A blond young woman in a white ball gown sits in a gloomy alleyway with a small, considerably darker child on her lap. On her hands, she wears plastic cleaning gloves. The image—taken by Maxine Nienow, a 2009 graduate of the BFA Photography program—is one of the most striking pictures in a recent series that depicts the photographer’s native Mexico. Taken in her hometown of León, the photographs are tableaux vivants that confront some of Mexico’s thorniest socioeconomic struggles: drug wars, violence, and economic disparity. Nienow’s pictures explore these topics from a reverse class perspective. People that look rural and indigenous are placed in privileged urban settings, while subjects with obvious European ancestry are pictured as servants and workers. “My friend was telling me about a family she knew that made their nanny wear gloves when she was touching the baby,” recalls Nienow, who reinterpreted the story in the photo described above by casting herself as the baby’s caretaker. "Putting myself into the frame represents how I too am complicit in the system of violence I seek to expose. I hope to embolden others to see how they are responsible for that which they condemn. And to use their actions for change," she explains.
The complex subject matter is not the only striking element in the series. The pictures’ beautiful composition, dramatic light, and strong color palette make them look rich and almost painterly, a quality that Nienow attributes to her fine arts background. “I think that if I had never studied painting and drawing, my images would look completely different,” she says. “It definitely informs the way I compose my sets and work with color and shape and shade.”
When Nienow showed her Mexico pictures in her senior thesis show at Parsons, they instantly attracted attention. Several galleries approached her for solo shows, and she got an editorial assignment for Condé Nast Traveler. “I’m very lucky to have had so many opportunities since I graduated, but I haven’t had time yet to stop and think about it,” she says. By the looks of it, she won’t slow down anytime soon.