Another Way to Colonize You
by Cinthya Santos-Briones
August 30, 2021
This interview with Cinthya Santos-Briones, artist, anthropologist, ethnohistorian and community organizer, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Cinthya | I was born in Mexico. I studied ethnohistory and anthropology. For a decade I worked as a researcher through The National Institute of Anthropology and History. Focused on indigenous communities in Mexico and in New York on issues on indigenous migration, prehispanic and colonial codex, textiles, and traditional medicine.
In 2016, I graduated from the program in the International Center of Photography, in documentary practice and photojournalist. Now, as an artist, I use different methodologies to tell the stories through an interdisciplinary approach that juxtaposes visual storytelling with activism, ethnography, popular education, community work, and healing. With this methodology, I seek to create more democratic narratives, where photographers give agency to the people that I am photographing.
I don’t use the word “subjects” when I refer to the people that I am photographing.
My practice is also focused on creating an aesthetic and political work that serves as a reflection of social empowerment. At the same time, I want my work to have a community impact. My work defies stereotypes of representation. I do a lot of work and reflection around how the media has been representing migrant communities, communities of color, and working-class communities.
My family immigrated to the United States in the eighties, in search of the American dream. A lot of the work I do is personal at some point.
frank | You move through disciplines and mediums, but I also think you move through narratives. You look at immigration and memory and identity and you do it through historical context and ethnography, but also, audio and visuals. What are you trying to learn? What are you trying to discover when you approach a new subject or start a new project?
For me, I think that I am learning all the time. I come from a background of studying ethnohistory and anthropology, and I was more objective in my projects then. Now, little by little, I see myself trying to un-learn the methodologies that I learned when I was studying.
For me it is not just about telling the truth of the situation of migrant communities, it is also about trying to work together in more collective and more holistic ways to tell the story. Migration stories have been overtold. How can I, as a woman of color and a creator, tell the same story but in a different way? When I start a project, I ask myself why I think I am the right person to tell this story. Why is this story important? What kind of impact is this story going to have in the communities that I am working with? And, how can I challenge stereotypes?
Take my first photographic project, abuelas,as an example. I wanted to speak about the elders in my community. At the same time, I wanted to speak about migration and how difficult it is to try to find work when you are 60 or 70 years old. I wanted to speak about the territory — the places we recreate with memory. I also wanted to talk about the agency of these women and their place as the matriarchs of the family.
These images seek to contemplate the women’s relationship to place and the shaping and appropriation of their environment. And how the home's decorations become part of the women's wider symbolic recreation of culture, memory, and ownership beyond borders.
I photograph the environmental portraits in a participatory manner. I ask the women: "How do you like to be seen or represented through photography?" They choose how and where they want to be seen in their homes and what outfits they want to wear. The series seeks to offer them the opportunity to face the camera and be depicted in a way that reflects their own sense of identity.
I am really learning how to do better work, not just as a photographer, but as a human being.
Do you feel like you’ve found a way to execute the work so it represents the experiences you’re having?
Yeah, I ask people how they want to be represented. I show them the photos I take. When they are happy with the result, I can feel something shifting in how we are represented. I like how Ariella Azoulay in, “The Civil Contract of Photography,“ says that the viewers have the responsibility of observing photos. It is a citizenry exercise. I am interested in the relationship between the photographer, those who are photographed, and the viewers.
Project Infancia, is, in terms of age, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, it explores childhood in relation to migration? What has focusing on that part of a person's life in relation to migration exposed to you?
I think there have been various motives and interests that have pushed me to write and document childhood in relation to migration. Of course, one of the reasons was the anti-immigrant political climate during the Trump administration and its zero-tolerance law. Seeing the images of the incarcerated children crying as their parents were arrested by the immigration police moved my heart.
I have long been the legal guardian of migrant children who crossed the border unaccompanied. Being a guardian of these children has made me more aware of the psychosocial processes that these infants go through. It is a radical act of solidarity and empathy, which makes me interested in this topic. But it is also a personal reason since my cousin emigrated to this country when he was a child. He grew up as an undocumented child. So did my husband and many of my friends.
For me, you know, the life of these children is related to the life of my own family or my own friends.
During the Trump administration, many families with final deportation orders took sanctuary in churches to fight their immigration cases. By documenting these families, I realized how these policies irreversibly impact children. At that time the media spoke of the children imprisoned in detention centers, there was little attention on children living in sanctuary with their parents. These children lived as "refugees" in churches and at the same time lived in confinement and house arrest with their parents. When a migrant takes sanctuary they are in a space of imprisonment. They cannot leave the churches because they run the risk of being deported. These events have a psychosomatic and social impact on children.
When working with children in sanctuary and with migrant children specifically, I seek to understand how childhood is lived when violence accompanies you. What does childhood look like when violence threatens you to drown you alive? What does it mean to be an immigrant child?
Migrant children have had to learn to navigate a system that categorizes them through its violent vocabulary: imprisonment, deportation, citizen, legal, illegal, detention, La Migra ...
A lot of this project was about trying to understand how the law impacts your childhood. Childhood is supposed to be this period of time where you play, where you imagine, where you enjoy life. But, that is not true for all children around the world — especially for children who are facing the migration process or are in sanctuary with their parents.
One of the things I ask myself when I am going through photos with children, is, in what bio-political context are these images created? What are the circumstances of this image? What is the destination of the images?
And for whom?
Yes. For whom, too. What is the political and economic interface of this work? There was this one photo of a child that was crying at the border, while her mother was arrested, and for me, that seemed very violent.
How can I tell the story of violence in deportation and migration, without replicating the same violence? How do I create stories that tell the truth, but don’t capitalize on people’s crying, that don't show people in a vulnerable situation, and thus avoid reproducing more trauma?
There is a visual industry that has capitalized on and makes a spectacle of human trauma and pain. And that is something that I am very aware of: making sure that my practice as an artist does not violate human integrity.
We've spoken to academics and lawyers, union organizers, politicians, but we haven't really spoken to many artists. I'm curious how you see your work as a photojournalist and multidisciplinary artist fitting into a larger framework of practices and policies for migration.
I believe as a visual narrator and as an artist that we must be responsible for our place a the creative process that has a direct impact in the political and historical context.
When I started taking photos I began to reflect on how the stories of migrants have been exploited through images. There I questioned how my practice could challenge a visual culture centered on colonialism.
There is a market for violent images that recreate trauma and suffering. Like the images of war. There is a status quo when it comes to what kind of images fit in the publishing market and what is visually salable. Capitalism corrupts everything, even the fight for human rights.
I see photography as a practice to create community and a means of transmitting restorative messages. Although photography has its beginnings well-rooted in colonialism and the expansion of imperialism.
In a historical context where excessive inflation of images prevails, it is important to learn to generate tools that help us politically and critically question the abundance of images, through socially committed narratives that break with the codified patterns of visual culture and exercise, in turn, plural, disavowal authorship, and communal practices.
With the people with whom I collaborate to make images, we talk a lot about the representation of the image of migrants. I like to approach it in a collaborative process: the people I work with give me ideas. There is a shared authorship. When we take photographs, the people who decided to become images have a component of authorship and agency.
For me, as an artist and as a migrant, making political art is not enough. I feel that it is necessary to get involved with the struggle of the working class. And in turn, create a process that goes against the capitalist demands of the market around photography.
Can you talk about Spaces of Detention?
This project began inspired by the work I had been doing for years as a volunteer in an organization called New Sanctuary, which accompanies families in their struggle to remain in the United States. I've been working at the immigration legal clinic and have accompanied many to the immigration court for their check-ins.
Through that experience, listening to the stories of people who had been detained -which I think is a euphemism, because migrants are not detained but imprisoned- or who had to go to court or had an ankle monitor, I decided to create this body of work. At first, I did a miniature review of the work of other artists who had been working on this topic, and I began to think about how to tell the story of immigrant incarceration or "detention" in a new way. I decided to focus on architecture and how it can shape or change the mental health and social interaction of migrants, their families, and communities. So, I began photographing the exterior of these jail buildings in upstate New Jersey, in Bergen, Essex, the Hudson counties, and Elizabeth City. These prisons where they profit from the bodies of migrants are not isolated cases. But part of a system that daily affects approximately 52,000 immigrants detained in more than 200 detention centers across the country.
The question for me was how anti-immigrant policies in the United States are physically expressed through the structure of detention spaces. These places are designed with little natural light, no windows, no privacy, no recreational spaces, lit with fluorescent lights all day, no access to medical or legal care. I was thinking that we don't need any more photos of the people who have been detained. So I started taking photos of the spaces in these prisons and then making collages, in collaboration with the stories of the people I was interviewing. Then through a series of art workshops, I would ask them to write or draw about their experience in these places.
From the perspective of environmental psychology, it is thought that if the environment in which one lives is oppressive and dominated by negative emotions, the residents' distress will be evident.
We have had this conversation about the criminalization of immigration, which is completely legal. Obviously, you're allowed to be a refugee –
In this country, migrating is a crime, and requesting asylum is punished.
It is illogical that the rulers of this country, who create anti-immigrant policies, do not understand that people come to this country because in their countries there are wars, there is violence, and the only option they have is to migrate. People have to cross continents, jungles, and desert because life in their country is unsustainable. Migrants are willing to go through various types of atrocities on their way to the promised land, that is, to the United States.
As the saying goes "we are here because this country is in our country". As long as this country continues to destabilize economies and make and export weapons, the migrants will continue to come.
The message is clear, if you are immigrating, if you want a better life, then you have to suffer. The state and the corporations realized that there is an economy of migrant bodies. Policies against migrants are expressed through the physical space and the architecture of detention centers and prisons.
It is important to emphasize how nation-states or democracies have created for their benefit that category: criminal. Poverty is criminalized. Migration too.
In the workshops I have done with migrants who have been in these spaces, they tell their experiences through written narratives. There my work is focused on how we can deconstruct the category of criminal. How can we heal after arrest? How can we understand that it is not our fault that we are here? How can I use art as a healing process?
I think that on these issues one cannot be neutral with one’s work. One must take a political position in the face of so much dehumanization.
Through this work, I made a vocabulary of detention. In order to reflect on how the vocabulary we use daily categorizes bodies: criminal, illegal, undocumented, extraterrestrial, alien. For example, when I was doing the sanctuary project, I found in the newspapers of the 80s and 90s, the use of the word "alien" to refer to migrants. The vocabulary has been internalized in our bodies, violent, and marginalizes our bodies and consciences.
My dad immigrated from Brazil to the United States in the seventies. I found this legal paperwork recently where government documents referred to him as an alien, which feels so crazy and dated.
I know. I became a citizen two weeks ago and I joke all the time that I am an alien, but I guess I am not one any longer.
In the past democracies operated with caste systems — we were mestizos, mulattoes, indigenous, native. They want to put us in a box to categorize us. If you are in these boxes you can not succeed. And there is something about that internalized in our bodies. As Marx used to say, “our social class is internalized in our self.” There is an ideology that normalizes exploitation and the atrocities we see inflicted on those who come to our land.
Who is really invested in changing things when we're addicted to the experience of cheap labor?
People always say that the system is broken. The system is not broken. The system is designed to work like this. This system wants undocumented people to work with no resources. It is not hard to violate your rights if you have no papers. It's not hard to underpay you. It is not hard to exploit you. It is another way to colonize you.