BristoLatino’s Helen Brown talks festivals, life experience and spirituality in photography with Juan De La Cruz, award-winning Mexican photographer.
Juan De la Cruz is a photographer living in Veracruz, Mexico, who gained recognition as one of the six winners of the Latin American Fotografía award. His submission was part of a project called ‘The Labyrinth’, which explored his personal life experiences and the cultural, social and political nuances of his native Mexico. His journey to becoming a photographer was shaped in 2004 when he attended his first photography workshop in Oaxaca with the Italian photographer Ernesto Bazan during the Day of the Dead celebrations. This experience ignited his interest in finding his inner feelings and understanding the mysteries and contradictions of Mexico through his images.
Juan’s photography is colourful and mysterious, capturing the energy of festivities such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe and indigenous Totonaca rituals, through a spiritual and introspective lens. His photographs often capture an interesting perspective, such as a reveller beyond the chaos of the celebration, or a subject unwaveringly facing the camera. His journey of self discovery is inextricably linked to his understanding of Mexico, as he explains: “Mexico is a big universe that refuses to cease. I know that maybe I will need several lives to fully fathom it, but really I am not in a hurry, I will try to understand my human condition in this life.”
H: What life experiences inspired ‘The Labyrinth’?
J: Different life experiences have contributed to my project including a deep sense of feeling lost, my fears and the constant feeling of uncertainty.
H: Was your project title ‘The Labyrinth’ a reference to Octavio Paz’s ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’? Did reading how Mexican authors such as Paz describe Mexican identity help you with this introspective project?
J: In some ways it has, but the feeling that I am living inside a labyrinth is deeper in me and I have thought this for many years even before reading Octavio Paz. As I mentioned before, that feeling of uncertainly and sometimes a feeling of not having a clear path in this life brings me a feeling of loss and loneliness. In 2007, I found Octavio Paz’s ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude,’ reflections that he wrote in 1955 which are still alive among Mexicans now in 2018. Afterwards I read other Mexican writers such as Carlos Fuentes and, recently, Juan Rulfo. I have also been inspired by the writing of Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago and Leonardo Padura. For me, their books convey a very Latin American perspective, which has helped me in moulding my project. Maybe we Mexicans were all born with a degree of questioning, and a sensation of feeling lost.
H: A lot of your photographs are of festivals such as Mexican Independence Day or carnival. What draws you to photograph celebrations?
J: I want to find the Mexican lifestyle and find myself in it. When I go to these kinds of festivals, I arrive with my own personal point of view, always questioning each moment, but if I want the magic of these celebrations to reveal itself to me, I need to be part of them, open my mind without question, let myself flow with the energy of the chaos.
I loved exploring these two important rituals because it gave me a sensation of being inside Mexico’s veins.
H: Your photographs also explore rituals such as the Mexican Day of the Dead and the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe. What about these religious celebrations interests you?
J: I loved exploring these two important rituals because it gave me a sensation of being inside Mexico’s veins. For the pilgrimage to La Villa, I walked alongside the pilgrims for seventy-five kilometres in only 2 days. It was not only a physical exercise, it was also a mental one. As I walked towards the Basilica devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe I felt all kinds of emotions: a sense of victory, surrender, hate, happiness. My life is a similar walk: sometimes I have good days and sometimes I have bad ones, but I keep walking. During the Day of Dead celebrations I was inside the cemetery at 5 o’clock in the morning, illuminated only by candles lit in the darkness of night, surrounded by people sitting next to their relatives’ tombs. Suddenly, the first rays of sun appeared behind the mountains and you could see the immense horizon of this country. This magic only lasted a few minutes, but with that energy in the air you could believe that this country, Mexico, is bigger than its problems.
H: You also photographed the Totonaca people and the Danzante Totonaca ritual. What drew you to photograph this ritual?
J: I photograph the things that hit me, I love the dignity of the indigenous people, their ability to fight and to keep their traditions alive; in their faces you can read the story of a great culture and you can learn a great deal from them.
H: What is the story behind the photo of the person in the white dress that won you 6th place for the Latin American photography award?
J: It was taken in Oaxaca, with my dear friend and tutor Ernesto Bazan. We keep returning to Oaxaca during the Day of Dead Celebrations every year. We go to the Sierra, trying to go beyond the stereotypes of this celebration that also takes place in the cities. Many feelings drew me to this specific image: pain, mystery, and destruction. I just waited for the right moment and, all of a sudden, I saw a decaying wall with a lonely faucet and two icons of a man and a woman drawn on the wall. I asked the person if I could take a portrait, they accepted and I took two shots.
H: Are you working on any new photography projects at the moment?
J: I’m not a full time photographer, so for the moment I will keep shooting, dancing and fighting with my demons inside the ‘Labyrinth’ project. I have returned to shooting with black and white film too thanks to reading Juan Rulfo. If you were to ask me if this the beginning of a new project, my immediate response would be: I do not have the slightest idea! I only need to keep shooting to find something. Later on we we’ll see what happens.