Please note: This project, We Want Them Alive (Vivas Las Queremos) was originally titled We Are All Them (Todos Somos Ellas)
Todos somos ellas
A Photographic Project by Paul Owen
Virginia Woolf, in the late 1930s stated that to assume an “us” between men and women was a risky leap, especially around issues like war and violence. Sixty years later, the feminist fight –at least the one undertaken by the feminism of difference- for distinguishing murders targeted exclusively against women (feminicide) from homicide seems to reinforce Woolf´s claim: not only should rules respond to the diversity of situations but words should also acknowledge this difference and complexity. Feminicide is not just murder, it is a crime whose violence affects women exclusively, the attack is centered on the female subject mainly –and at times exclusively- because of its feminine condition. These women slaughters are the extreme of a broad and long chain of gender violence; they are the manifestation of a violence so structural that it has become –or made- invisible by the rest of the society. In this context, how is it that Paul Owen claims that “We Are All Them?”
Paul Owen’s photographs are a response to Virginia Woolf that comes almost a century later. They assert that thinking about an us is possible without having to appeal to discourses of assimilation or homogeneity. Owen photographs women from a masculine perspective, through a sensitive lens that acknowledges them in their difference avoiding violent reactions as a response to this otherness. His pictures are symbols of a possible alliance, an altered complicity that transcends sexual difference; an invitation to become more than passive witnesses who remain in silence. Owen offers us the possibility of becoming emancipated spectators; a collective in which them, him, her, and us all recognize our shared condition of vulnerability.
Paul Owen’s pictures, from my perspective, allow the emergence of a multiplicity of messages, of languages, of voices. On the one hand, one can listen to the message that denounces, the voice that accuses society’s self-imposed blindness –by covering its eyes- towards this gender-centered violence. There is also the scream of the woman who positions herself in the center of the frame, abandoning her peripheral and marginal condition, appealing for a place, central, ineludible, making it impossible to ignore her. Placing female bodies in the center of the frame is a reflection of the possibility of centering our attention towards violent crimes fixed also on women; here is where the photographs expose a different possibility of focusing on women; instead of murdering them, Owen’s pictures reflect women as active protesters, rather than exclusively passive victims. A painful cry is also audible in these images, symbolized in the almost childish or instinctive reaction of covering our eyes when exposed to danger. The women in the photographs cover their eyes to protect themselves of that which hurts them, that which overwhelms them to the point that it becomes hard to believe. Covering their eyes reflects that infantile certainty that by refusing to see that which scares we can make it disappear.
Paul Owen’s photographs are a denounce of violence without violence, a claim for recognition without institutional demands and juridical processes; they are a testimony of a pain so strong that it transcends tears; they are an encouragement to feel, to share, to act, but most importantly, to be, to “become all them”.
Photography, as well as poetry, opens up the possibility of expressing that which is hard –or even impossible- to articulate in prose; it becomes one of those sensitive spaces that, as Žižek would argue, allow to counter argue Adorno’s claim that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. When faced with trauma and devastating pain, poetry is all that is left; when absolute silence is imposed, music is what breaks it; when violence paralyses, dance brings back the movement to static bodies; when faced with an overwhelmingly cruel society, photography, literature, fiction, and dreams become the sole means of resistance.
Isabel Gil Everaert
New York University
Review of Paul Owen's Todos Somos Ellas
This post has been updated July 21, 2013 at 10:53 CDT
-by Alma Maria Rinasz
Todos Somos Ellas currently showing at the Palacio Clavijero in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico are photographer Paul Owen’s attempt to “bring particular attention to the violence against women taking place in Mexico to help bring about the eradication of feminicide throughout the world.” With a concise and illuminating introduction by Isabel Gil Everaert, this interactive project forces the onlooker to reflect and ask questions. The sixty large scale photographs, with female images at the center of the frame portray fear, sadness, supplication, anger, self-defensive indignation and powerlessness. One photograph shows a clenched fisted woman, shifting her weight onto one leg, as if she were going to step towards the onlooker. Her body language says “I will protect myself and I will fight back.”
photograph by Paul Owen
In another photograph, we see a viejita, madrone colored hands cover her face while a light blue shall, drapes over her head like so many women when they enter el templo (church) to pray . The sepia toned backdrop contrasts the blue of her shall, the same sky blue associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. In another photograph, the Virgin makes an appearance, her face is not covered, but the woman’s next her is. Mexican women beg the Virgin for help, in real life and on television. La Virgincita is there when no one else is, silent and present. In the photograph of the viejtia, there is no observable facial characteristic. Is this a woman or a faceless ser, a being from another realm, wandering the streets, penitent and supplicant, like La Llorona? Is she asking for forgiveness or is she asking for help? Or is she the Virgin’s intercessor, sent to be seen so we react, so we do something about all this violence against women?
As a nod to Michoacan's largest ethnic minority, the purepechas, some of the women photographed are using the traditional güare's rebozo or shall. And then there are the younger female subjects, teenagers and girls, their faces covered, some in motion, as if they are just about to walk away, others stand, reminders that Mexico does not just have a serious problem with feminicide, but also with human trafficking of women and children.
The Michoacan state government supported Owen’s show, a show that denounces feminicide yet the state government does little to protect women’s rights. Abortion is penalized in Michoacan. Women are also systemically denied the right to choose how to birth. In the photographs where women are holding their abdomens, I wonder if any of those women have experienced abuse in government run hospitals and clinics in Michoacan. Access to health and reproductive care are limited and de-humanizing treatment by hospital officials and staff is the norm. The Women’s Hospital in Morelia is notorious for denying birthing mothers the right to have a family member or coach accompany them during labor. Women are lined up in the waiting room and once admitted, left to sit alone while the staff discusses their most recent personal anecdotes.
Perhaps if Paul Owen were to focus his lens on how women are treated in these government run hospitals, women’s reproductive rights in Michoacan (or lack thereof) would be taken seriously by the government. If he were to visit the Women’s Hospital he would see how women are not only the victims of violence perpetuated by their husbands, boyfriends, lovers, family members and organized crime but also of their own government. And almost as a foreshadowing of this thought, one of the photographed women, a nurse, her white uniform and nurse’s cap a testimony to institutionalized identity, holds her abdomen, maybe this is a message to those of us who know the reality of women’s lives in Michoacan. “I am a part of the problem” she seems to say “and I am ashamed by this knowledge.”
Mexico is portrayed in the media as rife with violence and in Paul Owen’s own country there is a notorious war on women. Historically, US-Mexico relations have had racist over and undertones. It is projected that in 30 years, a quarter of the US population will be ethnically Latino. Within this context, Owen’s photographs could be seen as in fact facilitating international relations between the two countries. He has shown the many faceless women in Mexico, of diverse social levels and ethinic orgins, who all are and can be victims of violence and silent complacency. Todos somos ellas, meaning we are all them, shows us that what happens to women, happens to all of us. Violence, feminicide, human rights; these are cross-cultural issues. The photographs are an invitation to dialogue about feminicide on a worldwide scale, but also an outright demostration of how Mexican society and government knows that this is happening but is doing very little to change it.
Todos somos ellas will be showing at Palacio Clavijero from July 19th to August 31st, 2013 in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. For more information about the project, please visit
Publicado por Alma M. Rinasz
Third culture kid born and raised in New York. Adventure bound and living in Mexico for ten years and counting. You can take the kid of NY but never NY out of the kid.