Detroit photographer Rosa María Zamarrón uses he...

Detroit photographer Rosa María Zamarrón uses her camera to capture communities — and decolonize spaces

"Part of taking back things that happened in colonization is being able to speak for ourselves and show our own narrative."

photo of people hugging at black lives matter protest in detroit, 2020, by rosa maria zamarron

Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit, June 2020. Credit: Rosa María Zamarrón

Rosa María Zamarrón is one of the fortunate few who discovers and accepts their purpose early in childhood. 

“I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life,” Zamarrón said. “I breathe photography; it’s all I think about.”

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 family’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.

“He was always photographing us,” she said. “If you look through our family photo albums, they’re actually not traditional, straight-on poses. He chose more artsy styles and had a distinct voice in his own photography work. I don’t even think he realized the talent that he had, he just loved it.”

Zamarrón 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

Rosa María Zamarrón. Credit: Joshua Carroll

Back in January, Zamarrón 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.

Zamarrón was selected for a RIF grant to support the continuation and expansion of her “Decolonizing 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. 

It’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. 

“While I was in Standing Rock, everything started happening. That’s when I started realizing life is a whole journey. You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “Until then, I didn’t realize how much colonization had affected my life as a Latina. I never really thought about it. It’s not something that was really talked about.”

As It Should’ve Been,” Detroit, July 2020. By Rosa María Zamarrón

Zamarrón’s experience in Standing Rock made her begin to think critically about the connections between Indigineous heritage and her own family’s roots. 

“My family grew up poor so there was no real focus on identity; it was just trying to make it,” she said. “But I got to Standing Rock and was just like, these languages that I speak—both of them (Spanish and English)—they’re colonizer languages. I’m talking to people who are saying to me, ‘You look like my cousin.’ And, I’m remembering how a lot of Mexican people don’t see themselves as indigenous or connected to Indigenous people.”

“But really,” she continued, “it’s like we’re half and half. The thing colonization did in Mexico was just name everybody Mexican and say ‘that’s that.’ Whether you’re Afro Latina or even identify as anything else, colonization says you’re just Mexican. It’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.”

Zamarrón’s photography captures the protest, celebration and memory of people—particularly people of color—living in places like Chicago, Philadelphia or Miami—but especially in Southwest Detroit. 

Without Southwest Detroit, Zamarrón said, she wouldn’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.

“We came to Detroit because this is where my mom’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; they’re very supportive of what I do. My success is really a community-driven effort.”

Zamarrón’s community made it possible for her to travel to Standing Rock—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. “They rounded up to find a solution for me when I didn’t have that camera,” she said. “And from there, I’m here producing the work I’m producing and able to see the world differently.”

Building an arts hub for her community

Sign at La Sirena Studio in southwest detroit
Courtesy La Sirena Studio

In 2018, Zamarrón 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. It’s a place that is not about centering her work or efforts, but about nurturing a space for the community. It’s another part of her “Decolonizing Spaces” project. 

“Part 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,” she said. “The studio provides a space for people to do that.” 

Zamarrón 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 classes—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 Zamarrón’s portraiture and documentary work, just on a wider scale. Collaboration is a characteristic she believes is critical for every photographer. 

“Each subject is giving me permission to photograph them and we have a conversation,” she said. “I don’t just snap and go. I have conversations with people and get to know them.”

It’s part of respecting communities and the people in them when she goes to work. 

“I’m very conscious of that when I visit different cities,” she said. “You have to take a step back and learn to be humble and aware that you’re entering someone else’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. There’s not as much consideration about what photos shouldn’t be published or shared for views and likes.” 

“I try to remember that everybody I photograph is human,” she added.

As her family, neighbors and community continue to work together, change and grow, Rosa María Zamarrón and her camera will be there. 

“I keep being enriched from being part of Southwest,” she said. “Right now, as everything changes through the gentrification that’s happening, I see how people are resilient, how they work together as a community. It’s a huge, continuous learning experience.” 

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.