It is a compelling, enigmatic image of the Mexican Revolution. The woman sits on the train tracks, stares into the camera’s lens. She’s dressed in men’s clothing. Her arms are filled with what look like branches. Behind her, there’s a crowd, most faces concealed in shadow.
The date of the photograph is 1915. The caption reads: “This woman, nicknamed La Destroyer, was famous for helping those who had fallen in battle to die a more rapid and less painful death.”
This photo is from the Casasola Archive, a collection of close to 500,000 images that document the history and culture of modern Mexico. The archive is the work of hundreds of photographers, but the cardinal figure is Agustín Víctor Casasola.
Casasola is among the most important photojournalists of the 20th Century. He and the photographers who worked for his press agency took pictures of everybody: ordinary Mexicans and the famous, alike. They recorded Porfirio Díaz at the end of his 30-year reign; revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa in moments of triumph, and death; artistic and intellectual figures such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and exiled Russian Leon Trotsky.
Here’s where you can learn more about the photographer and his pictures: Mexico: the Revolution and Beyond is a magnificent coffee-table book published by Aperture in cooperation with the Mexican government’s CONACULTA INAH. An excellent introduction by Peter Hamill puts the photographs into historical context. The ISBN number for the hardcover English edition published in 2003 is 1-931788-22-7.
Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Mexican journalist and novelist Elena Poniatowska is a slim English-language paperback crammed with fascinating stories, accompanied by Casasola’s photographs, about the women who travelled with the revolutionary armies and often fought alongside their men. Allende Books, La Paz’s English-language bookstore, has copies in stock. Allende Books is at Independencia #518, between Serdan and G. Prieto. Phone number: 612-125-9114.
(originally published August 2009)