A Photographer Captures Aesthetic Beauty and Social Anthropology in Images of the “South”

Anthropology and documentary photography are natural bedfellows. It’s a particularly harmonious union in the case of Alinka Echeverría, a Mexican-born artist and social anthropologist whose ambitious exhibition “South Searching” is currently showing at London’s Gazelli Art House.

Take a look at one of the featured works and you might guess which “south” Echeverría is referring to—then view another, and then another, and you’ll have to think again. “South” is South Sudan in a portrait of a schoolgirl staring straight into the camera, entitled Anthem. Becoming South Sudan: Chapter I (2011). But “south” is South Africa in her newest body of work, “M-Theory,” featuring photographic prints of the fingerprints of key figures in the nation’s anti-Apartheid struggle. And “south” in her celebrated “The Road to Tepeyac” series? It’s her native Mexico: specifically the road that leads to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City, where six million Catholics make an annual pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, bearing colorful emblems of the Virgin on their backs.

It’s this south, and these backs, that have earned the artist great acclaim in recent years. “The Road to Tepeyac” made the rounds in Europe after winning France’s HSBC Prix Pour La Photographie in 2011. The series, consisting of medium- to large-format portraits of the pilgrims and the treasures they carry to the Virgin—all shot from behind, and with the context removed, rendering each figure like a vivid paper doll—is a classic example of Echeverría’s capability as both a documentarian and an artist. 

With a photographer’s eye and an anthropologist’s worldview, Echeverría is the ultimate observer, especially when she turns her gaze on the culture she comes from. “It is incredible,” she told TIME magazine in an interview, “that about six million people walk for up to ten days to reach the Basilica to pay homage to the Virgin…The event is an incredible mixture of serenity and chaos. For the individual, I think the pilgrimage is a combination of punishment and reward; of gratitude and forgiveness; of promise and hope.”

  • Installation view of “Alinka Echeverría | South Searching,” Gazelli Art House, London. Courtesy Gazelli Art House and the artist.

Punishment and reward, promise and hope: they’re themes that also run through her most recent body of work. For the “M-Theory” series, Echeverría looked further afield—to South Africa and the struggle against Apartheid—creating photographic prints of the fingerprints of Nelson Mandela, Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke, and other key figures in the fight. If she’s observing her subjects from afar in “The Road to Tepeyac,” she’s examining them in extreme close-up here, through a near-microscopic lens. In doing so, she raises complex questions about the relationship between race and identity, and of the significance of skin itself—signifiers that are visible to the naked eye, and those that are not.

The “south” in question, then, isn’t just about geography. It’s about Echeverría’s own journey, looking back—or south, rather—to investigate her own cultural roots in addition to exploring social issues, from racial oppression and human identity to conflicting cultural beliefs, confronting the world at large.


—Bridget Gleeson



Alinka Echeverría | South Searching” is on view at Gazelli Art House, London, May 22–Jun. 27, 2015.

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