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Latin American Fotografia: Nadja Massun

By David Schonauer   Wednesday December 9, 2015


In 2014, Nadja Massun  traveled to La Paz, Bolivia, for the first time.

But in a sense it was like coming home.

Having grown up in Peru, Massun, a photographer now based in Mexico, was eager to experience the sights, sounds and smells of South America again. What she found in La Paz was a city that, she says, was frozen in time.

“La Paz is the most indigenous and at the same time modern city in Bolivia,” she says. “It is a melting pot of people from different ethnic regions and cultural expressions, a city built on an irregular relief, with dense crowds walking up and down steep streets and a chaotic traffic of minibuses and cars circulating between the highest and lowest parts of La Paz. It’s a place where modern buildings stand next to small old houses.”

Massun wanted to capture all that, and she did, shooting with a Nikon D600 and a compact camera she carried in her pocket. Her images from the city were selected as winners of the Latin American Fotografia 4  competition.

“Wandering in Plaza Murillo — the center of political power in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales rules — I came across different groups of people and individuals. Most notable were the "cholitas," recently empowered since Moreles came to power. There were also young couples playing with the dozens of doves attracted by crumbs of bread. And there was the “funcionario” that I captured from the back, with his old-fashioned suit. He seemed to be standing in a moment of indecision. Something of his character touched me and made me want to point and shoot.”

For Massun, the city, reflecting little influence from the United States, stood in contrast to Mexico, her home for the past 25 years. “Mexico, as they say, is a place ‘so close to the United States and so far from God.’ But it is a country that fascinates me — its cultural and religious syncretism, where past and present coexist. I consider it a place most inspiring for a photographer.” she says.

Massun came to photography only after studying political economy. “I grew up reading history and the literature of South America,” she says. That led to a job working in the United Nations in Mexico City. She later moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, working on development projects and advising indigenous communities.

“But, seduced since the very beginning by photography and art cinema, I began my career as a photographer in 1999,” says Massun. A self-taught freelancer, she has also participated in several workshops at the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center of Oaxaca, studying with Mary Ellen Mark, Allen Frame and other photographers.

“When I photograph, my intention is not to stage or style an image,” she says. “I am more guided by emotion. I like to believe that  ‘a good image is born from a state of grace,’ as Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain said.”

Massun is currently working on a project about migrant women living along the southern border of Mexico. “These are women who had to leave their country because of the violence or lack of opportunities and now find themselves in extremely precarious conditions because of poverty and lack of legal status,” she says.

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Dispatches from Latin America