Let’s meet up with… Alexia Zuñiga

Mexican photographer Alexia Zuñiga was awarded the second prize in the 2013 category Gender for a photo from her series Typical Day, which looks at the lives of transsexuals over the age of 60.
How did you come into contact with your subject, how did you find out about her life?
I work for the Ministry of Health. Like everywhere else Mexico has a lot of older people who have many different health problems. I met some transsexual people there, so those elements mixed and that provided me with my topic. I met a lot of gay and transsexual people but not so many older transsexual people. I knew there had to be some, just maybe not living a public life. So I really had to search and eventually I met Samantha, who is 83 years old. For me photographing her was a way to look into and show a life. I learnt through her that big decisions can work out okay. I also felt that, as a woman I could identify with her problems and her decisions in day-to-day life.
The image of Samantha is quite intimate, how do you put your subjects at ease?
Someone told me once that when you have a camera in your hand it can feel quite aggressive, that in some way you are conquering the other person. I always try to find things that are similar in both our lives, and to talk about that. Finding a connection this way is more natural and honest. Samantha was happy to talk a lot about her life, and about taking the decision to change gender. Happily, for her it was not so difficult as her family and friends knew about it.
Are you still in touch with Samantha?
Yes, we are still in touch. She wants to set up a kind of centre for older members of the gay community to come together, for exercise and other social activities. Sometimes I am able to do things to help her with this project.
Your personal work shows a more natural documentary style but you also do a lot of fashion and editorial work, which is quite a contrast. Do you like having that balance or would you prefer to be able to stick with one style?
For me there has to be a balance. I love documentary style, but money is an important element! Actually the fashion work has helped by making me think more about the picture, made me see that if you can talk with your subjects and make them comfortable you will get a better picture. I use this technique in my documentary photography now, I take more interest in the person rather than just trying to get a good picture.
How was the experience of Pride Photo Award, and what has happened since your image was selected?
I didn’t know that it had been selected until a friend told me. I was like “really?” This particular group is not well represented in society. The most recognized group in the gay community is between 20-40 years old and the older age groups are often forgotten. I was pleased that other people recognized that this subject is important, and I was grateful – now people know about and are thinking about people like Samantha. I really find that people see the work with different eyes now. Before, many photographers in Mexico would say “oh yes that’s interesting.” But after the image was selected, they really began to see the importance and the meaning of this work.
(Interview by Robyn Grafton)

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.


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