Sandra Eleta and the Conscious Eye

Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta states: “All my photos draw on my life experiences. My experiences impelled me to take the photographs and they constitute the very soul of the photos. Photography would be impossible without these invisible contexts.”

By: Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Sandra Eleta Courtesy of Casa Santa Ana


The Birth of the “Eye”

Nearly half a century has elapsed since a young Sandra, a recent art history graduate, walked the sleepy, sun-splashed streets of the colonial town of Portobelo on Panama’s Caribbean coast. She was interested in photography and she studied the work of great masters like Eugene Smith, but she didn’t feel she had a vision of her own. Smith had done a series on midwife Maude Callen in South Carolina for Life magazine, and it occurred to Sandra that Josefa San Guillén, the Portobelo midwife and healer, might help her find a vision of her own.

“Josefa, I don’t have the eye for it, I don’t have a vision of my own. Help me give birth to an ‘eye,’” Sandra said. She requested permission to accompany Josefa to births and to take photographs. The midwife was surprised, but she agreed. “Back in the lab, I developed the photos and nothing. I didn’t have any sort of eye or the vision of my own I had hoped for.”

Sandra had already put away her camera, along with her dreams of being a photographer, when one day, her father, Carlos Eleta Almarán, gave her a Hasselblad camera that he had won in a bet on a boxing match. He had been assured that it had traveled to the moon and back. “Perfect,” he replied, “because I have a daughter who lives on the moon.”

After her letdown with photography, Sandra wanted to learn the mysteries of healing from Josefa and she once accompanied the healer as she tried to cure the evil eye. “You brought me this camera when I no longer need it,” Sandra told her father. But Josefa needled her: “You’re afraid to believe in yourself. Why don’t you use that camera you have there?” “I did, and the very first photo birthed a vision of my own, my ‘eye.’ I discovered that, until that moment, my photos had been clichés, but everything happens in its own time.” In the end, Josefa did help her give birth to her eye, as promised.

An Emerging Conscience

Sandra came to Portobelo at the beginning of an era of rediscovery, reconnection, and reaffirmation of the Afro-descendant legacy in Panama and Latin America in general. “When I arrived in Portobelo, there was no awareness of Africa, not even among the Portobelo residents themselves.” But a more coherent awareness began to emerge after the arrival of Professor Arturo Lindsay and his students from Spelman College,” remembers Sandra.

This environment and the support of poet John Ryan inspired the Portobelo Workshop, a women’s co-op initiative. “The Portobelo Group, of which Ryan was also a member, brought together filmmakers, musicians, poets, and artists who sought to learn more about their Afro-descendant origins,” continues the photographer. “Portobelo culture has many roots, including some completely unknown to the inhabitants. The language of the Congo (descendants of runaway slaves), for example, had not been linked to other Afro-descendant ‘trends,’ if we can put it that way, but it is now considered decisive in determining the degree of people’s affinity with African ancestors.”

The Mounted Butterfly

Sandra’s eye improved and grew stronger, nourished by the events of her life. Life in Portobelo became the first —and richest— of her photographic series, but other circumstances had an equal impact for different reasons. “For example, part of ‘Servants’ was done when I lived in Spain during the Franco era. The heroine here is Purita. I heard the anxious click of her heels along the hallways and felt her energy, which contrasted with the complaisance of the older servants.”

Sandra’s “Servants” is an attempt to study how these people understand their role. “While the oldest servants, like Víctor, did not separate who they were from what they did, the younger ones like Purita were more conscious of the distinction between their own selves and their work. The nervous click of Purita’s footsteps made me see her as a caged bird, which is why I photographed her against a background of swords, like a mounted butterfly.” It was the last time Sandra saw Purita. The young woman was an undercover ETA terrorist who died during an attack on a Spanish prison.

Paths of the Skin and Other Series

The eye matures and is more consistently perceptive, independent of the differences among photographic subjects. Sandra’s most recent series, “Paths of the Skin,” exemplifies this. “In this series, I wanted to say that everyone’s skin is a medium of expression, whether the subjects are hippies, Emberás, or Congos,” she explains.

Other significant series include “Women Peasants,” “Emberá: Children of the River,” “Touched by the Saints,” and “Grandparents.” “All my photos draw on my life experiences. My experiences impelled me to take the photographs and they constitute the very soul of the photos. Photography would be impossible without these invisible contexts.”

The Invisible World

The book The Invisible World is sponsored by the Casa Santa Ana Foundation, prefaced by Graciela Iturbide, curated by art historian Mónica Kupfer, and coordinated by the prestigious art book publishing house, Editorial RM. The book brings together most of Sandra Eleta’s work and reveals fundamental aspects of her life that underpin the series of portraits that are characteristic of her work.

Casa Santa Ana is a non-profit contemporary art space located in the crowded neighborhood of the same name in Panama City. The art hub hopes to revitalize the cultural environment of communities and their members through art, creative exchanges, and research. For further information on the photographer and the foundation, visit and

Advertisement Enter ad code here