When Stefan Ruiz landed in Mexico City to chronicle the culture of tele-novelas (Latin American soap operas) in 2003, things didn’t quite proceed as planned—fitting for an industry that’s all about dramatic twists and turns. Televisa, the Mexican communications giant that produces some of the most high-profile soaps, wouldn’t allow him on set. After a week of cajoling, the company relented, but then other obstacles arose. Ruiz was interested in documenting modern- day soaps. The studio sent him to the set of a 19th-century period piece, full of actresses in hoopskirts and bonnets. “I thought it was going to be a disaster,” Ruiz recalls with a groan. “It was all taking so long, and sometimes I had less than 15 minutes to get a picture.”
But somewhere along the way, everything clicked. And for the next eight years the New York–based photographer returned regularly to Televisa to capture the surreal life behind one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world. Using a large-format camera, he staged portraits of dramatically posed actors in fake living rooms and doctors’ offices, with tangles of stage lights just overhead. He recorded the often hyperreal decor of the sets, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David standing before a textured fuchsia wall. And he photographed the studio’s acting school, where budding soap stars are taught how to kiss for TV.
Ninety of these images have now been compiled in the book The Factory of Dreams: Inside Televisa Studios, published by Aperture. For Ruiz, the series was an opportunity to explore an important aspect of popular culture in a critical yet dignified way. “I didn’t want to make fun of it,” he says. “I treated it as documentary.” Though it was his background in painting that inspired the mood of the pictures. “I was thinking about figures like Velázquez and Goya, who did very formal court paintings,” he explains. “I made a conscious effort not to crop the bodies. And I wanted everybody in costume —very formal.”
Incidentally, the series also captures a decade of upheaval in Mexico. When Ruiz began his project, sets often consisted of glossy apartments and hacienda-style structures. Eight years later, evidence of the drug war had crept in. “I’ve shot a set for a kidnapping room, as well as lots of jails,” he says. “You didn’t used to see that at all.” Soaps once focused on life in the country’s cosmopolitan capital. Now they situate many story lines in the north, along the border with the United States.
As an art form, telenovelas are frequently derided for their melodramatic plotlines and histrionic acting. But Ruiz sees them as an intriguing filter for examining social issues and mores. Ultimately, he says, “they are a vital record of contemporary Mexican life.”