Born in Mexico City in 1942, Graciela Iturbide is known for her photographs of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Hired by the Ethnographic Archive of the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico in 1978, she first documented the way of life of the Seri Indians, a nomadic community in the Sonora desert. Then in 1979, she was invited to photograph the Juchitán people of the Zapotec culture in Oaxaca, resulting in a nine-year-long project and the famous image Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas).
Fascinated by the power and grace of the Juchitán women, Iturbide sought to capture the essence of this matriarchal society where women control the finances and, thus, have more freedom and independence than many others of their gender in Mexico. The men work, but they give their wages to the women, who run the marketplace.
In the market, the women carry goods of all kinds on their heads. It was here that Iturbide encountered a woman named Zobeida with iguanas on her head. Recounting the experience, Iturbide said, “I could not believe it!” Preparing to sell them as food, Zobeida set the lizards on the ground, but Iturbide asked her to put them back so that she could take a photo.
Zobeida passed away in 2004, but Iturbide’s image of her became famous among the locals. In an exhibition of Iturbide’s photographs at a center for indigenous culture, Our Lady of the Iguanas was an instant favorite. People turned it into banners, posters, and postcards, the image becoming a symbol of women’s strength and confidence in Zapotec culture.
Iturbide’s work also explores the enduring legacy of ancient customs in modern Mexico, where Catholicism is the primary religion. The photograph Powerful Hands, for example, depicts the Juchitán custom of making icons from hand-shaped branches or roots. By photographing native traditions and festivals, Iturbide documents the blending of ancient practices with Catholic beliefs and showcases the diversity of Mexican heritage.
In 1989, Iturbide published the book Juchitán de las Mujeres (Juchitán of the Women). Since then, she has traveled all over the world, documenting life in Cuba, East Germany, India, Madagascar, Hungary, Paris and the United States. Still, her photos of the Juchitán people remain one of her most important bodies of work.