Camden Photo Exhibit captures the women of Cuenavaca, Mexico

Women are fighters, luchadores, struggling with challenges such as poverty, trauma, abuse, lack of education and few opportunities to improve their lives or those of their children.

And yet they laugh. They smile. They are vibrant and beautiful whether they are just out of their teens or in their eighth decade.

Their portraits, taken in Cuernavaca, Mexico, by Thom Goertel in January 2020, reflect time and beauty — time and beauty — and give its name to this photography exhibition to be held at Camden FireWorks on March 20.

“Photography is about access,” said Goertel, a retired visual communicator, photographer and animator whose work has been exhibited at the White House. “Getting access and a window into the lives of these women was profound. It was one of those times when you’re really happy doing what you choose to do.”

Goertel first traveled to Cuernavaca in 2017 with VAMOS Executive Director Sean Dougherty! (Vermont Associates for Mexican Opportunity and Support), a non-profit organization that partners with local communities in Mexico to provide employment, education, food, healthcare, and other assistance to women and children. The two have been friends since studying together at Temple University in the 1970s.

'Agustina's Smile' features Agustina Reyes Marquez, 77, from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“I remember the plane on the way home, I kept thinking, I have to go back and focus on documenting the women there,” Goertel recalls.

He returned with Dougherty in January 2020, packing minimal gear and shooting portraits of 36 women over five days.

“Sometimes when you look at a child, you can see the adult they could become. Or I can look at someone older than me and see the child they once were,” said Goertel, who lives in Washington, DC “I saw the beauty of these women, and I wanted to document that beauty and show how time and the lives they lived shaped that beauty.”

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Dougherty, a parishioner from Sacred Heart Parish in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden, explained that VAMOS! started 35 years ago, and its mission is to do everything the people of Cuernavaca need: “We started by asking them, what do you need?”

The non-profit organization has grown to employ 70 people, including 65 women and only one, Dougherty, in the United States.

“Everything, every decision is made by the employees in Mexico,” added Dougherty, who manages fundraising and grants for VAMOS!.

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When Dougherty was with Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a nonprofit that prepares at-risk youth for careers in tech, he took some of them to Cuernavaca, and he said many of them have found that the experience had changed their outlook on their own lives.

“They saw these children queuing in front of school an hour before it started on a Saturday,” he recalls. “And they say, ‘Wow, I hated school,’ or ‘I dropped out,’ and they first saw themselves as the ones with resources, not the ones who needed help.”

Maria Fernanda Hernandez, 40, and her daughter are among the subjects of Thom Goertel's portraits made in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“Camden is like Cuernavaca,” said Cassie MacDonald, a Waterfront South resident who is program director at FireWorks. “It’s a place filled with people who have a lot of power, potential and rarely recognized drive.

“(The women of Cuenavaca) are actualized the same way the Camden community is actualized. But watch out, that light is coming though.”

The timing of the exhibit, in the middle of Women’s History Month, was intentional, MacDonald added.

“These portraits are a way of saying, we see you. We appreciate you, who you are and what you have to say. It’s a tribute.”

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Being intentional about its exposures is part of FireWorks’ mission, and director Asiyah Kurtz wanted to make sure the photographs weren’t just something to look at, but a complete representation of the women they capture.

“Before seeing the photos, I was curious, but also worried,” Kurtz admitted. “I know there’s sometimes an objectification of people of color, of women, of financially poor people. We wanted to make sure that we were respectful and that we weren’t using these women.”

Kurtz and MacDonald explained how the exhibition fits into FireWorks’ intentions to create social change through art and to elevate the artists, their subjects, and the community that surrounds the gallery, studio, and venue. the event. They reached out to Cesar Viveros, a Philadelphia-based artist who has created murals in Camden and Philadelphia, and who grew up in Mexico, to make sure there were no cultural clues missed, that the portraits didn’t were not abusive or misleading.

"Berta in profile" shows Silviana Austrebertha Gonzalez, 81, from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“It wasn’t easy, there was an intention – how can we do this in a way that is ethical and honors women?” Kurtz said.

His opinion ? “He said they looked like home,” MacDonald said.

“And if it resonated that way with him, it was positive for us,” Kurtz said.

Part of Goertel’s process was simply to get to know the women in order to better grasp their minds. The language barrier was part of the challenge, but there were other difficulties.

Working with a driver/translator, Goertel, who donates the proceeds from the sale of the photos to VAMOS!, recalls “receiving vague directions to a house that didn’t have a number on a street that didn’t have a name,” something he called “a wonderful riddle to solve.

Asked what surprised him most about the women he photographed, Goertel pondered the question.

“The depth of the trauma in most of their lives, the closeness of the tears to the surface in almost every case,” he said. He met women in their early 20s to 80s and was struck by how little their lives had improved.

“They are impoverished. Many of them have little education and they have suffered trauma, and not much has changed between their lives from those in their twenties to those in their 80s, given the lack of education , given the lack of opportunity … give the lack.”

Learning that one of the subjects described the women of Cuernavaca as the luchadoresMacDonald posed a pointed question: “We celebrate women for being fighters, and we admire them for being so strong, but why do they have to be strong? Why do we expect this? fighters?”

Camden and Cuernavaca are two places where “a lot of things are broken, but somehow all of those broken things support the community,” Goertel said. “It’s easy to go to a place where it’s not easy to live and make it ugly. It’s a handy fruit. But you can go to see people living, the arc of a life, from one child to one abuelain a functional and dynamic city.”

Dougherty noted another similarity between Camden and Cuernavaca: there are people of Mexican and Latino descent in both places, living and working and fighting for a better life.

“There are undocumented people in Camden, and we hope people in the community will see others who are like them, who are from where they come from,” he said.

“And especially as we encourage Europeans to take in refugees from Ukraine, as on our own southern border we are building walls to keep people out – these are the people we are keeping out, these beautiful, strong and accomplished women.”

If you are going to

Tiempo y Belleza runs from March 20 to April 23 at Camden FireWorks, 1813 South Broadway, Camden. An opening reception from 3-5 p.m. on Sunday, March 20 will feature remarks by photographer Thom Goertel, music and homemade tamales. For more information visit

Phaedra Trethan has been a journalist and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, focusing on quality of life and social justice issues for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and the Daily Journal. She has been called South Jersey at home since 1971. Reach her with comments, topical tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @By_Phaedra or by phone at 856.486-2417.

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