The subject sounds titillating on the surface of it, but Maya Goded’s photographic essay on the prostitutes of Mexico City, “The Neighborhood of Solitude,” is anything but sexy. Instead, the photojournalist’s sojourn into the squalid environs of the capital city’s La Soledad and La Merced barrios and among the tired, beaten-up women who sell their bodies there is more likely to turn one’s stomach. As Ken Light of UC Berkeley’s Center for Photography puts it, “It’s different than the way we might imagine it in America. There are a lot of older women. There’s not much ‘glitz of the street.'”
A girlish streetwalker poses apprehensively, waiting for a trick to come by. A woman slumps over a bedrail in a hospital. Bloodied street kids huddle underneath a curb where someone is standing; they’re literally underfoot. In an echo of the Pietà, a man cradles a dejected woman in his arms. Beneath a forlorn empty bed — the workplace — lies a telltale crumpled facial tissue. A young woman made up in death-head face paint stands next to a painting of Jesus Christ. A rain-puddled street is covered with discarded condoms. The agonized face of a kneeling, battered woman is framed by the legs of standing figures, seemingly male — her tormentors? Someone displays a bare back covered in faded tattoos. And perhaps the worst of all: A naked dead woman is laid out on a slab, and from our vantage point over her right shoulder we see a horrendous scar running from her neck down the right side of her torso and out of frame. Maybe it’s from an autopsy, maybe not. We’re informed that she was a prostitute killed in a hotel in 1999.
Each of the show’s 25 16″x 20″ black-and-white photos, although extremely composed, has a front-page tabloid-style immediacy — ugliness soaked in pity — that we can almost taste and smell. Goded planned it that way. The 33-year-old Vera Cruz native began photographing prostitutes in Mexico City and Nuevo Laredo five years ago. Her self-described mission was “to speak about women: about inequality, transgression, about the body and sex, about maternity, childhood and old age, about beliefs, love and unloving.” The project won Goded the 2001 W. Eugene Smith Award (named for the crusading LIFE magazine photojournalist) as well as a nomination to the prestigious Magnum Photos agency, but she’s not resting on her laurels — she’s already at work on a series that follows the migration of prostitutes to Tijuana and New York.
As with her earlier project on black Mexicans in Guerrero, Goded deliberately focuses on the role of “the other” in Mexican society. “Her work comes from a long tradition in Mexico,” Light observes. “She’s got a similar impulse to Don Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a socially motivated colleague of Paul Strand and Edward Weston. She’s seeing it [prostitution] through Mexican eyes, with a Latin-American cultural way of viewing the world.”
“The Neighborhood of Solitude: Prostitutes of Mexico City” is on display through May 1 at the Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Photography at UC Berkeley, North Gate Hall. For more info: 510-642-3383 or www.magnumphotos.com or www.smithfund.org