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A Discussion on Photographing Marginalized Communities with Latina Photographer Miriam Alarcón Avila – PhotoShelter Blog

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“Lifting a camera to the eye and pointing it in the direction of a human, a landscape, an object, or any unfolding scene is an act of great power. While general audiences may tend to over rationalize the camera as a technology mostly unfettered by human interference, the truth that every photographer knows is how much choice we wield in how we use light, how we compose, what we leave in and what we leave out,” writes photographer and media scholar Tara Pixley in The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography

When clicking the shutter, it’s important to remember that we’re not just making images, but also presenting ideas. What gets included or left out affects the way stories come to life, which in turn affects how the public views various communities and cultures. One such photographer who knows this all too well is Miriam Alarcón Avila, one of the first mentees in PhotoShelter’s Mentorship Program. A Latina photographer originally from Mexico, her life’s work has been to cover the minority Latino population in her home state of Iowa. Focusing specifically on undocumented Iowans, she works tirelessly to protect their identities while shining a light on this vibrant community. I spoke with her about her experiences and recommendations for respectfully photographing marginalized communities. 

In recent years, there have been heated discussions about the role of consent in photojournalism and street photography, how to cause less harm, the white male gaze and the Photo Bill of Rights. While this piece only scratches the surface of this complex and ever evolving topic, our hope is that you take away new ideas and actionable steps for how to balance telling the stories of minority populations and doing an extraordinary job photographing. 

This interview was lightly edited for clarity. Cover photo by Miriam Alarcón Avila.

Iowa City March for citizenship 6588
Photo by Miriam Alarcón Avila

Common mistakes photographers make when photographing marginalized communities

  • Not having someone who speaks the language or who can appropriately translate and clarify information about where the photo or interview will be used by which publication(s).
  • Publishing unnecessary information that could be used later on to identify a person or people (e.g. full name, age or location).
  • Reusing photos without consent. Or, when there is potential for reuse, not explaining that adequately during the initial photographing process.
  • Demonstrating strong or aggressive body language when approaching sensitive topics or individuals.
  • Profession taking on aggression. In other words, taking photos before genuine interactions. “People just jump on you,” Miriam says. “They act like paparazzi, not journalists. It’s inhumane.”  
  • Not considering the differences in public vs private spaces. For example, asking for consent when in someone’s personal home or space is an absolute necessity but we recommend considering, when and where possible, asking for consent in public spaces too. 

Ethical boundaries photographers should consider

“More than journalistic ethics, photographers and journalists need to be humanistic,” Miriam says. “Sometimes this is forgotten because of working on a deadline,” she continues. “I don’t mean that some of them come with bad intentions, but they often don’t worry enough about the family or people they’re speaking with. Sometimes it’s not a big deal, but in other circumstances, people are completely afraid of the camera.”

One family Miriam was photographing for her project “Immigrant Luchadores” told her “Last week, these newspapers, they asked to do an interview and we said yes. But then they showed up with cameras and started taking photos of everything. We don’t speak English. We didn’t feel like we could say no.” 

Actionable steps photographers can take to be more respectful in their work if they’re an outsider to that community

This starts with education and human connection. As photographers, there’s a moral obligation to listen to and understand the story first before you try to tell it. A shared meal, a city council meeting, a walk through the red light district; photography is as much about empathy as it is about creating a compelling image. Without the connection between the photographer and the story they’re telling, there’s really no story at all. 

“I know people have deadlines, but treat people with dignity and respect,” Miriam adds. “I know you’re trying to do your job and do your best, but your interaction with these people matters to them. Getting really well rounded knowledge about how a community works and their unique differences and culture shows you care. Do your homework and nail down the information you need to have to respectfully interact with people. You have to understand that when you’re interacting with people who are in the minority, they come with a lot of psychological baggage. Sometimes it’s hard to see how you may come off as aggressive so just keep that in mind.”

Another thing you can do is to think of your photography as a collaboration instead of simply taking a photo. Giving your subjects agency is an easy way to show you respect their humanity and unique point of view. Empower the people you’re photographing.

Handling guilt after leaving impoverished or struggling communities

Miriam recommends finding ways to make a difference in that community to combat your guilt. “This happened to me at the beginning of my project. I started to do interviews and started making photographs and would hear these stories that really shocked me. For one thing, I would find out we have so many commonalities but oh my gosh, some of these people’s lives were so hard. They would shock me to the point that I couldn’t get them out of my brain. But that is not good, I had to learn how to compartmentalize,” she says.

So before she starts making pictures, Miriam makes it a point to understand the individual stories of the people she’s photographing. What is happening with this family? What are the circumstances they’re living in? “I cannot take something from you without lending you something in return, even if it’s just a smile or acknowledgement that I hear them and will make sure that others hear their stories too,” Miriam says. “I try to inspire people to make a change through my photography.”

Consider how a great photo of or story about a marginalized person might help them. Can they use it as a headshot for their job search? Do you know an advocacy group that might be able to help them find more permanent housing or other resources? Seek out ways to push your photo project further and make a difference.

Advice for choosing subjects and how to handle consent

At its most basic level, consent is about giving people the opportunity to say no. For people in marginalized communities, this is a choice they often don’t feel they have. Language barriers and identity concerns are often at the forefront of many of these people’s minds.

“When I’m going to places where I know there’s going to be a lot of people who are undocumented, I always ask first. I introduce myself, ‘Hi I’m Miriam. I’m Latina too. I’m giving a voice to Latino immigrants and I’m going to be making photos because I’m covering this event. If any of you don’t want to be photographed please let me know, raise your hands. I will avoid you, or if it’s a crowd photo, I will try to make sure you aren’t identifiable in the photos.’” 

Even in public spaces, consider asking whether an individual is comfortable with you using their photo and information. “I just want people to understand what it means to be a target. Iowa is full of conservative Trump supporters,” Miriam adds. “Especially during COVID, people are already struggling and getting evicted, and to be targeted on top of that is just sad. You can have information for things like fact-checking but then not publish it for everyone to see.”

Excluded Workers Columbus Juction 6818 2
Photo by Miriam Alarcón Avila

About Miriam’s personal project Immigrant Luchadores

This project started because Miriam had a deep desire to give a voice to Latino immigrants in Iowa. “At the beginning, it was right before the Trump administration. So every time I was meeting these immigrant Latios and hearing their stories and resilience, I was empowered to keep the project going. It was very inspiring and I wanted to share their stories with other people,” Miriam tells me.

“But the moment the camera came between us, it created a barrier. People were afraid of being seen. ‘They’re going to see me and recognize me.’ And that became a big barrier between us, between the stories. I kept thinking of how I could photograph them without making them a target,” the says. There was a very real fear of being deported if recognized so Miriam worked quickly to find ways to preserve everyone’s identities. 

She considered taking photos of just people’s hands or things dear to them but the connection never felt the same. “That’s when I remembered the word Lucha and the Lucha Libre. The word Lucha has a double meaning. It’s the name of the match for the Lucha Libre but also in Spanish it means the overcoming of struggle. It refers to someone who is not only just fighting, but they’re fighting with their soul, they’re overcoming. And then with the Lucha Libre, when they wear a mask they take on this persona, they can combat anything they come across. So I thought it was a great symbol to tell the stories of these immigrants. They have been struggling and challenged, but they’ve managed to succeed.” So Miriam ran with the idea. She even customizes the masks herself.   

With the increased focus on immigrants by the Trump administration, it became even more important to tell their stories. In a state where the population is only 6.3% Latino, it was a challenge to find new people to photograph. Miriam often goes to Latino festivals. “It was hard to find people. They were always hiding in kitchens, in the restaurants, or cleaning in the night at the movie theaters. So Latino festivals were a great thing, everyone coming together to celebrate their culture,” she says. While at the festivals she also wanted a way to engage young Latino children, who often were there with their parents. To keep them included she set up a table with blank Luchador masks and let them color to create their own, snapping a picture after. That’s how “Little Luchadores” was born. 

“Immigrant Luchadores” has grown and morphed as time has gone on and Miriam has been awarded grants from the Iowa Arts Council as well as been able to exhibit the work locally. 

On top of her Luchadores portraits, Miriam is currently also photographing a group of Latino workers called the “Escucha mi Voz” who have organized to request an “Excluded Workers Fund” to help them during the pandemic. “These are people who have not received any help from the government, no checks. When they lost their jobs, they didn’t get unemployment. They’re not getting child support and they’re struggling so much. Many of these people are undocumented or have work permits so their status is kind of in between. They have the ability to work and pay taxes but get no help. So they organized and were able to get two million dollars from Johnson County. I’ve been following that story,” she tells me. 

On the white male gaze and why it’s important for publications to seek photographers who can photograph their own communities

“I want to be clear here that this isn’t true of all white male photographers, I don’t think that,” Miriam says. “But there are some who have this heir of entitlement. They come in so strong that it makes people uncomfortable and they shut down.” You need the trust of the people you’re photographing to get the real scoop. 

One common issue Miriam has encountered is being asked to be a fixer in Iowa instead of being asked to be the photographer herself. “They need someone who speaks the language, who knows the area, who knows what is happening,” she says. “These big publications come in with a lot of money, and they want to fly in their team so they look for local journalists and then say ‘Hey, we actually need a fixer.’ If you’re ok with that, then that’s ok. But why not give people the opportunity to highlight their own stories and their own communities?” In one situation a publication ended up agreeing to let Miriam make portraits but in the end, told her they couldn’t do it. “Not because of my work but because I was so involved in the community. They didn’t want to come off biased. ‘Oh, they’re with Miriam and we already know where she stands.’” 

“But they’re never going to be able to get into a community that’s living in hard conditions without having the confidence and the trust of someone who is already there. There’s a big balance in how to keep highlighting the voices of people who are usually underrepresented and figuring out how they’ll get access,” she says.  

To keep up with Miriam and see more of her work, check out her PhotoShelter website: If you’re interested in learning more about photographing marginalized communities, download our free guide, The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography, which we made in partnership with The Authority Collective

Have ethical or inclusive photography tips of your own? Drop them in the comments below or tweet @photoshelter to share them. 

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