I read about glamorous photo shoots for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle, and so forth with amazement. There’s the photographer, of course. The hair person. The makeup person. The person to schlep gear. The person to hold lights just so, one to aim a fan at the model’s hair so it blows fetchingly in the wind. The caterer, for heaven’s sake. And behind behind the scenes, the person who schedules everything, who gets permission to block off streets or invade private property. On and on.
That’s not how Eric Mindling works. I traveled with him for about a week of the two years he spent shooting photos for Oaxaca Stories in Cloth: A Book about People, Belonging, Identity, and Adornment. There was his small, rather elderly car; his excellent sidekick Marina Guzmán; a camera, a couple of lights, a diffuser. That was it. The weather was unexpectedly rainy, the roads seriously muddy, the mountains predictably steep. We hit thirteen villages, most not on any map I own, in the highlands northeast of Oaxaca City, in eight days.
These were not scheduled stops. We would cruise through a village, looking for traje (traditional dress). Eric would stop and chat with random people in some sort of Spanish/pidgin Zapotec. He would go to the mayor’s office to ask permission to be in the community. I remember sitting in one mayor’s office with the entire cabildo in session, eight men who took their responsibilities very seriously. They had to decide if his project was a good one, if he were an honest person, if he would be respectful. Yes. We could visit with the woman or women in that village who still dressed traditionally, and here was a person who could guide us to them and translate for us. It seemed a miracle that every time Eric asked, permission and help were granted.
More Than Meets The Eye
Once we arrived at the home of one of the women (and men in some cases), the real sales job started. Imagine having some large pale foreigner show up on your doorstep with a big camera. Wouldn’t you want to call the cops? The people we visited, though, were so gracious, so appreciative that Eric was bringing attention to their heritage, that very few turned him down. More often, they responded like Margarita Francisca Estrada in San Cristóbal Lachirioag, who taught us the Zapotec word for “yes” (“a-way,” said just so) and fed us fresh-roasted pumpkin seeds.
The photography itself went quickly. Eric would scope out a favorable location, Marina would help with lights and other gear, he would goof around to help his subject relax (it’s not too hard to pantomime a joke about your own bald head looking like a gourd), and before you know it, the film was in the can (so to speak).
Describing this process doesn’t really give a hint of the drama and sensitivity of the portraits. You’ll just have to look at them. These are faces, and stories behind the faces, that you’ll want to return to again and again. So much more than meets the eye.