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Miruku: Exploring the Water Crisis Through Artistic Vision and Stories of Resilience

Wayuu woman sitting in a wood hut
  • Written byLubna Hussain
  • Published date 22 May 2023
Wayuu woman sitting in a wood hut
Wayuu Woman | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023

Discover the empathetic documentation and the profound impact of the water crisis on communities worldwide through the interview with MA Fashion Photography graduate Marisol Mendez, winner of the Sony World Photography Award. Marisol shares the details behind the award-winning collection, Miruku through captivating photographs captured in La Guajira, Colombia, shedding light on the water shortage experienced by the Wayuu communities due to climate change and human negligence. The thought-provoking collection, recently earned recognition with an exhibition at Somerset House.

Congratulations on your Sony World Photography Award and Exhibition at Somerset House. Can you please expand on the details around your collection that won this prize? 

The full name of the collection is called Miruku by Marisol Mendez (BO) & Federico Kaplan (AR), the images were captured in La Guajira, Colombia where we visited Wayuu communities in Pesuapa, Polumacho and Totopana. The project examines how a combination of climate change issues and human negligence have led the Wayuu communities to experience a stifling water shortage.

The work was commissioned by 1854/British Journal of Photography and WaterAid, where three photographic projects were born exploring the ways in which the climate crisis makes it harder for people to access their basic human rights of clean water, decent sanitation, and personal hygiene. They were looking for documentary proposals with creative approaches to tell nuanced and emotive human-led stories that shine a light on how individuals and communities are impacted by the crisis — both directly and via knock-on effects — as well as how they are adapting and responding.

Federico Kaplan from Argentina and I decided to apply together, proposing a playful questioning of narratives through diptychs. Both figurative and abstract, the images would work together to balance each other out in a kind of syncopation.

Two boys standing in a tree captured in La Guajira, Colombia
Two Wayuu boys standing on a tree, captured in La Guajira, Colombia | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
Close up headshot of Wayuu man wearing a Nautica cap
Close up headshot of Wayuu man | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
Please share a glimpse of your experience from the duration of this project

I was in Colombia between October and November 2021, my companions and I spent roughly a month in the city of Riohacha, located in northern Colombia. Every day, we would travel to the nearby community of Pesuapa and surrounding areas, where we immersed ourselves in the local culture and customs until dusk. Given that the pandemic remained a serious concern in Latin America, we were unable to stay in the communities for an extended period. However, we were fortunate enough to be granted permission to spend a couple of nights in Pesuapa. During our stay, we were warmly welcomed by Isolina, the community leader and her family. It was summer, so we all slept outside in hammocks.

During our visit, we gained a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of the water crisis. The term "climate emergency" has become such a commonplace that it has lost its impact. Prior to meeting the Wayuus, I had knowledge of water pollution and scarcity across my continent but witnessing its effects firsthand was eye-opening. Although some communities are able to maintain a level of stability during rainy seasons, this prosperity is short-lived as rising temperatures and drying land quickly negate progress. Moreover, global warming exacerbates the issue, resulting in devastating droughts and famine, and damaging the facilities and infrastructure that support the provision of clean water.

The Wayuu people's ability to adapt to their environment and develop sustainable practices in the face of water scarcity is truly remarkable. Their techniques for collecting and preserving water are not only practical but also deeply ingrained in their cultural traditions. They view water as a precious and finite resource, and their daily practices reflect this respect for the environment. As climate change continues to exacerbate water shortages and droughts in many parts of the globe, it is essential to look to communities like the Wayuu for inspiration and guidance. The resilience and warmth of the Wayuu community left a lasting impression on me during our visit. They welcomed us into their lives, sharing their homes, food, and stories. The children's laughter and playful energy brought joy to our days. On one memorable occasion, we accompanied the women on a long and arduous journey to fetch clean water from a neighbouring community. They maintained a positive attitude, despite the heavy jerrycans they carried, walking along the road and poking fun at our clumsy attempts to keep up while photographing.

Collage of two images, left: plastic water pipes and taps in the middle of a wheat field. Right: a young girl standing by a big metal green canister
Remote water source | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
Young woman hanging clothes on a clothing line, surrounded by greenery
A young woman amidst nature, tending to laundry | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
What story are you trying to tell through your photographs?

While documenting a situation as dire as the water crisis, it is important to strike a balance between accurately portraying the gravity of the problem and avoiding the glamorisation of the issue. It would be all too easy to present an overly aestheticized version of the reality that glosses over the harsh conditions and real suffering that people face or to indulge in the latter and reproduce misery porn. As visual storytellers, we understand the responsibility we have to present this issue in a way that is respectful to the people affected.

By combining raw, unflinching documentation with a lyrical, humanistic approach, we looked to create a visual balance that examines the situation with empathy. We believe that this approach will allow us to engage audiences with the severity of the water crisis, while still connecting them to the human stories behind the statistics.

I am more interested in making images that raise questions than providing answers. My work often challenges binary thinking and highlights the complexity of human experience. I want viewers to take away a deeper appreciation for the ambiguity and nuance of the world around us, and to consider the ways in which different perspectives and experiences can shape our understanding of reality.

Why did you decide to base your project around highlighting the Wayuu women?

While in La Guajira we witnessed how women are the most affected by the climate emergency. On one hand, the socioeconomic and racial discrimination they suffer intensifies the consequences that the water crisis has on their health, home and livelihoods. On the other, the power imbalance they endure as members of a patriarchal society makes them responsible for the daily challenge of providing water for the households they also run.

We sought to highlight the strength and resourcefulness of the Wayuu women as we find it inspiring that, even under such conditions, they have established themselves as community leaders, teachers and climate activists.

The water crisis deeply resonates with me on a personal level because I have witnessed how similar issues manifest both in the communities we visited and in my home country, Bolivia. As someone who is no stranger to a lack of infrastructure and inadequate water provision policies, I understand the detrimental effects that unequal distribution can have, especially in regions with diverse ethnic groups.

Has this experience helped you to broaden your vision for future projects?

The experience helped me broaden my vision for future projects. I’m excited to keep exploring the intersections of what once used to be more rigid categories. Miruku explores the water crisis in Colombia through a documentary lens and a fine art approach. Similarly, MADRE tackles social issues through various mediums, from fashion and fiction to archive and documentary.

I believe that in the contemporary photography scene, there is a growing emphasis on how narrative structures can shape and enhance a story. By blending different techniques and working at the intersection of mediums, we can create a more nuanced and multidimensional representation of the issues we seek to address. I’m excited to continue exploring the possibilities of these hybrid approaches storyteller to shed light on urgent issues facing our world today.

Portrait of Wayuu man and seven children gather by a tree trunk
Portrait of Wayuu man and seven children gathered on a tree trunk | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
Portrait of Wayuu woman with cultural face paint standing in front of a blue backdrop wearing red
Portrait of a Wayuu woman adorned in cultural face paint | Marisol Mendez Miruku 2023
Image from MADRE project of a young woman with yellow flowers and veil on head and white satin dress holding a gun
MADRE Project captures a young woman embracing strength, titled: "Killa" | Marisol Mendez MADRE 2023
Do you feel as though your photography style has adapted over the years? If so, what made you pivot into exploring another direction? 

My artistic practice dramatises the artifice of the photographic medium. The exploration of different directions was prompted by a desire to challenge hegemonic narratives and confront the tensions between binaries such as past and present; real and fictive; candid and staged; and naturalistic and mythical. Through my work, I aim to make visible the tension between truth and fiction, shedding light on the relationship between what a photograph creates and the (sur)real it originates from.

Initially, I wasn't aware of the potential for narrative exploration through photography. It was through exposure to cinema in Buenos Aires and fashion in London that I learned to observe, reflect, and compose images, before setting new eyes upon my culture and heritage.

My biggest standout project to date, MADRE, subverts religious icons by connecting them with Bolivian indigenous culture. Through a multiplicity of bodies, symbols, and timelines, the series questions the prevailing white, patriarchal representation of women in Bolivia, while also addressing class struggle and religious influence. MADRE received global attention, featuring in exhibitions such as Sharjah Biennial 15, Getxophoto, Format, and Athens Photo Festival. It has been widely published, including as a cover feature in The British Journal of Photography and FotoFilmic, and showcased in platforms like Paper Journal, Balam, and GUP Magazine.

The success of MADRE opened doors for collaborations with prominent photography platforms, enabling me to reach wider audiences. Notably, the 1854/British Journal of Photography and WaterAid commission allowed for the creation of more intimate stories about global issues. My practice has garnered acclaim and received awards, including recognition from the Sony World Professional Photography Awards, PHmuseum's 2021 Photography Grant New Generation Prize, Vogue's Fashion 100, Bird in Flight, and the Michael Reichmann's Project Grant awarded by Photolucida.

If I were to share any teaching from my experience it is this; be consistent, build resilience and commit to the work you do. Fall in love with your projects.

Young woman wearing a crown and royal garments paired with black combat boots
Our Lady of Plaster | Marisol Mendez MADRE 2023
Hispanic lady sitting down with long wavy hair to the side, wearing a white dress
'Dual' - Marisol Mendez MADRE 2023