CSUN ‘Fotografía Social’ to Celebrate Work of Photographer Maria Varela

Image of community organizer, writer and photographer Maria Varela.

Image of community organizer, writer and photographer Maria Varela.

Community organizer, writer and photographer Maria Varela will talk about her work documenting the efforts of African Americans in the South and Chicanos in the Southwest to take charge of their own communities and bring about social change during an event on Tuesday, March 26, in the University Library at California State University, Northridge. 

“Time to Get Read: Fotografía Social with Maria Varela” is scheduled to take place from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. in the Ferman Presentation Room of the University Library. 

Varela was a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), from 1963-1967 working primarily in Alabama and Mississippi. The lack of images of Black people taking leadership to change their communities forced her to learn photography to document people’s leadership while in the South.  

“Maria Varela became a photographer out of necessity,” said journalism professor José Luis Benavides, director of CSUN’s Tom & Ethel Bradley Center, which collects, preserves and disseminates the visual history of the region with an emphasis on ethnic minority communities and photographers.  “She couldn’t find images that mirrored the life experiences of African Americans in the Deep South, so she was forced to create these images herself.  In that process, she discovered what photographer Matt Herron called ‘photography wider lineage’”. 

Varela became the only woman and the only Chicana among a SNCC photographic staff exclusively formed by men. The March 26 event will celebrate her accomplishments and openness to explore uncharted territory, said Benavides, who noted that Varela was also involved in the documentation of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the first Chicano Youth Conference and the 1960s and 1970s Chicano movement, as well as the lifestyles of Nuevo Mexicano villages.    

“Maria Varela’s photographic work cannot be dissociated from her work as a community organizer both in the South and the Southwest,” he said. “Her photography is rooted in community knowledge and empowerment. It is meant to create images that affirm people’s rights to civic engagement and the creation of new forms of collective leadership.” 

For more than 50 years, Varela organized rural communities in New Mexico and the Southwest to create culturally sustainable economic enterprises to help reduce poverty and loss of ancestral lands and waters. In 1990, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for this work. In 2005 she was among the 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

 For the last five decades, her photographs have been included in dozens of books and photo exhibitions across the country. Varela serves on the Board of Directors of the SNCC Legacy Project, which documents the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and mentors today’s young activists. 

The March 26 event is sponsored by CSUN’s University Library, Distinguished Visiting Speakers Program, The College of Humanities, the Departments of Journalism and Chicana/o Studies, as well as the Tom and Ethel Bradley Center. To reserve your spot for the event, RSVP here: https://library.csun.edu/events/maria-varela?type=event 

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