Meet Marcela Taboada, the Photographer Capturing the Private Lives of Mexican Cloister Nuns

© Marcela Taboada
© Marcela Taboada | © Marcela Taboada

Northern England Writer

Marcela Taboada has been fascinated with photography since childhood, and has successfully converted both her love for the medium and an equal love of Mexico into an impressive career. Her most recent photographic series, Consagradas, was featured in National Geographic and will be exhibited in Puebla’s International Baroque Museum this May. Here’s our interview with this fascinating photographer, capturing the behind-the-scenes reality of life as a Mexican cloister nun.

How did you get your start in photography?

“Photography has been present in my life since I was a child. My grandfather, Ángel, and my father, Rafael, used to take pictures of the family and their travels, and my great uncle, Domingo, was a self-taught astronomer who had his own observatory, telescopes on the roof and dark room. My brothers and I used to play with the telescopes, moving the color filters to look at the craters on the moon, and it was actually this that introduced me to the world of optics.

“However, my father also used to have a dark room in the house. One afternoon he asked me to finish fixing his photographs, as he didn’t have time, explaining both how to do it and telling me not to touch anything. Obviously, I ignored that last part, printed and developed the photos, and that moment of seeing the image appear from nothing was magical for me.”

What was the motivation behind photographing Mexican cloister nuns in Puebla?

“I was born and raised in Puebla, a city that since its founding in colonial times has had many monasteries. During the Viceroyalty, they were built everywhere and various Catholic orders were installed. Despite the separation of Church and State under President Juarez, and the persecution in the Cristero War under President Calles, many still exist to this day. Of those, 14 are enclosed orders run by cloister nuns. For years I’d wondered why women continued to enter enclosed orders, especially as nuns have historically been persecuted, imprisoned and stripped of their belongings, so that’s the reason I got involved in the subject.”

What was the most interesting thing that happened during your stay with the nuns?

“I was surprised that, despite being cloistered nuns, they’re kept busy from dawn until the night’s final prayer. Their days are very long and I sometimes heard them say they were stressed. However, despite being very disciplined, they still make time for recreation, relaxation, singing, playing, and keeping up to date with the national and world news. In addition to praying five times a day, they maintain that spiritual strength that many of us ‘outsiders’ have left behind. I was also surprised to find out that they’re autonomous, earning their daily sustenance principally through baking and embroidery.”

You’ve mentioned that the nuns seemed reluctant to take part at first. Did they continue to be wary of you or end up enjoying the photography process?

Consagradas has been one of the most difficult and challenging projects I’ve ever done as a photographer, because, due to the rules that govern each female order, outsiders aren’t really allowed to see life inside the convent. It took me a lot of time to understand, and although I was insistent and perseverant, many of the orders didn’t allow me to enter with the camera, being instead distrustful or perhaps fearful at first.

“However, with the passage of time, some began to open their doors, which convinced most of the other orders to give me access too. Although they’re now my friends, there are still restrictions I have to abide by. Ultimately, I was able to complete the project in three years thanks to the support of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte, awarded by FONCA and I worked with Augustinians, the Brigid Order, Discalced Carmelites, Capuchins, Conceptionists, Saint Clare’s, Dominicans and the Mothers of the Cross.”

Which is your favorite photo from the Consagradas series and why?

“That’s a tricky question, because this work as a whole has had the impact that I wanted, right from the beginning. When I first exhibited it in Oaxaca, I received positive comments due to the fact that it shows the lives of a group of women that society largely ignores. The pictures changed the perspective of how we look at them, especially since many assume that nuns do only dedicate themselves to prayer. Honestly, each image is special, although the playful images and those featuring the spiritual rites are my favorite ones.”

Do you have any upcoming photography series planned? Will they be similar to this series or different?

“I have many ideas for the near future, both related and unrelated to the subject of cloister nuns. Although working with women’s groups in Mexico is what attracts me the most, I am currently in the research stage of developing something new.”

If you could work with any group of people in the world in your capacity as a photographer, who would you work with?

“With groups of women from Asia. Photography is a universal language that allows access to the entire world. My two children have already grown up, so I have the chance to really throw myself into what I’m most passionate about, and I’m willing to do so whenever the opportunity presents itself!”

Which up-and-coming photographers in Mexico should we be keeping an eye on right now?

“Photography across the world is experiencing quantum leaps right now, due to the development of new technologies that have democratized the medium. In Mexico, the new generations are adapting to the current market standards and there are a group of photographers such as Eunice Adorno, Livia Corona, Yvonne Venegas, Alejandro Cartagena, Alfredo de Stéfano, Mauricio Alejo and Luis Arturo Aguirre, to name but a few, who are shaking up the industry.”

Tell us a little bit about your new exhibition at Puebla’s International Baroque Museum.

“The International Baroque Museum has only been open for a year and it’s already a splendid museum with state-of-the-art technology. After the museum’s director saw my Consegradas portfolio, he invited me to exhibit the work, as nuns were hugely important during the Baroque period. I’m the first Puebla artist to exhibit in this venue and the exhibition opens in the middle of May this year.”

Finally, what are your favorite places in Mexico?

“I love my country. Its diversity from north to south is immeasurable; coastlines, mountains, fauna, flora, ethnic groups, cities, towns, languages, art, music, culture, crafts, gastronomy and modernity, as well as native Mexicans – wrongly referred to as indigenous – who are the ones that enrich the country, even though ignorance leads us to forget that at times. For that reason, I live in Oaxaca because of its multiculturalism and biodiversity.”

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