The Twin Crossings of Yvonne and Julieta Venegas
An interview by Shirine Saad
Photographed by Dana Lixenberg

“Living on a border was something very important to me when it came to figuring out a personal language,” explains Mexican-American photographer Yvonne Venegas, who grew up between California and Tijuana. “It is clear in my work and process. I think of Tijuana as a place that is always under construction, never finished or perfect. I see myself in the same way and that is also how I work.”

This cross-cultural exploration has marked the life and work of Yvonne and her twin sister, the folk-pop music star Julieta, now both based in Mexico City. While Yvonne photographs people and landscapes to question social conventions and emotional truths, Julieta sings about passion in a melancholy, nostalgic style tinged with Mexican folk traditions. Both sisters have quickly established themselves as leading artists both at home and abroad: Yvonne has been offered several grants and prizes, and Julieta has won five Latin Grammy and one Grammy, among other awards.

The twins were born in Long Beach, California, after their parents moved there temporarily. Their father set up a portrait photography studio in Tijuana, and the girls grew up there. “My childhood in a photo studio in Tijuana marked my experience in a very important way,” explains Yvonne. “All of my work relates to that moment of my life in one way or another. My father wanted us to belong too, but he was clumsy in his ways, so he transmitted confused signs about what he wanted us to be: wives, workers, artists, rich… It was of course all the things he wanted to give us but couldn’t, which is human and after many years, endearing.”

They also took ballet, music, painting and choir lessons, and in their teenage years they began to experiment with photography and music, respectively. Yvonne shot portraits of her sister for two years; Julietta sang in a ska band. When Yvonne traveled to Europe to study and shoot more portraits, Julieta moved to Mexico City, and her sister soon followed her there.

Later in 2000, Yvonne the photographer moved to New York to study at the

International Center of Photography, where she met mentors such as Martin Parr and Rineke Dijkstra. She later assisted Juergen Teller and Bruce Weber and continued to work on her personal series. Her photographs, which are often shot in natural light with untraditional compositions, expose the social, gender and psychological realities of the communities she penetrates. “As members of small societies, the fear of judgment and our need to belong tend to lead us to having a prefabricated life,” she explains. “We are afraid of not looking like the others. Our inner life is not represented. I like to think that what I am looking for is some kind of history in each body and expression. Perhaps not an independent identity relating to the subject, but more relating to me and the situation we are in.”

Upon moving to Mexico city Julieta accumulated stints as a songwriter for politically engaged bands and theater shows, and was barely making ends meet by working at record store and teaching English, but she slowly began to focus on a more personal creative journey. “I mostly aspire to be a storyteller. I loved people like Suzanne Vega, and Lou Reed, or Cat Stevens,” she says, “but it never occurred to me to write in English. I started listening to people like Silvio Rodriguez, who wrote some wonderful lyrics. When I went to live in Mexico City I met a lot of people who helped and influenced me, like Cafe Tacuba, Gustavo Santaolalla, and they helped me to find my voice. Gustavo produced my first record, Aqui, in 1998, which was very important for me.”

Now 44, the sisters are both mothers. Julieta has one child and Yvonne has two. They are each busy with their projects and travels but have settled down in the Mexican capital, enjoying yoga, cooking – and incessantly seeking a voice that reflects their complex journeys. Regarding the artistic quest shared by both sisters, Yvonne explains, “When I photograph, I don’t know what I am looking for. All that I know is that it is that feeling that is most familiar to me. I guess I can say that what I am looking for is sudden, unexpected and fragile, which can be found by seeing the world as something that is unfinished.”