Emilia Oyanguren, daughter of mission workers José Oyanguren and Alfonsina Finger, grew up in the town of Castelli, in the Argentine Chaco, among Toba Qom people. Emilia developed a strong interest in photography and moved to Córdoba to study at La Metro Escuela de Diseño y Comunicación Audiovisual (School of Design and Audiovisual Communication). Her final project before graduating in July 2021 took her back to Castelli, where she spent a couple of months with the women of the Qom Lashepi Alpi weaving cooperative. She sat with them, listening and learning about their lives.
She reviewed historic photos and saw that many portrayed the Indigenous people and culture in ways that were used to impose submission. Emilia wrote in her thesis, "In the gatherings, I kept my camera in my backpack, and I took a couple of photographs with my cell phone in an unobtrusive way. I felt the weight of lifting the camera in front of a face, a person, a story and taking photos. Questions began to
arise when I saw that the story I wanted to tell was not mine to tell. How do I achieve a faithful representation of the Toba Qom communities if I am not Toba Qom? How do I show, with photography, who the other person is? How can I approach, through photography, recording the gaze that the other woman has on herself?"
Rather than focusing on taking the photos, Emilia first facilitated a photography workshop with the women. She wrote that she did this, "with the aim of providing visual resources, so that they themselves can insert their own view of their community into the established patterns and to encourage reflection on their own history and customs, leading to the extension of their culture." The Toba Qom women expressed their visual language and creativity both in photos of nature and in portraits of one another.
Toba Qom women in the photography workshop went outdoors to take photos of nature, illustrating their links with the land where they live, their knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Chaco countryside, the medicinal plants and foods, and the raw materials needed for their artisan work. Photo by Emilia Oyanguren.
The women used visual language and creativity to express themselves and their culture in photos like this one, with a hand reaching out to touch pasto de laguna (lagoon grass).
Photo by one of the Toba Qom women in the photography workshop.
They also took portraits of one another, affirming the dignity of each woman. Being part of a collective culture, the Toba Qom put all their photos together, without identifying who took which photo.
As Emilia deepened relationships dating back to her childhood, she began taking a few photos to illustrate the cultural practice of weaving baskets. Toba Qom women traditionally weave during the morning and afternoon, and then, after several weeks of production, they walk with their baskets from house to house and offer their work for sale. To expand their markets and strengthen their economy, the women, with the support of the Junta Unida de Misión (JUM, United Missions Council), started a cooperative, Qom Lashepi Alpi. Emilia shared the following photos, honoring the work of the Qom Lashepi Alpi members.
Dionisia Rodriguez selects the palm leaves that she will use in her artisan work. She harvests the leaves by hand, rolling them until they break off. Photo by Emilia Oyanguren.
María Adolfo sits on her patio, weaving a basket by hand. She spends each afternoon outside weaving until the sunlight is gone. Photo by Emilia Oyanguren.
Urbana Guaipo begins to weave a breadbasket in the meeting place in which women from the Qom Lashepi Alpi cooperative gather and work together, preserving an important cultural practice, while improving their own economic well-being. Photo by Emilia Oyanguren.
Emilia summarized, "This photography project was developed collectively, as Indigenous women interacted with me and I with them. The exchange of knowledge opened the way to bring together different views and cultures, with the intention of learning from one another, thus producing a relationship on equal terms. At the same time, this photographic series does not end here but rather continues in its course of interaction."