Less and Less

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Each time I go to Oaxaca I lower my expectations.

Once, I hoped to speak Spanish as fluently as I do English, to be able to joke and to discuss and to engage. Now, I work at making myself understood and trying to grab the gist of what others tell me.

Once, I had a vision of assembling a collection of great photographs, like those of my late friend and teacher, Mary Ellen.  Now, I am satisfied if the computer I carry up the stairs to my homeward-bound plane holds one or two frames that make me, and maybe her, proud.

Once, I thought I might merge my American life and my Mexican life, becoming as a result a more international, perhaps even bicultural person. Now, I recognize how American I am and that, regardless of how much time I spend in Oaxaca, I am not Mexican at all. I view the world in a distinctly American way, for better or for worse. As an example, despite all the negativity of this election year and the disheartening vein of racism, hatred and fear opened by the Trump candidacy, I see a society of opportunity built on principles of fairness and justice (regardless of how often they are unachieved). This outlook is un-Mexican. Even as Mexico advances economically and socially, it remains far short of being a nation of opportunity. Fairness and justice are foreign concepts in a country where the wealthy and the criminal benefit from an endemic infection of corruption and impunity at the sake of the poor and the powerless. Many Mexicans, especially the poor, accept this status quo. Ni modo. I am too American to do so. I will always be apart – ajeno.

Once, I believed, with great naivety, that I and the people I photograph, many of them poor, most of them single mothers, all of them hard-working and dedicated to their children, had much in common. Now, though, I see how wrong I was. Other than our shared humanity – and I cannot discount the immense importance of the human connection I feel to them – we have nothing in common. I live in affluence, where water flows from the shower head in a gushing stream, where the airport parking garage is packed with pricey German cars, where the food is clean, where we all have bathrooms and refrigerators and where we don’t have to sleep in the same bed as our children because we have more than one bed, more than one bedroom, more than almost everyone in the world. They, these good people, these folks – to use Obama’s word – who welcome me into their one-room homes, have none of that. None. Of. That. Although I see their world, I cannot imagine living in it. They neither see my world nor can imagine living in it. Now, I look to share the moment with them, to do what little I can to make a difference. And then I leave.

I returned from Oaxaca last night after 11 days there.

Less and less. That’s what I expect. The desire for more remains, but I don’t expect it to happen. I’m OK with this. I don’t feel as if I am settling. It feels realistic and possible, and therefore it satisfies.

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The Wall

nogaleswall_091716_069_bwThere’s nothing pretty about morning in Naco, Arizona. There’s no soft, early light. There’s no lingering cool of the waning night air. There’s no sense of leisurely awakening, no hint of the unfolding promise that a new day offers.

There’s none of that in Naco. No hay nada de eso en Naco. No, señor, none of that.

In Naco, the day wakes hard and quick. At the sun’s first rise over the Mule Mountains, it sprays the high desert with a fierce light that burns the eyes and, if you’re foolhardy enough to be driving east at this moment, reduces your vision to a fireball of intense whiteness. At 80 mph, it’s terrifying.

A switch is thrown and what scant pre-dawn breeze there was shuts off, leaving in its absence a stifling stillness. The heat follows immediately. Yesterday’s dust, lying where it spent the night, warms and rises from the ground, preparing to cling to whatever passes. My left arm, bearing a trucker’s burn from days of driving, tingles with the touch of the sunlight.

By 8 o’clock, the unforgiving potential of the day is on full display. If you awoke thinking that you, a bipedal spec of life, were somehow in command of the world around you, then morning in Naco, with its sun and heat and dust and dead air, will disabuse of that notion. Who’s the boss, asks the day? I am, it answers. I am.

I am learning this lesson as I am eastbound along a dirt road that parallels the steel fence demarcating which half of this desert belongs to Mexico and which half belongs to the United States. This is the same fence that Donald Trump wants to replace with a “great wall.” I stop frequently – to make a picture, to note where the fence changes height or material, to talk to one of the Border Patrol agents who sit in their parked white-and-green trucks every half-mile or so, engines running to power the AC and cabs facing south, ready for pursuit.

After several miles of flatness, the road slopes gently upward. I stop, get out of my car and walk up a short, rocky slope. I can see easily over the wall. A short distance from the fence a cluster of industrial buildings and conical slag piles mark a mine, perhaps one of the many copper mines that accounted more than a century ago for the founding of both Nacos – the one in Arizona and its cross-border counterpart in Mexico. It is an incongruous presence after so many miles of nothingness.

A quarter-mile past this point, the road both rises sharply and deteriorates from well-graded dirt to deeply rutted gravel. My German SUV, despite its fancy all-wheel drive, is not up to the task. This is truck country. I clamber the 100 yards or so to the top of the hill, where a heavy-duty cattle guard spans the road, a further deterrent to any curious motorist who has made it this far. I find myself breathing rapidly, robbed of air by the heat and the altitude, and am reminded, unwelcomingly, of my age.

Below me to the east, the road and the fence continue. The landscape is ugly and harsh, even though there was rain a few days earlier. The resulting burst of late-season greenery is already withering beneath the brutal punishment of the sun. The earth is grayish-brown. Haze hangs in the air, masking distant mountains and obscuring the route of the fence at its farthest reaches. The rusting, metal ugliness of the fence and the slate-colored scar of the road fit right in, man-made footnotes to a work of nature whose thesis can be summarized in two words: Keep out.

There is no sound. The sun arcs upward without a whisper. The air speaks nothing. The dust waits muted. The sweat, already running into the rims of my glasses, slides in silence across my skin. I have never felt so alone.

Then comes the bird. It is a hawk flying 50 feet above the ground, moving from south to north. It glides with innate purpose and strength of wing over the wall. It doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t falter, doesn’t concern itself with documentation. Is it an American hawk coming home from a night of hunting on Mexican soil? Is it a Mexican hawk sneaking into the United States to deprive American hawks of snakes and rabbits?

It doesn’t matter does it? A century ago the hawk’s ancestors flew this land. They lived under the sun and in the heat, finding sustenance in a forbidding land that has killed thousands of men, women and children who have tried to cross it. And centuries from now, after this steel wall has rusted into ground, the hawk’s descendants will fly this same route, looking for ways to sustain its life and those of its progeny.

As people do. As people will. Wall or no wall.

The Curse of Religion

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Ever since Man invented the concept of “God” as a means to provide answers to the baffling origins of life and to soothe the inevitable and irreversible arrival of death, he has been killing other men, women and children in the name of god.

Five-hundred or so centuries into the self-aware existence of our species, the slaughter continues.

The homophobic Orlando massacre is the latest deadly embrace by a deranged individual with a weapon of the “word of God” – words written 1,400 years ago and which proscribe killing gay men by stoning them, burning them or tossing them from a high wall.

Sadly, killing homosexuals with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is so much easer than these ancient punishments. Thus far, there has not been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in which 49 people have been stoned to death.

It is, however, too simple to blame the easy availability of guns in the United States for the bloodshed in Orlando (although we can hold gun access responsible for unending string of shootings on high school and university campuses).

The true culprit is religion, primarily Christianity and Islam (although other modern religions as well as more ancient ones – the Aztecs come to mind – have shown themselves to be just as bloody in the enforcement of their beliefs.

  • The Christian crusade against the Muslim world dispatched up to 3 million souls to their competing versions of heaven.
  • Muslims, during the Ottoman empire, attempted to scrub Armenian Christians from the empire, killing up to 1.5 million of them in the process.
  • Hitler, inspired in part by the Armenian genocide, cloaked his fascism in the robe of Christianity and killed 6 million Jews (a Holocaust that, in turn, fuels both the current Christian-Muslim wars in the Mideast as well as the violent hate crimes committed in the United States by neo-Nazis such as the KKK and other right-wing extremists.

There’s more – so much more. Muslim women stoned to death for being raped. Marathon runners bombed to death for being Christian. Thousands of Christians killed by other Christians during the Inquisition for not being Christian enough. Millions of indigenous peoples in North America either murdered to driven to their deaths for being “pagan” by Christian conquerors from England, France, Spain and Portugal.

The deliverance of death as a means of interpreting the mandates of god is not religion’s only crime. It is also guilty of forcing Muslim girls to live in ignorance and fear for their lives should they dare to be educated. It is guilty of condemning poor young Catholic women in Latin American countries to continued poverty by preaching against birth control and thereby enabling teen-age pregnancy. It subjugates Jewish and Muslim women to the will of men, denying them full participation in their lives. It spreads hate – against gays, against foreigners, against non-believers – and in doing so encourages group-think and herd mentality: Us against Them (with the Us always being morally superior and adhering to the true god).

I must be naïve, I realize, to wonder how these ancient beliefs persist – beliefs inscribed by men who knew nothing of science, little of geography and not much more of any life other than that in their own tribe. Not only do they persist, but they shape cultural norms, infiltrate public policy and far too often lead directly to violence, either by some lonely, disconnected guy with a gun or by an entire nation with modern weaponry at its disposal.

If there is a god, it has cursed us with these religions.

Dreaming in Spanish

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I’ve been back from Mexico two weeks now and I am still dreaming in Spanish. Maybe I’ve finally mastered the language or maybe – since my dreams are mostly anxiety driven – I’ve simply become bilingually anxious.

In today’s dream I found myself stepping out of a hotel in Oaxaca onto a cobblestoned street. The street resembled Alcala, the city’s main tourist corridor. It had a gradual incline to it, with the upper end leading to a colonial church and the lower end stretching to a distant plaza. But it wasn’t Alcala. There were no stores selling indigenous tchotchkes, no ambulating street vendors carrying armloads of scarfs and no short-skirted young women handing out shots of sweetened mescal. The buildings were low and old. Muted colors covered their facades, and those that housed businesses advertised them in fading signs. This was a working street, a place for locals not for visitors.

Standing in front of the hotel, I noticed that the streetlights were on, but the sky had not yet gone dark. I had a camera in my hand. I looked both ways and turned to the left.

Then, as things happen in dreams, I was in a restaurant and seated at the end of a long communal table placed along one wall of large room. The table was occupied by a large, boisterous group of older Oaxacans, the type that patronizes the Bar Jardin in the zocalo. The women wore helmets of hair hardened by permanents and the men sported jackets with wide lapels they they’d purchased many fashion seasons ago. The only unoccupied seat at the table was the one to my left. The remainder of the restaurant were empty save for a couple who sat in a far corner near the windows. They held wine glasses in their hands and sat very erect.

A deep sadness engulfed me as I looked at the nearly vacant room and heard the loud voices and laughter from my tablemates. I wanted to join in, but there was that chair between us, a gulf my schoolroom Spanish could not cross. A waiter came and I ordered something to match my mood – a bowl of vegetable soup.

As I ate, more diners came. Someone set up another long table to my right and it filled immediately with a dozen younger people who all knew each other and who had arrived well buzzed. They ordered mescals and peanuts and snacks.

The owner of the restaurant came by, a woman wearing a loose, leopard-print blouse. Her hair was sprayed into a golden, cotton-candy whirl. She wore thick, dark-framed glasses like those you see on fashionistas in New York and had painted her ample lips bright red.  I’d like my check, I told her. No you don’t, she said, I know you. You’re going to stay and drink mescal. She smiled a Cheshire cat grin.

Maybe she did know me, because that is what I might normally have done. Not that night, though. Without replying, I stood up from the table and walked into another room, a dark place, maybe a reception area.

When I returned the atmosphere inside the restaurant had shifted dramatically to the weird. The two long tables were raucous. Two of the younger people had stripped to their underwear and were laying lengthwise along one of the tables. Flowers adorned their bodies. All around them their friends laughed and drank and fed themselves from platters of cheese and chips and peanuts.

Next to me, a half-dozen men, all of them rotund, moist with sweat,  glistening with pomade, and exceptionally drunk, were involved in a heated conversation. Before I could say a word, one of them turned to me and said, “She paid your bill.” I seemed to understand. I dropped more pesos on the table and left.

Outside of the restaurant, I found myself in a narrow alleyway. Coming toward me were a dozen or so people dressed in striped pants, tall boots, eccentric hats, and flowing scarfs they had wrapped around their necks and draped artistically across their bodies. They were pierced and tattooed and large in personality. The men were rambunctious, the women alluring. They looked like circus performers. The corridor was so tight we bumped bodies as we passed.

“James, James, is that you?” I heard myself saying. I recognized one of the men, a photographer I knew from some workshops I had taken in Oaxaca. He worked for a newspaper in Los Angeles and we had been together with some other photographers in Mexico just several weeks previously. He had grown a beard and wore a brown fedora decorated with a striped yellow hat band.

You’re still here, I said, stating the obvious. Yes, he said, I’ve been traveling. I had been looking up at James as we spoke and I noticed that he was standing on the shoulders of another man, an older, grizzle-faced fellow dressed in black and wearing a bush hat. I had seen his face before, but couldn’t attach a memory to it.

James’ boots pressed into the man’s shoulders. In between them sat a young buy. He wore white clothes and his feet draped around the man’s neck. That’s some load you’re carrying, I said to the guy. He nodded and slid me an understanding smile. Did I know him?

ClarkSummit_120907_43Before I could say another word, a shoving match broke out between one of the members of the troupe with whom James was traveling and a well-coiffed hipster type who had entered the alleyway with two friends, another man and a woman. Everything about them was sharp and pointy – tight, tailored clothing, hair-dos razored to perfection, well-honed attitudes of superiority. The hipster slid backwards from the shove and dropped in slow motion, looking like the falling Don Draper in the opening sequence of Mad Men. The man in black jettisoned James and the boy and bear-hugged the guy who’d shoved the hipster. It was over.

Once upright, the slickster and his companions elbowed their way past me, the woman, tall and angular, keeping her gaze up, and the men, eyes flaring, silently daring me to say something. In a second, they were gone.

Only James, the guy in black and I remained. Let’s go make some pictures, James said, and we walked out of the alley into the light. Instead of being in Oaxaca, though, we were in San Francisco, standing in the backyard of one those row houses in the Sunset or the Richmond. The yard was small, cluttered with discarded furniture and damp from recent rain. To the right was another house, and the cyclone fence separating the two had a hole in it. James ducked through the hole, walked into the adjoining yard and began photographing a chicken that was caged up there.

The guy in black yelled, “James, c’mon!” When James didn’t answer, they guy looked at me and said, “I’m done with this.”

And I woke up.

 

Oaxaca Together

OaxacaScenes_021216_008Some of us were in Oaxaca recently. We went at this time of the year because this was when Mary Ellen Mark always went and she was how we knew each other.

After she died last year, we went to a party in her honor on the terrace of a rich man’s penthouse in N.Y. Afterwards, we drank mescal, looked at photographs and vowed to return to Mexico – together, one more time.

Five of us made it. Two others had to cancel. Between our promise to return and the actual trip, our little venture had grown. More people joined us – Mary Ellen’s husband, her assistants, some friends, a pair of spouses. All in all, we grew to a good group of adventurers, artists and admirers.

Also, Mary Ellen’s friends in Oaxaca wanted to honor her, as did the Bravo Center for photography and the photographer who’d taken her place in the workshop she’d led for 20 years.

An exhibition of Mary Ellen’s work was put together, as was another of her students’ photographs (including ours). Maggie Steber, the new workshop leader, invited the five of us to show our work to her students. The shows opened. Speeches were given. Stories were told. Tears were shed. It was all beautiful and moving.

After the events, though, and the late-nights and early-mornings, it was just us – the photographers. (Oh, and Mary Ellen’s husband, Martin, a filmmaker, who got exactly what we were doing and why we were there.) That’s when we worked, which is what Mary Ellen would have wanted the most.

We returned to Mary Ellen’s haunts and to the individual projects she’d helped us develop.

Twice we went out together, first to San Martin Tilcajete, where the townsmen slather grease on their bodies and run about and later to Teotitlan del Valle, where faithful Catholics rise early and march through the streets to the baleful wail of a single trumpet.

Separately, we visited the people we’ve been photographing, some of them for a few years, some of them for longer than 15 years.

Jody took the bus up to Paula’s house on the slopes of Monte Alban. Paula was a girl when Jody first photographed her. Today she is a mother. She lives where she grew up, amid the same poverty.

Lori photographed her “girls”: the deaf twins who live in the mountains and the teen-age roommates who sleep in bunk beds in an evangelical orphanage.

James spent time with the Lopez family, as he has for nearly 20 years. They earn their living picking plastic bottles and cardboard scraps out of the dump.

And Bjorn? Well, he was Bjorn. He walked about as he does and found order amid the Oaxacan chaos and captured it with his camera.

I arrived before the others and left after them. Those days when I was soloing, I worked on my project, photographing the mothers and their children and learning their stories. But when the others were there, I wanted to be with them. I felt like something special that I’d had – and that we’d had together – was slipping away and I wanted to hang onto it for as long as possible.

So, I tagged along.

Jody and I went to Abasolo, where a young boy lives who was severely damaged at birth. Jody has photographed him and his mother and father for many years. The father is now going blind from diabetes. After we left their house, we walked to Marino’s café for a coffee and a chat and then to a nearby house where Jesus lives, a boy I’ve been photographing. He, too, was born badly and must use a wheel chair. When I think of Abasolo, I think of Jody and I wanted her to meet Jesus so she would think of him, too.

Lori and I visited Coco in the women’s prison near Tlacolula. Coco founded Hijos de la Luna, the children’s shelter, and it was Lori who took me there for the first time one day when I was frustrated with my photography and unsure what to do. That visit changed everything about the way I make pictures.

James took Anja, who was participating in the workshop, and I to see the Lopez family at the dump. Afterward, we rode in the family’s twin-cab pickup to Zaachila for lunch. The truck stalled at every topé and the food was terrible and pricey, but the talk was good and Reina, the mother, made me promise I’d come visit her even though the Lopezes are “James’ ” family.

I made very few good photographs this trip. The best images are in my head – Lori and Jody editing on the terrace of the hotel; Bjorn lit by the screen of his laptop while showing his work at the Bravo Center; James extracting his massive Hasslblad from its bag at the dump; Martin, standing alone in the street in Teotitlan, dressed in a parka, headphones on, capturing the eerie music of the procession.

This is my Oaxaca. That was our Oaxaca. I hope we can all hold on to it.

Lessons from Oaxaca

Casa Hogar Benito JuarezSome things I learned in Oaxaca this month:

* A young mother who lives in a dark, concrete room with her 5-year-old daughter and is struggling to scrape together the pesos she needs for food and rent told me that if you hug another person for 20 seconds your depression will go away. It works. It also produces tears.

* Another mother I’ve been photographing has a son and a daughter. They live in a building of eight rooms where everyone shares the sink, the shower and two bathrooms. A pimp and his prostitute recently moved into the room across from theirs. On the daughter’s 10th birthday, as she was eating a special breakfast her mom had made for her, the prostitute left her room, passed by the family’s open door and teetered into the dirt street in front of the building wearing 5-inch heels and several square inches of blue spandex.

* You can’t take raisins or dried apricots into the women’s prison because prisoners will ferment them and make booze, but dried pineapple is OK.

* You can’t wear a gray T-shirt into the prison, but I do look pretty good wearing a beige women’s sweater.

* The son of one of Oaxaca’s most thuggish and corrupt governors, José Murat Casab, is running for governor. This is a dynasty that makes the Bushes and the Clintons seem like Disney characters.

* Diabetes is everywhere and seems to touch nearly every household. I met a man who lost part of one foot to the disease and is nearly blind. If he had $600, he could save the vision in one eye, but he doesn’t have the money. Down the road, a mother whose only son is confined to a wheel chair is now also caring for her dying, diabetic mom; a 71-year-old farmer showed me a photo of his first wife and his oldest daughter, both dead from the disease; a minister who runs a children’s shelter has a bedridden wife whose kidneys are failing; the aunt of a friend who has a coffeehouse has it; as does my wife’s godfather. A 2012 study found nearly 50 percent of the population affected.

* A lot of dogs never make it to the other side of the highway.

Going Manual

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A few months after the death of a good friend – someone I’d only known a short while, but who in that time had touched me deeply – I fell into one of my periodic funks. It was toward the end of summer and despite the good photography I was doing at some county fairs in California a recent birthday had triggered an unusually harsh self-evaluation of my work.

None of it seemed to have any depth. It seemed flashy, contrived and superficial. I wanted purpose. I couldn’t see any.

One morning, I turned, as I have before when I could not inspire myself, to the work of my friend, who had also been a (much more accomplished) photographer. I opened her newest book, which she’d finished just before she died. Her black-and-white photographs documented the difficult life of a teenage prostitute as she’d grown older, mothering a brood of children along the way. The pictures were intimate, made from in close by someone who inserted herself into the tiniest moments of her subject’s life and used her camera unflinchingly, directly and, at times, confrontationally.

I closed the book, somewhat saddened by what I haven’t done, but also emboldened by the passion of my friend. Keep going, she used to say. Go back. Try again. Almost, almost, almost.

Not long after that day, I bought a new camera, a Leica. I wanted something smaller, less obtrusive and more intimate than the big Nikons I still use. I also bought one lens, a 28mm. The camera is digital and therefore still weighty, but it fits nicely in my right hand and I love the smoothness of its metal, the near silent squish of its shutter and the seamless focus of the lens.

It is the latter that has given me the greatest challenge. After years of the rapid, auto grab of the Nikon lenses, focusing by hand was initially frustrating and, now several months later, still can be. I have missed shots entirely and I have focused in front and in behind on many others.

There is an upside though – a big one. The necessity to really look – really, really look – through the rangefinder in order to focus has forced me to slow down. I must be more patient. I must anticipate. And, most importantly, I must trust in my subjects because they, too, must wait for me, and in those waiting moments I find more intimacy.

I do not believe owning a camera similar to the one my friend used will make me more like her. Nor will it by itself improve my photography. But, it is fair to say that in part I bought the Leica for her. Each time I touch it, each time I lift it to my eye, each time I see the frame fill up, I think of her.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a children’s shelter in Mexico working on a project. A group of boys were kicking a soccer ball toward a fence. There were in the sunshine and I sat in the shade of a large tree. I waited and waited, trying to find focus on the moving shapes – something that would have been so easy with the Nikon – when suddenly one boy stopped nearly in front of me. He took off his hat, held it in his hand for moment and then tossed it back on his head. I made two frames. I think my friend would have like this one (above).

Backstory: How I Backed Off and Made Better Portraits

Chuck Collins, YMCA

When I first started making portraits of people, everything I shot was tightly framed. It was all about the face. I came in close and measured my success by the details I could see. The more pores the better as far as I was concerned.

Some shrink, I’m sure, could attribute my desire to fill the frame with face to some unaddressed childhood need or perhaps a lack of adult intimacy, but it probably had more to do with the Yousuf Karsh portraits I saw in school and my desire to replicate those (not that I ever did).

CollinsChuck_120814__0087Today, as much as the face still fascinates (and as much as I still want to focus on follicles), I’ve backed off. Now, I’m looking more for context than closeness. I want shape, posture and attitude more than detail.

Some of that change in approach came from maturing as a photographer, but much of it also comes from the assignments I have. Frequently, I find myself making a portrait of a person simply standing or sitting somewhere and I need to use the environment around him or her to create an image that is striking, or at least has some snap. Also, many art directors want openness (or negative space) in the frame so they have the option to overlay type in that area.

Because I rarely have any control over the location or the timing of the shot, which means I’m often having to make something interesting under either muddy skies or full sun, I’ve become attached to using a single strobe to isolate the person from the background.

These images of Chuck Collins, CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco, illustrate what I mean. Marin Magazine asked me to photograph Chuck and I met him on a moist, gray December morning at the YMCA’s facility in the Marin Headlands.

I arrived early and looked over the place. It was bleak. Empty buildings. No kids. Windswept grounds. The vacant basketball court had appeal, though, as did a small empty amphitheatre with low, wooden seats. Both had strong vertical structures (the hoop and the flagpole) I could use.

Chuck helped, too. A good-looking easy-going guy, he gave me enough time to adjust the light several times and even helped me lug the battery pack from the basketball court to the amphitheatre.

I liked the results, which you can see in the images on this page (bigger versions below). The magazine, as it often does, chose a different frame, but that’s why they pay me – to give them choices.

You can see more of my photographs of interesting people at photography.timporter.com or here.

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“Spotlight”

Spotlight the movie Before we went to see the movie “Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into widespread pedophilia by Catholic priests and the church’s systemic cover-up of the abuse, my wife, a former newspaper hack like myself, said, “This is going to make us sad.”

And it did.

I never won a Pulitzer Prize, although at various points in my career I have worked with people who have. I presume no claim to their honor, but mention this as a way of saying I understand the work ethic, focus and passion that propelsordinary people who are good journalists into extraordinary people who are great ones.

“Spotlight” highlighted the scarcity of those things those people in my life.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.21.01 AM    Ever since I left the newsroom in San Francisco in 2000 to join a start-up, a short-lived, but lucrative adventure, I’ve wondered how to get back – not to a newspaper, necessarily, but to journalism and to the sense of purpose that imbues all the best moments of its practice.

But, I am poorly self-directed, too easily distracted and (still) foolishly insecure, a terrible recipe for someone hoping to resurrect an idea he abandoned and left molder in the closet of past decisions. Suffice to say, I didn’t find my way back (the unsuccessful itinerary is another story.) “Spotlight” made me wish I had.

This is not a regret (those I possess, but they have to do with people), but a realization made in the unforgiving light of age. I am not one to look back too often, but it’s fair to say that when I do I linger. I see the choices not made. I see the roads rejected. I see the work undone. I see the people left behind.

It would be easy, and natural, I think, to conflate the nostalgia of those newspaper days with hormonal headiness of youth. I was young then, and headstrong and arrogant and just smart enough to learn things quickly, like so many others I worked with. We were inflated with purpose, self-worth and the potency of the (then) power of the press.

Is that what “Spotlight” made me miss – my youth? Or, was it the journalism and, in the realm of the old San Francisco Examiner, the assemblage of great talents and even greater egos who produced it at its peak?

Probably both.

The Journalism Problem: Why I Can’t Seem to Tell the Best Story I’ve Ever Found

DalaiAll of my adult professional life I have been a journalist of some sort or another and with varying degrees of quality.

Through most of these now 40 years I adhered to the canon of the trade – objectivity over bias, fairness over partisanship and fact over belief. In the last decade, however, my views changed, especially during the several years in which I wrote a blog (First Draft) about the constraints these core principles imposed on a profession whose defining practices were under assault by a digitally empowered audience and other disruptive technological and economic forces.

I came to see how the he-said-she-said definition of objectivity favored stenography over narrative and defined a “story” as something that always had two sides, regardless of how ludicrous, shallow or blatantly false one of those sides might be.

I stuck with the concept of fairness longer, but eventually it, too, was eroded when I began to consider the impact a simple phrase such as “in all fairness.” In a story, for example, about immigrants forced into indentured servitude in a sweatshop, must a journalist “in all fairness” give voice as well to the person who has economically enslaved these women? When Donald Trump bleats about Muslims or Mexican rapists, must a reporter “in all fairness” allow his spokesperson to rationalize such racist remarks? I once thought so, but I no longer do.

Of those canonical components of traditional journalism, what for me persists is the principle that facts matter more than belief (or opinion, if you will). Underlying this principle is a foundational layer of logic that things are either true or they are not and that the evidence of these truths can be found in facts.

I realize, of course, that the retail value of fact in the realm of politics and much of the rest of public discourse in the U.S. has fallen to nearly zero, but following the advice of my wise mother I am not going to jump off the bridge just because the other kids are doing so. I cling, comfortably, to the notion that facts enable those of us who care about such things to define what is true and what is not.

Here is where my problem lies.

I have come across, quite by accident, perhaps the best story of my journalistic life and I don’t know how to tell it because the facts of the story are not only elusive, but I think they will never be known (at least not to me).

I believe a terrible injustice is being done, but I can’t prove it.

I believe a powerful, politically connected person or persons have pulled enough levers to imprison a woman who less than two years ago was honored by the Dalai Lama for her compassionate work with poor children, but I can’t prove it.

I don’t believe the grave charges that have been compiled against this person and her family, but I can’t prove that what they are accused of doing never happened.

I believe I know the truth in this case, but I can’t prove it.

What is more important: what I believe to be true or what can be defined by the few, verifiable facts that exist, which is very little? Is it more ethical to write about what I believe to be a terrible injustice and risk being proven wrong when someday perhaps more contradictory facts emerge or to stay silent and let others who are more partisan champion her case?

I feel somewhat embarrassed to be even asking these questions because what moral center I’ve managed to keep intact over these years is shouting at me to write what I believe. Countering that cry, though, is the cautious reasoning of my remaining journalistic mind, which argues that anything is possible, that even good people do bad things and that is why stories must be told from the facts rather than from beliefs.

Truthfully, I am not looking to anyone else for an answer. It will come – it has to come – from me. Voicing this dilemma, though, enables me to better parse its components. Stay tuned.

Fort Point, Lost in the Familiar

FortPoint_112915_0022

A long time ago, when I first studied photography, I wandered the parks and other public spaces of San Francisco carrying a camera loaded with film looking for light and shape. I never made any memorable images, but I enjoyed the capture of the moment and solitude of the experience – and still do.

PhotoStoryOne of my favorite locations – and that of many other would-be art photographers — was Fort Point. It was a wondrous, messy collage of brick walls, stone stairways and long hallways that bisected barracks whose wooden floors and plaster walls were in lovely decay. Light burst into the building through long, tall windows and slithered along the steps of the stairwells. The Fort was thinly staffed and the deep, dark cul-de-sacs of the gun mounts provided ample private space to photograph the texture of the weathered brick or, quite often, the alabaster curves of a girlfriend’s body.

Today, Fort Point is cleaned up. The barracks are refreshed and repaired and host orderly exhibits of past military life. Families hike the stairs and shoot selfies on the roof beneath the yawning maw of the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone is fully dressed.

Nonetheless, I return when I can, as I did yesterday. After several days of sickness, which overlapped the chaos of Thanksgiving and the return from a difficult trip to Mexico, I sought shelter in the Fort while returning to Marin from SFO, where I had dropped off KT.

I put the new little camera in the bag and walked the along breakwater that connects Chrissy Field to the Fort. As I entered, I dropped a couple of bucks in donation box in the entryway – what a deal, I thought.

Out of the chill wind, I daubed the moisture that these days forms in my eyes from the cold, and saw, to my relief and pleasure, that nothing had changed since I was there about a year ago. The Park Service has managed to upgrade the interior and preserve the exterior. Nicely done. What persists is a sturdy physical link between my ever-lengthening past and my increasingly tenuous present.

Fort Point, like those other photographic haunts of my Kodak-fueled youth – Golden Gate Park, Telegraph Hill, Powell & Market – always ignites a complex set of feelings. With remembrance of innocence comes wistfulness. With recognition of the physical space comes comfort. With the arithmetic of time comes anxiety over the diminishing sum that remains. With the touch of the camera comes anticipation.

It is the latter, above all else, that brings me back to this space beneath the bridge – the physicality of the camera and the instantaneous sense of intimacy it engenders in me. As my right thumb finds its resting spot on the back of the camera, as I feel the weight of the German metal in my hand, as I adjust the lens with the fingers of my left hand and as I point the glass toward a wall or a stairs I’ve photographed many times before, I become lost in the viewfinder. The moment engulfs me and I yield, at last, to its comfort.

Odd, isn’t it, that such a feeling could persist with such strength for all of these years? It draws me back again and again, and I respond, knowing that in those times when I need to find myself I must go  where I can lose myself.

For a Friend

I think back to those last few days we had together. I feel the heat of the southern sun. I savor the smoky tang of the mescal. I wince at the stench of urine in the plaza where the striking teachers camp. I see the photographs on the table and the yearning faces of those who made them. I am wrapped in your passion and emboldened by your spirit.

The memories are clear, as if it all happened just a day or so ago. But a spring has passed since then and most of a summer, too. Here by the sea, the morning air is chill and, as the night lengthens, my breakfast table is no longer lit by the rising sun. Much has changed.

You are gone. Sooner than expected. Against your will. What remains is not enough. It cannot replace you. It is insufficient to fill the holes left behind. This, though, is neither your fault nor your problem. You lived your life and did so spectacularly. You helped me and others find our own lives and did so generously. Now, we must live those lives. I must live mine.

The truth is that some days I don’t quite know how. I am an unforgiving  judge of myself and of my work. Is it any good at all? Or is it, as you used to say, not quite? I cannot tell. The indecision breeds hesitancy. The timidity fuels self-criticism. I work and I reject. I am blind to what my eyes see. I am deaf to the good words of others.

The other day I photographed a painter. He is a young and well-known. His intricate art, first created on the walls of alleyways, now appears on the canvas of popular shoes. We stood in the deep end of an empty swimming pool and as I snapped off frames and the big strobe fired the conversation turned to  self-doubt.

The painter was handsome, young, successful and moneyed. It surprised when he said that he suffers episodes of the same confidence-sapping affliction that has dogged me for decades. I hate to tell you, I said, speaking to someone 40 years younger than I, that it doesn’t get better with age.

What do you do, I asked him?

I just keep working, he said. I just keep working.

Me, too.

Mary Ellen & the Book

Mary Ellen Mark The book from the last Oaxaca workshop arrived the other say. The cardboard package was on the stairway landing inside the front gate when I arrived home from an afternoon shoot. I took the book inside to the kitchen, slit the packing tape with a paring knife and opened the wrapping.

There was Mary Ellen on the cover.

In the photograph she is seated, facing to her right. A dog lies at her feet, his head raised and cocked slightly, his eyes looking into the camera. A large shawl covers most of Mary Ellen’s body. Only her head, her braids, a bit of her legs and her feet are visible. A large lump appears beneath the shawl on the left of her body. It is the cast on her broken wrist. She wears sandals. Her toenails are painted black. Her feet appear to be large for such a tiny person.

It is a somber image. I would have said that even had she not died just three months after the picture was made. She isn’t smiling, but she rarely did for photographs, so it isn’t that. It’s the tightness of her face, the downward slant of the corners of her mouth, the hunch of her shoulders below the shawl. They create an uncharacteristic appearance of smallness for a woman whose personality was as large as the life she led.

In the photograph I see the sickness. I see the frailty. I see weight she carried, the knowledge that her time was running out and that despite all her fierce will and immense soul – the characteristics that defined her – she could not prevent it from doing so.

I touched the picture with my right hand and cried.

***

The truth is I didn’t buy the book until after Mary Ellen died. The February workshop in Oaxaca didn’t end well for me – nor for Mary Ellen – and when the workshop organizers sent word that book was finished I hadn’t cleansed enough of the bad feelings to want to buy it.

Tim Porter, Mary Ellen MarkThe workshop wrapped up on Wednesday night and most everyone flew home the next day. Mary Ellen was there an extra day and I was staying through the weekend to do more photography. I planned to ride to the airport with her on Friday morning to help her navigate the craziness in the terminal should she need it.

On Thursday morning, I went to an elementary school outside of Oaxaca to photograph a teacher, a young Mexican woman who had returned home to Oaxaca after living illegally through her adolescence in South Carolina, a placed she considered so racist and intolerant that she chose to return to Mexico. After cabbing back into town, I was walking through the zócalo in the mid-afternoon en route to my apartment when I spotted Mary Ellen seated on the patio of her hotel. Before her on a table were many of the contents of the two shopping bags she carried with her – papers, folders, receipts, etc. She was quite upset.

“I was robbed,” she told me after I sat down next to her. She explained that 30 minutes earlier while shopping she accidentally left a wallet containing a sizable amount of Mexican pesos on the counter of a store. After leaving the store and discovering that the wallet was missing, Mary Ellen sent her assistant back to retrieve the wallet. It was gone.

Mary Ellen was enraged. She wanted to call the police. I won’t come back here, she said. I’ve had it with Mexico. The people can’t be trusted. The city has changed so much. It’s not the same.

They were harsh words and they saddened me. I knew she was sick. I knew her health might not allow her to return for the workshop she’d already planned for later in the year. If this trip were to be the last of her two-decade love affair with Oaxaca, I didn’t want it to end so bitterly.

I went to the store. Mary Ellen’s assistant was there, arguing with the clerk and the owner, who, coincidentally, I had known for a couple of years. The assistant, a young Mexican guy, was sure the clerk had taken the money (I know my people, he told me later, outside the store.) I wasn’t yet convinced. Mary Ellen always seemed to be looking for things – a folder, a pair of glasses, something. It seemed reasonable that she might have misplaced the wallet elsewhere.

The shop owner let us look behind the counter, in shelves and drawers and all around the store. Nothing. I returned to Mary Ellen’s hotel. She hadn’t calmed down and continued to talk about getting the police involved. Don’t, I told her. Don’t. This is Mexico. It won’t go well. She ate dinner that night with a friend and I didn’t see her again until 6:30 the next morning, when we met in the lobby of her hotel.

A night’s sleep hadn’t helped. “She stole it. I know,” said Mary Ellen right off.  After a night of thinking about it, I still wasn’t sure even though the amount of cash in the wallet equaled a month’s pay or more for a shop clerk. It would be hard to resist. We’ll never know, I told her; you’ve got to let it go.

The driver arrived, someone Mary Ellen had used for years. Two days earlier I’d heard him and Mary Ellen agree on a price to take the two of us to the airport and then give me a ride back into town. Now he wanted to charge us double because of the return trip. It was a standard tactic in Mexico, but it further upset Mary Ellen. No, she said. No. Her mood worsened. There’s no loyalty here, she said, no loyalty.

At the airport, all went smoothly. Mary Ellen and I hugged goodbye. After I watched Mary Ellen clear security, I got in the car for the 20-minute return trip into the city. I never saw her again.

***

A couple of days later I flew home to San Francisco in my own negative mood. I was disappointed in my work. I didn’t like the pictures I’d made. I was exhausted from the heat and had lost five pounds from walking miles every day and I couldn’t see the value of it in the photographs. They were too ordinary, too magazine-y as Mary Ellen would say. I felt like I would never make a good picture.

This state of mind is important in order to understand what happened next. After each workshop with Mary Ellen, there is a flurry of Internet activity among its participants, especially on Facebook. Groups are formed, photos are shared and quips are exchanged. Less than a week after I returned to California, one of the photographers from the workshop posted some photos that deeply disturbed me. I won’t say what the subject was, where they were shot or who made them, but I thought they were a violation of privacy and a breach of trust.

I can be overly opinionated and judgmental – not my finer characteristics – and the pictures outraged me. They hit the sweet spot of disdain I have for privileged First World travelers who come to Mexico and treat the poor people they encounter with (what I see as) disrespect. Anyone who knows me has heard the rant: They can’t speak the language, they enter people’s homes without so much as a please and thank you, they show up at sacred ceremonies and snap away like they’re photographing a Little League parade.

I’ve done it, too. I plead guilty. But I do it less and less. I am working on patience and intimacy. I am OK with spending the whole day with someone and not taking a single picture. I would rather – even if my success rate is low – be a better human being than a great (or even a mediocre) photographer. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for teaching me these things.

In short, I was angry when I saw the photographs. I wrote an email to the photographer. I tried to be polite and persuasive, but I probably sounded condemning and abrasive (see above). The photographer disagreed with me. The photos stayed online.

It seemed so wrong to me that it made me question my own photographs. Am I exploiting people? Am I betraying their trust? I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I was done with workshops. No more, I told my wife, a former journalist who had lived and worked in Mexico. No more photography – or Oaxaca – with others. I would continue my relationship with Mary Ellen, travel to New York to visit her, nourish the friendships I’ve made through her and work in Oaxaca on my own. But no more groups, not with anyone.

This was my mindset when the workshop book came out. I looked at it online, flipped through the digital pages and saw only the negative.

I didn’t see the faces of my friends, I didn’t see the effort and creativity of the other photographers, I didn’t see the dinners with Mary Ellen and her posse of fabulous women, I didn’t see the hopes and hardships of the families I’d visited, I didn’t see the drunken, almost desperate frivolity of the transvestites I’d come to know, I didn’t even see the sweetness of the abandoned children I’d photographed for two years. I only saw what I’d failed to do. I only saw how others had disappointed me and how I had disappointed myself. I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t want those memories.

When Mary Ellen died, I, like every other photographer she had ever helped, was heartbroken. I wanted more of her. I spent hours online looking at her work. Eventually, I looked through the workshop book again. This time it was different. I only saw her.

There she was surrounded by her assistants – steady Cristina, mercurial Beto, thoughtful Ina, energetic Candy, and earnest Paula. There she was in her photographs of the participants, some of whom I feel closer to than friends I’ve had for years. There she was in her photograph of me, I looking small, old and awkward. The dog looked better.

There she was in the work of the photographers – the girl in the locker by Alejandra; the oily men against the wall by Bjorn; the gauzy Holga dog by Chae; the beautiful image of the young orphaned boy in a box by Grant (who worked so hard); the boy in the shelter hanging upside down off a concrete wall by Ina; the dog at the dump by James; the hands of a mother cupping her disabled son’s head by Jody (who has been photographing this child for years); the drummer boy by Lori; and the girl in her communion dress against a blue wall by Julia. And so many others.

Now, I see everything I didn’t see in the book the first time. I see goodness and humanity and passion. I see innocence and experience. I see admiration and awe (by the photographers of Mary Ellen) and I see loyalty and relentless encouragement (by her to them). And, I see myself, still uncertain at this age, still wanting to be more, still dissatisfied, but still trying.

I think that’s what she saw in me. I certainly see that in her.

How I Met Mary Ellen Mark

The first time Mary Ellen Mark and I spoke she came at me like a ravenous attack dog. “Tell me who said that,” she barked into the phone. “I want to know who said that.”

The spark for those words was struck several weeks earlier when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I have a house, and where we were visiting friends.

Mary Ellen Mark, Tim PorterOne evening, one of those friends, a bookstore owner, and I, went to IAGO (Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca) to see an exhibition by New York graphic artist Peter Kuper, who had lived in Oaxaca with his family during the political turbulence and violence of 2006 and had written an illustrated book about the experience (Diario de Oaxaca). The exhibition consisted of drawings from that book.

At the gallery entrance, I saw a poster advertising an upcoming workshop with Mary Ellen. I was astounded. She was my photographic hero and, in fact, the reason I took up photography (see that story here). Oaxaca was my adopted second home. I’d had no idea that two such significant components of my life overlapped.

I mentioned this coincidence to my friend. As a journalist, first a photographer and then later a reporter and an editor, I had dismissed photo workshops as expensive vacations for wannabes who were transported en masse from one location to another to photograph wildlife or indigenous people. I already detested the American and European tourists who stuck their big cameras in the faces of the Oaxaca’s impoverished street children, snapping their photos as if they were tourist attractions like Monte Alban or colorful rugs. I couldn’t imagine hanging out with a group of well-heeled (the only types who can normally afford workshop fees), wide-eyed amateurs ooh-ing and aw-ing over “colorful” poor people.

Still, I was intrigued. This was Mary Ellen Mark. The real deal. The icon. Surely any workshop run by her would be different.

The curator of the exhibition was the wife of a well-known Mexican photographer. After introducing me to her, my friend mentioned that I, too, was a photographer and was considering taking Mary Ellen’s workshop.

Immediately, she told me, “You don’t want to do that. You’re a professional and it’s for beginners.” I was surprised by the vehemence of her dismissal. Really, I asked? “It’s a joke,” she said.

A week or so later, back in California, I still couldn’t shake the dissonance of the experience. How, I wondered, could such an ethical, humane photographer like Mary Ellen Mark be involved with a “joke”? Yet, I didn’t want to waste the money nor the time. Even worse, I didn’t want to participate in something that would ruin the regard I had for Mary Ellen.

I dithered. I fretted. I finally called the workshop organizer in Miami, Photo XPeditions, and spoke with Herzen Cortes, its founder. Tell me, I said, what’s deal? Can someone like me – meaning a crusty, somewhat accomplished professional (albeit not as a documentary photographer) and a Oaxacan veteran benefit from this? Is it really for amateurs?

Herzen, a good guy, pitched me hard, but he was pretty much giving me what was on the web site. I remained hesitant and told him so. Then he said, “Well, would you like to talk to Mary Ellen?”

Sure, I said, and hung up thinking like that will ever happen.

Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was Mary Ellen, calling from New York. Almost without prelude, she got right to it. “Tell me who said that,” she said. “I want to know who said that.”

She caught me off guard. First, I was surprised she called at all. Second, when she said who she was I expected a persuasive tone, not a combative one. I didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of something. “I can’t tell you,” I said. “That seems wrong.”

“OK,” she said, “all I can tell you is that whoever said that is a fucking liar.”

Boom! There it was. All the passion, all the fire, all the ferocity I had associated with her. In that instant, I decided: I was going.

She went on to explain about the workshop, about how some photographers have come for years to work on long-term projects, about how other journalists have come, about how it was designed for people to do personal work and not travel about in a herd.

That was all unnecessary. She had me at a “fucking liar.” I loved her from that moment on. Loved her completely.

Six weeks later, I met Mary Ellen for the first time during the workshop’s traditional opening dinner in a restaurant overlooking the zócalo in Oaxaca. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Tim Porter.”

She smiled, took my hand in hers, leaned in and said, “Before we’re done, you’re going to tell me who it was.”

And several nights later, over mescal, I did.

Dear Medium: Publishing is not Writing

Let’s get one thing clear: Writing is not publishing and publishing is not writing. To write is to transfer ideas from mind to words. To publish is to distribute those words to an audience.

Medium    To me, this is an important distinction, the difference between an act of creativity and a means of transportation. That’s why when someone refers to a piece of software or to an internet site as a “writing tool” I become perturbed.

That’s why I take issue with Medium – which I love as a reader – describing itself as “the best writing tool on the web” or when a Medium user calls it “a fantastic writing tool” or when Ev Williams, Medium’s CEO, says the company’s goal was to build “a great tool for writing.”

Sorry, folks, but Medium is not a writing tool. It is, as Medium itself proclaims, a “publishing platform for on the web — or anywhere — for words and pictures,” one “that started with the writing experience itself.”

The key words here are “publishing platform” and “writing experience.”

Digital publishing requires a distribution mechanism (software) and the one provided by Medium is certainly versatile and easy to use. Kudos for that.

Writing requires nothing other than a brain (some would argue even that is not a prerequisite) and a means to record the words. In that sense, a pencil is a “great writing tool.” As was the typewriter I used in my first reporting job and the IBM Selectric in the next one – both dropped words onto paper in rapid if sometimes erratic fashion, words that were then distributed by a “publishing platform” called a printing press.

Of course, publishing in the digital world is cheaper, quicker and – most importantly – more widely accessible than in my days as a reporter. Software and publishing platforms such WordPress and Medium and Twitter (and before that Blogger and Movable Type) removed the gatekeepers and opened the communication floodgates (for better and for worse).

Writing is the same, though. It’s still hard, it’s still difficult to get it right. The words still come out one at a time whether they’re landing on paper or on pixels. The language is the same, the rhythm as well. Occasional brilliant thoughts don’t change, nor do the more frequent clunkers.

So, thanks Medium for providing a beautiful means of sharing my thoughts, of publishing my writing and of interacting with a community of other writers and readers (all good things) — but whether I type those words (using my keyboard writing tool) into your lovely, clean interface they look they same as they do when I type them into a Word document or into WordPress window.

Mexico — There, Not Here

Mexico, Oaxaca, Irma JuarezUnderstanding Mexico is like learning Spanish. I’ll explain.

The other night, in a Spanish class, a student got hung up on a particular phrase because, as she put it, “it doesn’t make sense in English.” Of course it doesn’t, I told her, but it works just fine in Spanish.

It’s a common trap, one that grabs many Americans who learn a second language – assuming that native Spanish speakers think, as they do, in English and then translate into Spanish as they talk.

It seems silly, doesn’t it? Intellectually, we know that someone from Mexico or Colombia or Chile is not thinking in English and then speaking in Spanish, but emotionally it is a human trait to presume that others are like us. This is mostly a good thing because it enables us to find commonalities among the differences. Despite the language gaps, the discordant cultures and the political tribalism that distinguish us, we share experiences, emotions and the travails of the flesh. We are men, we are women, we work, we strive, we exult, we sicken, we die.

Seeing ourselves in the lives of others can enable us to celebrate what we share and minimize what we don’t. But, the differences remain and must be accepted in order to understand and communicate. Anyone who wishes to learn another language will not be successful if he or she challenges linguistic uses that come naturally to native speakers. You cannot master Spanish by imagining how you would say something in English.

And that’s how Mexico is. A lot of Americans (at least those not consumed by the paranoid mind-think of rabid conservatism) view it as an extension of the U.S. With the two countries sharing a 1,900-mile border, with 6 million Americans visiting Mexico each year and with 33 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States, it is easy envision Mexico as a browner, spicier, poorer version of the U.S., one with better beaches. But that’s not the case.

“Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos.” (Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.) These words of Porfirio Diaz, the autocratic Mexican president who ruled the country for three decades at the turn of the 20th century, define the conundrum that is Mexico – a land abundant in resource and culture and human spirit, but also one whose potential remains stunted because it lives in the immense economic and cultural shadow of the United States. Like a seedling in a forest, Mexico struggles for nourishment while the larger trees of the U.S.  absorb the nutrients from the soil, block the sunlight and suck up all the water.

Lacking nourishment to develop properly – that is to become a thriving, democratic, First World country – Mexico develops aberrantly, like a bush that can only grow in one direction.

Mexico, Oaxaca, La CienagaThe trappings of modern life are everywhere – sprawling beachside resorts along both coasts; luxury car dealerships even in poor states like Oaxaca; expensive restaurants in the capital; booming factories churning out appliances and cars for Americans; and cell phones in the hands of all but the poorest people.

Life looks good in Mexico to those Americans who jet into Cancun and jet out a week later, sunburned and sated with mushy margaritas. But this image is fake. It is a façade.

The resorts rest on a foundation of corruption; only the oligarchic political and business elite (and their children) drive the fancy German cars and patronize the upscale restaurants; the factories are real but their reach is limited and the average national income is $4,500, with the daily minimum wage about $5; and the cost of phone service in Mexico is one of the highest in the world, thanks to the longtime monopoly held by TelMex, which is run by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.

Anyone who spends time in the poorer communities in Mexico easily encounters more vivid examples of Mexican life behind the façade – single mothers who live in tin shacks and make 20 or 30 pesos a day selling trinkets to tourists; children old enough to be in middle school in the U.S. who have never set foot in a Mexico classroom; villages empty of working-age men, who are in the U.S. picking crops, cooking food and tidying up the yards of the wealthy; and more and more.

In the same Spanish class I mentioned earlier, I occasionally show pictures of Oaxaca, either scenes of the city or portraits of the families and children I’m photographing. Some of the student comments, coming as they do from educated, successful people who are interested enough in another culture to attempt to learn its language, are telling in their fundamental lack of understanding of the forces that create the conditions in which these families live.

Of a 28-year-old woman who has four young children, they ask – why does she keep having babies? Of the children in a shelter that cares for dozens of boys and girls of single mothers, they say – where are the fathers? Of the city’s main square, the zócalo, which is crammed with the tents of striking public school teachers, who have occupied the plaza for a year, they wonder – why doesn’t the government kick them out?

These are good questions, but they are American questions, asked from a mindset and an experience that takes civil society and the rule of law for granted, that (still) believes in the preservation of a social safety net and that cannot imagine the complications that confront a single mother with a fifth-grade education having to survive on her own in a macho culture .

The cultural confusion is understandable. Mexico looks like the United States. There are Wal-Marts and Honda dealerships and Starbucks. Kids wear T-shirts festooned with Disney characters. Adults sport Yankees hats and Dodgers jackets. Teenagers have smart phones. Waiters speak English. Politicians wear suits. People eat pizza. Everyone’s so, so, so nice.

But Mexico is not the United States. Tan cerca de Estados Unidos, pero tan lejos tambien. So close to the United States, but so far as well.

This is a lesson I learn again and again. As I sit, for example, in a mother’s living room and we talk about the town and the weather and her son, who was born deformed and now, at age 11, struggles with the onset of puberty from the discomfort of a wheelchair, I fall into that same trap as the woman in my Spanish class – I imagine the mother and I are the same. We are laughing and joking and she smiles so broadly and openly that we seem like old friends and for the moment I lose sight of the gap between us. I see what we share and miss what we don’t. I forget in that instant what I need to remember most in order to understand her and her life – that I will leave and she will stay. I will return with my expensive camera, which costs more than all the money she made last year, to my life of order and drinkable water and indoor plumbing and she will stay, with her son, with her family, in the town where she was born and where she most likely will die.

How blindly egotistic I am to imagine that she and I are the same – I in my life of privilege and good fortune and her in her life of struggle and hardship.

She is beautiful and warm and loving – like Mexico. She is heartbreaking – like Mexico as well. I need to accept this. I need to live with my love and embrace the sadness it brings.

Mexico, Oaxaca, zócalo, protest

My Mexico is Missing in My Photography

Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

They love the photos. My wife, my friends, my family, they all think the pictures are terrific. They stare at the faces of the people. They comment on the aprons of the women. The cluck over the cuteness of the children and they sigh at the images of the food. These are wonderful, they say, such marvelous pictures.

But they are wrong. Well-meaning and flattering, but wrong. The photographs are inadequate. They are incomplete. They don’t capture what I saw. They don’t communicate what I heard. They don’t convey the feelings I felt when I made them. They lack as much — if not more — than they contain.

So much is missing.

The heat, for example. Where are the streets roasted by the sun into hot concrete slabs that scorch the feet? Where is the smoky sweatiness of the kitchen where the women are cooking, their golden skin glistening and their gold teeth glinting through the haze? Where is that room in the house, the one with the refrigerator filled with Corona and Coke, the one so dark that its corners disappear into blackness, the one in which the bride, still encased in the frothy spume of her synthetic gown, seeks haven from the heat?

And the drinking. Where are the groups of men who sit on shaded street-corners and underneath trees and drain bottle after bottle of mescal all day long and into the night? Where are these men who stare at me, curious and friendly, when I arrive and ask directions? Where are these men who watch me, slack-eyed and smirking, as I walked through town at dusk en route to the highway? Where the shots of mescal at the wedding breakfast, the cases of beer at lunch, and the bottles of both at dinner?

Oaxaca, Mexico, children, hijos, lunca DalayAnd the stories of the people. Where is young man with the gang tattoos on his face who tells me he’s done five years in a California prison, including a year in solitary? Where is the drunken gatecrasher with the Yankees hat who wants me to come with him to some caves in the hills so he can show me the shards of pottery he found? Where is the lovely older woman who posed for me with her hatchet as she was hacking up the last of the 25 turkeys cooked for the wedding dinner?

And so much more. The animals – the skinny dogs, the condemned turkeys, the flatulent pigs, the shitting cows and the ubiquitous flies, on the food, on the faces of babies, on whatever is alive or dead. The outhouses – reeking in the heat, furnished with encrusted thrones devoid of seats and provided with reading material so that yesterday’s soccer section can be used as today’s ass wipe.  The food – the mugs of breakfast chocolate; the large, tangy tortillas that substitute for forks when ripping chicken from the bone in bowls of red mole; the sticky plastic cups of horchata.

Why don’t the photographs show these things as I really saw them?

It’s possible that I don’t have what it takes to make the photographs I want. Maybe I don’t work hard enough. Maybe I hesitate when I should engage.  Maybe I simply lack the creative eye to see through the camera what I see without it. If this is so, then it explains why other photographers return from scenes just like those I’ve been in with images that are much more powerful.

Another possible answer is that photography by itself is not capable of capturing everything a photographer sees, hears, and otherwise experiences. This seems self-evident, doesn’t it? After all, a still photograph is a limited representation of a moment. It lacks the sound, the smell and the other tactile sensations of the actual instant.

Of course, I prefer the second answer to the first because it is not a condemnation of my abilities, but the truth is that both possibilities are dissatisfying and deflating.

If indeed, as I sometimes suspect, that I just don’t have the talent or the drive or the know-how to make great photographs, then, naturally, that would be depressing. But, equally disappointing would be the realization that photography, a pursuit I wanted to follow since I was in my 20s, lacks by its very nature, meaning its capture of a brief instant from an endless stream of moments that together produce a memorable experience, the ability to convey that experience from one person to the next.

There is a third option, though. It could be that I ask too much, that I want photography to be the means by which I fill the holes in my life and when it doesn’t I blame the images for their incompleteness, condemn the craft for its impotence, or indict myself as talentless.

This supposition carries the advantage of preserving what measure of self-esteem I have about my work as well as giving photography the respect it deserves as a tool of communication and journalism, one wielded with great impact by many photographers more talented than I.

Some of those holes, those devoid of personal satisfaction, moral fulfillment and social purpose, journalism once filled. Not every day, of course, but often enough to keep the drudgery of the daily deadline at bay. Journalism is a story-telling mechanism. This is important to me. I believe in the power of the story as a means to produce social good (and, for me, to enhance self-worth).  I also believe the purpose of telling the story is to affect the reader (or the viewer or the listener), to cause a reaction, be it emotional or intellectual.

My photographs are not telling the stories I want to tell, and these days those stories have to do with the Mexico, or at least my Mexico.

My Mexico is complicated. My Mexico is a contradiction. It is a country of wealth and warmth and welcoming people. It is a country of corruption and crime and vast social division.

My Mexico smells of ripe mangos, pungent salsa and smoky mescal. My Mexico stinks of clogged sewage lines, leaking gas tanks and dark clouds of exhaust fuming from buses and trucks.

In my Mexico, the nights can be so silent that only the rush of the evening wind en route from the mountain to the valley catches the attention of the ear. In my Mexico, the cities are besieged by a harsh cacophony of honking vehicles stuck in clogged streets, boom-boxes blasting disco tunes from sidewalk stands, and of a nocturnal canine orchestra that never sleeps.

My Mexico has markets laden with towers of fresh fruit, aisles of locally grown and slaughtered meat and colorful comedores that serve platters of homemade enchiladas and tamales and moles. My Mexico has food contaminated with agricultural poisons and human waste and water no human can drink without risking intestinal disease.

My Mexico is limited. It is mostly Oaxaca. My Mexico is vast. It reflects the history of all of Latin America and represents the current social, political and economic conflict of an emerging democracy.

My Mexico is missing in my photographs and I want to see it there. Is this asking too much? Of the images? Of me?

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Oaxaca and the 43

Oaxaca, zocalo, Ayotzinapa

In Oaxaca, the number is everywhere – 43. As are the words – Ayotzinapa, desaparecidos, justicia. And the faces – Jose, Julio, Luis, Carlos and more, all young men, all dead, all still missing.

The memory of the murdered students of Ayotzinapa is inescapable. Their faces stare out from posters plastered to walls. Banners hang from every public school denouncing their deaths. Arcing strands of black graffiti damn the government and demand answers.

In the zocalo, the city’s social heart, the faces of the victims hang from long strands of colorful construction paper, mixing with the Christmas lights and the blue tarps and orange and green tents of the unionized teachers who have lived in the square for months and have now incorporated the students of Ayotzinapa – who were studying education – into their grievances. The effect is cartoonish, but terribly sad.

Passersby ignore the signs and walk past the tents. The shoeshine men buff boots beneath silent, staring faces. Mariachis play. Life goes on – for all but the 43. They are Mexico’s sordid past. They are Mexico’s violent present. They are Mexico’s precarious future.

The Clarity of Marc Riboud

New York, Times Square

What do you do when you realize you haven’t become the person you once hoped to be? What can you do? What should you do?

Age complicates the answers. If you are young and unencumbered with life’s baggage, you can – and should – make the changes that will take you where you want to be. If you are older, or even simply old, your options are fewer. You have obligations, many of them, financial and emotional. You have exchanged innocence and belief for experience and doubt. The road ahead is short, the time for a mid-course correction was long ago.

What can you do? What should you do?

These questions are in my head as I step out of the Rubin Museum onto West 17th Street during a recent visit to New York. A harsh, pre-winter wind fails to penetrate the sobriety of the moment, one focused on the exhibition I had just seen – more than 100 photographs made in post-World War II Asia by the pioneering Magnum photojournalist Marc Riboud.

With a Leica loaded with black-and-white film, Riboud inserted himself into the transition points of China, Japan, India and other countries during periods of often tumultuous political and cultural change. His work is direct, honest and, at times, both intimate and grand – everything good photojournalism should be.

Of course, I’d seen Riboud’s photographs before and even studied them in college, but collected together and filling room after room in the museum, the scale and the scope of his accomplishment was impressive and inspirational.

It also – selfishly – saddened me. This is the photography I yearn for and this remains the photography that eludes me. I am working on it, but I am not focused enough. My effort is scatter-shot, diffused by lack of direction.

A friend, a photographer I love and admire, urges me to find a story and tell it. I had dinner with her in New York and over steaming bowls of chewy udon she repeated her advice. Coincidentally, the next day, at the Riboud exhibition, I come across a letter written by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a 33-year-old Riboud in 1956, when the younger man was struggling with his photography.

“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, who then counseled Riboud to look for the “means” of telling a story, to find the pieces and put them together one by one until the larger narrative is complete. (A larger excerpt is below.)

I have no illusions of becoming Marc Riboud. In fact, at this point of my life I have no illusions of anything. Still, I treasure clarity for it can lead to conviction.

What can I do? What should I do?

(When in New York, I walk – a lot. The photos below are snaps from a couple of Manhattan walkabouts.)

“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story. I’ll quote what Max Jacobs says about literature in a letter to a friend: ‘Look for the “means,” a work of art is a gathering of means to achieve an effect. Artists are not penitents displaying their sins, they are creators working towards a goal, they have a skill and a story gets made like a suit, with cutting and patterns. Whatever of ourselves we put into it, fine, but it’s necessary to learn how it’s made: what a situation is, how to bring it along, how to resolve it.”
— Letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Marc Riboud, March 19, 1956.

#43 (en Español)

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43 estudiantes. 43 jóvenes secuestrados en la noche. 43 hijas t hijos asesinados por las manos de la corrupción. 43 cuerpos descartados y quemados como la basura de la casa. 43 oportunidades perdidas por un futuro mejor. 43 más razones para llevar luto por México.

Los 43 alumnos universitarios asesinados murieron debido a que el 26 de septiembre apropiaron unos urbanos y bloquearon una carretera, una forma común de protesta política en México, y al hacerlo se metieron en las planes de la esposa del alcalde de Iguala, una de las más corruptas y violentas ciudades en Guerrero, uno de los más corruptos y violentos estados en México. Ella estaba en rumbo a dar un discurso, encontró la calle bloqueada, hizo una llamada a tu esposo. El Alcalde, José Luis Abarca ordenó a la policía local atacarlos. La policía entregó los alumnos a una pandilla criminal asociada con los narcos que controlan la región. Y los jóvenes desaparecieron.

Todo esto sucedió con la misma impunidad por la parte del alcalde, la policía y los narcos que infecta todo México y literalmente ha permitido asesinos de todos tipos para irse sin miedo de ser castigados por décadas.

Desde el comienzo de lo que ha venido a llamarse la guerra contra el narcotráfico en México, que se emprendió en el 2006 por el entonces presidente Felipe Calderón contra la red de los carteles que generan hasta $500 millones de la venta de drogas ilegales anualmente y controlan 90 por ciento de la cocaína que entra a Estados Unidos, la cifra oficial de la violencia entre los carteles, entre el gobierno y los carteles y entre los carteles y los ciudadanos inocentes de México – como los 43 estudiantes de Ayotzinapa —  ha alcanzado 60,000 muertos. Eso es el numero oficial. Extraoficialmente, observadores de los derechos humanos calculan que el numero es 120,000.

Para poner esa cifra en perspectiva, hay que considerar que 58,220 Americanos murieron en la guerra entre Estados Unidos y Vietnam, un conflicto que incitó a la generación mía a llenar las calles de la capital estadounidense en protesta y eventualmente causó cambios vastos en la sociedad Americana.

Por supuesto, Vietnam era una guerra Americana y existía un reclutamiento que fomentaba más resistencia contra el conflicto, pero todavía se puede imaginarse que una guerra de letalidad similar que esta ocurriendo en un país visitado por 6 millones de Americanos cada año achisparía un poco de rabia aquí.

No es asi.

Hasta ahora, la posición oficial de Estados Unidos ha sido poco más de una tracción de hombros. La administración del Presidente Obama ha descrito el destino de los 43 alumnos y la respuesta insípida del gobierno del Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto como “preocupante.”

Eso puede cambiar. Las manifestaciones callejeras que comenzaron en Iguala después de la desaparición de los estudiantes se han extendido a lo largo del país y se han vuelto violentas en el D.F. Peña Nieto, que ignoró los secuestros por muchos días antes de mencionarlos públicamente y luego salio del país para una conferencia de comercio en China, ha regresado a escuchar a un número cada vez mayor de gritos pidiendo su renuncia (avivados en parte por la revelación que él y su esposa, una estrella de telenovelas, tiene una casa secreta con un valor de $7 millones en un enclave adinerado de la capital.)

Los medios de comunicación estadounidenses están reportando cada vez más el escándalo y las comunidades mexicana-americanas en Estados Unidos están organizándose y marchando con la esperanza de incitar más atención publica. Una de esas marchas ocurrió el sábado pasado en San Francisco, cuando 500 personas se encontraron en la esquina de los calles 24 y Mission, el corazón de la comunidad Hispana en San Francisco, para caminar al centro. Más manifestaciones están planeadas, una en coordinación con una huelga general establecida a ocurrir en México el 20 de noviembre, el aniversario de la revolución Mexicana, y otra en diciembre en 43 ciudades estadounidenses.

¿Que puedes hacer? Muchas cosas. Ya sea poco o mucho.

Escribe o tuitea a tu congresista. Dile que estas enojado, que estas harto, que quieres que el gobierno estadounidense reclame que su segundo mayor socio comercial limpie su casa. (El comercio entre México y Estados Unidos que suma en total a $6,000 millones en 2013.)

Si fumas marihuana o usas cocaína (¿y porque lo haces?), para. Casi toda la cocaína y mucha de la marihuana que los Americanos consumen viene a través de México. Tu diversión apoya los carteles, que a su vez corrompen el gobierno más, que engendra un estado de la impunidad, que permite crímenes de todos tipos – desde la evasión de los impuestos a la matanza en más – para continuar sin ser castigados.

Marcha. Camina en las calles con los Mexicanos que han venido a nuestro país, legalmente e ilegalmente, para escapar la misma corrupción que ha causado la muerte de los 43 estudiantes. Con más de 33 millones de persones que tienen origen Mexicano viviendo en Estados Unidos, esta guerra es tan nuestra come es de México.