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  • Writer's pictureLa Pera Projects

These Poetic Portraits Explore Gender Identity in a Community in Mexico

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

When Nelson Morales began to photograph members of Oaxaca's muxe community, he discovered his own identity as one of them.

Besos, 2010

Article by Jake Naughton for the New York Times

Photographs by Nelson Morales

May 9, 2018

Nelson Morales took a photography workshop that changed nearly everything. He had been working since 2012 on a project about the muxes, a group of people in Mexico who are born male but adopt norms and customs associated with women (and who sometimes are considered a third gender). The muxe community is concentrated in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico, and is a favorite subject for foreign artists and journalists. “Many artists come to Juchitán,” a town on the isthmus, Mr. Morales said. “But they always do the same reports, the same point of view from outside.” Though Mr. Morales was born in the Tehuantepec region, he admits that his original pictures looked much like everyone else’s — pretty, but uninteresting. But in 2015, Mr. Morales took a workshop with Antoine d’Agata, a Magnum photographer, that pushed him to get to the heart of himself and his practice.

Make up, 2015

The Big Lady, 2016

Bethsua y el migrante, 2016

“I didn’t have any models and I had to make self-portraits,” he recalled. “And then the next day, I went out with some muxes and in that moment, something happened because I became part of that scene.” Though muxes historically have commanded respect in some parts of Zapotec culture, Mr. Morales said he had grown up rejecting the muxe community and any possibility that he might be part of it.

Still, he found himself drawn to document them. In 2010, he was asked to photograph a muxe beauty pageant, and afterward he continued photographing the community out of curiosity. “I wanted to know more about them,” he said. Maybe it was the self-portraits, but something was different the day he went out with the muxes. “I entered with a camera and there something changed,” he said. “Something exploded, something happened, and from that moment, I have not stopped making self-portraits, nor being a part of the scene.”

In that instant, Mr. Morales found his own identity as a muxe, and his voice as a photographer.

Autoretrato con Resplandor, 2015

Mi vida en rojo, 2015

Queen on board, 2015

Though the resulting photographs are far from documentary, they seem to reflect a truth that is more elusive than a simple declaration of fact, in the same way poetry can teach us something the news cannot. His work captures the surrealism, grace, eroticism and mystery that defines his lived experience as a muxe and that of everyone else he knew, but which has been left out of the images made by photographers from outside the community. “You know, the reality of life is subjective,” he said. “Sometimes those levels of reality are augmented a little bit by this world of fantasy. I have lived in the muxe culture, in those nights of parties and going out, of fantasy, of sex, of freedom of the muxes — I’ve been there. And it makes me interpret it in this way.” His subjects are friends, people he meets at parties, or others who find out about the project and ask to participate. He estimates he is in about a third of the pictures in the series, and making them is often a collaborative process.

Macarena, 2010

Pensive, 2017

Connection, 2017

In one such photo, two bodies, both anonymous, seem to merge amid fields of blue and red. Mr. Morales directed the picture and put himself in the frame. “In that moment, I said, ‘O.K., we’re going to do things that aren’t common — we’re going to mix our bodies, we’re going do strange things, as if our bodies were only one body.’” Then his boyfriend clicked the shutter. “I had found a special place in that muxe space, in that complete world of fantasy, eroticism, contradictions — of many things I didn’t know and which I have discovered and continue discovering and searching for,” he said. And so it’s important to Mr. Morales that the pictures, shrouded in mystery and punctuated by vibrant splashes of color, remain somewhat opaque to the viewer, at least at first. He wants his viewers to do a little work, for the images to make them a little uncomfortable, and he excludes straightforward narratives by design. “I like that the viewer wonders or maybe becomes a little uncomfortable,” he said. He knows it may not be for everyone, but that’s O.K., too. “I have to defend that idea, to show them in this way. I have to trust what I believe.”

Prueba de vestuario, 2015

Together, 2017

Mermaid, 2015

Article by Jake Naughton for the New York Times

Photographs by Nelson Morales

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