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Eva Lépiz on her journey to photography and happiness. 

— Story as told to Melissa Patenaude

Writer's note:
Eva is a photography partner at Wool+Clay. She has been an vital part of the team since day one. She brings her eye for light and movement, her talent for connecting with humans, her love for deep storytelling, and her local experience to help highlight the intricate and magical culture of Oaxaca.

Eva Lépiz.

Interview

Going against the grain.

After reconnecting with herself and finding what truly brings her joy.

11/04/2021

Words by
Melissa Patenaude

Growing up, we would go to play around, go to the mountain, ride horses, go for rides, look at the landscape. It was a nice childhood. Lots of fresh air and playing in the streets or playing in the fields. It was very nice. 

Introductions-
Hi! I'm Eva Lépiz. I'm a documentary photographer. 

I grew up in Oaxaca, in San Martín Mexicapan, 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) south of the center, crossing the Atoyac river. I grew up in a close community so it was safe to be in the streets and to play around. I had a nice childhood. I was in my home town, but also I got to live in San Lorenzo Cacaotepec, a village that is part of Etla (Etla District in the Valles Centrales region), 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the center. That place was good, too, because it's a big piece of land, there’s a river nearby (which was clean at the time). We would go to play around, go to the mountain, ride horses, look at the landscape.  

My mom is an accountant and my dad is an agronomist. He used to teach at the university and now he has a small gardening company. I have two younger brothers, so I'm the eldest and only girl. I was raised like a boy. It's kind of a joke, but in the end, my mom was very interested in me learning how to defend myself, so she put me in martial arts classes since I was 8. I stopped the classes when I was 23. I spent more than a decade practicing Taekwondo; in the end it was good, it's been useful. I used to love going outside, in the countryside, to the mountains. We were always on our bicycles, roller skating, riding a horse; at the time these things weren’t proper for a girl. Now it’s different, we can do whatever we want. I don’t have to be defined as a tomboy anymore. 

I had a fascination for light, for seeing it dancing with the dust. 

A fascination for light.

I've had interest in photography since I was a kid. I used to be very quiet and... maybe not shy, but I used to like being on my own. When I was in kindergarten, I remember that I used to find myself on top of the things, watching from above. For example, my kindergarten was on a hill. The building was built along the steep hill in layered levels. I used to climb to the highest part of the school so I could see everything. I was three or four years old. That was my thing, climbing to see everything at once. When it was lunch time, I would go to the top with my sandwich, alone, and have all the calm of the world. Sometimes the kids would reach me and say, "You're so weird. Why are you here all by yourself? Why are you here alone?"

Another thing that I used to like was receiving the sunlight while I was there. I remember that the other kids would come to me and say, "The devil will catch you because you're here under the sunlight". Annoying kids, haha. I had a fascination for light, for seeing it dancing with the dust.  

As a child I would go visit my family in Chiapas. The architecture in Chiapas, at least in San Cristobal de las Casas was interesting. It used to be a cold place, now with global warming not as much anymore. Mornings would often be misty, or rainy. The houses were humid. They used to be dark since they had very thick walls, and small doors and the windows to protect from the cold weather. I would spend my time just sitting in a corner watching the beams of light getting into the rooms through the small window opening. It was mysterious to me. When someone would sweep the floor or just move around, the dust would fly up and I could see the rays of light clearly. Everything else was dark, it was something nice to see. I used to wait for someone to go by and see how the light would hit the face or the movement. I use to love that. I guess that’s why I had a fascination with Rembrandt and Caravaggio when I was twelve.

I also remember that in my uncle’s backyard, there were chayotes. These plants grow low, 20 inches from the ground and you could crawl underneath. I would go in and watch the way the light would go through the leaves... they were glowing.

When I was 8, my father went to Texas and he brought me back a green camera. It was a 35 mm plastic automatic camera, pretty much like a toy. Everyone would make faces towards me when I would point it at them. I found it was a playful and interesting way to relate to people.  

Around the same time, I started drawing. To me, drawing was a personal challenge. I had to do it right. It had to be the same thing as the image. My mother would buy cartoon magazines, and instead of using carbon paper to transfer the drawing onto a new white sheet like the other kids did, I would draw it. I had pride in saying "yes, I did it". It was a challenge that I used to enjoy a lot. And then, at some point, drawing evolved into painting--watercolors and oil. Later on, in secondary school, I started doing basic architectural drawings.

I never stopped painting and drawing, it was part of my life. It was my way of getting to see the world, but also tools to understand things and to communicate.

I went on to study architecture. During that time, I started taking photography classes, but I only saw it as a hobby. I never thought that it could be a real career.

One day, I went to Sierra Sur, in San José del Pacífico, where they grow psychedelic mushrooms. I went with friends... "yeah, let's try, let's see what happens".  All my life, I had had health issues like allergies, cough, and flu. I always had issues related with my respiratory system. The mushrooms are supposed to be healing, not only emotionally and mentally, but also physically. So I wanted to try them.

We ate the mushrooms. In the first part of my experience, I felt the Earth, nature, the trees moving and breathing. I could feel their energy. It was something beautiful. I was no longer someone separated from nature. I was part of it, I felt it.

After this awareness of nature, I closed my eyes and went deep in my mind. All I could see was some sort of labyrinth, maybe since I had a background in architecture. It had walls with textures and lights, like a place with darkness and light. The labyrinth led me to see my issues more clearly. Soon after, I started having difficulties to breathe as if I was having an asthma attack--I had had asthma for a while. The worries and anxiety started to grow in me. Coming from a traditional family, we were told we weren't supposed to do any kind of drugs. That thought added to the anxiety. Now I know for certain this is a spiritual and powerful plant to be taken with deep respect. Those ideas and fears were taking over my mind. Then I realized this was a reflection of my past. I realized that most of the things I was doing, was because it was what it was expected from me as a woman, at my age--all of the social constructs. After fighting against my fears for a while, I accepted that it was okay if I ended up losing my mind from that trip. I surrendered.

That liberation felt so good. It was great just to be there, to feel the air, to feel the trees and to feel everything. From that moment on, there was a new voice in my head showing me the light and helping to explain a lot of life and expectations.

We had been in the woods throughout this experience. We were in a beautiful place, behind some trees, from where we could see a valley of flowers between two mountains. We could see the mist and a big storm coming. It started to pour and we all got soaking wet. And, nothing happened to me! Before this experience, I would have ended up with bronchitis or something of that nature. It used to be bad, I was always sick before then. But from that day on, it stopped. I barely get sick anymore. 

With photography I was getting to know different places, different people. Every day was different from the previous. I felt this work was more interesting--in a human perspective, it was more enriching. 

Not long after that San José del Pacifico trip, 7-8 months later, I went to a meditation retreat. The idea there was to go into yourself, into your self-consciousness. It was also a big eye-opening moment for me. 

In the end, these two life-changing experiences brought me a new point of view and is why I changed my career from architecture to photography. I thought architecture was the right thing to do, what was expected. But in the end, I didn't enjoy it. The days where boring--long days, same routine. The time goes by and you don't realize it. It was the same thing day after day, the dust, the sun, my co-workers, too many things to do, run from here to there. Some of my co-workers were rude, disrespectful and abusive. They would take pictures of my breast and my butt, with an intention for confrontation. Sometimes, people would come in and say "I'm looking for the architect" and I would say "That's me, what can I do for you?". They would answer "No, I'm looking for the male architect". They wouldn't talk to me. That was the work environment. I didn't want to do this for 30 years. I could have done it, but I didn’t find joy in this. 

I was working with photography at the same time, and through it I was getting to know different places, different people. Every day was different from the previous. I felt this work was more interesting. In a human perspective, it was more enriching. 

I want to go deeper, to understand people, to know who they are, to make a connection. That's what is important to me as a photographer. 

I was 24 when I left my architecture job to work as a photographer full-time. I felt a lot of uncertainty at the moment, I was somewhat terrified. Photography is not a job in which you can say "oh yeah, I know that I'll get my safe paycheck this month" and the month after it will be the same, but the freedom, the joy and the chance to own my time, to spend it in my own terms is amazing. I can start at 5:00 a.m. and finish 10 p.m. and that's fine. But maybe two days later, I can spend my whole day just relaxing, running errands, come back and prepare a nice meal while I watch a movie. I like that my days are different because I think that for creativity, for emotional and mental progress and enjoyment, you have to have variety in your days. Well, for me at least.

I understand that we all are different and for some people, it's important to have a certain routine and certainty. But me, I need change and I need to talk to people. I need to go different places. And it doesn't matter if it means just being in the street that is right behind me. It means that I can go deep in different situations. Also, just like traveling, getting on a plane, taking a bus and going somewhere, spending time not talking to people. To me that's nice, you get to see and observe things. But the real experience for me is when I have to go on assignment, when I have to go to a specific place to learn how people manage to 'grow things well' for example. I like to work on a specific subject everywhere I go. It allows me to go deeper, to understand people, to know who they are, to make a connection. That's what is important to me as a photographer. 

Working with Wool+Clay, I love connecting the artisan's work with what I witnessed growing up here. Their work has a lot to do with the indigenous Gods, the meaning of the water, the mountains and rain. All of what they use for their craft is just there. The things we see in the villages, like the pots, the clay, the colors are not there just because it's pretty, they have a meaning and purpose. 

I think it's important to listen to their stories because it's not only clay, it's not only a pot, is not only just a base, it has something meaningful behind it.

For example, in some places, a family could make an offering to the land for the agriculture season. They make a new pot of clay for the occasion, they make a hole in the ground and in this new pot of clay they put a food offering, the best food they can make and get... it could be mole and turkey. They have a ceremony, put the food with the new pot in the hole, then cover it. “Alimentamos la tierra, para que la tierra nos alimente también”. It’s about respect and balance.

More on Eva and our conversation coming soon.

VIEW MORE OF EVA'S WORK

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