Photographer Robin Alysha Clemens captures the complexity of Mexican spirituality today.
Curanderos (spiritual healers), shamans, Catholics, Buddhists, brujas, or spiritual midwives—if there’s one place on Earth where all these believers and practitioners blend and mutate, it must be Mexico. While the majority of Mexicans identify as Catholics, influences of indigenous customs and animistic traditions prior to Spanish colonization are still present today. Intrigued by the complexity of the country’s contemporary spirituality, and supported by FOLLOW’19— a talent development program by Melkweg Expo, Kiekie and EIZO—photographer Robin Alysha Clemens travelled to Mexico to meet with, interview, and photograph over 60 subjects from a distinct variety of spiritual backgrounds.
The resulting project, titled “Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo”, untangles the unseen, and unveils the underlying similarities throughout the spectrum of practices. Clemens looks beyond the altars, icons and religious symbols, to capture the people behind these beliefs. Below, we get to know what sparked her interest in the topic, how she approached her subject(s), and what’s to be learned from Mexican interest in community.
Robin, what was it that brought you to Mexico?
My aunt is Mexican, so I have family living in Veracruz. When I was 8, I travelled around Mexico for one month together with my family. That trip made such a big impression on me, especially at that age. Ever since, I really wanted to go back. I also started learning Spanish this year, and I really wanted to get to know the culture that my family always talks so highly about. Spirituality has always been an interest of mine as well, and Mexico, because of its cultural and political history, is such an interesting country to explore this subject further.
We’re also intrigued by the title of this project…
“Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo” is actually a Spanish translation of an old Mayan saying, “In Lak’ech Ala K’in”. It means something in the lines of “I am another you, you are another me”. It’s a statement of unity and oneness. You can say it to others as a greeting, but also to yourself, it mirrors the same sentiment of other greetings such as “Namaste”. Mexico has a very high percentage of indigenous communities, more than 21% of its population, and indigenous spirituality and animistic traditions are very present in Mexico’s daily life. Although Mexico’s biggest religious group are Catholics, more than 82%, it’s a country with a strong syncretism—the combining and blending together of different religions and spiritual rituals. After talking to many different believers, I realized that a lot of belief systems and spiritual traditions are actually very similar and derive from a lot of the same needs and hopes. For me, it was a really cool experience to talk to a catholic priest and the next day be present at a ritual of an indigenous medicine man, and see similarities between the two people. In the end, we’re more similar than we (sometimes) think.
“Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo” focuses on faith and mystic traditions. Are you a spiritual person yourself?
I’m not a spiritual person per se, but I do have a big interest in the topic. I wasn’t raised religious, but my grandfather and uncle were pastors. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of institutionalized religion itself, the idea of a common belief system, or a common purpose in life, is something that interests me greatly.
Did you observe a relationship between your personal beliefs and Mexican people’s faith(s)?
Since there is not one Mexican faith, I find this a difficult question to answer. However, the feeling of community and sense of belonging is something that’s very present in a lot of people’s lives. I think almost everyone—whether you are spiritual or not—can relate to wanting to be part of something bigger than yourself. Religion and spirituality for many Mexicans is also a reason to have a celebration. There’s always a party somewhere. People throw dinners for their whole community and family, dress up in traditional clothing, dance, fireworks to celebrate different saints, sharing a beer after church, etc. I think, in a way, this project has become a visualization of my own longing to believe in something, to be part of something, and to experience spirituality through the eyes of someone else.
We’re definitely living in an age of heightened spiritual awareness, especially of young people. Would you agree? What differences and similarities did this project allow you to observe between, let’s say, Western spirituality today and, in this case, Mexican beliefs?
In Mexico, spirituality is part of their identity and of their indigenous roots. There’s still such a strong presence of indigenous history, and their traditions are so intertwined with modern Catholicism and any other way of life. It’s hard to not be somewhat spiritual when living in Mexico, because it’s everywhere: almost every shop or home has a small altar, Mexico’s holidays or celebrations are all connected to religion, saints or other spiritual traditions.
I think in The Netherlands, a lot of modern, new age spirituality is connected to an individual journey, “finding yourself”. I think the biggest difference is that in Mexico it’s way more about a sense of community and traditions. It’s something you really share and experience together.
How do you position yourself with regards to the subjects you’ve documented? In what ways does the role of a photographer enable, and/or disable, you to capture the essence of a subculture (specifically for this project)?
Whether I do a project in The Netherlands, Ukraine or Mexico, I always want to indulge myself in a world or (sub)culture that I’m not (yet) a part of. Different people and groups I’m not familiar with fascinate me. Photography, for me, is an anthropological tool and a way to explore various worlds. Especially when photographing in other countries, I’m aware of my role as an outsider, but I try to collaborate as much as possible with the people that I photograph. I need to know their personal stories and I try not to make any assumptions. In the end, I want to present my subjects without judgement.
There’s a dark, mysterious undertone to (almost) all images from “Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo”. How did this come about, and why?
It’s a documentary project, but by using a cinematographic visualization, I try to—quite literally—put this documentary narrative into a different light. The project has become an exploration into a topic that is mostly invisible. What does spirituality mean to people on a personal level? How does that look? What are their emotions when they practice their rituals, chants, prayers? It has become a mystical story about a subjective topic, in which the Mexican believers get a leading role in their own parable. I used flash photography and different light setups to translate this mysterious undertone into my photos.
Is there something you’ve learnt throughout the process of making this project—from initial idea to now exhibiting it—that made you rethink a concept, or perhaps even your way of working?
I had a very limited time in Mexico. Because of this, I had to already shoot my final images while I was still simultaneously researching and interviewing people. The first month I had no clear idea of what I was actually doing. In the end, I interviewed and photographed over 60 people, and it slowly became clearer to me what I really wanted to show and say with this project. I can work very well in a short time span and when I have to improvise a lot, but next time I do want to make sure there’s a little bit more time for experimentation. This project, from the first idea to its final exhibition, was made within eight months.