Erin Lee is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Mexico City. She was born in New Zealand but always wanted to explore the world and meet different people and hear their stories. Mexico City soon became her home where she truly felt like she was in the right place. Recently, Erin went to the refugee camp to work and meet the Saharawi people near Tindouf.
She was inspired by their stories and the amount of respect they have for each other, even in the most difficult life situations. In this interview, you will be able to see Erin's stunning photographs taken on this journey and learn more about her inspiring work.
Hey Erin! You have had quite a photographic journey. You were born in New Zealand where you studied professional photography and then worked in Australia and New York. Now, you are based in Mexico City. What influenced your decision to make this city your home?
Initially I decided to live in a Spanish speaking city for a while to improve speaking the language but I chose Mexico City because I saw it as a growing place in terms of its art & photography scenes and industries, not so saturated and competitive like Berlin, New York or London could be but still with a lot of opportunities and things happening.
It’s relatively cheap to live and full of inspiration, I also think it’s a in a good spot geographically to be able to travel and work in other places nearby, I felt quite isolated living in New Zealand and Australia.
When did you start taking photos? What attracted you specifically to documentary and editorial photography?
I started taking photos when I was 15, I learned to shoot analogue, develop and print in a darkroom. Later I worked in studio photography but I got very tired of directing everything inside a closed environment. Well, editorial I like it because offers variety to your day job! But, documentary photography I am drawn to because it’s a matter of creating your own interpretation of what is going on in a certain situation. As a photographer you have a responsibility but also a flexibility to portray that situation, so I think it is interesting how one creates that balance.
You are also doing photography workshops for children living in vulnerable countries. When did you start this project? What is the most valuable thing you learned from working with these kids?
I have done workshops with kids in Mexico City before making pinhole cameras and cyanotypes, but the most recent project was actually with adults. A project that I ran with another photographer called Vision del Norte during 3 months earlier in 2016, we offered a series of free photography workshops in various cities along the northern border of Mexico.
The idea of the workshops was to focus on storytelling and visual language and for them to develop a project over the 3-month period. At the end of the workshops we produced a book, which exhibits the projects of everyone who completed the course. It was interesting to see the projects these people came with, their work and attitudes broke a lot of the stereotypes you hear about life on the MX/US border.
Your work has been published in various countries around the world. What are the most rewarding aspects of being a photographer?
A camera has given me access to a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen without it, I like having it as a tool to be able to meet people who are different to me, photography always gives you an excuse to go exploring and I love that. I think it comes naturally to want to make images of people and things that are unfamiliar to me.
You were working in a refugee camp of the Saharawi people until recently. What inspired you to embark on such a journey? What part of this journey made the biggest impression on you?
I went to one of the refugee camps for Saharawi people near Tindouf, Algeria as part of an international art festival and human rights meeting which takes place there once a year. Morocco took control of most of Western Sahara in the early 1970’s and still claims sovereignty over much of the land, so these people have been refugees for over 40 years now making it Africa's longest-running territorial dispute. The takeover forced the Saharawi people to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and stay put in the camps, where one woman met put it as, "we are given everything necessary to keep us alive, but nothing else".
What made the biggest impression on me was the peaceful demeanor of the people there. They were so affectionate and generous despite all they have lost, and obviously they desire nothing more than to have their territory back but they do not want to fight any more. Despite all they have gone through they hold dear to their morals and care for each other in a way that can only be admired.
You had a pleasure of meeting so many different people and telling their stories. In what ways doing this changed you as a person and as an artist?
It definitely has changed me, I mean every person is just a sum of their experiences in life so of course anything and everything that happens to us causes a reaction and adjusts our perspectives, whether you are an artist or not. But I think living in a culture that is not my own has made me a more patient person, that’s for sure. And going to different places I am reminded there will always be someone better or worse off than me, so to go with what you’ve got!!
What are your plans for the future? Are you planning on doing more exhibitions soon?
I will be in Mexico for at least another year, and then who knows, may be time to go somewhere new. I am currently working on a project with photographs that I took during my time along the Mexico / U.S. border and creating new work involving the past and future stories of some of the people I met there, which I will make into a book in 2017.