‘I focus on women, because you can see the difference and changes in the struggle for women’s rights’: Mahé Elipe, Photojournalist
Mahé Elipe is a French photographer and visual storyteller based between Mexico and France since 2016, after several years working in the fashion industry in Paris. Her work focuses on the human condition with a particular interest in the place of women in society.
She flew to Mexico for a week, but could not look away from the feminist revolution underway in the Latin American country. Over the past six years, Mahé is documenting the lives and struggles of Mexican women for equality.
She has received numerous awards and distinctions, collaborating with media such as Libération, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Washington Post and Reuters.
During a stopover in Paris, before going back to Mexico after attending an exhibition of her photos in Poland, she talked to Moonshot News about the challenges of fighting against machismo by offering your lens as a tool to make a difference.
Through her projects like the ‘Mujeres de la Tierra’ or ‘La Rabia de las Niñas’ she does not want to just raise sympathy for the drama of women who are sowing their own corn to gain economic autonomy so they can leave their abusers back home or the girls who are taking to the streets protesting against femicides, demanding a dignified life free of violence.
Mahé is there to highlight the resilience and determination of women to bring about change. She strongly believes that their struggle concerns women across the world and is optimistic about the outcome, because ‘as women we are used to fighting all the time’.
Hello, Mahé, thank you for your time. Let’s start with a few words about you. Where do you come from and what do you do?
I’m French, living in Mexico since 2016. Most of my work focuses on gender issues, women rights. It is the reason why I decided to stay in Mexico. When I arrived there, I was thinking about staying only for a week and I stay there for the past six years, more or less. When I was a child, people were speaking about the feminist revolution, the 60s… I was like ‘Pity, I wish I could have seen this period’.
When I arrived in Latin America, I understood that a feminist revolution was happening under different circumstances. So, I needed to be a part of it and wanted to understand more about the movement and how women are fighting every day for their rights. And I felt, still feel, totally impressed about their work and what they are doing, the power of these women and how they fight in this super macho context.
My first work in Mexico was about Las Patronas, a group of women feeding migrants on the trains crossing Mexico to enter the U.S.
After this first report, I decided to stay there.
Which was your background before Mexico?
I come from Southern France. I studied photography in Toulouse and came to Paris, when I was 20. There, I started to work in the fashion industry for a few years, which is an entirely different kind of work.
In the beginning, I was reserved about this background in fashion, but then I realized it was important, it inspired the aesthetics of my images. My job in fashion is technical, behind the computer, I work on colors grading, close to the photographer and make the link between set and post-production. I still come once or twice a year to Paris for a short period of time to work.
What kind of challenges have you faced as a professional working in the fashion industry and as a photojournalist in Mexico? It is a male dominated world and women in Latin American countries are suffering of sexism.
Big question. I think it’s really an international problem. By now, it’s common to hear in Western societies that everybody wants to work with women, everybody wants equality, gender consciousness… But the reality is you always have to deal with the pink washing too and even in the documentary world you can find some abuses.
As a woman and as a photographer, I’m still building my self-confidence and the impostor syndrome is never far away. Sometimes because of the social pressure, I am still wondering ‘Did they choose me for my gender (to fill the stats) or for my capacity as a photographer?’ Then, I remember all the women I met working on their cause, and it helps me not to forget that I am here, because of what I want to say. Which is the most important.
Tell me a bit more about this special connection between women, when you are working.
In my work, I’m always looking for this kind of relationship with women, and I’m always trying to do long-term projects. So, it’s never only one day of report and I’m done.
I try to go back. I’m working on a topic for years, trying to understand better the subject. So obviously, you start to build a relationship with people. It’s not a friendship, it’s something deeper.
They are sharing things about their life, maybe about their love, their feelings… Actually, it’s really important for me, in my work, to not only show the dramatic side, but focus on the power of these women.
Yes, the context is horrible, but they are alive, and they are acting. It is very important for me to show this resilience, this strength, I am trying to connect with this spirit.
I think every woman can find part of herself in these photos. It is something I’m looking for.
Even if – for sure, this is Mexico, Latin America, the context is different than in Europe, the goal is to find how we can connect with this different world and culture.
So, what I am trying to do is to catch something deeper, calling on the emotional part of the memories. It’s not only the picture, but what you can feel, when you see it.
Have you felt threatened, in danger, when you are covering such stories?
Yes, I think it is something really important to say. Well, firstly, I’m totally conscious about the fact that I’m French, I’m white, I have my documents, I have some privileges.
When so far, we have eleven journalists killed since the beginning of the year, yes, the context is difficult and I had some dangerous experiences.
Actually, we are a lot of women photographers in Mexico working on this kind of thematic, the majority freelancers. It is really important, when you have a big community of women photographers around you. I can say sometimes you feel this sorority. If you are in any kind of trouble, you can always call another woman colleague and speak with her and have a network that supports you. Because all of us face the same problems.
That is why you decided to become also a member of the Women Photograph network? Their aim is to elevate the voices of women and nonbinary visual journalists and since 2017 they have built a database including more than 1,300 independent documentary photographers based in more than 100 countries around the world?
Well, this organization was founded by a woman photographer (Daniella Zalcman). She started to call all women photographers she knew and started gathering all women professionals in one place when she would hear editors often saying ‘Ok, I really want to work with women, but I don’t know where to find them’.
So, she established this platform linking women photographers from all around the world. Now it has become a big community, which is really good. For example, if you have some doubts or trouble, they can help you or give you some contacts and you can also apply for a few grants available.
Is there a female photographer’s view? Can you tell looking at a picture, that it is a woman who has shot it? Do female photojournalists see things differently than men?
Definitely. Obviously as a woman your relation to the world will be different from that of a man, because we are living in a world where you don’t have other options than to fight. In my view, I would dare to say it’s somehow easier for women to overcome challenges, because we are used to fighting, all the time, for every single simple thing every day.
But talking about the picture, I think it’s not only a point of gender. Actually, it’s a point of person. You can see that between photographers. If you ask ten photographers to take a picture of the same plant, you will get ten different photographs. It will be like ten different plants. It is not only about the gender. It is about sensitivity and the history of each one.
Have you seen progress steps achieved in Mexico since you started working on the women photo stories, on their struggle for their rights there? In the wake of the “Me Too” movement in the US and the EU we have seen changes in policies or at least we have heard promises. Has anything changed in Mexico?
Yes, the political context has changed and there is definitely a difference in the extent of the mobilization of women. In the beginning, I remember, in the first protest I covered against femicide and machismo, we were only a few.
Eleven women are killed each day in Mexico and the sexism violence continues to claim victims, but year after year more and more show up, act and get involved. Women became more organized and the results are tangible. For example, regarding the right to abortion: the ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) in Mexico, which determined that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion in the country, which allowed several states to legalize the right to abortion.
A few years ago, a fellow photographer asked me ‘why are you focused on women?’ He was more focused on the environment. So, I replied ‘because you can see the difference and changes in the struggle for women’s rights. You can touch this kind of evolution and this kind of change, which gives me great hope for the future!’
Do you feel that you contribute with your work in bringing about change? Is this the role of photojournalists, males and females? Breaking stereotypes and helping society to move forward?
A part of me will say ‘I’m contributing to the change of society, yes’. The other will respond ‘no way, I am nobody’. In any case, I feel like we have to be really careful about what we are saying and why we are doing something, because there is an impact on people. Sometimes the camera could be a violent tool, so we have to be really careful with it. That is why when I am working on a project, I’m trying to work directly with women, so that they can have control, and a follow-up about what we will say about them.
I think it’s a mistake to think that in photojournalism in general you should not put your point of view in the stories. I absolutely do not agree with that objectiveness. For me, being subjective means undertaking the responsibility we have towards the subject we are reporting on.
I mean, each person has his/her view and this view depends on who they are, where they are coming from, what they did in their life, who they met etc. and we don’t have another choice.
Photographers must not forget their responsibility, because one picture could totally change the life of a person, and nowadays more with the power of social media.
I have made mistakes and I will probably make more. I’m still learning a lot and what I am saying is ‘I am a tool. Let’s see how we can use me and how we can share things together and work for the best’.
What advice would you give to a young girl aspiring, thinking about following in your steps, becoming a photojournalist? What kind of mistakes should she avoid and what should she go after?
What I am going to say may sound like a cliché, but I really believe that you have to be passionate and believe in your dream, because this work is really difficult. When you are taking a picture, I think this is the best part, you are sharing something with people at that moment.
But speaking with actions and making a name in this industry is not easy. Many people will tell you ‘I’m not interested in your work’ or maybe they will not answer you at all. So, yes, you have to be really passionate and always remember why you are here and what you want to say, which is something that took me a while to understand.
I am always trying to remember it’s a gift, when we can share with people, so it’s really important to do it with love and empathy.
Is this your motto in life and work? Do you have a motto?
Yes, I think it would be that. I think I’m looking for beauty, where it seems like it does not exist, but not the aesthetic side. I am talking about the soul of beauty and the strength it inspires.
|Mahé Elipe is a French photographer based in Mexico City since 2016, she is part of the Women Photograph.
Her documentary work focuses on the human condition with a particular interest in the place of women in society. She had the opportunity to complete her training, thanks to the Nikon-Bayeux security in conflict zone Workshop in 2018, as well as the Nikon-NOOR Academy Masterclass in Budapest the same year.
She is also one of the winners of Reuters Photojournalists Grants 2019 and has been selected to attend The Eddie Adams Workshop XXXIII in October 2020. Mahé was awarded by the COVID-19 Emergency fund for journalists from the National Geographic Society in 2021 and recently won the Women Photograph Project Grant 2022. She also was a finalist of the YBIPA 2022 of Athens Photo World.
The photographer collaborates with various media such as Libération, Médiapart, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Washington Post and Reuters. Her photographic work has been made visible in various exhibitions and more recently in 2022 at the festival “Fotofetiwal” in Łódź in Poland.
Check out her website: https://www.mahelipe.com/