Politics & Culture

Phyllis Galembo Explores Mexican Culture Through Photography

We interviewed the photographer, who has a made a name for herself with images that depict the ritualistic costumes of indigenous cultures from Africa to the Caribbean.
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Phyllis Galembo likes to highlight the cultures that not many others before her have showcased. Her career has comprised documentation of indigenous communities from the Caribbean to Africa, and for her latest body of work, the photographer traveled to Mexico, capturing images featuring subjects, most wearing masks. Mexico Mask Rituals amounts to a rich survey of a nation’s cultural and religious practices, highlighting performative ceremonial rites that have adapted to the present while celebrating the past. Galembo spoke with L'Officiel USA about rituals, traveling, and finding the best place to shoot. 

What about Mexico drew you to document its culture, and in particular, the costumes associated with its indigenous rituals?

I spent a long time in Mexico in the early ’80s with a friend of mine—it’s always been a place that I have been interested in. And with my previous bodies of work, in the Caribbean and Africa, people were telling me I should go to Mexico and do the same thing. I started doing research—I really like to find things. I don’t really like to go to places where a lot of people have gone, especially if it’s something heavily documented. I try to look for things with an inkling that something might be there. I also look to cultural calendars to see if festivals are occurring, as it’s during those periods that I often capture images.
 

Do you consider yourself as an ethnographer or an anthropologist? How do you view your role in making these images?
I hate to give myself those titles because I’m not trained in anthropology, but I’m really interested in information. When I started in photography, I was much more of a crazy, funkier person who was just interested in putting together costumes and making cardboard sets. I became more interested in documenting rituals when I first went to Nigeria in 1985 and subsequently began traveling around West Africa. Out of those travels, I published Divine Inspiration: From Benin to Bahia in 1993 and became more serious about the material I was working with. Ultimately, I’m interested in leaving behind, through my images, something that documents these moments, that provides a visual history of sorts.

 

Your photographs, in some ways, call to mind Irving Penn’s images of indigenous peoples. However, where Penn brought them into his studio, you capture your subjects in their native environments. Your images are more connected to the locales in which your subjects live.

Yes. And this is especially true with Mexico Mask Rituals. I felt like I was able to delve deeper into the color and texture of the backgrounds against which I photographed. I never bring backdrops with me. I always have to figure out where’s a good space to shoot. I have to work in a somewhat shaded area. Sometimes, I’ll have to rent a room in somebody’s house or I use a garage—whatever I can find to set up and stay in one spot for as long as I can.

 

How do you find your subjects and connect with them? I know you often look to visit, as in the case of Mexico Mask Rituals, during periods of religious festivals or other forms of public celebration.
That’s usually the case when I go to Mexico, but it’s different when I work in places like Africa because I can’t always time it so that there is a festival. In Mexico, I’m fortunate enough that I can build my time around when something is happening. In terms of connecting with subjects to photograph, with the aid of my assistants who help with translating, we try and find out who is in charge to get the lay of the land. Then, we normally just hang out and go to various festivities. We’ll ask people if they’re interested in posing. People are very willing to participate. They’re very open and they’re very proud of who they are when I’m photographing. It’s much more open and more easily accepted.

 

You often photograph and encounter highly spiritual and ritualistic occasions, especially in your earlier books like Vodou, in which you document the rituals and practices associated with Haitian Vodou. How do you navigate that?
In my earlier work, especially, shooting within Vodou temples and ritual sites, I had to get permission to gain entrance, and I had to go through lots of rituals. The same is true when working in different places in Africa, especially in Nigeria, because none of this is to be taken lightly. In Mexico, it was different. The communities I encountered were more open to being photographed.


In this book, but also in your earlier ones, the role of masks, of masked figures, seems to be of importance. What about masks appeals to you?
I don’t know if it’s so much the mask. It’s funny—you just sort of ending up doing what you do. In college, I remember making a Tom and Jerry mask. I collected Halloween costumes. I’m not a very fashionable person myself. But in terms of photography and what I’m interested in, photography has always been a bit of an adventure for me, and I feel very fortunate to have this career based on these interests of mine and where it led me. I didn’t plan it. Who could plan it? It’d be nice to plan, but I couldn’t plan it.


While you’re in the midst of these celebrations, do you ever put the camera down and partake in the festivities, the rituals?
We’re actually not photographing for that long. There’s time before, time after. You pack it up and then you enjoy the craziness of the festival. Once I’ve gotten a good selection of what I want to do, we just hang out. We get to hang out before sometimes. Sometimes, we have to wait for hours until maybe the costumed person appears.

See more images from Mexico Mask Rituals below.

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