Nelson Morales is an artist from Oaxaca, Mexico, whose photography has become a tool for cultural exploration and personal discovery. For years, the photographer has been documenting the “third gender” communities of southern Oaxaca called “muxes.” After capturing countless images of the muxes, Morales began including himself in his photos, along with his muxe companions. He soon discovered that he also identified as muxe, and through the exploration of his work, he has exposed the world to a beautiful community, and also exposed himself to a true self-revelation.
Nelson recently sent Madre a collection of new images for the Madre Journal. We asked him a few questions, and his answers were as articulate and interesting as his photos.
Follow Nelson: @nelsonmoralesmx
Why do you take pictures?
Since I was a child I had an interest in art. I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t know exactly what kind of artist I wanted to be, I liked doing many things like dancing, singing, painting, etc. But I also liked to collect magazines, just to see the photographs, and I also liked to look at my family’s vintage photos, it inspired me a lot.
Over time I was able to buy my first professional camera, and the first photo was something magical, I will never forget it. From that moment, I decided that I wanted to express myself through photography. It’s taken a long time. I’ve prepared myself and I’ve taken it very seriously. Today, I do not regret having made that life decision.
Why did you first start taking pictures of Muxes?
A good friend asked me to photograph them [Muxes] for a beauty contest, however, I was not sure I wanted to do it, since I did not feel comfortable being next to them. I didn’t identify with the group. Finally, I decided to do it, and it has been a learning process ever since.
What role do Muxes have in the Zapotec culture?
The muxes are native to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, south of Oaxaca, one of the largest regions. There are Muxes in all the towns, each group has its customs and festivities. When they grow up some stay with their families and others go to live in new cities.
Has there always been a third gender role in the Zapotec communities?
It is said that the muxe tradition has existed since ancient times, evidence of this phenomenon is still being investigated, but I believe that it is true, because of the type of culture we are part of, where the power of women plays a large roll in all social and cultural aspects. The mother is the main support of the muxe, from childhood they accept them and they support them if they show feminine behaviors. They never force them, they just let them be free.
How did you start to include yourself in the images?
It has been an exercise of acceptance towards myself, and also to accept me as a muxe and part of the group. It took me a few years to do it, I always had it in mind but I didn’t dare. In a photo session, with a group of muxes I decided that one of them would do my make up, and they would photograph me and vice versa. It was a new and disturbing game for me, something happened or exploded, from that moment I did not stop doing it.
How did taking photos help you discover yourself?
Confront myself, inquire about who I really was, go beyond just portraying myself and leaving my comfort zone. I think that all those actions caused something to change in me and accept myself, and also to allow me to value my culture and my origin.
What have you discovered through your work?
First I think I am very visual, also that I feel comfortable communicating and transmitting sensations through images.
I also discovered that it is not enough just to have a good camera and make good images, we must go further and thoroughly investigate what one wants to say in the photographs. It’s not an easy path, constantly searching, and you have to be open to continued learning and accept that the medium is always changing.
Do you identify yourself as a muxe?
Totally. I am muxe for being part of this group and being of Zapotec origin. But from my perspective and my worldview of life, identifying as ‘muxe’ makes me feel free, it’s like my flag to show to the world.
What does “beauty” mean to you and how does it relate to your work?
Beauty is totally subjective, I consider that my images are mostly beautiful, but they are also imperfect, at times even uncomfortable to see. For me, beauty is also found in the strange, different, confused, and transformed. It may not be correct sometimes, and what transgresses my be confrontational.
What do you want your audience to feel about your work?
Awakening emotions, confronting the spectator in many ways, some good others not, but always making them reflect.
In the end I always end by saying that everyone, absolutely everyone is the same, whether we change or modify our bodies, we are still human beings.
I show something that is real, what happens, that sometimes we do not want to look at and understand.
This fascinating world that I show is the result of my experiences, demons and fantasies, that continue to confront and fascinate me.