LA Weekly features Yvonne Venegas


A Mexican Telenovela Spawned a Teen Pop Sensation. Artist Yvonne Venegas Documented the Insanity

By Catherine Wagley

Published June 13, 2013

In a photograph, Anahi, the actress-singer who uses only one name and plays high school superstar Mia in the Mexican telenovela Rebelde, stares at the camera with an expression that looks severe and defiant but probably just reflects the tedium of in-between moments like this one. She’s beside the flawlessly white hospital bed of Miguel (Alfonso Herrera), her father’s onetime enemy, her sweetheart and her bandmate on the show. Because of the coma into which he has mysteriously fallen, literally toppling over midsentence in an earlier scene, he lies with head back and a clear oxygen tube looped under his nose. Shooting has not begun, so cast and crew bustle around the two stars, fidgeting with balloons and cake for Miguel’s birthday party, throughout which he will remain unconscious.

Anahi is incandescent, as usual — something about the way light hits her layered, product-heavy blond hair and made-up skin really does make her glow. Though in this moment, when she looks the part of Mia but isn’t actually playing it, you take her more seriously than you would seeing her on a TV screen, saying something like, “Miguel, baby, I have so many things to tell you” through tears that don’t redden her face.

The photograph, called Cumpleaños (Birthday), belongs to artist Yvonne Venegas’ series Inedito (Unpublished), which features in Venegas’ second solo exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The series was unpublished for six years, finally appearing last October in a book that Venegas funded via a Kickstarter campaign and published under the RM imprint.

She took the images in 2006, during the last six weeks of filming for Rebelde’s final season, because Mauricio Maillé of the Televisa Foundation’s Visual Arts Department invited her to do so.

The department, backed by Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate and producer of Rebelde, had just started commissioning contemporary artists at that point, and Maillé had seen an earlier series by Venegas, The Most Beautiful Brides of Baja California, depicting upper-class Tijuana women, many of whom seemed highly conscious of their own carefully composed femininity.

His loose idea was to give the photographer unhindered access to the show’s filming, with a photo book as the possible result.

“He knew there was something there. He wanted me to document the phenomenon,” says the Mexico City–based Venegas, an alumna of UC San Diego’s MFA program and the daughter of a well-known Tijuana wedding photographer.

She makes photographs with the intuitive precision of a good photojournalist, but intends them to be seen on their own, not framed by newspaper headlines or magazine captions.

She doesn’t do much posing or editing, and maybe it’s her photos’ unproduced look that caused the Televisa Foundation to forgo a book — she recently heard certain higher-ups weren’t convinced her images qualified as art — even though that look is a specific strategy. It interrupts the veneer that often surrounds her hyper-produced subjects: the brides; the regal Mrs. María Elvia de Hank, the wife of Tijuana’s wealthy former mayor, whom Venegas shadowed for four years and describes as “a subject with a clear idea of how she wanted to be seen”; or the telenovela stars.

Rebelde, a remake of an Argentine series based on an Israeli show, focuses on a group of students at a boarding school called Elite Way, where, as the name suggests, most come from money and those on scholarship must either prove themselves worthy or be ostracized.

During the show’s 2004-06 run, the six main characters formed a band, called RBD, which became a sensation beyond the show’s frame. EMI Records signed RBD and they toured Europe and the United States, releasing two live albums in addition to their six studio ones.

“This blurring of fiction and reality happened,” says Venegas, who photographed the cast both at Televisa’s Mexico City soundstage and on a U.S. tour, where young fans dressed like Elite Way students sometimes would take photographs of her as she photographed them. Her identical twin sister, Julieta Venegas, had just released 2006 album Limón y Sal, which would sell 50,000 copies in the first two days after its debut, and people understandably mistook the photographer for the musician. So she became part of the identity blurring surrounding RBD.

“I’m interested in the situation, how the photographer becomes part of the situation,” Venegas explains. “They had a dynamic that I could easily play into. There was always a distance, a respectful distance — if I didn’t have a camera, my being there would have been absurd. But there was also a closeness.”

She would go shopping with Christian Chavez, who plays Giovanni and whose hair color changes regularly, or sit with RBD members during downtime.

One image, Dulce en el Telefono, shows a droopy-eyed Dulce Maria, headstrong Roberta on the show, between shoots, wearing her school uniform — a white shirt with top buttons undone and a loose red tie — lying with her head nestled into the corner of a new-looking tan sofa; she has a pillow on her stomach and a black and yellow cellphone up to her ear. Another shows Dulce standing on a balcony poised to drop a book down on suited men while cameras in the foreground record her and a few monitors show a live black-and-white feed of her face and shoulders.

Occasionally, Venegas would photograph the industrial streets behind a Mexico City studio building or a hotel where RBD stayed while on tour, in an attempt to contrast the smoothness inside, which seemed almost ignorant of any other reality, with outside. “The view gives you an idea of class,” she says. “There are so many expectations around the subject. People expect a photographer to see it in a certain way.”

A photographer is expected to criticize when surrounded by the trappings of privilege. But that expectation is limiting and sometimes misguiding. Consider, for example, a 2006 image by photographer Spencer Platt, taken after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a Beirut neighborhood. Well-dressed young people drive through rubble in a gleaming red convertible, one woman taking photographs with her phone. Because of the stark contrast between them and their devastating surroundings, they were misidentified in print and conversation as affluent gawkers. In fact, they were looking for their home like everyone else.

Only a clear caption could have remedied this misread, which is the situation Venegas tries to avoid. Can’t an image invite a nuanced reading without relying on written explanations that detail reality’s complications?

No captions or essays appear in Venegas’ book. The image on Inedito’s cover also features in the exhibition and shows RBD members backstage in the concrete hallway of an arena. They look like the school kids they play on TV — young, slightly uncertain, distracted. The two security guards flanking them are noticeably bigger and their cosmetically enhanced, TV-star gleam seems dwarfed by the rest of the world.

“The subject is complicated and I hope it becomes more complicated,” Venegas says, referring not just to Inedito but to her work in general. “What I mean is, I want more things to seem as though they don’t make sense.”

YVONNE VENEGAS: BORRANDO LA LINEA | Shoshana Wayne Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., #B1 | Through Aug. 23 |

Yvonne Venegas: The Personal View of Things

The award-winning photographer Yvonne Venegas, originally from Tijuana and now based in Mexico City, got her start at the age of 16 and took her first official photo class a year later. Her father, a social photographer in Tijuana, gave Yvonne her first camera.

Yvonne is a graduate of the certification program at the International Center of Photograhy in New York and she received her MFA at the University of California San Diego. She has shown her work individually and in group shows throughout the US, Mexico, Poland, Spain, France and Canada. Her work is part of collections in the US and Mexico, including the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Fundación Televisa, Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City and the Anna Abello Collection. She has published two photobooks, “Maria Elvia de Hank” and “Inédito.”

Here Yvonne discusses her latest project, for which she used the new Leica X Vario to document her father, José Luis Venegas, at work.

Q: What type of photography do you do?

A: When I started I wanted to be in fashion, then I wanted to be the Annie Leibovitz of Mexico and now I’ve been really focused on creating my own language and my own identity through my work.

Q: You usually take a couple years to do your projects. Can you tell us about your process?

A: I like to focus on one subject at a time. In 2000 I started my first long-term project and it lasted four years. I discovered I was trying to create something that paralleled my own identity. It was a wonderful experience.

I guess an important part of my process is that I’m often confused. I don’t really know what I am doing. It does parallel how I’m feeling or thinking. It is a bit abstract and hard to define in the first couple of years, but as I keep working at it, it starts to come together. I did a project called “Inédito” between 2006 and 2010 and I published a book with it. That was particularly a revealing experience because I worked on it during my graduate degree. I was living and doing the project in Tijuana and I was going to school in San Diego. I was doing the duel life of creating the work in Tijuana and then working with my fellow students and teachers and formulating something with it. My process tends to be blurry and then it comes together at the end.

Q: Tell us about your latest project documenting your father. Where did the idea come from?

A: This project is kind of a fragment of what I’ve been thinking lately. It is kind of an extension of it because I have been wanting to photograph social photographers, but I don’t know any in Mexico City. So I’ve been focusing more on the photographers I do know. When I had the opportunity with Leica, I thought it was perfect to shoot this idea but with a photographer that I have access to. I proposed it to my dad and he was very happy. It was a wonderful process.

Q: Your style is very different from your dad’s. Can you tell us the differences between how your dad shoots and how you shoot?

A: I don’t think there is another way to say it besides we are completely opposite. I am looking for moments that are imperfect or just a little bit off that make those perfect moments that he was formulating for his customers. They don’t have to be a terrible mistake where someone looks awful, but just wrong enough to make you want to throw it out and not include it in a photo album. That has been our dynamic. Unlike his perfect pictures, home life wasn’t perfect and I’ve always thought that photographing like this is a way of sort of fighting him.

Q: Can you tell us about the experience of shooting your dad?

A: It was very intense. It was seeing my dad in a later stage of his life where he is not the young man he used to be. He used to go to weddings and work 15-hour nights and then just sleep it off and be okay the next day. Now he is almost 70. It was an emotional thing to see him grow up and to see me grow up also. When your parents grow old that means you are old too.

It was a beautiful process. It had all the kind of feelings I like for a project to have. It was uncomfortable and emotional. The feeling was a bit more intense than my other projects because it was my dad. I was crying a lot and it was really odd. I would tell my dad’s customers about the project and they love him. Some of them have been his customers for 20 or 30 years.

Luckily, I got to photograph the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple and their family who have always had my dad photograph their events. When this beautiful, wealthy lady from Tijuana started to tell me about my dad and how wonderful and important it was to have him around then I see my dad photographing this private dinner party for them, I had to hold back the tears. They all obviously respected him.

Q: You’ve talked before about your father wanting the perfect picture and how that reflected him aspiring to a different social class. Can you tell us about why your father is obsessed with the perfect picture?

A: I think the perfect moment is a fantasy. My father grew up in a different circumstance than I did. His father worked for the law in Mexico in the ‘60s. So my dad had this strong conviction to have his own business, to be a stable person and send all of his kids to the best school. He was part of the building of a social class. He became crucial to a lot of people. But the way he had grown up didn’t allow him to be this perfect father so it was a bit of a tense upbringing compared to other girls. He had this idea that we were going to belong to this social class and marry rich guys and do all this stuff, but then our ideas became very different. My twin sister and I both became artists. She is a musician. The rest of my family did other things. But my twin sister and I never fantasized about marrying a rich guy or being a part of that social class. We liked to be different.

Q: How has your view of your father as a photographer changed through the years?

A: A few years ago I went into his archives and looked at all his negatives from 1972-1975 and I did my own edit of them. I plan on doing a book with them. The pictures I found were pictures that I wish I would’ve taken. A lot of people who have seen the pictures see a lot of similarities with my work. My dad as a beginning photographer was seeing things the way I see them. But then he became a commercial photographer so he started eliminating those moments that were not going to be bought. When I saw that work together I thought it was my eye as an editor, but it wasn’t. We come from the same place. I inherited something from it. It isn’t necessarily beautiful. It is a little bit dark sometimes. I also inherited how to make portraits, how to talk to people and make them feel comfortable.

After so many years of fighting with him and being pushy about things, I come back to this moment where I feel that he gave me so much. I admire how he treats people and makes portraits. I used to think they were cold and stiff, but they really weren’t. When you see his portraits compared to other photographers that follow all the same rules he does, they were alive. His portraits do have a feeling of character. I think that feeling is something I have inherited from him. Also, he is always trying to learn. I have the same feeling about my work. It is an addiction to just getting better. I got that from him.

Q: Can you talk about how using the Leica X Vario fit into your recent project?

A: I had never done a project with digital media. This was the first time. It was a surprising and refreshing experience. It was a different rhythm. Sometimes film will sit there for weeks before you develop it and look at it. This way you can look at the images as you’re working and it is like someone just sped up my process. It was exciting. I came back from this project feeling refreshed. I had this idea of photographing photographers in mind and suddenly I did it in three weeks. I edited it in four weeks. It got me really excited to do other projects. It just showed me the possibility of a different rhythm of working.

Working with a compact camera is a completely different experience. I feel like I’m in places I wouldn’t be otherwise. A compact camera is comfortable to carry everywhere. It allowed me to go into spaces that I probably wouldn’t have gone into. The image quality of the Leica X Vario is amazing. The RAW files are beautiful. It made me doubt my film addiction for a moment when I saw the RAW files from this camera.

Q: How was the Leica X Vario special for the project?

A: Working with the Leica X Vario was special for so many reasons. It was easy to bring to situations and not intimidate people with a bigger camera. It had beautiful RAW files that came out of every moment. The flash is really cute too. It’s like an alien! And you can use the Leica X Vario in manual. To get the moments I wanted, I had to shoot a lot. The camera has to shoot when I want it to shoot. I loved that about this camera because it was shooting when I wanted to. To focus manually and have manual controls was important while I was working. I was better able to be in control of the situations.

Q: Over the past 15 years you have been working on defining your voice. How would you describe your voice right now?

A: Recently I had a revision of my work from when I first started to now that made me see my work in a new light. I initially thought it was a bit of a mess and didn’t know where I was going. It made me realize that many things have happened with my work. I did a project in 2006 that was supposed to be published and shown and nothing happened with it. These things happen in my work and I just have to be patient. It shouldn’t have surprised me that people weren’t always going to understand it. After finally seeing the show and publishing the book, which both happened in September of last year, it kind of set me straight. I see this as a new beginning. It sounds corny but it’s true. It made me reflect on my past work. It made me confident and helped me find my voice.

Thank you Yvonne!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Yvonne’s work, visit For details on the new Leica X Vario, visit Leica’s website.