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Latin American Fotografia: Enrique Samson

By David Schonauer   Wednesday November 9, 2016


The word “Mexico,” says Enrique Samson, is roughly translated as "at the navel on the moon." That is the title of a personal series of photographs Samson has been working on — a project, he says, that explores the cultural complexities of his native country.

Samson’s specialty is architectural photography — it was his father, an architect, who initially steered him toward photography — but his series on Mexico, done as part of an MFA thesis project at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, was inspired by Mexican documentary and fine-art photographers, including Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide.

“It allows me to shoot with more freedom in a narrative/documentary style, eyes open to the human element, to use film, which I can rarely use commercially, and to keep going back to revisit my country with new eyes,” he says.

In the series, says Samson, his goal is to “portray the intricate weave of Mexican culture in the modern tradition of ‘magical realism.’”

“In the process,” he notes, “the images gradually unveil the deeper subconscious value of intimate and personal meditations about the places, people and feelings to which I had in the past remained oblivious due to overfamiliarity.”

One of the photographs from the series, a shot made during the Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca, Mexico, was chosen as a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 4  competition. Here he recounts how the photo came about:

As I walked into the main entrance for the the City General Graveyard, San Miguel, the first thing I noticed was lines of beautiful mausoleums and graves lined up, covered in flowers and lit candles. The smell of copal and fresh-cut lilies hits you on and off as you walk through it. I like it because it reminds me of high mass and it alternates with the smell of coal for the food grills and the seasonal marigold flowers (Zempaxochitl). It was dark when I got there, around 7:00 pm, plus the 30 minutes it took me to find a parking spot in the adjacent streets packed with the visitors to the graveyard and carnival outside of it. There are guides narrating the story of the place and the traditions, with crowds walking behind them. There are tombs heavily decorated and visited. There are some that no one visits any more. One of the mausoleums stood out right away because a family made a special effort with extra lights and candles and they were wearing Halloween costumes, but the scene still looked Mexican for some odd reason. Tourists are a minority here, but you can see them when they stop to take photos like they did of this little boy who was with the mausoleum family, maybe five years old. He was sitting on a grave covered in bandages and made up as a mummy, with his red boxer shorts sneaking through the contrasting white bandages. That was the only thing off in the costume but added more context to it. He took his role very seriously and was growling and roaring at us raising and waving his arms in mummy madness that he alternated with some "dead" moments. It was hilarious. He wouldn't blink or step out of character. I took my time with him to make a couple of shots before moving on.

Samson shot the photo on medium-format film, scanned it and post-processed it digitally. For his personal series, he creates gelatin silver, platinum-palladium and digital prints. Below are other images from his “Navel of the Moon" series. Go here  to see more of the work.

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Dispatches from Latin America