Moving portraits from Mexico

“She will let you film her but only if you buy her an ice cream,” my local interpreter said as the toothless octogenarian herb vendor grinned at me and the team. This was refreshing, I had spent most of the morning trying to convince the sellers at the Zaachila market in the State of Oaxaca to capture their portraits with mixed results. A good few were convinced that my work would steal their souls and so they politely declined. The toothless abuela it turned out was wonderfully mercantile about her soul. A few moments later, equipped with a dulche de leche helado, she was showing off her remaining incisors and eyeing me with an even mix of suspicion and amusement. 

Amusement possibly because I was the only person not there to buy my weekly supply of vegetables. Rather than with jute bags, I was armed with a camera and a small team and I was in Zaachila to experiment with an idea I’ve had playing on my mind for a while. I started my photographic adventure with street portraits and earlier this year decided to step it up a notch and see if the approach I use for still photographs would also work with moving portraits. When an opportunity to visit Mexico, one of my favourite places in the world, came up, I immediately hatched a plan to shoot a series of moving portraits at the local markets. A couple of years ago, on a whistle-stop tour for UnitedHealth Global I was totally mesmerised by the buzz and the madness of Mexican markets. They are a blur of vibrant colour, a fiesta of smells and flavours and a cacophony of sounds. From healers advertising the miraculous powers of moringa juice, to mariachi bands selling one song at a time, I knew that I would be back to create a series of portraits that would highlight the people behind this dizzying experience. 

To give my filming experiment the technical support it called for I contacted Canon who kindly lent me the perfect camera for the job – a 5D IV: brilliantly easy to use it shoots stills beautifully and at the flick of a switch can also capture stunning movies too. The next challenge was finding a local fixer and interpreter. After a few hours on the the global photo grape vine I found Eugenio, an experienced guide who was ready to meet us in the early hours of the morning to take us to the lesser known markets in the small communities of Oaxaca state. Will the markets be as good as I hoped? Will the locals want to take part? Will my idea work?

I suspected my usual approach to street portraiture would work with moving images just as well as it does with stills, so was eager to put it to the test. I might not be after the sitters’ souls, but I am always looking for a short, intense interaction with strangers when shooting street portraits. And if an image can tell you more than a thousand words, a moving image can tell you tomes. The idea was to extract the heroes of the market from their busy surroundings. How many times do you stop at a market to consider the people around you? The explosion of colours, the exotic fruit, the dangerous looking kitchen implements, the fire pits – all of this distracts from the protagonists of the show. I wanted to highlight them and not their surroundings – calm, composed, going quietly about their business as the market collectively rushes around. I was after a few seconds of their attention, so that anyone watching the moving portraits would feel like they are joining the Oaxaqueños for a moment to feel the morning heat, smell the charcoal from the tortilla ovens and enjoy the taste of chewed tobacco just like the spring onion seller was when I photographed her.

The backdrop you see in a number of the portraits was one that immediately caught my attention. The tiny Mixteca woman selling it was at first reluctant to take part, but seeing how delighted her daughter was when we approached, she agreed. She posed with her own handiwork as the background and I liked its pattern and colour so much that I bought the rug to use it as an impromptu studio in the arches of the local council building.

Before you ask, I can tell you that I don’t speak Spanish. But I find that it only matters up until a point. The initial ask is easy: the smiles, the handshakes – all are universal. The next stage is the tricky one and I relied on Eugenio’s mastery of the local language and customs – he did most of the bartering, swapping a few minutes of the vendors’ time for a few photographs, reassuring the sitters that no soul will be harmed. Of course sometimes I needed to buy a handful of produce in return for the portrait. Then it was all in my hands – a fragile agreement based on trust allowing me to enter the sitters’ world for a few seconds. The language of photography is universal. The sitters pose, I help them out. Watch me, look here, look there, turn after “tres”. Their whole attention is mine for that brief moment, and my attention is theirs, undivided. The camera connects us. And then, a few weeks later anyone who happens upon my moving portraits is able to join the vendors in Oaxaca for an ice cream.

This is certainly not my last foray creating moving portraits. I had tons of fun creating them and already look forward to making more when the opportunity comes. I only wish there was a way of allowing you to smell the fresh mango as you watch the Oaxaqueños.

See the full gallery of moving portraits here: LINK

See the full gallery of moving portraits here: LINK

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