In the summer of 2017 I photographed two young women from the state of Chiapas selling hand-made blouses in the streets of Merida, Yucatan. Even from the distance I was struck by something pristine, pure and uncorrupted about them. That is when I decided to start a long-term project about the indigenous people of Chiapas. This became the first part of the “Mexicanidad” series, an exploration of what it means to be Mexican and an attempt to document the great variety of social groups in and outside Mexico.
The following year I discovered, through Na Bolom Switzerland, the beautiful photographs of Getrude Duby Blom (1901-1993). Trudi, as she is known, was a Swiss explorer, activist and ethnographer. She was a pioneer in documenting many places and ethnic groups in the Lacandon Jungle on the Southern border with Guatemala and fought wholeheartedly to protect it. Her strong fascination with the people of Chiapas can not only be discovered in her biography, but also in the over fifty thousand photos that she took in Mexico between 1943 and 1993. Faced with her photographs I realised that Nahá, a community that was very close to her heart, was a good place to start the project.
Nahá is a remote community surrounded by beautiful lagoons. Since 1998 it has belonged to the UNESCO Nahá–Metzabok Biosphere Reserve and a permit is needed to enter the village. Since 2004, it has also been a RAMSER protected site. The reason for the designations is that some 40,000 species of fauna and flora exist in these habitats, and the area is considered the most important site for biodiversity in North America. The Nahá-Metzabok region represents only 0.4% of Mexico’s surface but it contains 48% of the birds species, 33% of the bats, 11% of the reptiles and 25% of the mammals of the country.
Nahá has a population of about 270, which consist of around 60 families. They belong to the Mayan indigenous group and speak the Lacandon language. They are believed to have inhabited the region since ancestral times and for many years they lived in isolation because the jungle made communication with the outside world very difficult. This allowed them to preserve their way of life longer than less remote communities. Many anthropologists believe that they were one of the pures indigenous groups of Mexico until the second half of the 20th century, when roads and telecommunications changed that.
These portraits show the extent to which even the most remote communities in Mexico today carry the traces of globalisation: T-shirts with English slogans, mobile phones, tennis shoes, electric cables and Coca Cola. They portray children, teenagers and adults wearing traditional white tunics (Nok) or modern clothes side by side. How remote, isolated communities adapt to the benefits and challenges of modern times, and how they can keep their traditions and customs in the face of globalisation is a question Trudi asked herself in the 1950s already, and which many people continue asking today.
These are the first portraits of what -in spite of the interruption caused by the pandemic- I hope will be a project over the course of many years. The portraits do not attempt to document the complex Lacandon community, but instead seek to underline what strikes the first-time visitor and ask the question of what it means to be Mexican.