Mariceu Erthal García, winner of the W. Eugene Smith Fund

19 Nov 2020 by Joy Habib

The Meero Foundation is proud to be a sponsor of the W. Eugene Smith Fund. Every year, this major institution in the landscape of arts and culture gives out a grant to a documentary photographer who turns a humanistic and compassionate lens on inconvenient realities. This year, the fund is breaking a 40-year tradition by rewarding five outstanding photographers instead of just one. We’ve met up with some of them and they’ve told us about their work, drive, and commitment.
Meet Mariceu Erthal García, a Mexican photographer who uses her lens to reflect on humanitarian issues. Her project Letters to Gemma sheds light on the violence and criminality in her country.

One day in 2011, Gemma Màvil, a girl in her late twenties, left her home in the Mexican city of Veracruz to get to a job interview. A few hours later, her father, Pedro Màvil, received a phone call: on the other end of the line, he heard the screams of his daughter and a stranger demanding a ransom of a million pesos. Pedro Màvil was unable to raise the money in time, and he never saw his daughter again. 

In Mexico, where one person is kidnapped every two hours, the abduction of Gemma Màvil is far from being an isolated incident. Poverty, drug violence, lack of appropriate governmental structures: these are just some of the factors that explain the frequency of these heinous crimes that often go unpunished, with 98% of them left unsolved

As a Mexican woman, Mariceu Erthal García has to live with the constant fear of falling prey to a violent crime. As a documentary photographer, she is compelled to tell the stories that, like Gemma’s, are often left untold. The Màvil family welcomed Mariceu into their home and visit after visit, Mariceu grew closer to the memory of Gemma. Through her photography, she channels something of her soul: her poetry, the places she inhabited, all of the small and intimate objects that make us who we are. The result is a deeply emotional project that reflects upon absence, longing, and grief. 


Mariceu Erthal Garcìa, Letters to Gemma


When you first look at Mariceu Erthal García’s work, you’re struck by the softness of it all: her world is one of poetry and symbolism. She tells a story of grief through harmonious compositions, where each innocuous detail is loaded with significance. There is no violent outburst in her work, the terrible truths she’s reporting on are only implied. But as you dive into the Letters to Gemma project, the political dimension of the photos become obvious. It is also the aspect of her work that Mariceu Erthal García is the most eager to talk about:

I like to do activism with my photos. It's a way to fight against the things that scare me. I can’t run away from the rampant criminality around me, so I draw attention to it instead. Most people tend to ignore the things that terrify them, and this is part of the reason why the voices of the victims and their families are never heard. I think their voices matter, these lives that have been suspended matter, and this project is my way of doing something about it.

Mariceu Erthal Garcìa, Letters to Gemma


The photographer made the bald choice of using self-portraits to talk about Gemma's disappearance and her family's pain. She was able to build a very intimate bond with her subject.

I feel very close to Gemma. I found blogs with some of the poems she had written, and through them, I felt she was talking to me directly. It was very touching. This project is proof that you can know people even if you haven’t actually met them.

Read about Mariceu's work on Blind, Meero's dedicated photography magazine.

Now Mariceu’s goal is to find a way to show this project outside of the artistic milieu that is typically interested in her work. She has been working on a photobook for Gemma and she will use a part of the grant money to do presentations in public spaces of Veracruz, Gemma’s hometown.

She will also be using the Eugene Smith Grant to partially fund her next project that will take her to Brazil, where her father is originally from, and where she will tell the story of her paternal family, that she has never met.

Mariceu Erthal Garcìa, Letters To Gemma
Mariceu Erthal Garcìa, Letters to Gemma

Stay updated

Get the latest photographic news and inspiration