Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back: English/ Spanish

Image of Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back: English/ Spanish
Release Date: 
December 1, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back is a slim, bilingual coffee table book highlighting the photography of Janet Sternburg, a woman far better known for her writing. It chronicles 20-odd years of her traveling to Mexico to “regain a sense [she’d] temporarily lost,” taking dreamy pictures along the way. The results, however, may have served a deeper purpose remaining in the family photo album rather than being turned into a printed volume.

This is not to say that the work is bad—it undoubtedly has great meaning to the artist. But the majority of the compositions combined with a grainy, dull printing quality, makes most of them no better than a high school senior’s photography show about their spring break in Mexico. Indeed, the opening sentence by the author asks: “Can I make a book of photographs that isn’t only a gringa’s way of looking at Mexico?” The answer may be no.

What follows is an earnest yet slightly tone-deaf account of a woman’s journey through Mexico as a means of discovery and healing. It is all a bit too “live, laugh, love” to be taken seriously. In an effort not to be a white woman viewing a country and its people as “exotic,” she falls into that very trap, idealizing and idolizing detritus on the ground, people waiting for the bus, tourist trap performers, and urban decay. It’s not quite poverty porn, but it skirts the line.

One particularly uncomfortable image features a middle-aged woman wearing a Hollister T-shirt, sitting on a bench, her purse resting on her lap while she stares off into space. It is not a flattering depiction, nor is she likely to know that she appears in this book. In another, the viewer encounters rubble next to cars—perhaps evidence of the 2017 earthquake. A few pages later, a blurry closeup of a man in an elaborate indigenous costume, glaring at the camera. The accompanying text posits: “maybe during the day he’s a taxi driver.”

This brings us to the captions. After an essay about her journey into loving Mexico (and she really does love the country), most pages feature a single image accompanied by a brief blurb written by her physical therapist, a Mexican man she has known for years who has an “acute sensitivity to visual images.” The concept is that her friend provides a native perspective on what she has captured on film, creating a dialogue between them. The result is uneven at best, with many of them reading like Yelp reviews or clunky poetry. Next to a photo of a crumbling piece of cement or stone that has been drawn on, he writes:

“A stone not to sit on it but to look at it. People need

to express themselves, but I ask myself, Why stone?

Don’t they have other materials? Is it that they can’t

afford them? Or is stone part of their thinking?

My son will paint on anything.”

Perhaps it reads better in Spanish.