Photographer Paola Paredes explores queer life in Ecuador

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Paola Paredes grew up queer in Ecuador, and over the years she has witnessed the evolving landscape of legal rights and public opinion that shape the lives of LGBTQIA+ people. In her new work, “Skin Deep,” she dismantles persistent stereotypes in an interactive experience that foregrounds nuance while reimagining how we experience photography. She tells Gem Fletcher about her motivations, creative process, and why engaging viewers through play is fundamental.

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“It’s been a very long journey,” says Paola Paredes about her coming out. “From a young age, I knew I was queer, and it was a hard realization. I grew up in the United States, but my family moved back to Ecuador just in time for high school. I struggled to find my place as a queer woman, [especially as] I never saw any same-sex couples. You spend so much time thinking something is wrong with you, especially in a conservative, religious country. I was very closeted and it was a very internal, painful process keeping it a secret. I struggled to find any community in Ecuador, so I returned to the States to explore my sexuality in my early twenties. When I returned to Quito six years ago, much had changed.”

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From a young age, I knew I was queer, and it was a hard realization.”

In Ecuador, legal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community have significantly evolved in recent decades. They were one of the first countries to constitutionally ban discrimination on sexual orientation and are still one of few countries to ban conversion therapy. However,  there is still work to be done:adoption is not available to same-sex couples, and access to health care for trans people is a serious issue. “There has been progress,” explains Paredes. “But it’s important to remember that homosexuality was illegal only 20 years ago. In terms of safety, it depends on where you live in Ecuador. The country is extremely diverse, and the capital and the rural areas are two worlds apart. Socially, there is still a lot of homophobia and transphobia. While we may have advanced rights, we still need a transformation in society and within our families to respect all identities.”

Historically, mainstream culture tends to reduce queer life to one monolithic narrative. For Paredes, “Skin Deep” is about actively dismantling this. The project represents a diverse array of sexualities and gender identities through 15 stories. With each one, she prioritizes nuance and shades of meaning, insisting on depicting the fullness of life, from the impact of trauma to the abundance of love and joy. Stories which speak to the impact of religion, violence, and traditional values, sit beside great love stories and empowering acts of self-actualisation. Together they animate a community rich with diversity and difference where no two stories are the same.

Read the stories of Zumak, Koranji, Odalys and Édgar

Zumak

“I am forty years old. I have overcome many challenges to be able to take pride in my sexual identity and my roots. I have overcome religious imposition, racism, a lack of opportunities; the double discrimination of being both queer and indigenous.

Each day I confront the contradictions between my life in the city and my community. I’ve learnt to view the political resistance of my people and the human rights struggle of the LGBTQ+ community as two sides of the same coin; two voices demanding the same freedoms and dignity. In the city I find peace in introspection and solitude, in the community I find comfort in my family and our roots.”

Koranji

“Every day I feel the pressure to conceal my true self under makeup and feminine clothing. Whether in public or at work; society demands that you not only perform a role, but you look the part. It is more important that your appearance adheres to the heteronormative values of others, than expresses your essence.

I am a twenty-eight-year-old woman. I am androgynous, a lesbian, and the daughter of a trans couple. My upbringing allowed me the possibility to explore my sexuality with openness. For me, self-expression and beauty come from being able to express myself through my masculine side, while still conserving my femininity.”

Odalys

“To live as a transgender woman in Ecuador is to experience violence every day. I was sent to prison as a young woman. I was beaten and raped. Throughout that struggle, my mother’s support never wavered, she was the hope that never abandoned me.

Women in Ecuador face many struggles. The brutality of prison altered my perspective to the vulnerability of others, and now I now recognize that my mother was a victim of domestic violence. Prison forced me to resist, it has given me the strength to support other transgender women through my activism. I long to see this same resistance return to my mother. At times she is silent and subdued, accepting of a life dictated by others. Yet I remember the unyielding woman who stood by my side during my incarceration, and fought the system with the same voice that I now call my own.”

Édgar

“I did not want to exist. That idea came to me again and again, as the only solution to my pain. I grew up as a weird child, in a deeply homophobic world. I learned that the only way to protect myself was to remain invisible. 

I made an effort to be the best kid and the best young man, so that no-one would not notice my defect. On several nights I went to bed crying in silence. I asked with all my might to wake up “normal»; to stop being gay, but it did not happen. Following multiple attempts to take my own life, I began to recuperate pieces of myself that I had been forced to reject. Now, the face I see in the mirror is the face I am proud to show the world.”

Skin Deep” is the closing chapter of a trilogy Paredes has been working on since 2014. She began with “Unveiled,” a real-time recording of her coming out to her parents. “At 28, the possibility of rejection from my conservative, Catholic, Ecuadorian parents was one of many potential risks,” she says in the project description. Beyond the inherent vulnerability, the project also carried logistical challenges to desensitize her family to cameras. “I wanted to document natural reactions,” Paredes says. “So in the build-up, I photographed them cooking, brushing their teeth, shaving, smoking, and watching soap operas. The preparation plays an integral role in the project: coming out to my family at the dinner table, with three cameras, each shooting every five seconds.”

In Chapter two, “Until You Change,” Paredes places herself as the protagonist in a retelling of the cruel realities of conversion therapy. These clinics, often run by religious institutions, imprison queer people against their will and subject them to emotional and physical torture that can range from violence to corrective rape. To accurately convey the experience, Paredes spent six months gathering first-person accounts, quietly aware that if her parents had not accepted her, she too could have been subject to conversion therapy.

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While we may have advanced rights, we still need a transformation in society and within our families to respect all identities.”

While the trilogy has been a liberating experience for Paredes personally, it’s also been a space for her to challenge modes of making and exhibiting work. By its nature, art-making for her is a social practice that thrives on the intersection of photography and performance. In “Skin Deep,” Paredes takes this a step further and invites the audience to play a more active role in the work.

“With ‘Skin Deep,’ I wanted to challenge the medium,” Paredes tells me. “I’m tired of this museum dynamic of viewing art. We can look, but we can’t touch. This enforced separation feels elitist, and I wanted to break that. In merging tactile interaction with technology, the viewer becomes a participant who, through the act of touching and tearing the image, reveals the depth of each narrative. I love that it makes you the performer,” she says. “If you don’t peel the image, you don’t get to the story. Also, it was important to me that the project wasn’t predictable. With each tear, situations change, disappear and transform, so the viewer never knows what will happen next.”

What feels genuinely radical about “Skin Deep” is how it builds engagement through play. Paredes takes the passive nature of viewing art and reimagines it as an immersive storytelling experience. Her invitation to participate shortens the distance between us, building empathy through proximity, enabling so much more to take place than simply seeing.

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