Indigenous Visual Sovereignty: For All the Memories Yet To Be Recorded

Where does the sovereignty of images lie? Wandering critically through the fields of memory, the artists Lorena Cruz Santiago and Alex Santana share impressions of visual productions that, as an exercise of autonomy, move away from statism flowing in a stream of what original populations are and have been.


An image is capable of commanding authority, capturing a moment in time, and documenting important information as it occurs. In the advent of social media, ubiquitous surveillance, and facial recognition, the ability to self-produce images of yourself and those around you is an exercise in autonomy. Images, when self-produced, carry a backbone of intent and also the catalyzing potential of future possibility. Although images now circulate endlessly on profit-driven media platforms and resist traditional “ownership,” they still function as exercises in what we are and what we could be, collectively.

In that way, images are similar to seeds because they embody a beginning, a potential for something, perhaps unpredictable and beyond one’s control.

We spent a lot of time discussing the difference between images of people made by those within a community vs. images produced by those outside of a specific group. How does an image reflect a constructed identity, a fabricated truth, or a story about a particular person?


Looking through family photo albums I see classic images of me and my sister as babies, toddlers, and so on. The only source for images of my elder relatives when they were younger is the bureaucratic identification documents. In the case of my parents, they are small printed photos that appear in the standard format of passport picture: from the shoulder up with a serious face against a white background. Similarly, the only images I have of my grandfathers and great uncles as young men are their ID cards from their time as braceros (I am not sure where I would find images of my grandmothers as young women). Viewing the ID cards of my grandparents I reflect on the conditions that led to the creation of these images, which are simultaneously sentimental photos and political ephemera.

My grandfather’s identification card is one of many depicting men searching for economic opportunity. Started in 1942, the Bracero Program allowed Mexican men to work under legal contract in agricultural fields in the United States during World War II. Fearing that the war would create a labor shortage, agriculture growers were allowed to hire Mexican men as guest workers.[1] My grandfather’s image is framed by the words “Alien Labor Identification Card” and “This Card Must Be Carried At All Times.” The Bracero ID cards point to what Allan Sekula describes as the “myriad of ways in which photography has served as a tool of industrial and bureaucratic power.” As the only family photo of my grandfather, it lacks the setting of home, other family members, or any of the other signifiers of typical family photos. This visual archive, or absence thereof, reflects the lack of access to photography my family had in Indigenous communities like San Juan Mixtepec in Oaxaca, Mexico. This image is an identification card with an Indigenous person positioned as alien labor and points towards the very conditions allowed for this to be the sole photographic record of my grandfather.

What would these photos have looked like if my family had authored their own images? What cultural practices and values would have been seen? In the few examples that do exist in my family album (mostly from the eighties), there are scenes of my maternal family standing outside of the church. Two photos show family members standing near the walking paths existing before the roads for motor vehicles on the outskirts of town. Once they are in the U.S., the photos depict typical family life, but also their lives as laborers—smiling among the fruits they harvest.


In their struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, the Zapatistas strategically began their uprising on January 1st, 1994, the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. This decision tethered their cause to media coverage of NAFTA, an agreement which exacerbated the subjugation of Indigenous people in Mexico. Already aware of media’s power, the Zapatistas welcomed support from the Chiapas Media Project (CMP). The CMP worked with the Zapatistas to help them produce short films about their everyday practices and a glimpse beyond the mass media’s surface portrayal of their struggle.

Made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the Chiapas Media Project was started by the U.S.- American Alexandra Halkin whose goal was to facilitate and promote Indigenous media. While working with the Zapatistas, the CMP were careful and aware of their presence as outsiders. To avoid replicating the colonial model, they searched for and employed Indigenous video makers to teach filmmaking courses.[2] Additionally they assured participants the equipment for film production was theirs to use; they were the authors of their image and story.

In 2005, with help from the CMP, the Zapatistas created a short film titled, La Tierra es de Quien la Trabaja [The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It]. Over introductory wide shots of the autonomous community of Bolon Aja-aw in Northern Chiapas, Mexico, a narrator describes the Zapatistas’ search for land in the face of displacement caused by the Mexican government. This short film served as a way for Zapatistas to show their daily communal life of tending to the land in resistance to globalization. Additionally, in this short film the Zapatistas engage in what Steve Mann describes as “sousveillance,” the act of inverting the power relations typical of state surveillance.[3] The Zapatistas use the camera as a tool against state violence to create evidence of their interactions with government officials. Not only a tool for self-authorship, the camera can also ease state violence, as the state itself becomes the surveilled.

The collaboration between the CMP and Zapatistas demonstrates a strategy for gaining visual sovereignty. Rather than relying on stories told from outsider perspectives, CMP enriched the tools of the already media-savvy Zapatistas to control their image. The Zapatistas were able to use a visual tool for sharing the intricacies of their daily life and share it to increase international solidarity. Even today, as new calls for support from the Zapatistas are shared within social media networks, their media strategies succeed in making it known that their struggle for sovereignty is constant.

The United Farmworkers have 28,000 followers on TikTok. In some videos, they introduce themselves and address the camera in first-person vlog-style format. Usually speaking in Spanish, they explain where they are from, how necessary their labor is, why immigration reform is urgently needed, or invite congress members and senators to join them for a day of work out in the field. These videos feel candid and earnest, although perhaps ironic, underscoring the physical difficulty of their work and the likely inability of a politician’s strength and will to do it. These videos also exude pride in the sacrifices endured by farmworkers. Many of the workers in these videos come from Central American Indigenous communities that require them to migrate to the U.S. for temporary work to provide for their families. Migration, in this sense, due to extreme economic hardship, feels coercively obligatory.

The sacrifices are real, recorded through image-making and proliferated on social media. These images highlight the difficult, often precarious labor that migrant farmworkers are expected to endure for very little pay. They highlight the ironies of being perhaps the most essential workers of the U.S. who also lack legal protection and documentation status to protect them. They also form part of #UnionTok, a broader genre within TikTok consisting of videos of workers’ grievances, information about rallies and strikes, and expressions of solidarity, among other issues concerning labor unions.


In another video— arguably one of their most popular ones—footage of workers hunched over picking lettuce is overlaid with the text: “Remember, your food didn’t just appear” and in the caption, a hashtag: #SoyEsencial [#IAmEssential].

TikTok’s interface is designed for the mechanics of internet virality. On an iPhone, the app takes over the entire screen and obscures the clock, distorting time. Videos are usually short and catchy, meant to capture attention and encourage multiple viewings. Its algorithm is eerily specific to each user, often suggesting image content that feels like a vision you might have in the future, unique for you but still yet unknown. It is surprising TikTok regularly feeds me videos fitting firmly in the #UnionTok genre. I do not see these images on the discovery pages of the American tech giants like Facebook and Instagram, which I also interact with regularly. Perhaps it is a reluctance to introduce the idea of labor unions as an active part of the public imagination. After all, memes, symbols, and slogans shared on social platforms are our current didactic codes for social interaction and association.

Images on TikTok—quick and repeated—turn into continuous, fragmented thoughts. I am forced to think about labor. What kind of labor sustains a people? Who are the people with access to the fruits of such labor?  What historical occurrences have set precedents for the unjust exploitation of laborers?

How does capitalist imperialism systematically undervalue labor?

We know the labor of farmworkers is valuable and they are the backbone of all societies. Because of capitalism’s disregard for Indigenous communities and its unfair assessment of agricultural labor as “unskilled,” many farmworkers suffer. This suffering is directly correlated to the exploitation engineered by big agricultural corporations who prioritize capitalist profit over the wellbeing of workers. It is further exacerbated by the oppressive laws, militarized borders, and other barriers implemented and carried out by the U.S., our fallen empire that views laborers as expendable and insignificant.

The autonomy behind an image on TikTok—especially a self-produced one—has enormous potential for a shift in public reception and the viral popularity of a movement. Many of the UFW’s recent TikToks are in support of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, proposed in March 2021, which would provide pathways towards legal immigration status and employment protections for farmworkers. This act, like others proposed, has strict regulations and never seems to address the enormity and severity of the situation at hand. Regardless, we can exercise autonomous thinking and offer real solidarity, catalyzed through images.


Questions over Indigenous visual sovereignty started when reflecting on my own work which is informed by my family’s Indigenous background. I wondered how my parents could be part of the process rather than solely relying on my own gaze. The book Indigenous Media in Mexico by Erica Cusi Wortham, is about two projects, including the Chiapas Media Project, carried out in Southern Mexico that supported Indigenous communities in creating their own visual film aesthetics. The book inspired me to prompt my parents to make videos about their garden and after encountering technical difficulties, I decided to instead record a FaceTime conversation with my mom. In this video, Untitled (Garden Tour), I FaceTime with my mom, therefore, she acts as primary videographer, candidly documenting her successes and failures. Using FaceTime makes the work collaborative, as it wouldn’t be possible without my mom’s participation.



During a recent visit to see my father in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, he spontaneously climbs a tall banana tree. Immediately, I grab my phone to record the moment, in awe at the tree’s magnitude, and also somewhat scared for my aging father’s safety. It is nighttime after all, a night of a few Presidente beers bien frías [nice and cold], and yet he climbs the tree with miraculous ease. Carrying a machete, he directs my videography from above: “Shine the flashlight here so it’s brighter for the camera.” With a few graceful whacks, he frees the ripe bunch of bananas, tosses them to my open-armed cousin waiting below, and shimmies down. I cannot help but conceptualize this image-making moment as collaborative. Although I do not live on the island like he does, and I am unfamiliar with many of his cosecha [harvest] strategies, his pride and joy shine through in the short video. It is a fragment of a particular knowledge and circumstance, recorded as an image in perpetuity.




  1. Note of the editor: This program began during the sexennium of President Manuel Ávila Camacho through which approximately 4 million Mexicans were hired in the USA for agricultural work. The Bracero program ended the hooking system, and the hiring process became the responsibility of official initiatives and not a mere private negotiation. In this sense, in spite of the improvements, the program that would only be extended for two more decades, was not exempt of multiple failures, and in the decade of the fifties the workers felt a loss of position that caused the deportation of about a million undocumented people. Currently, the historical episode known as the Bracero Program forms a very important part of collective memory that is transmitted and build through a photographic and oral way. To find out more about this program and its iconography: Bracero History Archive. Available at: http://www.braceroarchive.org/. (Accessed on September 27, 2021); Jorge Duran, “El program bracero (1942-1964). Un balance crítico” in Migración y Desarrollo, núm. 9, second quarter 2007, 27-43. Available at: https://www. redalyc.org/pdf/660/66000902.pdf. (Accessed on September 27, 2021); Jorge Duran, “El programa bracero (1942-1964). Un balance crítico” in Migración y Desarrollo, núm. 9, second quarter 2007, 27-43. Available at: https://www.redalyc. org/pdf/660/66000902.pdf. (Accessed on September 27, 2021); Craig Sherod, Cenzontles, “Best of me, braceros in portrait” Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library (Via NYU Libraries), 2011. Available at: https://hdl.handle. net/2333.1/fj6q59fx. (Accessed on September 27, 2021).

  2. Alexandra Halkin, “Outside the Indigenous Lens: Zapatistas and Autonomous Video-making,” in Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics, ed. Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart (Duke University Press: 2008), 67.

  3. Mann, Nolan, and Wellman, “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments,” in Surveillance & Society 1(3), 333.


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