The photos are beautiful, but the ideas behind them not so much.
A stereotype may be negative or positive, but even positive stereotypes present two problems: They are clichés, and they present a human being as far more simple and uniform than any human being actually is.
The above quote couldn’t be more accurate. The world is filled with stereotypes, and even if we don't realize it we are driven by them in our everyday lives. I used to believe I was a pretty open person who wouldn’t let herself be pushed by stereotypes until I went to study abroad in a program filled with students from all over the world. Being in contact with other cultural and social realities was extremely enriching for me, but at the same time, it made me realize that even with all our openness when it comes to diversity, we’re still driven by outdated stereotypes, myself included. I mention all this not only because this realization shocked me , but also because since then it's become an issue I’ve been dealing with on a daily basis, and I’ve become more aware of it.
What’s interesting about Kress’ quote, and the reason I decided to include it, is that it talks about positive stereotypes, much less common but sometimes just as harmful as the negative ones. The thing is that we love to categorize everything in order to organize our understanding of reality better. Deep down, most cultures and countries aren't as different as you'd think, and in most cases, cultural stereotypes are nothing but really old perceptions ingrained in our collective memory. That's precisely what I want to explore in this article today, and how in today's world, digital visual representations keep falling into this category.
The other day, one of my photographer friends shared on social media that one of his photos had been published in an Instagram account called Everyday Mexico and after scrolling down for a while, I thought this was a really nice project that depicted a very beautiful side of Mexican culture through the lenses of photographers “living and working in Mexico,” as the bio claims. I left my phone aside and moved on with my life, but something about that account seemed a little off to me. The thing is that, although these are truly beautiful photographs that do reflect a true and honest reality of Mexico, it’s also true that this is only one part of a complex and extremely diverse reality. So, is this a negative thing?
When I was at my study abroad program, I encountered so many people who would just say clichés and often say fake facts about Mexico, and I can’t stress how many times I had to contain myself as I tried to answer nicely that those things they had just said were a bunch of BS. Ironically, as I corrected them, I was probably making the same assumptions about their own countries without realizing it. At the same time, whenever someone said anything positive about Mexico, I couldn’t help but feel an extreme sense of pride and nostalgia for my country, even though half of the time these things weren't very accurate anyway.
The photographs on this account show Mexico's people and landscapes, but also all the colors, attitudes, and cultural diversity in general. These images are capable of moving anyone, and show the world the beauty of our people and culture while also displaying the talent of the many photographers profiled in here, but after some analysis, I realized that what didn't feel right for me was that I didn't feel represented by all that beauty. It’s not that I desperately want to be represented as part of the core of Mexican culture; what bothers me is the reasoning and intentions behind these images.
I don’t want to sound presumptuous because that’s not the purpose of the comment, but as I said before, Mexico is incredibly rich in traditions, stories, and customs, and what most of this account focused on was showing the reality of those who live in poorer conditions. I’m not rich (not even close, actually), but the message you can get from this website is that the only valuable and visually rich part of Mexico is that of the less fortunate.
This particular account is not the problem, really. This issue can be traced back in history for centuries and is the root for the classist attitudes that exist in this country to this day. Mexico is a great nation with many flaws and contradictions, and the matter of class representation is one of the biggest ones. For the longest time, the idea of "Mexicanity" and nationalism has been built upon a blatant contradiction in which privileged people oppress the lower classes, but at the same time hold them up as the epitome of our cultural values. I'm not saying that the working class doesn't hold these values; what I'm saying is that they are not the only ones who do, and when we limit the representation of this class as "the cultural foundation" of the country, we are idealizing them, not showing them as real people.
Going back to what I mentioned before, intellectuals, artists, and even politicians have exploited that image of Mexico as the land of impressive richness found in its people, but at the same time, they have made of that image a perpetuation of a stereotype that celebrates these particular sectors of the population, while turning their backs to their needs and the miserable conditions they live in. This happens in other countries too, of course, and it's a global hypocritical phenomenon of showing people how sorry we feel about poor people without really helping them or doing something to change their situation.
What happens with this Instagram account, and many others in different countries, is that they end up perpetuating the stereotype of the "poor but happy and culturally rich" Mexican living in their own colorful reality, or even the more modern and contemporary attitude of the socially aware and concerned wanting to depict the awful reality of their country through artistic pictures, but end up in just that a portrait of something. It would seem that the account centers on both without really having a strong and engaging voice that we haven't seen so far. It’s not that each individual picture conveys that message; they’re only part of a series made by each photographer, but the fact that the account chooses and makes a curatorship of this particular reality of Mexico, ends up, as Kress says, presenting us in a very simplistic light.
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Images taken from @everydaymexico
Cover photo by @ivan_mc1978