Elizabeth Pineda’s portfolio was chosen as Outstanding Work in the 2022 Denis Roussel Award by juror Christopher James.
“The first encounter with your work is one of wonder. The focused concept of your portfolio—immigration, identity, displacement and migrant deaths is profoundly important … even more so now in our current political climate. I appreciate your touching upon the loss of legacy and family sharing of meals / mother’s cooking and using the discarded corn husks as a substrate for your images. This is a beautiful marriage of ideas and materials establishing the connections within family during the sharing of meals. It would have been fun being your thesis advisor as this is a perfect reflection of your present and where you fit in the history of the medium.” Christopher James
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am originally from Mexico City and came to the states when I was eleven. I’ve lived in the Phoenix metro area for the majority of the time ever since.
My journey in photography possibly started when I was young. I remember vividly observing details as a child, in one case, the specific detail saved my younger brother and me from being lost in the heart of the city. Having said that, my academic journey, is quite untraditional. I attended one of our local community colleges for one year after high school but put it on hold when I got married and started a family. My husband and I decided that our kids needed a parent at home vs sending them to daycare and I stayed at home with our children. I went back to school when our youngest started kindergarten. I knew I loved taking photographs. I’d been taking endless pictures of my children as they grew up. So, in an attempt to deal with being an older student, I decided to take an intro to
photography class as my fun class while I completed my studies. I did that every semester for years and I guess I haven’t stopped. I am now in my last semester at Arizona State University as a candidate in the MFA Photography program.
In my work I explore issues of home, identity, displacement, erasure and most recently the tragedy of migrant deaths that occur in the Arizona desert. Considering my personal journey as an undocumented immigrant brought to this country as a child, I attempt to reconcile past, present, and future focusing not on myself but on the thousands of migrants who perish while crossing.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
First, I would say my mother. She is an incredibly hard-working woman and is always crafting beautiful things with her hands. I am in awe of her creativity. For instance, some years back while taking daily walks in the Arizona desert, she began collecting seed pods, dried leaves, and other natural elements. She carefully glued her collections into flowers, then assembled them into amazing natural arrangements. To this day, she makes endless intricate crochet items to gift. When I see her works, I am reminded of her talent and the vast number of projects she’s taken on, in part, when I was young, to help provide for our family but also because it is natural for her to create. I think of her and I am moved and propelled to work hard and follow her example.
I am also very fortunate and have had mentors throughout my educational journey from my community college days to the present whom I’ve learned so much from. They’ve certainly been a great influence to me both personally and creatively.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has inspired you.
Oh wow, which one? There are so many but the first one that comes to mind is Dorothea Lange’s, “Migrant Mother”. I remember it as one of the images that impacted me when I started learning about photography. I love the sensibility with which the image was made and the humanity it conveys. There are so many layers to the image but most of all I am intrigued by the power an image has to convey a historical moment and become the voice that speaks to that specific time and place, both then and now.
Is there an image that you wish you would have taken and can you still see it?
Ansel Adam’s, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941” image and I love Minor White’s, “Road and Poplar Trees”. Adam’s, because he knew light so perfectly. As many in the field may know, he came upon the scene, calculated it and captured the image. One shot. Not as simple as it seems, but that was his mastery. Minor White’s because it is all about light and shadow, with that dream light quality. Is it real, is one being pulled in, or being freed from it? So many thoughts about it, it is simply beautiful.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
This is a great question. In a way, for me, it is to work and work and work. Sometimes this means I continue working on the same thing until I figure it out. Many times, I have an idea and go through several iterations before I understand the work, what it is trying to do or say. What does it want or need to be? I think listening to the work itself is an important part of the process of making.
Once, while still at the community college and working on a series of double-exposed, split-filtered images, I had a very challenging image to print. All the images’ highlight areas needed twice as much exposure to come in. I made custom cut-outs for each one to block the part of the image that was not being burned in. This of course is basic burning and dodging. The problem was that it was around a man’s face, a small part of the image, and it was very hard not to burn his face. I kept printing until I got it. I remember how exhausting it was and thinking that it was really silly of me,
maybe I should have stopped and started fresh the next day, but I kept at it. I nearly went through an entire box (50 ct.) of Oriental fiber-based paper to do so.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
I love the entire process so it’s hard to pin-point one aspect. However, thinking about this beyond my initial reaction, it is the magic of the image as it first reveals itself. This is true of the latent image slowly appearing on the paper in the darkroom or in washing a cyanotype on alternative substrates and knowing the image will remain, or when etching a copper plate and being witness as the image slowly appears, slowly, very slowly, until it is fully etched. I am also moved by a viewer’s emotional connection or reaction to the work – when it mirrors the intent with which the image was made. Both of these moments, ideas center and hold the marvel that brought me to the medium and continue my experimentation and practice.
Please tell us about your process and the work you submitted to the Denis Roussel Award.
This work began after a recent experience when my personal documents were deemed invalid because they held my married name and not my given name when I was first applying for a passport. I would need a picture ID of me as a child to prove my name and my identity. I was deeply hurt, in shock, and angered. It felt like erasure.
This also happened at the onset of the Pandemic when, as students we couldn’t use our studio spaces to create. I was making my work from home in the place I knew best, my kitchen. I couldn’t shake the experience I’d had with the officials of my country of birth, Mexico. This after having dealt with the United States system for so long to become a permanent resident. I began thinking about the validity of documents. The weight that piece of paper has, that “papers” have. And of the fact that they are simply paper.
One day, I found some left over corn husks and immediately knew my next step. I would re-create my papers on something I valued–corn. I knew I would make cyanotype prints of my birth certificate and marriage license on corn husks–and give them the validity that was taken away from them. This was a learning process as I hadn’t done it before. I searched and searched but found little about using corn husks as a printing substrate. After much experimentation, I learned that I had to think about my experience with the thing itself–the husk as a cooking implement. That is how I was finally successful in making my document prints. Shortly thereafter I realized that the experience made me question my roots and the idea of home. What home is and who has a right to dictate what home is and who has a right to it. And with that, cultural identity. So, I thought about what being home means to me. Being home is ultimately my mother and her cooking.
I began making prints of specific, traditional herbs my mother uses in her cooking. To me they are her and her story, her childhood, how she learned and her stories about cooking with them. That is home. It also made me aware that as people, no matter where one is from, no matter where one is, the mere thought of our homeland food–its aroma, its taste, will immediately transport one home. This is the heart and intent of this work. It gave me the validity I’d lost. It gave me the permission to feel whole. It made me work–hard.
But, I believe, it also gives others a voice. One, through a humble corn husk.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
I believe that as a photographer the most important tool is light. I’m not sure if that is considered a tool, but when it comes to making photographs, without light, there are no photographs. I often tell my students that it doesn’t matter what camera one uses. One doesn’t need the most expensive or fancy one to create. I enjoy shooting with my Holga as much as I explore with making cameraless images and pushing my thinking, making using alternative substrates. The key truly is understanding light, observing light, and embracing light as one’s friend. Even at its dimmest.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
Yes, I’ve never made Lumen prints and I would like to learn to make tin types!
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I think about this often, and I remember my community college ceramics instructor who always encouraged her students to create from what they knew best, their own story. This was advice she’d learned from one of her professors. This affected me deeply as I began to look inward and to think about what this meant to me. Through my art I reflect on issues that are personal but also universal. This makes me “see” with an empathetic heart, to create in order to give voice, and perhaps to believe in the power art has. I think that is it. It gives me hope that through my art, I can make a difference.
Thank you .
To learm more about Elizabeth Pineda please visit her IG site by clicking on her name.