Who’s telling the stories? An interview with Greta Rico
Greta Rico is a Mexican documentary photographer and runner-up in the This is Gender 2020 photography competition for her image Nearly There. She sat down (virtually from Mexico City) to talk to us about her work, her thoughts on photography and to offer some tips for improving the way we represent the communities we seek to serve.
Sandra, an apprentice midwife, comforts Angela as she endures another contraction during her home birth. Angela writhes in pain, her sense of movement strongly contrasted with Sandra, whose tranquil and focused expression exudes stability and control.
The image is drawn from a larger three-year project, Urban Midwives, which sought to capture the ‘invisible’ work of midwives in Mexico City and emerged from Greta’s frustration at the insincere depiction of women, particularly of midwives. She explains, “It started because I got to the point as a photographer, where I realised that I wanted to tell stories about women. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few years about how women are represented in photography and how women’s stories are often told, for example, by a man or indeed a white male, and that the stories they produce seem wrong, more like a fiction than the reality of what women experience. I realised I wanted to work on women’s representation in photography and I wanted to tell stories about women.”
This Woman’s Work: Midwives in Mexico City
In a population of roughly 20 million people in Mexico City, the stark absence of midwives is apparent, with only eight midwives and one midwifery house currently practicing in the city- a fact that troubled Greta.
“I had a close friend that studied to be a midwife and I contacted her to ask her about her work, what she did, and everything about midwifery. I realised then that here, in Mexico City, being born in a hospital is a matter of status. We think, at least in Mexico and Latin America more generally, of midwives as women who work in remote, rural areas, far from the big cities and hospitals and that the women who go with midwives for their sexual and reproductive health, only do so because they’re poor and don’t have another option” she explained.
“At the same time, I realised that the medical attention that women get in hospitals can be very violent and that the health of the woman is often compromised in order to save money. In Mexico, we have a high rate of obstetric violence against women in hospitals when they are giving birth and we also have a very high rate of C-sections – far higher than the WHO recommendations- and many are undertaken without the woman’s consent.”
“It’s a very violent practice. Doctors lie to women to encourage them to have a C-section because their labour is taking too long and I have spoken to a lot of women who have painful stories about giving birth in the hospital. Many women who use the services of midwives do so because of the violence that they experienced in the hospitals and their desire not to put themselves in the same situation.”
For Greta, the misrepresentation of midwifery as antiquated and the dismissal of the work of midwives as a dangerous outdated practice is the result of years of rhetoric and messaging from the medical community that positions midwives in opposition to the progress of science and medical technology. She argues, “these messages and practices are a means of justifying the colonisation of women’s bodies.”
Re-Framing the Conversation
Over three years, Greta accompanied a group of midwives around, first without her camera to get to know the women and their thoughts, concerns and ideas on what stories the project needed to tell and why, and then later with her camera to capture the work of the midwives.
She recalls, “I was very concerned about watching every detail of birth in order to understand the process of labour so that I could truthfully represent and communicate how the midwifery model works to care for women.”
“Everything that happens during labour was very interesting to me. Of course, each birth is different, but I realised that there were certain things that midwives were doing towards women in order to accompany them that didn’t necessarily happen in the hospital and I needed to have those pictures.”
Through regular visits, Greta built strong bonds and relationships of trust with the midwives and the women alike. For Angela’s labour [depicted in Nearly There], she was greeted with smiles and offered cake- it was a birthday after all, Angela reminded her. It was moments such as these that changed the way Greta understood her project. Given access to these intimate home births, and joining the friends and family that supported the transition into motherhood, she came to understand midwifery not only as a viable alternative to a hospital birth, but also as a political act of resistance and care.
“Following these women and being part of their work, I realised that it was very important to try to accompany the midwives in some kind of advocacy. For example, here in Mexico, there is a very violent campaign from the government that is trying to disband midwifery and withdraw support from midwives. I wanted the exhibition for this project to not only exhibit the works but also spark a conversation”, she explained.
In March, Greta held the first exhibition of Urban Midwives in Mexico City. Running over three weeks, the exhibition was accompanied with a series of events and talks designed to bring women together to talk to each other, listen to each other and get to know the midwifery model.
Greta recalls, “It was very rewarding because at the end of each event they were coming to me and saying ‘thank you, I didn’t know this existed, I didn’t know I had those options, I experienced violence in the hospital but I didn’t recognise it as violence. Thanks to this project now I have another idea of what it means to be a mother, to go into labour and I want to talk to more people about this so that they know.’ I couldn’t ask for a more positive outcome”
What does feminist photography look like?
The success of Greta’s three-week run in Mexico City and the conversations it inspired were the result of Greta’s thoughtful and considered approach to photography.
On her methods, she explained, “I’ve been thinking about how we, as photographers, continue to do photography without enforcing our own ego. During this project, I realised that it is profoundly necessary to start a dialogue in your own community. It’s not enough to simply take a picture and to walk away from the subject. I wanted to bring the women of the community together to tell their story and to hear the stories of other women. I consider myself as a feminist, and I’m convinced that when women come together and hear other women’s stories – we build empathy, we build a movement, and we take the first steps towards fighting for our rights.”
“That’s the power of photography and photographers, they can become a bridge between issues and communities. We need to start doing that much. That’s why I was convinced and very clear that I didn’t want the opening night to revolve around me and the pictures because this isn’t a story about myself, this is the story of the midwives and the work they’re doing. This is a story about women being empowered by the midwives. So the midwives, women from the community and those in positions of power had to be there, because without them, it’s a one way conversation, an echo chamber.”
“I’m really convinced nowadays, in light of black lives matter, that we need to move beyond mindless representation. We need dialogue, we need conversations about what’s hurting us as a community and a society, only then can we change the world. We need to complete the circle of the work we’re doing. We, as photographers, are a bridge. We’re the bridge for some difficult conversations.”
Greta’s passionate and insightful thoughts on the role of photography certainly resonate with Global Health 50/50’s work on representation and our call for more critically reflective and mindful representational practices within the global health community. But what are the next steps? How can we as a sector learn from conversations in the photography communities and build better practices into our own work. Greta shared a few of her thoughts.
“We have to start thinking critically about representation and who’s telling the stories. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with the UN- Human rights in Mexico and internationally. This is a conversation that we have been having as photographers for a long time, particularly amongst photographers who work with these kinds of organisations. It’s very common for a white man to go around the world in order to document a particular issue either human rights, right to health, or refugee rights. These photographers go and capture their stories, through the lens of their perspective, and the images they produce sometimes go against the dignity of the people in the pictures. It’s not good enough.”
But Greta argues that it’s not only a question of who tells the story, but also who continues to share and promote those narratives. She noted, “We need to start thinking about the behaviours and approaches of the very big offices of the international organisations and question their decisions to continue colonising people through images, whether in the images they commission or through the ones that they share.”