boundary 2 31.3 (2004) 125-153
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Mexican Contemporary Photography:
Staging Ethnicity and Citizenship
Marina Pérez de Mendiola
1. Prologue: Come Take a Picture of Yourself
The slogan Ven y tómate la foto, or "come take a picture of yourself,"1 first appeared in Mexico six months before the presidential elections in the summer of 1994. It covered walls, was displayed on advertising billboards, and aired on television and radio. Mexican art critic Olivier Debroise described its ubiquity in the following terms: "The election registration program . . . introduces the entire country to an apparently novel element: the inclusion of a color photographic portrait of the voter. The image, constituted like a parapet against the possibility of fraud, should also assure the transparency [End Page 125] of the coming elections."2 Although semantically ambiguous, the expression "come take a picture" emphasizes reflexive action and suggests that those photographed will be both the object and the subject of the photograph. In an enclosed booth, the "actant" poses for a camera that automatically takes, develops, and prints the photograph. This apparatus disposes of the photographer, replacing the human eye with a mechanical one. The use of this apparatus was conceived to attract the disenfranchised people of Mexico to the polls—the ten million mostly indigenous people who historically have had reasons to mistrust this highly mediated form of human intervention. The Partido Institucional Revolucionario (PRI), the party in power from 1928 to 2000, banked on the idea that the portrait, a type of self-representation, taken automatically, would be regarded as self-acting, self-regulating, and as promoting image control: the mechanical eye would capture the image as presence. These devices (the political and the aesthetic ones, as well as the automatic camera) rely on the popular conception of the self-portrait as a less threatening and more empowering means for the subject both to see and imagine him- or herself. The slogan conveys the idea that this spontaneous, mechanical portrait will bring recognition of social integration and civil identity. This initiative also aims to convince historically and geographically marginalized groups that, in Mexico, governmentality will no longer be exercised without a certain measure of self-restraint, that is to say, without asking "why must one govern and what ends should [government] pursue with regard to society in order to justify its existence?"3 One could, therefore, read this "official" invitation as an invitation to 40 percent of the inhabitants of Mexico to break out of their social and economic imprisonment,4 and play an active role in the development of Mexican civil society. With these issues in mind, we must examine more closely the claims of empowerment disseminated by the words "come take a picture."
The notion of the self-portrait implied in the slogan's ambiguous wording is willfully misleading, since it rests essentially on the idea that the automatic self-portrait ensures that the conditions of visibility will not be [End Page 126] regulated. This gives the author/subject of the photograph the impression of expressing the presence of his being, offering the illusion of transcending the uniform protocol of the pose. This kind of photography records what Louis Marin calls "an artificial icon of itself." Upon taking the photo, the subject creates a fantasmatic photograph that details the desire for citizenship and not the reality of citizenship. What the automatic self-portrait captures is not the social request of the subject taking the photo, but that of the other in the photo producing a socialized image of the subject.
Moreover, whether the strategy of "come take a picture" markedly improved the possibility of participation in Mexican civil society or prevented electoral fraud still needs to be examined. One must also ask, however, what the difference is between the automatic picture and the judicial photograph taken by an official government photographer in establishing an official identity for the electoral card. Since the recording of a photographic portrait has often been considered a powerful medium of surveillance,5 the automatic self-portrait can be seen as a subterfuge to make people...