Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit, June 2020. Credit: Rosa MarÃa ZamarrÃ³n
Rosa MarÃa ZamarrÃ³n is one of the fortunate few who discovers and accepts their purpose early in childhood.
â€œIâ€™ll be doing this for the rest of my life,â€ ZamarrÃ³n said. â€œI breathe photography; itâ€™s all I think about.â€
The 32-year-old documentary photographer may be an heir of that purpose, passed down to her by her father who, though a hobbyist, recorded their familyâ€™s life with the lens of an artist. Growing up, she was as inspired by his photographs as she was by the documentary work she saw in magazines like National Geographic.
â€œHe was always photographing us,â€ she said. â€œIf you look through our family photo albums, theyâ€™re actually not traditional, straight-on poses. He chose more artsy styles and had a distinct voice in his own photography work. I donâ€™t even think he realized the talent that he had, he just loved it.â€
ZamarrÃ³n has been a professional photographer for a decade, and has become a steward of the voices of her community in Southwest Detroit, Indigenous people and other human beings whose stories are often left in the shadow of the spotlight.
Decolonizing spaces through documentary photography
Back in January, ZamarrÃ³n was one of seven community artists and organizations awarded $75,000 grants, to be distributed over three years, from the Radical Imagination Fund, a Detroit-based social justice fund. The $900,000 Radical Imagination Fund, developed by the Transforming Power Fund, invests in the vision and efforts of Black, Indigenous and people of color artists and organizations whose projects focus on racial justice and empowering communities of color in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.
ZamarrÃ³n was selected for a RIF grant to support the continuation and expansion of her â€œDecolonizing Spaces” project. Through one aspect of the project, she captures images of people in front of popular statues to challenge why those statues are there. Last summer, her image of four women from four different Indigenous nations standing atop the pedestal in Detroit where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood went viral.
Itâ€™s an example of how her work as a Mexican American woman artist is as much about decolonizing herself as it is about advocating for and celebrating the decolonization of non-white communities. Her work has become more prominent since 2016, when she traveled to the Standing Rock Tribal Reservation in North Dakota to document protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
â€œWhile I was in Standing Rock, everything started happening. Thatâ€™s when I started realizing life is a whole journey. You donâ€™t know what you donâ€™t know,â€ she said. â€œUntil then, I didnâ€™t realize how much colonization had affected my life as a Latina. I never really thought about it. Itâ€™s not something that was really talked about.â€
ZamarrÃ³nâ€™s experience in Standing Rock made her begin to think critically about the connections between Indigineous heritage and her own familyâ€™s roots.
â€œMy family grew up poor so there was no real focus on identity; it was just trying to make it,â€ she said. â€œBut I got to Standing Rock and was just like, these languages that I speakâ€”both of them (Spanish and English)â€”theyâ€™re colonizer languages. Iâ€™m talking to people who are saying to me, â€˜You look like my cousin.â€™ And, Iâ€™m remembering how a lot of Mexican people donâ€™t see themselves as indigenous or connected to Indigenous people.â€
â€œBut really,â€ she continued, â€œitâ€™s like weâ€™re half and half. The thing colonization did in Mexico was just name everybody Mexican and say â€˜thatâ€™s that.â€™ Whether youâ€™re Afro Latina or even identify as anything else, colonization says youâ€™re just Mexican. Itâ€™s a blanket thing. Being in Standing Rock was a huge awakening for me. That gave me the opportunity to talk to people about things that were important that need to be documented.â€
ZamarrÃ³nâ€™s photography captures the protest, celebration and memory of peopleâ€”particularly people of colorâ€”living in places like Chicago, Philadelphia or Miamiâ€”but especially in Southwest Detroit.
Without Southwest Detroit, ZamarrÃ³n said, she wouldnâ€™t have become the photographer or person she is. The neighborhood has shaped her development since arriving in Detroit at 10 years old. Previously, her family lived in Oklahoma and Texas.
â€œWe came to Detroit because this is where my momâ€™s roots are; she moved here at the age of sixteen from Mexico with her family. Ever since, the community of Southwest has been there for me; theyâ€™re very supportive of what I do. My success is really a community-driven effort.â€
ZamarrÃ³nâ€™s community made it possible for her to travel to Standing Rockâ€”a friend from the neighborhood with the necessary press credentials invited her along. It also helped her realize a long-held photography dream from childhood, helping her get a Rolliflex camera, the model she was fixated on at age 10. â€œThey rounded up to find a solution for me when I didnâ€™t have that camera,â€ she said. â€œAnd from there, Iâ€™m here producing the work Iâ€™m producing and able to see the world differently.â€
Building an arts hub for her community
In 2018, ZamarrÃ³n co-founded La Sirena Studio, an artist collective, events space, and community hub designed to foster entrepreneurship and creative exploration for youth and adults in Southwest Detroit. Itâ€™s a place that is not about centering her work or efforts, but about nurturing a space for the community. Itâ€™s another part of her â€œDecolonizing Spacesâ€ project.
â€œPart of decolonization and figuring out who you are is going into your community and connecting with the people who have supported you. Another part of taking back things that happened in colonization is being able to speak for ourselves and show our own narrative,â€ she said. â€œThe studio provides a space for people to do that.â€
ZamarrÃ³n works from the studio sometimes, as do other professional videographers and photographers, but she emphasizes that the space is really for anyone who needs a place to offer something of value to the community. That might mean a music artist coming in to shoot a video or a nail tech offering a free course.
A goal for future workshops at La Sirena is to offer language classesâ€”especially in Anishinaabemowin, with the intent to honor the history of the native tribes who lived on the land we are on contemporarily. Anishinaabemowin is a language spoken by several tribes of Anishinaabe people who are native to the land in Michigan and other parts of North America.
Collaboration at work
The collaborative nature of the studio is much like the collaborative nature of ZamarrÃ³nâ€™s portraiture and documentary work, just on a wider scale. Collaboration is a characteristic she believes is critical for every photographer.
â€œEach subject is giving me permission to photograph them and we have a conversation,â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t just snap and go. I have conversations with people and get to know them.â€
Itâ€™s part of respecting communities and the people in them when she goes to work.
â€œIâ€™m very conscious of that when I visit different cities,â€ she said. â€œYou have to take a step back and learn to be humble and aware that youâ€™re entering someone elseâ€™s space. Some photographers enter spaces lacking respect and compassion. They’re only thinking about entering a space to get a shot and pick up a check. Thereâ€™s not as much consideration about what photos shouldnâ€™t be published or shared for views and likes.â€
â€œI try to remember that everybody I photograph is human,â€ she added.
As her family, neighbors and community continue to work together, change and grow, Rosa MarÃa ZamarrÃ³n and her camera will be there.
â€œI keep being enriched from being part of Southwest,â€ she said. â€œRight now, as everything changes through the gentrification thatâ€™s happening, I see how people are resilient, how they work together as a community. Itâ€™s a huge, continuous learning experience.â€