María Elena Valdés is a photographer, artist and creative director born and raised in Mexico. Her creative career began in Austin, Texas, where she received a Bachelor’s degree in Photo-Communications at St. Edwards University. With a penchant for storytelling, Valdes focuses on documentary work, and has published three photo-books to date: RUTH, Muxelandia and Diario Pandemia.

Her creative process begins with the selection of a particular topic of interest, from which she then creates an environment that guides her subject from the mundane to the beautiful. While she currently resides in New York, the pandemic led her to the Riviera Maya, where she gave life to this visual diary in which she documented the feeling of emptiness in an otherwise bustling destination.

Instagram: @maalevaldes

What brought you to the Riviera Maya during the pandemic? 

I live in New York, and when the pandemic started I had a flight planned to Oaxaca at that time. After talking with two friends, I convinced myself to change it for Riviera Maya. I wanted to go to the beach to stay near the sea during the confinement, and I also love being barefoot. I planned to spend two weeks there, but it became three months.

I usually take photos of people or travel to do it; for the first time, the conditions called for something different. I made a pandemic diary with the intention of documenting everything that is empty: places, spaces, thoughts, emotions…

Can you share an anecdote or story of personal growth during this unusual trip?

To observe nature up close. I spent two or three nights alone with thunder, because there was a tropical depression, and a lot of things blew away. I learned that she is constantly changing, just as we are.

The Riviera Maya is a tourist destination, what was the feeling during the pandemic?

An empty feeling, but the place was more beautiful than ever.

If you had to experience confinement here again, would you?

Yes. Without a doubt.

What songs accompanied your days here?

I listened to a lot of music, but especially Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas, and Weight of Love by The Black Keys.

As a result of quarantine, many adopted new hobbies or learned to appreciate something that did not exist in their lives before. Was it the case for you?

It was a complete experiment to take these photos in a photo-book because of the conditions. I wasn’t looking for anything specific, just things that caught my attention. It was an improvisation project that brought me many lessons.

What does the Riviera Maya smell like?

Like salt.

Your best discovery?

I like to cook.

When you travel to the Riviera Maya, you cannot miss _____.

Swimming in a sinkhole and aguachile.

A typical food or drink?

All of its fruits.

Something everyone should know before visiting?

That we must take care of it, if we want to continue enjoying it.

What is the most special and unique thing about the city, something you have not seen elsewhere?

Its night skies and the moon.

What is beauty to you?  

Everything that feels honest.