‘Art as a tool for social transformation’ – An interview with Karen Toro

Karen Toro’s series of portraits of women educators from the Achik Muyu Educational Community in rural Ecuador impressed the judges for their dignified depictions and the rich story they tell about how gender operates in society. 

This is Gender emerged in response to the lack of critically reflective images of gender in global health, and out of the frustration at the problematic representational practices commonly accepted across their sector. Karen’s images present a powerful counterpoint to such reductive representations, and we are incredibly proud to share her work as part of the 2021 collection of winners. 

Portrait of Sisa (Narcisa) Lozano Guayllas (34), an educator from Saraguro, Ecuador. Sisa belongs to the Achik Muyu Educational Community, a group of parents who promote non-directive education for their children, an educational methodology based on children’s learning rather than teaching. 

This is Gender curator Imogen Bakelmun, connected with Karen via a written interview to find out more about the project, her approach to photography, and her experience in using the camera as a tool for social research. 

Achik Muyu Educational Community Portrait Series 

This portrait series is centred around a group of women who run a non-directive school in Conocoto, Ecuador. What drew you to produce a project on this community? Could you tell us a little bit about how the project came to be? 

In the context of the global health emergency, Fluxus Foto (a photographers’ collective of which I am a member) set out to document how primary education was being experienced at different socioeconomic levels in our region. So I decided to investigate specifically how some education proposals with alternative pedagogies (Waldorf, non-directive and constructivist) were dealing with this complex situation. In this way, I was able to meet and record the work of families, educators and children from three different schools.

How did the women respond to your initial proposal for the project and have you received much feedback from them since publishing your work? 

My project had to do with alternative education in general, but along the way, I was able to corroborate that these spaces are mainly supported by women (mothers and educators). The women I met were always willing to open their spaces and are happy that the project spreads a little of their work.

What do you feel the women in your photographs tell us about gender and how gender norms operate in society? 

I think that precisely both projects that deal with education show us a majority of women, that is when we must think about the feminization of work, historically care and education tasks have been attributed to women, and many times they are not properly valued jobs, from the economic and social point of view.

The portraits are incredibly powerful and dignified, how did you decide on the framing of the images and how much input did the subject’s have in deciding how they would be photographed?  

Although the documentary project in which the photographs of Women Educators (Education Through WhatsApp of Fluxus Foto) are framed had the objective of documenting the daily life of how education is lived in times of pandemic, seeing that those who sustain this work are mainly women, I decided that I wanted them to be properly recognized, visible. That is why I asked to take portraits of them, most of them were photographed in special places for them, for example, María Mina posed next to the tree she had planted with her students, Elga Alquinga posed next to a handicraft made with her daughter, Salime Jalil posed where the Temazcal (pre-Hispanic curative herb steam bath) was located before dismantling the school, Sisa Lozano posed in one of the classrooms of the space they had to abandon and in the sandbox they built with their own hands with straw brought from the mountain.

María Mina (33) is an Afro-Ecuadorian educator, she belongs to the Achik Muyu Educational Community, a group of parents who promote non-directive education for their children. María is a companion for the group of medium-sized children and a crafts companion in this community, poses next to the tomato tree they planted at the school.María Mina, a 32 years old Afro-Ecuadorian teacher, is a companion for the group of medium-aged children and a crafts companion in this community, poses with the school’s tomato tree. Conocoto, Ecuador.

Portraiture is often associated with reverence and historically was the medium of choice for the rich and powerful, in both this work and in others (for example the public school series) you chose to capture people in their everyday lives and roles, what drew you to this photographic form? 

The portrait is for me a tool to dignify the human being, that’s why I have decided in some projects to use this instrument, these two projects you mention (The public school and Women educators/Education through WhatsApp) talk about education (an important topic for me) and I feel that in the faces and especially in the look of these people we can try to understand the effort and love they put in their work.

Questioning hegemonic and stigmatizing representations

Across all your projects, a theme that ties your body of work together appears to be bringing visibility to underrepresented communities and experiences. Could you share your thoughts on why visibility is important, particularly those that are marginalised? 

Indeed, I have made the decision that my work should take a stance. I am aware that the narratives we normally consume are created from places of power and privilege. I also work as an educator in the field of visuals, so I constantly analyze what circulates in the media. In that sense, my contribution aims to propose a dignified, empathetic and respectful gaze towards the people and subjects. I propose an approach to photography through which we can feel truly represented and identified, without prejudice and or restrictive stereotypes.

In your captions, you explained how the situation for the women in the school had become worse since Covid. Do you think the imperative to be seen and heard is more pressing in times of crisis? 

Of course, although the current crisis has affected us all in different ways, it is women who take on most of the work inside and outside the home, even more so when they are mothers and educators. It is important to make these realities visible so that those who are far removed from this situation can understand the precariousness of our jobs and perhaps contribute to change this.

And when it comes to the quest for visibility, do you think photography is potentially uniquely placed to do this? As a photographer, how powerful do you think images and the narratives and stories that they tell are for evoking different kinds of reflection and dialogue? 

We live in a mainly VISUAL society, images are one of the ways in which we generate knowledge, that is why photography is a very valuable tool to approach the world. Critically engaged photographic practise can be a means of questioning hegemonic and stigmatizing representations. For this reason, I believe in the power of the image to invite debate. We are seeing it in these days of social upheaval in Latin America, the work of photographers is extremely important at the time of reporting the abuses of power, to jump the media fences and censorship of some states.

In your work with FluxusFoto, you use photography as a means of engagement with communities. What has your experience been in working with communities through the lens of photography? 

In the Fluxus Foto collective, we believe in the social importance of photography as a way to relate to and support the work of historically vulnerable movements such as the working class, indigenous people, women, people in situations of human mobility, environmental groups, LGBTIQ+, territorial defenders, and others. Our work is not restricted to taking photographs, we have constantly participated in various experiences of community education and training with these movements.

What makes photography such a powerful tool for connection and engagement? What role do you think artistic practice can play in advocacy work? And do you think we should encourage more collaboration between different communities and practitioners? 

I totally agree, artistic practices bring us closer to the sensitive, they help us to be empathetic with others who live different realities than ours. Being able to exchange experiences through art can enrich professionals and communities alike, I deeply believe in art as a tool for social transformation. 

Feminist photography 

Would you consider yourself a feminist photographer? And if so, what does feminist photography look like? 

Yes, I consider myself a feminist before being a photographer. This position is what makes me constantly question myself about the narratives we consume and, therefore, generate. In the art and photography industry, most of the works that circulate are made by men, I think it is important to take this into consideration. Historically women and lgbti+ groups have seen ourselves ‘being seen by men.’ This is very clear when we take a look at the ‘history of art.’ In this sense, my work has the explicit intention of proposing a representation of our own that we are still building.

The competition is called This is Gender, so I wonder, what does gender mean to you? 

I believe that the concept of gender introduces a necessary debate on the multiplicity of identities in society. The binary identities of male/female or masculine/feminine are not currently sufficient to encompass the feelings of many people.

ou can discover more of Karen’s work on her website and browse the full collection from This is Gender 2021 here.

For any queries regarding This is Gender or Representation Matters please contact Imogen Bakelmun at i.bakelmun@ucl.ac.uk