The Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta was born in 1942. As a student in New York she studied art history at Finch College (now closed) and photography at the International Center of Photography with the American photographers Ken Heyman (b. 1930) and George Tice (b. 1938) and also took courses at the New School for Social Research. After her time in New York, Eleta returned to Central America, where she taught photography at the Universidad de Costa Rica until 1974, when she moved to Panama. From 1977 to 1981 she worked on photographic essays about life and the people in the city of Portobelo, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Her most important series to date, the Portobelo photographs were taken after she had established a mutual bond based on trust and respect with the people of Portobelo. With these photographs, all in black and white and with her signature square format, Eleta's photographic identity was born. In fact, Portobelo features prominently in Eleta's life. She first visited this World Heritage Site when she was five years old and in 1974 returned to live there permanently. In 1984 Eleta and the writer Edgar Soberón Torchia (b. 1951) and the filmmaker Anselmo Mantovani made a short film titled Sirenata en B, which captures the lives of Panamanians in the 1970s through the eyes of a bus driver. In the 1970s she founded Grupo Portobelo, an all-female arts group. Eventually, in 1993, under the direction of Eleta, the artist Yaneca Esquina and the artist-scholar Arturo Lindsay (b. 1946) formed Taller Portobelo, an art cooperative dedicated to the preservation of Panamanian culture and to the social and economic improvement of Portobelo.
In 2010 the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Panama City organized a retrospective of Eleta's forty-year career. She has created several important photographic series, mostly in black and white, including Las campesinas (Women farmers), La servidumbre (Servitude), Emberá: Hijos del río (Emberá: Children of the river), Cuando los santos bajan (When the saints go down), and Los abuelos (Grandparents). Since the 1980s she has created several artist's books, sometimes in collaboration with the writer Ernesto Cardenal. Her photographs have been collected by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, and Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Centre Pompidou, both in Paris, among others.
Selected Solo Exhibitions
1976 Ritos y minorías, Photocentro Gallery, Madrid
1980 Obra reciente, Consejo Venezolano de Fotografía, Caracas, Venezuela
1987 Recent Works, Burden Gallery, New York
2001 Ángeles multiétnicos, Galería Arteconsult, Panama City
2010 Sandra Eleta: A Retrospective, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Panama City
Cardenal, Ernesto. Nostalgia del futuro: Pintura y buena noticia en Solentiname. Managua: Nueva Nicaragua, 1982.
Orive, María Cristina, Edgard Soberó, and Edison Simons. Sandra Eleta, "Portobelo": Fotografía de Panamá. Buenos Aires: Azotea, 1985.
Pérez-Ratton, Virginia. Centroamérica y el Caribe: Una historia en blanco y negro; XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, 1998. San José, Costa Rica: XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, 1998.
Renfrew, Nita M. "Sandra Eleta: Portobelo Unseen." Aperture, no. 109 (Winter 1987): 48–57.
Samos, Adrienne. "Sandra Eleta in Portobelo." Guggenheim UBS MAP (blog), September 8, 2014. http://blogs.guggenheim.org/map/sandra-eleta-in-portobelo.