Lugar Común/Common Place
July 13, 2010 9:16 PM   Subscribe

In an effort to explore the hierarchy and commonalities between maids and those who employ them, Justine Graham and Ruby Rumié created a photo exhibit entitled Lugar Común (Common Place) (pdf, text in spanish) of fifty female Latin-American employer-employee dyads. All women wear white shirts and no accessories. They sit in the same poses. There is no explicit indication of who works for whom. (via)

It is currently on display at el Museo de Artes Visuales/the Museum of Visual Arts (MAVI) in Santiago.
posted by emilyd22222 (14 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For those seeking a higher rock:talk ratio, the PDF seems to contain all the photos; scroll to the middle.
posted by grobstein at 9:51 PM on July 13, 2010


I think I can reliably identify the employers from the maids with fair accuracy for most of the pairs. There's a lot of subtle clues, but a few of the pairs I wouldn't even try to guess.

Spoilers below.

The women who I think are the employers generally have more fashionable or better hair cuts, and they're more likely to have highlights or tints. They also seem to have better skin and less weariness in their eyes and face. Their arms and hands don't look like they've seen as much work as the maids. Even more subtle - they have bras that actually fit.

The women who I think are the maids tend to be a bit more haunted and weary in the eyes and face. They have stronger looking arms and hands. More affordable/utilitarian hair. Much less of a sense of entitlement or security in their eyes. Their poses are much less relaxed and self-assured.
posted by loquacious at 9:59 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

And it turns out that you can usually make an educated guess about who's who based on who's darker/more aboriginal/plainer/more world-weary looking. Just like your Marxist anthropology professor insinuated.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:00 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not belittling your Marxist Anthro professor, by the way. S/he knew how the world works.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:03 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Class and race are deeply woven together in L.America, though it's more of a continuum from Amerindian <> Spanish/European than a clear cut dichotomy as in the U.S. or much of Europe. More intermingling.

It's not whether you're European or Amerindian, but rather what ratio of European vs. Amerindian you have. It's fairly nuanced, but crystal clear to anybody born here. It's our own little caste system. There is hardly any class mobility to speak of.

The maids are generally shorter, wider, browner ones with straight dark hair (i.e.: the ones with more Amerindian blood). The employers are generally whiter, thinner, taller and have curlier hair. Some images here are hard to figure, though.

Bonus tip: "lugar comun" in Spanish means "common place", but also "cliché".
posted by signal at 10:46 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

What an intriguing exhibit. I was struck at how many of the pairs looked like sisters or distant relatives. Perhaps because they grew up together (began as nanny? au pair?) and the maid continued to work with the family for decades.

But indeed, the hair colour and cut were giveaways, as well as makeup, fitness and fit.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:52 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found myself trying to pick the employee/employer and when I popped back here to read the comments above, I then found myself doubling back to the photos and doubting my first instincts.

This turned into an interesting exercise in understanding how I handle first impressions and stereotypes. And how my brain works to either justify those impressions, or to come up with reasons to doubt them.

I'll be showing my kids too. I'll sit back and let them browse through the pics, see what their impressions are like, and then I'll turn it into a 'so, does this mean everyone is an individual AND equal to all others? Let's discuss it." We like those sort of chats.

Thanks again.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 11:39 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

There was some discussion of this on socimages. There are some regions where I think it could be quite difficult to identify who's who in this kind of project. For instance in Western Europe there are lots of Eastern Europeans doing low-wage service sector jobs.

But in this region most of the time I suspect that the lighter-skinned, taller, narrower-nosed one of the pair is likely to be the employer; regardless of body language or attitude.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:00 AM on July 14, 2010

I find this sort of irritating, really. It seems to suggest (to me, anyway) that the job of maid is especially demeaning or "low." I would not have been bothered so much if it had been a mixed up with a lot of other employer/employee portraits: farmer & farm hand, small business owner & secretary, CEO & salesperson, etc. But "maid" seems to be considered the lowest of honest labor, for some reason - though there are hundreds more dangerous, uncomfortable, exploited, and/or lower-paid jobs.

Somehow, pointing out how you can't so easily tell the difference between the maid and "the lady" is considered more significant/interesting than showing how you can't necessarily tell the difference between the landscaper and the estate owner, for example. Because in that instance, people would be like, "yeah, okay - and so?"

Is it because being a maid is almost solely a woman's job? Is a maid who works in a house considered more subsumed by her occupation than a maid who works in a hotel, or someone who works in housekeeping for an office building? Is "sanitation crew worker" or "janitor" a shift job, but "maid" an identity? This exhibit seems to suggest/embrace this concept at the same time as it supposedly makes a point of questioning it.
posted by taz at 3:19 AM on July 14, 2010

Wow, they're mostly totally easy to tell apart, but give some of them a better haircut and a day at the spa and I think skin colour would still make it pretty easy.

Don't maids mostly live in? Here I think a maid might live in but a cleaner/mothers help might live out. I'm not very in touch with that whole world though. So in my mind the choice of maids and homeowners might have been because they live in the same house, unlike janitors and whoever.
posted by shinybaum at 3:56 AM on July 14, 2010

Is a maid who works in a house considered more subsumed by her occupation than a maid who works in a hotel, or someone who works in housekeeping for an office building? Is "sanitation crew worker" or "janitor" a shift job, but "maid" an identity?

It's not that a maid is the lowest of the low -- it's that a maid is simultaneously of much lower status than her employers and shares every intimate detail of their lives. They live in the same house, eat the same food (but not at the same table), all without a hint of egalitarianism. It's a fascinating relationship (that has been explored beautifully in a couple of recent films) that most middle class Americans don't have any experience of.
posted by Forktine at 5:46 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Taz, I agree that there's something about this or maybe just some of the comments that bothers me. However, I'm a woman from the US so there may be a cultural component to this that I'm missing that would enrich the conversation. What bothers me the most is that "damned if you do, damned if you don't" feeling that always seems to be lurking around conversations about womens' careers, salaries, and class. Particularly when the harshest comments come from other women (the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate comes to mind). Both of the roles of "the maid" and "the lady" perpetuate unfortunate or uncharitable views of both that seem to get disproportionately applied to women. I mean, you can really see the "sense of entitlement or security in their eyes"? All that from a picture of two women wearing the same shirt? We don't even know what these other women do, yet the default answer seems to be "sits around and eats bon bons".

Right now someone currently sees me as "the help". I also have "help". So who has the sense of entitlement in her eyes? Who looks haunted? I don't know anything about the past of the woman who's "better off" than me. If she's suffered unspeakable abuses does she still have that "look" because she went to a spa last week? Does the maid always have to be either pitied or looked down on?

Overall I like the project because it brings all this up by showing us a totally unprovocative image. It's the projection that makes me uncomfortable.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 5:57 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The whole concept of house staff is profoundly unnerving to me. I've been in households (in S. America and Asia) where they have maids, and it freaks me out every time. The way nobody acknowledges their presence, while simultaneously using their services, is deeply unsettling -- as though they're ghosts or something.

It's like someone dragging their fingernails on a chalkboard for hours on end; I have no idea how anyone can stand it. Seriously, how do people stand it?

Pro-tip: if you are a guest, do not offer to help the maid carry something. It makes everyone terribly uncomfortable (the maid most of all).
posted by aramaic at 6:46 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pro-tip: if you are a guest, do not offer to help the maid carry something. It makes everyone terribly uncomfortable (the maid most of all). (aramaic)

Yeah, I've never gotten used to this, and fortunately haven't had to deal with it much. I remember going to someone's birthday party once and noticing two people standing silently in the corner watching. I spoke with them briefly and found out that they were caterers from a local restaurant. I'm sure they was only standing there to see when to refill the buffet, or something equally innocuous, but I couldn't shake this intense feeling of being scrutinized by these strangers whom I was not really permitted to notice.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:48 AM on July 14, 2010

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