Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review of Paul Owen's Todos Somos Ellas

This post has been updated July 21, 2013 at 10:53 CDT
-by Alma Maria Rinasz

Todos Somos Ellas currently showing at the Palacio Clavijero in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico are photographer Paul Owen’s attempt to “bring particular attention to the violence against women taking place in Mexico to help bring about the eradication of feminicide throughout the world.” With a concise and illuminating introduction by Isabel Gil Everaert, this interactive project forces the onlooker to reflect and ask questions. The sixty large scale photographs, with female images at the center of the frame portray fear, sadness, supplication, anger, self-defensive indignation and powerlessness. One photograph shows a clenched fisted woman, shifting her weight onto one leg, as if she were going to step towards the onlooker. Her body language says “I will protect myself and I will fight back.” 

photograph by Paul Owen 
In another photograph, we see a viejita,  madrone colored hands cover her face while a light blue shall, drapes over her head like so many women when they enter el templo (church) to pray . The sepia toned backdrop contrasts the blue of her shall, the same sky blue associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. In another photograph, the Virgin makes an appearance, her face is not covered, but the woman’s next her is. Mexican women beg the Virgin for help, in real life and on television.  La Virgincita is there when no one else is, silent and present. In the photograph of the viejtia, there is no observable facial characteristic. Is this a woman or a faceless ser, a being from another realm, wandering the streets, penitent and supplicant, like La Llorona? Is she asking for forgiveness or is she asking for help? Or is she the Virgin’s intercessor, sent to be seen so we react, so we do something about all this violence against women?  

As a nod to Michoacan's largest ethnic minority, the purepechas, some of the women photographed are using the traditional güare's rebozo or shall. And then there are the younger female subjects, teenagers and girls, their faces covered, some in motion, as if they are just about to walk away, others stand, reminders that Mexico does not just have a serious problem with feminicide, but also with human trafficking of women and children.

The Michoacan state government supported Owen’s show, a show that denounces feminicide yet the state government does little to protect women’s rights. Abortion is penalized in Michoacan. Women are also systemically denied the right to choose how to birth. In the photographs where women are holding their abdomens, I wonder if any of those women have experienced abuse in government run hospitals and clinics in Michoacan.  Access to health and reproductive care are limited and de-humanizing treatment by hospital officials and staff is the norm. The Women’s Hospital in Morelia is notorious for denying birthing mothers the right to have a family member or coach accompany them during labor. Women are lined up in the waiting room and once admitted, left to sit alone while the staff discusses their most recent personal anecdotes. 

Perhaps if Paul Owen were to focus his lens on how women are treated in these government run hospitals, women’s reproductive rights in Michoacan (or lack thereof) would be taken seriously by the government. If he were to visit the Women’s Hospital he would see how women are not only the victims of violence perpetuated by their husbands, boyfriends, lovers, family members and organized crime but also of their own government. And almost as a foreshadowing of this thought, one of the photographed women, a nurse, her white uniform and nurse’s cap a testimony to institutionalized identity, holds her abdomen, maybe this is a message to those of us who know the reality of women’s lives in Michoacan. “I am a part of the problem” she seems to say “and I am ashamed by this knowledge.”  

Mexico is portrayed in the media as rife with violence and in Paul Owen’s own country there is a notorious war on women. Historically, US-Mexico relations have had racist over and undertones. It is projected that in 30 years, a quarter of the US population will be ethnically Latino. Within this context, Owen’s photographs could be seen as in fact facilitating international relations between the two countries. He has shown the many faceless women in Mexico, of diverse social levels and ethinic orgins, who all are and can be victims of violence and silent complacency.  Todos somos ellas, meaning we are all them, shows us that what happens to women, happens to all of us. Violence, feminicide, human rights; these are cross-cultural issues. The photographs are an invitation to dialogue about feminicide on a worldwide scale, but also an outright demostration of how Mexican society and government knows that this is happening but is doing very little to change it. 

Todos somos ellas will be showing at Palacio Clavijero from July 19th to August 31st, 2013 in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. For more information about the project, please visit