Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico

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In 2012, Cultural Anthropology launched a photo essay section. This is the second photo essay, which continues to expand on this project to bring photography to Cultural Anthropology. The section is developing an experimental review process, which aims to include author–reviewer dialogues as well as online commentary. Once again, the authors offer to us a captivating set of images. For more information on how to submit your own photo essay to Cultural Anthropology, see here.

Table of Contents

Life in Tulum

Until recently, Tulum was a small, quiet town. On the Caribbean side of Mexico, close to Mayan ruins, few cabanas lined its broad white beach and these drew mainly archaeologists. But targeted for tourist expansion with an eye to fashioning eco-resorts inflected by Mayan ontology and design, Tulum has become the head of a newly-founded municipality and, now with a population of 20,000, is programmed to grow to 250,000 in the next decade. Building is massive. Such as the exclusive city Aldea Zuma, an ecological island that will allow those inside to commune with nature, in luxury facilities, built on exploited ejido (indigenous) lands, and constructed by an itinerant and underpaid labor force.

The lives of these workers, a true precariat, are the subject of the photo exhibit by Laurence Cuelenaere and José Rabasa. Entitled “Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico,” the photos aim to capture a moment, a slice, an encounter, to invite viewers to imagine how people, so precariously pitched, craft a semblance of life in the everyday. Of central concern to Cuelenaere and Rabasa is what, borrowing from Francois Hartog, they call “presentism”: a condition of temporality that, rooted to the here and now of getting by and making do, remains always grounded in the present. Seeing this as a marker of precarity, a condition that affects the totality of life and not just the labor or work of the precariat, Cuelenaere and Rabasa use photography to bring viewers into this presentist zone of an uncertain everyday. Exploring with their Nikon F2 and Hasselblad 500/C cameras the affective worlds of people returning from work, heading to one-room homes of cardboard recovered from debris, cooking and washing outside, greeting neighbors or dressing for church, the photographers trace the fragility of lives without future and past. What they also show is that, even amidst such uncertainty, smiles also glimmer suggesting something else: the potential for political insurgency.

The theme of precarious labor and life is taken up by many of the authors in the February issue of Cultural Anthropology. Registering this visually in the mode of photography, “Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico” is a striking complement to these articles. A textual essay by Cuelenaere and José Rabasa on this photo exhibit is in progress.

About the Authors

Laurence Cuelenaere received her PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently an Associate Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. She has conducted ethnographic research in Bolivia and Mexico focusing on questions of belief, indigenous politics, and intercultural philosophy. Her most recent publication is “Paradoxes of Belief as Perceived in the Uses of Creer, Creencia, and Criyincia in the Northern Bolivian Highlands” (Ethnohistory, 2013). As a photographer, she studied with Nick Johnson at The New England School of Photography. Cuelenaere is currently working on a photo essay on precarious life in the Bolivian highlands.

José Rabasa is a long-term visiting professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include: colonial/postcolonial studies; subaltern studies; Nahuatl poetry and painting; history of voice; historiography; and phenomenology. He has published extensively, in both English and Spanish. His most recent book is titled Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You: Elsewhere and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World (University of Texas Press, 2011).

Review Dialogue

To give a sense of the review process of the photo essay, photo essay editors Michelle Stewart and Vivian Choi thematically organized segments of the reviewers’ comments, their own editorial suggestions, and the responses of the essay authors. The text below has been taken directly from the first round of reviews and authors’ responses.

Frontloading Theoretical Claims

Reviewer A: “I would like to see the authors move the very last sentence of the essay, where they actually delineate their “objective,” to the first page of the essay, so the reader is not fooled into thinking that this is traditional ethnography. I don’t think that working in ‘rumor’ is all that unique. As cultural anthropologists, our currency is gossip, our job is to figure out which rumors align with each other and which ones do not, in order to accurately present a broader narrative.”

Reviewer B: “I think the text could be strengthened a lot by bringing the compelling stories that follow from page 5 up to the beginning. These are the stories that hooked me as a reader. An author needs to work twice as hard to get a reader to pay attention when displaying images along with text in an online format. The impulse is to skip the text entirely if the story isn’t immediately compelling. In this case, the ethnographic importance is really in the juxtaposition between the images and the text, so it is important that the viewer also be a reader. Bringing this ‘hook’ to the front might solve the problem. Also, the second compelling question (Why take photographs and write about Tulum?) is very near the end of the writing. I think the work can be strengthened by either placing this question and subsequent paragraph first or placing it immediately after the written ethnographic snapshots.”

Editors’ suggestions: “In order to strengthen the overall submission—of both image and text—the theoretical aims highlighted in the written essay need further clarification and expansion. First, as both reviewers suggest, the theoretical claims of the essay, while compelling, need to be stated up front and earlier in the text.”

Authors’ response: “The first item that you mention is the need to state the theoretical claims upfront earlier in the text. We cannot agree more on that recommendation.”

Use of Language

Reviewer A: “I’d like to see the authors rethink their ideas about ‘taking images’ . . . and consider the term ‘making’ images because if they are working with the subjects and the subjects understand the stakes involved in photography, of the power relationships and the ideas of representation, then it’s a group process, photographer and subject are each actors and it’s a collaborative process, not a ‘taking’ process.”

Reviewer B: “I suspect that the authors want to communicate both a sense of ‘imagining’ and ‘image-ing’ (or making images) with the term ‘imag(en)ing.’ If this is the case, it would be good to explain the significance of both of these ideas and why it would be useful to use them together. Making an image is a kind of imagining. The photographer uses her imagined idea of who/what she is photographing at the same time that the viewer is using the photo to imagine the lives of the people depicted. Furthermore, the strength of the essay does fall within this tension. It is not often that we see images of poverty, displacement, and pollution that have such comfortable smiling faces and that ask nothing of the viewer. This is important. I am skeptical that the post-modern influenced term ‘imag(en)ing’ is the best way to communicate these ideas together (if only for the reason that ‘imagining’ is spelled with an ‘i’), but if the writers prefer to keep the term, I would suggest that it be unpacked to communicate more precisely why they think the term/idea is meaningful and useful.”

Editors’ suggestions: “The title of the article needs to be further unpacked and returned to in the essay. Both reviewers question the play of words with ‘imag(en)ing, and share a concern about the meaning and the theoretical work the term does.”

Authors’ comments: “Reviewer B appreciates the distinction of imagining and image-ing implicit in the title of our essay. He or she is right in calling our attention to the unnecessary postmodern inspired term. The neologism imag(en)ing simply doesn’t make sense because the parenthetical ‘en’ does not work. We can be more direct by using ‘imagining’ and making the distinction between imaginings and image-ing, as image making, explicit in the text.”

Tightening Theoretical Arc

Reviewer A: “The theoretical frameworks are not labored, which is refreshing, for the 1.5 pages or so that [the authors’] dedicate to ‘theoretical framing.’ They present their interesting idea of ‘affect of experiencing impunity’ and explain the neologisms from Castel and Hartog, and move on into the piece without returning to these ideas or concepts. It is unfortunate that they do not weave these words/ideas back into the essay, but leave the reader to figure out how these words/ideas then play out given the remaining information they present (in text and image). I was looking forward to their unpacking the ‘affect of experiencing impunity’ and their interpretation of either of the very pertinent and appropriate neologisms, but these ideas are orphaned on the first two pages without a rescue reference for the following eight or so pages.

The authors’ claim to have pushed the limits by ‘erasing the border that separates the represented from the representing subjects seemingly unalterable in the documentary mode’ is burdened with assumptions about documentary and/or ethnography that would require another essay to discuss altogether. I encourage the authors to review the literature in visual sociology or visual anthropology (although some of the material is anchored in representation). There are a number of authors who blend text with images that are not burdened with the representation repudiated in this essay."

Reviewer B: “Impunity is without a doubt a serious issue in Mexico and it is a word that scholars of Mexico will connect with immediately, but it is also a word that has become inextricably linked to human rights activism. This isn’t a bad thing in itself. There is no contradiction between scholarship and activism. However, the authors use the word without examining its meanings or implications as scholarship should. Who has impunity from what? How is the impunity felt by the people in these images? . . . Many of the other words the authors use seemed to be more relevant and can be found in the images: vulnerability, uncertainty, precariousness, even précariat. If the authors believe strongly in the ‘impunity’ framework, they should explain more fully what precisely impunity means in this case and how it is connected to the images.

There is also a lot of wordplay surrounding the word ‘affect.’ The wordplay in this instance makes the discussion confusing rather than clarifying. A reader needs contextual clues to tell whether the word means ‘emotional presentation/performance’ or ‘impact’ and these clues just aren’t there. A discussion of affect (emotional performance) would be very valuable, but that gets lost here. Also, ‘actant’ seems an awkward word choice. Why not ‘agentive’ or ‘participatory’? I have similar critique of the use of ‘imminent’ and ‘immanent.’ The meaning here is obscured rather than clarified by the wordplay.

The authors write that, ‘We have sought to push the limits of documentation and representation by erasing the border that separates the represented from the representing subjects seemingly unalterable in the documentary mode.’ This is an important sentence that describes the intention of representing the people of Tulum in the way that the authors have. There is some truth here. I like the connections that these images facilitate as the photographed subjects look directly into the camera and smile. However, the relationship that I am most aware of, as a viewer, is my own relationship to the people pictured, not their relationship with the photographer (the representing subjects). One would assume that this is also the relationship that the authors sought to facilitate by creating these images. (Recognizing, of course, that it is the photographers or ‘representing subjects’ who facilitate this relationship.) The text could be made stronger through incorporating the relationship between the viewer and the images in the argument. Also, visual anthropologists have been attempting to erase and redraw the borders between photographed subjects and photographers, as well as between photographed subjects and viewers for at least a hundred years. This rich history makes it very difficult to argue that these relationships are ‘seemingly unalterable.’ Even so, I have great appreciation for the way that the photographers and writers have redrawn this line through the combination of the images and text presented here. This sentence could simply do a better job of describing the strengths of the work.”

Editors’ suggestions: “(1) In particular, as the reviewers point out, the terms offered in the essay such as ‘affect’ and ‘impunity,’ and the title of the article itself, need to be further unpacked and then returned to at some point in the essay. This unpacking might also include situating the terms within broader visual anthropological literature and work. (2) Tightening the overall arc of the theoretical argument, and choosing the key themes and terms that can be most effectively explained will help with the tension that you highlight between photo and text, and photographer/subject/viewer.”

Authors’ response: “Terms such as ‘affect’ and ‘impunity’ need to be further elaborated. As reviewer B points out, impunity invokes the discourses on human rights; however by impunity we understand a general condition in Mexico rather than particular instances of abuse that our essay would want to document for the purpose of bringing it to the attention of activists. The title ‘life under impunity’ seeks to underscore the vulnerability of the subjects with whom we spoke and photographed in Tulum. The experience of impunity in Tulum reflects a situation prevalent in the country as a whole. In our final draft, we will return to these concepts in key places in our essay. We would like to add here that visual and verbal components of the photo-essay are independent of each other and should stand on their own. By this we mean that the text does not explain, interpret, or draw ethnographic knowledge from the specific photographs. On the other hand, the photographs do not illustrate the text. From our perspective, text and photographs motivate the reading of each other without drawing explicit connections. This motivation at once situates the socio-political context of the photographs and draws out the tension manifest in the subjects smiling in their vulnerability. They know all too well that those in power can get away with all forms of violence that they are subjected to in their daily lives.”

Photo Selection

Reviewer A: “I would like to see a defined order for the images as they should appear in the journal, whether the images ‘bookend’ the text or simply mirror it on opposite pages, the photo essay has an inherent linear order because of the direction in which we read English. Which isn’t true for an exhibit hung on a wall, which may have an intended order, but viewers do not have to follow it in order to ‘get it.’ Because of this directionality and recognition that it will be ‘read’ from beginning to end, sequencing manifests an intent for visual argumentation. Denial of the order, or refusal to provide an order, for whatever reason, abandons the craft and leaves the editing up to someone without the knowledge of the project, which contradicts the expressed intent of the authors in the first place . . . to create an affect—supposedly in conjunction with the subjects themselves. Obviously, the subjects have trusted the photographer enough to sit/stand for an image, there is an assumption on their behalf about how they will be represented, and woven into such a relationship is the belief that they will be represented ‘accurately and respectfully.’

My principle reaction to the images is that there are too many of them! This collection should be reduced to 8–9, 10 max.

Various disciplines weigh images and text with different levels of priority: photo journalism prioritizes text (there may only be one image for inches of text), whereas art photography prioritizes image (many images may only contain captions). The argument about text and image in anthropology is that photos usually supplement text and as images simply illustrate what the text already states. In this essay, there is very little deliberate conversation between the text and image and I read that the authors expect the viewer to sense or feel something from the image that then resonates with the text, or vice versa.”

Reviewer B: “My only comment about the collection of images is that it might be improved by providing at least one image of ejido farmland. The framing of the images is very tight. This creates images that are packed with details that can be looked at for long periods of time, but it also feels a little claustrophobic. I wanted to look around. Even the images with more depth of field (the rooftop image and the images with a street in the background) feel very closed in. The street is either perpendicular to the frame or not within the focal length of the exposure. The trees in the rooftop image border the houses and don’t allow the viewer to see what is beyond. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may contribute to the overall argument of the essay about people living within severe constraints. However, when coupled with the extensive (and very appropriate) discussion of ejido lands, I found myself wanting to see them.”

Editors’ suggestions: “As for the images, both reviewers indicate an overall concern of the framing and style of the photographs. As you will find, Reviewer A believes that the photo essay might better be pared down and limited to 6–10 images, while Reviewer B asks for additional images of ejido farmlands that might provide more of a background sensibility of Tulum and the people photographed. While these are seemingly contradictory responses, they actually both refer to what Reviewer A describes as the centering of the images and Reviewer B refers to as the ‘tight framing’ of the photos. In conjunction with a clarification of the overall theoretical aim, perhaps then this stylistic choice may also be made more explicit. Finally, as you clarify and sharpen the theoretical argument, we ask that you consider the necessity of each photo submitted.”

Authors’ response: “As for the images, we welcome reviewer A’s recommendation of the 6 more compelling photos. At the same time, we are aware reviewer B has appreciated other photographs not included in reviewer A’s selection. We are leaning towards adding 3–4 photographs to the 6 that reviewer A picked out. Overall, we think it is a good idea to keep the number of photographs to a maximum of 10. Needless to say, we will clean the traces of dust particles present in some of the pictures. In planning the final product, we will consider the necessity of each submitted photograph. We gather that this is a reflection that should not be in the text itself but part of our own thinking process of how we want to situate the photographs vis-à-vis the text. We are still discussing what would be the best format.”