Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
My name is Citlali Fabián. I’m the daughter of a Zapotec migrant couple from the North Sierra region in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’m a visual maker who mostly produces photography. I grew up in my father’s photo store, surrounded by vernacular images. When I was a child, he introduced me to the darkroom, and I guess I was captivated by the magic happening there. I remember helping develop photos, and I saw the relevance of photography in everyday life.
As soon as I had the chance, at around 15, I checked out different local art centres. The one that made a mark, the one I wanted to follow, was The Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo in the city of Oaxaca. There, I saw piles of photography books and took a lot of classes. I knew I wanted to be a photographer. My work explores my community’s identity.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
I don’t remember my first camera, but scanning my memories, I think my first portraits were of my childhood pet—a little parrot called Cachito. I was around 9 years old, and I think I used an automatic plastic camera. I used Agfa film for sure: it was ridiculously cheap at the time and my father started his photo business selling it.
I don’t think Cachito was conscious of how small he was, or that he was a parrot. He acted like a dog. Every day he greeted us after school and then stayed perched on my shoulder for the rest of the afternoon. The sad part of this story is that I had to use my photos of Cachito to make a ‘wanted’ poster when he disappeared. I want to believe that Cachito joined a flock to fly with.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer —when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
I started to identify as a photographer after finishing college, but over the years, that label didn’t feel quite right to me. I take photographs, but I like to create images in general. When I started to take photo classes, I was also taking painting and ceramics. In the past few years, I’ve been going back and using pencils, brushes, needles, threads, and clay to create images, and these images are always photography-based in some way. This is more experimental visual work.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
I’m working on a personal project called Ben’n Yalhahj / I’m from Yalalag. It’s a universe of images collected over the last eight years, most with a documentary approach and others hand-manipulated. All of them explore our identity as Zapotec—an indigenous people—from Yalalag. I look at the Yalaltec diaspora in Mexico, and hopefully soon I’ll go to LA to see the Zapotec people living there. I’m looking at and for the essence of our identity, what connects us despite living in different latitudes. Most importantly, I want to develop a Zapotec imaginary from those experiences, to show us what I think is our vision of ourselves.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
A few weeks ago, I went to see a retrospective exhibition of Graciela Iturbide in Mexico City. Among some of her masterpieces, there were less widely-known works. Her work is poetic, her eye is keen. She observes and connects with people and environments. She waits for the precise moment to press the button. I was particularly captivated by the portrait above. On the surface, it’s a woman holding the moon, looking directly at the camera and offering a sort of Mona Lisa smile. But then you notice a child hiding behind the moon and peeking out—one eye watching the watcher. There is a shadow on the backdrop—maybe Iturbide’s shadow. I love the way she portraits, she creates dialogues. I love the composition here, the play of gazes, the interaction that is created here. Importantly, the “photographic act” moves me.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
You can say a lot with one image. Art in general is supposed to communicate no matter the differences in our verbal languages. Or at least I think so. To me, to take a photo or to a create an image implies you are watching and maybe feeling something that you want not only to preserve but to transmit—the vibe, the aura, the moment, the something that calls your attention. The relationship is not about capturing but being captured, keeping your eyes open. I think you make a mistake when you feel you need to hunt, because then you make others vulnerable. I let people know I’m taking photos—I don’t try to sneak them. I want people to be actively involved in making the image, as they are sharing a part of themselves with me and I want to respect that, to respect them.
Boundaries. Tell us about them. How are they established, maintained?
It’s really hard to establish boundaries, especially when you are working through really sensitive or really personal issues. Having a camera in hand is always a kind of barrier, a kind of double-edged sword. I’ve mostly been working with people close to me, so boundaries are fuzzy. The people I’m photographing knew me as a friend or relative before they knew me as a photographer. But when I meet a subject for the first time, I always ask their permission to take a photo. I think boundaries become especially difficult when you’ve been working in the same place or community for a long time. I don’t want to make anyone feel as though I’m abusing trust or confidence. I try to give them as much information as possible about my projects, and to give them copies of the photographs I take.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
Travelling alone in a country such as mine is one of the hardest things. I am vulnerable because of all the violence perpetrated on my gender and I’m scared about the constant terrible news. Fortunately, I’ve been encouraged in my work by my mother, which I appreciate the most; she taught me, even when she didn’t know she was teaching me, about sorority. She never discouraged me from this hard path. She is an active part of my work, always propelling me forward. You might say that she’s my motor. Her confidence in me allowed me to trust myself. She passes onto me all the things her father—my grandfather—said to her. He wanted his daughters to spread their wings like eagles rather than to stay at home like chickens. I don’t have anything against chickens, but my mother taught me to soar.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
I love to dance. I dance to the traditional music from my hometown, from the jarabes to swing, from salsa to cumbia. I enjoy putting my body in motion. I enjoy feeling a connection to another human being without words.
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
Many people say that they have the best parents in the world. And I believe them. In my case, I’ve learned the most from my parents. They taught me to believe in myself, to work hard for what I want, to be humble, and to accept that I have much to learn. They taught me not to make anyone else feel less than. They learned some things in the worst way: they were forced to stop speaking their native language, Zapotec. They were taught that being indigenous is wrong, and they didn’t teach Zapotec to their kids. I feel like we lost part of our identities because of that. They are trying their best to make amends for what they see as past mistakes. Similarly, they’ve taught me to learn from my own mistakes.