“Our Sister’s Keeper” tells stories of strength in indigenous cultures and developing countries.
Two little girls in Chiapas, Mexico put their arms around each other and beam with gap-toothed grins and joy-filled eyes. A mother and daughter in India sit in front of a gray wall, wrapped in multicolored saris. A woman in Ghana’s Gambaga witch camp rests her hands on her knees and attempts a smile.
The photos in Our Sister’s Keeper, showing at the Murphey Gallery in St. Philip’s in the Hills church through Sunday, Oct. 28, are vivid. Colorful textiles stand out against dirty skin. Bright smiles stand out against bleak surroundings. Washington state-based photographer Marie Plakos has been traveling the world taking photos of women in underdeveloped countries for eight years, and has grown passionate about sharing the stories she sees on her travels. What started out as an interest in the textiles and adornments from places like India, Africa and Central and South America, expanded into an interest in the women who make them.
“When you look at the lives of these women, it’s amazing what they can do with textiles and beads, and make beautiful adornment for their bodies, when you know they’re facing poor health care, spousal abuse and many other kinds of human rights issues for women, particularly in underdeveloped countries and indigenous cultures,” Plakos said.
While she’s always been drawn to different cultures, she spent much of her life as an administrator in academia, putting her doctorate in education administration and sociology to good use. Her experiences with gender inequality in her own career, including pay disparity and feeling she needed to work harder and stand out more than men applying to the same positions as her, left her with a taste for looking out for other women, or being, as she says, “her sisters’ keeper.”
“I was the first woman administrator in a large school system in Los Angeles, so I lived through the glass ceiling,” she said. “So I guess it was just a natural inclination to take up human rights for women.”
And so she pulls over to camps on the side of the road in India, wanders into communities in the Andean highlands of Peru and even approaches women in Ghana separated from their village because they’re accused of being witches. With the help of local interpreters, she tells women that she’s interested in their lifestyles and would like to take their photographs.
There’s no universal approach to taking her photos: While she uses translators as often as possible, and never puts people into poses or uses lights or a flash, her subjects’ reactions vary. She said she’s never had an issue in India–women ask her excitedly to take their photo next. Places like Ghana, especially along the coast where the slave trade was very heavy, are different. The people there are less trustful of a white stranger with a camera, and once Plakos treads carefully. In Ghana’s Gambaga witch camp, which Plakos has visited twice, many women were nonverbal, but were still willing to show Marie around and have their photos taken.
Once taken and edited, Plakos first displayed the photos in this exhibitt at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, and now, in Tucson. Plakos approached Sue Cross, chair of the Murphey Gallery, about St. Philip’s hosting the exhibit, having heard that the church hosts a rotating selection of art through a friend.
Cross said when she laid out prints of the photographs on the table for her fellow board members to see, everyone agreed there was no question about displaying them. Cross struggles to pick a favorite, but a photo of women selling chiles and handmade textiles at a Mayan market is a strong contender.
“Every time I see it, I see something more,” she said. “These women, their daily life is a struggle, but they’re so happy in themselves, and strong and beautiful.’
Not all of the women in Plakos’ photos look happy. Some look tired. Others are solemn, or reflective, or determined. Some are attempting to smile. Plakos said she sees strength in these women regardless of their expressions.
“Maybe contented is a better word [than happy],” she said. “Resigned, but not depressed. I’m finding that they go on with life… and drop the heavy burden of resentment or whatever negative feelings there are, so it’s getting on with living.”
Marie will be back in Tucson for the closing reception on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m., speaking and signing books of her photographs. She wants as many people as possible to see her exhibit, and to walk away having learned a little bit more about how not everyone has as much control over their circumstances as many of us do in the United States.
“Women in other cultures have their challenges, but we’re all strong underneath it all, because women are stronger than men,” she said. “We’re just born that way.”
St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church is located at 4440 N. Campbell Ave. For more information about this exhibit and Marie’s work, visit oursisterskeeper.org.