Greif Alumni: A Q&A with Community Members Federico “Monty” Kaplan and Marisol Mendez

Federico “Monty” Kaplan, Portrait of Isolina Silva Duarte, leader of the Pesuapa community. La Guajira, Colombia. Isolina is a fierce leader of Pesuapa, commanding and authoritative but also friendly and fair. She teaches around 30 young children from her own and neighbouring communities, and looks after Pesuapa like a mother, always attentive to her people’s needs.

Our community members Federico “Monty” Kaplan and Marisol Mendez have both had their work featured in our Guest Rooms. Together they recently won the Sony World Photography Awards 2023 in the Professional Environmental Category for their series “Miruku”, which explores the intersection of climate vulnerability and gender inequality. Through a compelling series of images, it portrays the struggles of an indigenous community in La Guajira, Colombia, as they grapple with a severe water shortage. The project was commissioned by WaterAid and the British Journal of Photography as part of the WaterAid Climate Commission. Miruku's exceptional quality and narrative approach set it apart from an astonishing number of entries, as more than 180,000 images were submitted to the professional competition of the renowned Sony World Photography Awards, now in its 16th year. We caught up with Monty and Marisol to ask them a few questions about their practice and the series.

Der Greif: In your project description you mention the water crisis affects Wayuu women the most, how so?

Monty: While living with the Wayuus, we learned that the society is widely regarded as matriarchal: a form of social organization in which the mother is head of the family, and descent is reckoned in the female line. However, we also learned that many still face the oppression of machismo and patriarchal structures that force them to be the water providers of households they also run. Women in these communities gather the water, cook, clean, wash and take care of the children. Men usually produce the crafts they sell for income, but women travel outside the community to sell them. Women have a difficult time managing the water situation for their families – undertaking the time-consuming process of gathering the water, filtering it, and then using it for daily tasks, many of these women travel hours on foot or bicycle to source water from wells or natural aquifers called jagüeyes.

Der Greif: The series contains many diptychs. Could you explain why you chose this format to tell the story?

Monty: This is a visual code we established early on in our approach. When we first started working together we were not in the same geographical location and so a lot of our collaboration became about pairing each other’s work in ways we could find new meanings for it. This early way of combining images quickly became a language we were comfortable speaking. When we received this commission one of the key things that was of utmost importance to us was to find a way of telling the story about this crisis in a nuanced way because it is such a complex and layered subject matter. So to achieve this we needed to strike a balance between the darker and the more positive side of the issue. The diptych format became the way to make this possible. Since our styles are very distinct but also quite different from one another, this also became a great way to add contrast between our different outputs on life and photography, while also finding ways in which both could cohesively work together.

Photo on the left: A hollow cactus in Pesuapa, La Guajira, Colombia. Photo on the right: The windmill in Pesuapa which powers the water pump, filling the tanks supplying clean water for everyone in the community.

Der Greif: How does photography help raise awareness about climate change?

Monty: One of the ways we believe photography can help raise awareness about these types of climate change stories is by making the issue more tangible and relatable to people. Climate change can be a complex and mostly abstract concept, you only receive information on a massive scale but by capturing images of people and communities affected by this crisis, photography can help bring their stories to a wider audience. These stories can humanize the issue, making it more relatable and emotionally resonant, by showing the faces and experiences of those impacted by climate change. The images can help raise public awareness, build support for policy change, and mobilize people to take action.

Der Greif: What did you learn from the Wayuus and their way of life?

Monty: I think most of all we learned to live more presently. Wayuus have such a great disposition to life, a very upbeat way of looking at things, even problematic things. Their sense of community was also very humbling to witness. Isolina, the leader from Pesuapa was always eager to help not only her community but neighboring communities as well. They are very resourceful people that make the most of each day on this earth. I think in the western civilization we’re so caught up inside our heads our own issues, but being there was like a pause from all the noise, it was connecting to something more urgent, in the sense of importance..

Der Greif: How did this work begin taking shape? And could you give us some context as to how you two met and started working together?

Marisol: Monty and I met during an online photobook workshop back in 2020. We were drawn to each other because we shared a similar history: both of us had recently returned to Latin America after working in the creative field in Europe and the US. Upon return we were taken aback by how different it is to have a career in the arts in our continent compared to places where culture is a well-founded institution. Besides the lack of infrastructure, content seems to be more limited here. We would often discuss how our imaginaries are informed by a foreign gaze that often exoticizes it’s most extreme aspects, both good and bad. But although we coincided ideologically, our practices couldn’t have been more different from each other. Monty was shooting black and white landscapes and still lifes; I was doing color portraits. His eye gravitates towards the stark and dim, imbuing even the most mundane scene with a cinematic atmosphere. My images are situated between documentary and fiction and explore the humane side of things. While apart, we started collaborating on a series called Cadáveres Exquisitos. Taking the premise of the game Consequences the resulting images are playful questioning of narratives where each proposed a parallel, an intersection or a coincidence in our recording of daily life. This quickly developed into fashioning diptychs. Both figurative and abstract, the images would work together to balance each other out in a kind of syncopation. In collaboration with 1854/British Journal of Photography, Wateraid commissioned three photographic projects exploring the ways in which the climate crisis makes it harder for people to access their basic human rights of clean water, decent sanitation and personal hygiene. They were looking for documentary proposals with creative approaches, so we applied proposing a multilayered visual style that included diptychs. We believe that when documenting a situation as dire as the water crisis, it is important to strike a balance between accurately portraying the gravity of the problem and avoiding the glamorization of the issue. It would be all too easy to present an overly aestheticized version of reality that glosses over the harsh conditions and real suffering that people face or to indulge in the latter and reproduce misery porn. As visual storytellers, we understood the responsibility we had to present this situation in a way that is respectful to the people affected. By combining raw, unflinching documentation with a lyrical, humanistic approach, we looked to create a visual balance that examined the situation with empathy. In this case, our diptychs are a way to engage audiences with the severity of the water crisis, while still connecting them to the human stories behind the statistics.

Der Greif: How was it to live with these communities, how did you get along with the people there?

Marisol: Between October and November of 2021, we spent roughly a month in the city of Riohacha, located in northern Colombia. Every day, we would travel to the nearby community of Pesuapa and surrounding areas, where we immersed ourselves in the local culture and customs until dusk. Given that the pandemic remained a serious concern in Latin America, we were unable to stay in the communities for an extended period. However, we were fortunate enough to be granted permission to spend a couple of nights in Pesuapa. During our stay, we were warmly welcomed by Isolina, the community leader and her family. Despite witnessing devastating scenes such as malnourished animals, arid landscapes where water once flowed, polluted food, and women walking long distances to source water for their families, the Wayuu people were incredibly hospitable hosts. They welcomed us into their lives, sharing their homes, food, and stories. It was very easy to get along with them and we discovered more common ground than we expected. I believe we were all a bit shy the first days. We were finding our footing and they were getting used to having two foreigners walking around. It was the children who helped us break the ice. Their laughter and playful energy were contagious. They would gather around us curious about our equipment. They showed us their pets and their drawings. We showed them how our analog cameras worked and encouraged them to follow us during our explorations. On another memorable occasion, Dani and Daniel, Isolina’s daughter and son, dressed up Federico and I in traditional Wayuu attire. We had fun taking pictures as the subjects became the photographers.

Der Greif: What was the most impactful thing you learned about this issue while there?

Marisol: During our visit, we gained a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of the water crisis. The term "climate emergency" has become so commonplace that it has lost its impact. Prior to meeting the Wayuus, we had knowledge of water pollution and scarcity across our continent, but witnessing its effects firsthand was eye-opening. Although some communities are able to maintain a level of stability during rainy seasons, this prosperity is short-lived as rising temperatures and drying land quickly negate progress. Moreover, global warming exacerbates the issue, resulting in devastating droughts and famine, and damaging the facilities and infrastructure that support the provision of clean water. The Wayuu people's ability to adapt to their environment and develop sustainable practices in the face of water scarcity is remarkable. Their techniques for collecting and preserving water are not only practical but also deeply ingrained in their cultural traditions. For example, they have developed a system of water governance that prioritizes the collective use of water resources over individual ownership. They use community-based decision-making processes to allocate water resources, which ensures that everyone has access to the water they need for their daily lives and agricultural activities. Furthermore, the Wayuu have developed a deep understanding of their local environment and use unique techniques to extract water from unconventional sources, such as cacti and underground springs. As climate change continues to cause water shortages and droughts in many parts of the globe, it is essential to look to communities like the Wayuu for inspiration and guidance. However, it’s also important to understand that in Colombia, and around the world, it’s those who have done the least to contribute to climate change – like the Wayuu people – who are the most vulnerable to its impacts.

Der Greif: Lastly, how do you feel in general about photojournalism as a photographic genre/practice?

Marisol: While the term photojournalism implies a certain level of impartiality, the act of capturing an image itself is inherently subjective. Photographers, as human beings, possess their own perspectives, biases, and experiences that inevitably shape the way they frame a scene, choose a moment to capture, or even select the photographs to publish. The very act of choosing a subject, determining the composition, and deciding on the timing of a shot reflects the photographer's personal viewpoint. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize that even in the realm of photojournalism, objectivity is an elusive ideal. Photographs may capture moments, but they are not neutral or purely factual representations of reality. They are the product of a complex interplay between the photographer's vision, the technical aspects of the medium, and the context in which they are presented. Acknowledging this subjectivity allows us to approach photographs with a critical eye and engage in a more nuanced interpretation of the stories they convey.