“We’re Not What You Expect Us to Be”: A Visual Analysis of Zoraida Lopez’s Photos
In the fall of 2011, Zoraida spent two months teaching and working in Colombia. She received a grant from the United States embassy to deliver lectures on photography, and as a side project spent a week in a high-security prison outside of Medellin, teaching photography to some of the female inmates. In her narrative,
Zoraida describes her work as an activist and photographer, and her interest in amplifying marginalized voices (Theme 3). In this section, I discuss two of the photographs that were generated out of that project.
Riessman (2008) points out that photographic images were used in the 20th century to illustrate non-Western cultures and to “provide evidence of something seen” (p. 142) without acknowledging the role of interpretation. Narrative analysis asks more of visual data, questioning the ‘how’ and ‘why’ decisions behind the creation of an image, as well as bringing in the reaction of the audience. “Photographs are best understood as ‘collective assemblages’ of photographer, viewer, and photographed subject” (Eileraas, 2003, p. 811). The photographic work of Zoraida on the prison campus in Colombia is very much a joining of these three elements. In her descriptions of the following photographs, Zoraida is aware of her power as an artist, as well as the power she wants her subjects to have, and of the effect she hopes the images will elicit in her various audiences.
Zoraida chose two photographs for me to include in my analysis of her narrative. One was taken by the women in the group, and the other is an image Zoraida took herself. Both of Zoraida’s choices are photographs that express the voice of a population she sees as voiceless. Zoraida features these photos in exhibitions to defy and break manufactured assumptions about people, and to humanize those who have been condemned to being ‘criminal’ and/or ‘foreign.’ She is critical of traditional images of prison life and of harmful beliefs about the people who reside in the prison system. Below is the first photograph (Figure 9.1) and Zoraida’s description:
FIGURE 9.1 Photograph taken by the women in Zoraida’s group and orchestrated and chosen by Zoraida.
This photo is of three women who were in my photography class. On the left in the white tank top is Stefania,1 in the middle is Grace, and on the right is Ruth. They are smiling and running, it’s a beautiful sunny day, behind them you can see the wired coiled fence and behind them you can see the prison look-out tower. Behind the beautiful green trees, white clouds, and a blue sky.
Zoraida’s description of this photo, an image that she did not take but that was created in circumstances that she orchestrated, uses words like “smiling,” “beautiful,” “white clouds and a blue sky,” emphasizing the pleasant mood of this photograph. It is an image that intentionally disrupts prevailing depictions of gloomy prisoners and bleak prison life. Zoraida goes on to say,
This was totally their idea. They wanted photos that looked like they were free and happy, and not confined within a prison. You have these three women in a prison, smiling and laughing, and I don’t think you will get this composition of women in a U.S. prison. It’s interesting because part of it is the prison system in Colombia but this really... challenges the stereotypical view of people in prison.They’re saying,“ We’re not what you expect us to be.”
Eileraas (2003) writes that in colonial photography, “subaltern women ‘occupy’ imagery in order to contest symbolic erasures” (p. 811). In this example, Zoraida has given her students the tools to dramatically shift the dominant perception of prisoners towards a happier, more human reality.The following is her description of the second photograph (Figure 9.2) she selected, one of her own images.
This photograph was taken in the... they call them workshops, they’re large rooms where the women have different jobs. And in this particular room, the women make locks and keys that are used in all the other prisons in Colombia. And the excess is sold to hardware stores. So, if you go into a hardware store in Colombia, nine... probably not nine times, maybe like seven times out of ten, the key and lock has come from a prison. I think it’s kind of really funny.
The image is of the different tools that are used to make the keys and the locks in the foreground, in the middle is a hammer and a key and a lock, and on the upper third of the image is the woman’s hands. She has on gloves, but her index finger is revealed. And she has on a bright fuchsia shiny nail. Colored, colored nail.
It’s more of like a work scene. But I think in the same way that the other one humanizes, this one nail totally humanizes this person. It shows that this is a woman who still... I mean, she might be in prison, making keys, wearing these gloves that have gotten... they’re white gloves, but they’ve gotten so dirty with a charcoal dust. But she still has her nails done. She’s still, like, when you think of Colombian women, she’s still this fashion-y lady. I like the image for that reason.
Once again, Zoraida speaks on her desire to humanize those who have lost their voice, to construct a counternarrative that “breaks the collective silence surrounding shameful events” (Riessman, 2008, p. 146). Zoraida is in control of how these women are seen, and she chooses to pay attention to the way that they see themselves. She added:
I think part of it too is not to continue to produce these stereotypical images that people expect... I mean, like images of men in prison, you expect to see men, photographed in black and white, showing tattoos, it’s like a bunch of tattoos, or like bald heads, not smiling... and I think images like that reproduce... really negative opinions and views, and really negative policy.
Zoraida’s photographs demonstrate her rejection of a dominant but misconstrued perception of a group of people, or of an individual. The strength of Zoraida’s work is in the counternarrative she presents to the world, and it is in her own counternarrative to the tidy racial and ethnic categories that are so rigidly held in U.S. society that she expresses the strength of her voice.
Images are powerful, especially photographic images, in part because they serve as proof of the existence of what they depict. In this part of her narrative, Zoraida describes harnessing the impact of an image in the name of change. As teachers, we can engender change when we choose the images we present to our students, leading them in meaningful visual analyses of these images. When we showcase characters and leaders with bodies of all colors, languages, sizes, and ages in the books and material that we bring to our students, we offer counternarratives to the harmfully limited scope of mainstream curricula. When we confront the images that mainstream media gives to us of marginalized populations in the classroom, we are teaching our students that they, too, can consume this content with a critical eye. In Colombia, Zoraida acted as both photographer and teacher when she put the image into the hands of her students: They were invited to present themselves to the world as they wanted to be seen. I am inspired by Zoraida’s example to give my students affirming tools to create, and recreate, the story they want to tell, and to have told, about themselves.