Political Activism in Photography: the Mystery of Tina Modotti

Sophia Beams
Aug 27 · 4 min read

An exploration of the works and mystery around the esteemed Italian photographer, Tina Modotti.

Born in August, 1896, Tina Modotti had an early introduction to photography through her father. Though she originally didn’t pursue the art, instead choosing to become an actress, she eventually left her career as a semi-famous film actress to work as a photographer. Modotti was soon commissioned to travel Mexico taking photos for a photography book.

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A photograph of Modotti herself

Though Modotti’s landscape works are beautiful on their own, her political activism is by far the most recognizable feature in her photos. She first began exploring politics and representation in her photos by taking pictures of random people on the street.

Modotti asked anyone she met for a photo, often choosing subjects in the midst of going about their day. She longed to capture a personal side of each of her subjects: she wanted the viewer to learn something from her photos, to see each person as a real, working-class subject rather than an idealized studio model.

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One of Modotti’s more famous photographs

With each photo she took, she strove more toward politicism and further from the idol/perfectionism style that some of her earlier photographs use.

Eventually, her photographs transferred to images of activism in Mexico: she photographed people marching, carrying flags, and protesting the government. As she did so, she continued focusing on the working class in each of her photographs: Modotti’s pictures are frequently focused on worn hands, people holding tools, walking in the street, or vending at market.

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A worker’s parade Modotti photographed from above
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A woman photographed by Modotti, marching with a flag
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Modotti’s photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (both of whom she knew well) in the May Day Parade

Using these two types of activism in her photography (personal and impersonal/group photography), Modotti expanded her style even further to focus entirely on the political parties she was a part of.

Modotti eventually joined the Mexican Communist Party, using her photography to support the party. She used symbols that were unique to her subjects to create political symbols (such as the communist symbol) to create a platform for communism. She was featured in political magazines and became well-known for her active support of communism.

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Modotti using a sombrero as background for the well-known hammer and sickle

Unfortunately for Modotti, because her photographs were so popular, her support of communism in Mexico quickly led to danger for the Italian photographer. She was accused of not one but two separate assassinations, the second being of President Rubio. Thanks to an anti-immigration campaign, Modotti quickly became the “face” of the assassination attempt.

These accusations led to Modotti being exiled from the country of Mexico. Modotti ended up traveling to Italy to attempt to join the anti-fascism party there, but ended up moving to Moscow to evade the fascist police.

After settling in Moscow, she joined the Workers International Relief as an agent. She stopped photography entirely during this time. Eventually, she moved back to Mexico under a pseudonym.

Soon after she returned to the country, Modotti died in her car going back to a hotel she was staying in at the time. Although it’s presumed that she died from a heart attack, it’s also a well-known fact that Modotti had many enemies at the time. Thus, the circumstances of her death are still unclear. Many of her more devoted fans suspected she was murdered, and that her death was covered up.

Today, Modotti’s work is still available to view in various popular establishments, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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Sophia Beams

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What’s the inspiration behind art, games, and literary works? Everyone has a story, and I’m here to uncover it.

Everything Art

Art enriches life. From the deep stories behind well-known paintings to artistic adventures everyone can experience, Everything Art is your personal guide to creativity.

Sophia Beams

Written by

What’s the inspiration behind art, games, and literary works? Everyone has a story, and I’m here to uncover it.

Everything Art

Art enriches life. From the deep stories behind well-known paintings to artistic adventures everyone can experience, Everything Art is your personal guide to creativity.

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