that permeate this work?
I come from a culturally rich, but also very complex and conflictive background in which family and religion are systems of silent violence, the one reinforcing the other. The domestic violence was mostly precipitated by the men in my family and went back through generations. My father was an orphan and had a very violent family, my mother had an abusive, homicidal father. Family histories are cyclical; the roots of violence grew up from my ancestors. My family is extremely Catholic and conservative, and much of the violence stems from the prejudices of religion and its rigidly binary definitions of male and female roles. Women and LGBTIQ+ people suffer most because of the ignorance propagated by religious dogma. I believe the church is a system generating psychological violence as a form of control.
How do you confront and resist such systemic abuse?
I call myself a rebel storyteller because I believe that photographic performance can assert my counter position towards these systems of family and religion. In ‘God, Son, Redeemer of the World. Self-portrait’ [above] I appropriated, with the complicity of my grandmother, a family ritual. I built an altar and sat upon it myself to simulate something sacred. Making this image, I learned that through disobedience I could begin to find my place in the world as a person and reveal the internal conflicts within my environment.
[Left] © Diego Moreno ‘HUÉSPED’ 2020 from the series ‘Huésped’
[Upper Right] © Diego Moreno ‘A Morning’ 2015 from the series ‘Huésped’
[Lower Right] © Diego Moreno ‘Aldo, ¿My Brother?’ 2015 from the series ‘Huésped’
The series interweaves a number of different aesthetic approaches. Can you talk about this way of building your story?
Photography is a narrative medium, and for me the body is a fundamental tool to understand both violence and affection… in my work and my life. Photo-performance has the ability to make visible things hidden in our unconscious, to understand the complexity of the human condition and to help us heal.
The series for which you are best known internationally is ‘In My Mind There is Never Silence’. First, can you talk about the strange figures that appear in these pictures?
These figures announce the feast of the Virgin of Mercy, which is a five-hundred-year-old Catholic festival in my hometown of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Mexican Chiapas held every 22 September. Known as Los Panzudos, they represent sins, the more sins a person has to atone for, the bigger and uglier their costume will be so that they may be purified. From childhood, this tradition captivated me because it represents the body as sin, and the monster as disobedience itself. Then, everything bad is purified by dancing.
Why did you use the character of the Panzudo in this series?
My great aunt suffered from scleroderma, a disease that causes the skin to become hard and tight, scars form on the internal organs, and there is a retention of body fluids. The family believed that she was retribution for some terrible sin and treated her violently. She was hidden from visitors and never appeared in the family album. When the sister who took care of her went on a trip, my great aunt was locked in chains for days on end.
As a child, I was very fond of her. I didn’t mind that she looked monstrous or smelled bad because of her incontinence. I loved to spend a lot of time with her, she was very affectionate with me, and she was always dressed in big dresses with flowery patterns and aprons where she kept candies that she gave me secretly. In time she came to live with my grandmother and me and, a year later, she died by my side.
I wanted to rebuild her image, to have her close to me again. I remembered the festival of the Virgin of Mercy and the Panzudos Mercedarios. They reminded me of my aunt who was told she was a ‘sin’ but who showed me such kindness. Like her, I felt myself to be an outcast. And then, like an arcing spark in my head, I realised that here was a way to tell a story. I began building these characters – trying to reconstruct her – looking for a way to create everyday scenes that became photographs full of symbolism and a deep psychological complexity.
How did you go about staging these scenes?
I constructed all the costumes using many metres of fabric, Halloween masks, and a large inner tube to give the giant appearance. This project was shot in other people’s homes – a great personal adventure for me as I am very introverted. There was a lot of planning, and I became obsessed with the colour palette of the spaces and how each character was to be dressed. I really enjoyed this process. I was able to interact with the people I was photographing, there was always an interesting conversation, very open and emotional. It was enriching.
What is it in your mind that denies you silence?
Silence is a form of condemnation for those of us who are different, but we cannot live our lives as ghosts. When we decide to raise our voices, silence turns into fury, into relief to know that our own stories deserve to be told. And, with the help of imagination, I had the ability to face violence and rejection and tell my own story.
We all know what ghosts and monsters are. It has been poignantly satisfying, as my work becomes seen internationally, to hear from people in Africa, Asia, or Europe who write to let me know how these images resonate with their own experiences. As one person wrote to me: “I never expected your monsters would remind me of all the pain I’ve stored up in my life.”
Despite the patriarchal system, the women in the family seem central to your life and work.
I have been surrounded by women with a profound power of resilience. Although they have often been victims, they have been able to guide many of us with love and strength so as not to repeat the cycles of violence that have infected the men in my family. Women are the backbone of my creative processes and my own life, thanks to them I have been able to develop my intuition, my sensitivity, transforming a violent reality and turning it into affection and love.
[Left] © Diego Moreno ‘Other Past Lives’ 2021 from the series ‘The Holy Mountains’
[Right] © Diego Moreno ‘The Guardian’ 2021 from the series ‘The Holy Mountains’
In your most recent series, ‘The Holy Mountains’, you interweave performance and graphically modified found imagery. How did this project begin?
In 2020, I moved to Switzerland to participate in an artist excellence program in Montreux. I was invited to realise a visual art project and I decided to explore the popular mythology of the region through the metaphor of the mountains. I had come from the Chiapas, a place surrounded by mountains sacred to Mayan cosmogony and here in Switzerland I was beside the alps. I wanted to connect these two worlds, to look for the similarities through legends, folklore, and the sacredness of landscape. The title plays ironically with my own search for the sacred, often within the pagan.
[Left] © Diego Moreno ‘Who Takes Care of Us?’ 2021 from the series ‘The Holy Mountains’
[Right] © Diego Moreno ‘El Charro Negro’ [the black horseman] 2021 from the series ‘The Holy Mountains’
What is it about and how was it made?
These images are inspired by the apocalyptic vision of the Catholic Church I served for twelve years as a child. I grew up in a highly religious environment that condemned me because of my sexual orientation. This series could be said to be an extension of an earlier project called ‘Malign Influences’, a graphic intervention on my family photographic archive. Using coloured pencils, graphite, Indian ink, markers, oil, or fluids such as bleach and vinegar, I modified the photographs as a way of creating new realities that arose from my fascination with the anomalous. In the new work, I extended those processes to explore the folklore of the Swiss alps.
There is an intensity to the modified images that suggests strong emotion, perhaps catharsis.
Yes, I think intensity describes this project very well. Each modification is charged with a deeply visceral and, at the same time, transforming emotion.
Much of your work uses the trope of the monster in two contrasting but perhaps complementary ways. The monstrous exterior that contains a benevolent inner being and an apparently benevolent exterior that contains a monster. Can you talk about this fascinating counterpoint of ideas?
The monster and the demon have been fundamental to my process. I want to honour them. They were one of the few things that made my childhood less painful, and they have helped me to rethink the things that surround me from a different perspective.
For me, monsters have come to represent the inhabitants of my own unconscious and a passage to another realm. They are not real people, I know, but somehow they provide a framework for understanding the human condition. Perhaps, through them, I can reveal secret truths that are not visible in everyday life: reflect on all marginalised misunderstood beings. For me monsters are endearing, and I identify with them deeply. They do not pretend to be anything other than what they are. Human beings are false, too bound up in what is socially accepted, too eager to declare what is ‘evil’ and repudiate what is ‘other’. I want to create new possibilities of the monstrous, to see their potential for beauty. Our world would surely be a little more magical if these beings lived among us.
What have you learned in the process of making your art?
Photography can transform your whole reality. It has helped me realise that one of my purposes in life is to vindicate the different and the ‘other’, to reflect on the human condition in a deeper way, and to be more empathic with those around me. And, through it, I have learned to be more sensitive and to understand that there is no simple binary of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, because violence is born of something much more complex.
Diego Moreno was born in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, in 1992. He began his formal photography studies at the Gimnasio de Arte y Cultura Chiapas in 2012 and graduated in contemporary photography at the Centro de la Imagen y Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, Oaxaca, in 2015. He specialized in visual arts in Switzerland in 2021. His images have featured in more than twenty solo exhibitions and over seventy group exhibitions and festivals in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Spain, United States, Ethiopia, France, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Netherlands, Peru, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and Uruguay. His photographs are included in several public and private collections including the Getty Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (New York), AirMontreux (Switzerland), FOAM Fotografie Museum (Amsterdam), the Fundación Televisa (Mexico DF), the Universidad Iberoamericana (Puebla), and the Centro Cultural Estación Mapocho (Santiago de Chile).
In 2016, The British Journal of Photography named Diego Moreno as one of the world’s most influential young photographers and, in 2022, Foam magazine named him one of its top twenty talents worldwide. He has won several awards, including the Tenth Puebla de los Angeles Biennial (Mexico 2015), the LensCulture Emerging Talent Award (Netherlands 2018), the Cheerz Photo Festival Award, Paris (France 2019), the Ibero-American Photography Award in Poylatam (Ecuador 2019), the FINI International Image Award (Mexico 2019), The British Journal of Photography’s OpenWalls Arles – single image award (France 2020), the LensCulture Art Photography Awards, Juror’s Pick (Netherlands 2021) and the iPhone Photography Awards 2021 in New York. In 2020, he was selected to represent Latin America at the 6th Addis Foto Fest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His work is published in two monographs: ‘HUESPED’ [Hydra, 2018] and ‘In my mind there is never silence’ [Hydra 2021]. In 2021, he received the Air-Montreux Residency for Artistic Excellence. He currently lives and works between Mexico and Switzerland.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.