Category Archives: Photojournalism

My Oaxaca – Unrooted

A teenage boy should approach adulthood like a stout sapling bound to become a tree – upright, solid in the core, branches on the spread, leaves yearning for the light from above.

Some boys, though, bend as they verge on manhood, maybe for having been planted in poor soil or having lacked clear light or good air. Their gazes curve downward to dirt rather than arc upward to the sky. Their roots are weak, their branches withered, their leaves sparse. They grow alone, absent the communal instruction of a mature forest, and therefore never understand what it is to be a tree. They see themselves as lesser, a bush or, worse, a weed.

This boy sweeps an empty room, a place where his mother transplanted him. It was yet one more relocation in his life. Before he could gain footing, before he could adapt to the dark of the room and the dank of the air, she uprooted him once more.

Now he stands alone, unplanted, untended, unsure of who or what he is, looking for a place to grow.

My Oaxaca — A Chair

What is a chair for? Occupied, of course, it supports us in repose. Unoccupied, it serves as a reminder, a mute prompt of home and comfort or, perhaps, of those who are not present, like the unclaimed seat at a family dinner.

A solitary chair in an otherwise empty room. Missing all the expected accompaniments. No table for a meal, no light by which to read, no other chair to provide companionship.

I sat in this chair once and photographed a mother across a plastic table. The legs of the chair were unsteady and moved in the opposite direction of my weight, that is to say when I leaned forward, the chair retreated aback.

One day, the mother decided to move on, exchanging one dark apartment for another, leaving the chair for last. As she stood on its wooden seat, balancing herself against the concrete wall, in order to retrieve something from the tin ceiling, I made pictures of her. I feared becoming witness to the chair’s collapse.

The chair endured, though, just as the mother does, sufficient to its need, but ever precarious in its use.

My Oaxaca — Oaxaca Bin Laden

You know how some drunks repeat themselves. This one keeps asking, “Hey, you know what? Hey, you know what?” I am talking with his buddies at the horse races that are taking place in a plowed over corn field outside of Oaxaca. I finally give in, worn down. “No, what?” I ask. And he answers, twice, “I’ve got a big dick. A big dick.”

There are many possible responses to that declaration, but I need one that gets me some respect without causing offense – one that I can also say in Spanish. So I answer: “I know. Your mother told me last night.” Nailed it.

When the laughter dies down, the drunk says, “You need to meet Bin Laden.” OK, I say, thinking how weird it is for an Oaxacan to have an Arab name.

Moments later, I am facing an unsmiling man with hooded eyes whose beard extends from his thick eyebrows to just north of his belly button. If, indeed, Osama Bin Laden were partial to straw cowboy hats and Western shirts unbuttoned to the beltline, then, yes, I am looking at him.

Bin Laden never smiles, but I learn that he’s from Ejutla, he raises horses and he’s at the races with his teenage son. “Take our picture,” he tells me. And I do – a Mexican nicknamed after a Saudi terrorist standing next to a kid dressed like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. The past and the future, with me in the present.

My Oaxaca — Namaste

On occasion, a yoga teacher visited the children’s shelter. She dressed all in white: loose, flowy pants, a voluminous shirt of the same material, and a turban fashioned from a woven scarf. On her hands, were more rings than fingers. She sat cross-legged at one end of a concrete patio, where she had plugged an ancient CD player into a cord that hung from a second-floor window. The tiny speaker emitted scratchy, Hindu mantras.

The children sat facing her on colored rubber mats that normally covered the floor of a plastic playhouse shaped like a log cabin. There were not enough mats for all the children, so some of them had to share and others sat on the concrete as they did their poses.

When the session ended, the children lied down for savasana, “corpse pose,” and concentrated on their breathing. Other than the one time I was in the shelter late at night, I’d never experienced such silence there. Even the streets of the surrounding neighborhood seemed to fall into momentary repose.

In a place meant to be a refuge, but which was often in chaos because there were so many children and so little supervision, tranquility was rare. But in this muted instant of inhaling and exhaling, peace came to the shelter.

My Oaxaca — Personal Space

In a one-room world, where you and your mother and your sister and your brother all sleep in the same bed, where the stove and the mattress and the clothes and the toys and the food fill all but some squares on the floor, there is no place to be alone.

Solitude is elusive. Privacy is rare To find them, children hide – behind curtains, in corners, under the sheets, deep inside of themselves.

Carlos is a quiet boy. Behind his taciturn façade his mind runs at full speed. He says little but absorbs everything. Show him a machine, he knows how it works. When something is broken, hand him a tool. His intelligence is a serpent, coiled, and ready to strike. What it lacks is prey.

For a while, when the television set worked, he watched pirated American movies about superheroes and alien invaders. He memorized entire dialogs, dubbed into Spanish, and could mouth the words seconds before the characters did. When the bed was empty, he crawled into and watched, mostly hidden, from his personal space.

My Oaxaca — In the Chambers of the Queen

People were coming and going, so I waited in the corner, out of the way. A single bulb lit the room and only those who looked into the darkness could see me.

The visitors came to pay homage to the man who had positioned himself, with precision derived from practice, beneath the light, in order to witness his metamorphosis from simple florist to resplendent queen, chosen to reign over the carnaval. In that regal role, wrapped in taffeta and topped by a tiara, her true self shone.

As the hour grew late, the queen’s patience waned. Her throne awaited and there was work yet to be done. She shooed away the callers and sequestered herself in the care of an attendant. The door shut, the heat in the room rose, and I stayed in the darkness of her chrysalis, chosen, by the queen’s silent acquiescence, to be her royal cameraman.

My Oaxaca — Kevin and Antonina

Kevin is 15. He is as you see him because the doctor who dragged him into life twisted the baby boy’s spinal column and robbed him of the ability to walk, grow straight and talk. What remains for Kevin are emotions, which emerge as smiles for music, lively eyes for visitors and tears for his father, Hugo.

Kevin’s mother, Antonina, says he cried for three weeks when Hugo died, a victim of diabetes that first took his sight, then a leg and, finally, his life. In the weeks before his death, Hugo lied in a bed next to Kevin’s and taught his son how to mouth his name.

What remains for Antonina is a life with Kevin and pangs for what might have been – had the doctor been competent, had her husband not drank so much, had there been another child.

There is one more thing, something the whole village knows of but does not speak of readily. It  is about Hugo and his past, but he is gone and what has been said of the past will  remain there.

My Oaxaca — The Bird That Fell From the Sky

José and his family had the day off from their work at the city dump, where they picked plastic bottles and sheets of carboard out of the ripe muck to sell to recyclers. They were pepenadores. The day was waning, and it was almost time to walk the mile to the highway to catch a city-bound bus.

That’s when José asked me: Would you like to see my eagle? One thing I learned in journalism is that certain questions demand a “yes.” That was one of them.

José went inside his cinder-block house and returned carrying a dead bird mounted on a polished piece of wood. He said it was an eagle. Me, I thought it looked more like a hawk, and to this day I can’t be sure either way. Whatever the raptor was, it was stunning. He set the bird on the trunk of his car and told me how he came to have it.

The bird had fallen from the sky one afternoon, victim of a collision with a power line. It landed on the ground near José’s house, broken and dying. Jose gave the bird the gift of death; in return, the bird gave José his most treasured possession.

My Oaxaca — From the Kitchen

A whole fish – head, tail, bones and all – fried on the stovetop. A goat, butchered and sunk into an earthen oven for hours. Sides of beef and pork, killed just steps from the stove, slathered with chilies and roasted beneath avocado branches. Burgers, thinner than sliders, so light they go down like beef-flavored air. Ham-and-cheese sandwiches drenched in mayo. Refried beans rich with epazote. Carrots, peeled into transparent slices, bathed in lime juice. Chunks of jicama dusted with chili powder. Frosted slabs of tres leches cake, celebrating birthdays and graduations. Half-sized bottles of Corona. Shots of mescal. Tall plastic glasses of sugary soda, bright yellow and deep red, representing flavors not found in nature.

All the food in the Ojeda household passes from the hands of Maria and her daughters, Alberta and Guadalupe, to the mouths of family and friends – some from down the street and others, like a son long gone, from a country far to the north.

The Ojeda kitchen is long and wide and rises to the height of two men. A tall, arched window bounces daylight off its walls, which declare their cultural vibrancy in tones of unabashed pink. At night, the color fades into shadows, penetrated barely by the fluorescence of a single bulb and tinged, deliciously, with the lingering aromas of the day’s cooking.

My Oaxaca — Toys for the Poor

On Tres Reyes day, when Christians mark the visit of the Magi – the Three Kings – to the newly born Jesus Christ, Oaxacans gather in the zócalo to hand out toys to the city’s poor children. The toys are cheap, plastic junk that break within days. Stores donate some of the toys and then take a tax write-off. Wealthy families arrive at the plaza with their own children, who bear gifts for their poorer counterparts.

Sometimes the city gives each child a number so he or she can enter a fenced area and choose a toy. Other times, performers mount a stage to sing songs of mercy and compassion while the kids cram together, faces upward, shoving, pushing, and extending their arms … for what? A rubber ball.

A rubber ball, a knock-off Barbie doll or packages of make-up for children who don’t have books, computers, healthcare or, too often, enough to eat.  

Whenever I see this image, I don’t see children reaching for a rubber ball. I see them pleading for attention. And, I think of the oft-repeated question: What would Jesus do? Give them a toy? I don’t think so.

My Oaxaca – Twenty Seconds with Mercedes

On the day I met Mercedes she told me two things: Don’t leave a bag on the floor because it will bring you a year of bad luck; and, if you hug someone for twenty seconds, your worries will disappear. So I picked up my camera bag and hugged her.

Mercedes lives deep inside of herself. Her face, wonderful to photograph because of how her skin holds the light, rarely displays emotions. She stores those in a hidden aquifer of troubling experiences, which I suspect she taps only when she is alone. When emotions surface, they do so in dribbles. A glistening in the eyes, a questioning tilt of the head, a hint of an upturned mouth.

On this day, the first time I photographed her, she sits on her bed with her daughter in their one-room apartment, looking toward a window that faces a narrow passageway. Her face is patient, cautious, even enduring. Her hands are large, with long fingers worthy of a concert pianist, something I had not noticed until now. Her daughter is bored with me and has stopped smiling for the camera, which I prefer.

My Oaxaca — Waiting for the Bull

When winter is on the wane and the thermometer teases with a taste of spring heat, the bulls come to San Juan Guelavía.

Straddling a wide arroyo in the deep of the valley, Guelavía produces two things of note: labor, which it sends north to California; and carrizo, or Spanish cane, which artists weave into baskets and bowls, whose use today is more decorative than utilitarian.

Every year, Guelavía throws a party for the carrizo. For tourists, the folk art and the food are the draw. For townspeople, though, highlight of the weekend is the jaripeo ­– bull-riding. The riders are local men (and boys), fueled by testosterone, emboldened by mescal, and hoping for a moment of glory.

In between rides, which last only seconds and usually end with the rider tossed to the dust, the crowd sits through long stretches of inaction. To fill the time, and the belly, there is beer, there are potato chips drenched in chile sauce, there are tacos and popsicles.

The people here are good at waiting. Their faces fight the setting sun. They look through me, a visitor, waiting for the bull.

My Oaxaca– The Things They Carry

The Spanish verb cargar sounds like the English word cargo, a load to carry from here to there. That’s cargar – to carry, to shoulder a responsibility, to burden.

In the center of Oaxaca, where small shops line the streets and pedestrians fill the sidewalks from curb to wall, almost everyone is cargando something – in their hands, atop their heads or over their backs.

Large plastic sacks stuffed with groceries for the house or fresh tortillas to sell by the kilo; backpacks bulging with schoolbooks; wooden racks of candied apples ready for sale; diaper bags, purses and newborn babies; bouquets of balloons bought for a birthday; sets of dishes wrapped in clear plastic, purchased as wedding gifts; and bulbous water jugs – garrafones — containing 20 liters (about 5 gallons) of purified water that is clean enough for drinking and heavy enough to tingle the biceps of a bodybuilder.

A full garrafón weighs 40 pounds and costs about 40 pesos, a third of the Mexico’s daily minimum wage. Forty pounds to be able to brush your teeth, make a limonada, or brew a cup of coffee.

Forty pounds. Is that too much to cargar?

My Oaxaca — Sister and Brother

Alexis, the boy with the million-peso smile, has leukemia. His sister, Emily, lying alongside him in their two-room apartment in Oaxaca, held the key to his recovery: her genetically matching bone marrow. The transplant surgery scared her, though, because she believed it would give her cancer.

A few months after I took this picture, Emily’s love for her little brother overcame her fear. She suffered through the surgery and doctors injected her bone marrow into her brother. She was 14 and Alexis was 11.

All siblings are close to a degree, but those I’ve met in Mexico who live in one room with their mothers or sleep in the same bed for years share an unspoken intimacy that is most palpable in the silences. It is beyond affection, more of a communion borne in necessity and nurtured by dependency.

Too often, its display eludes the camera, breaking before it like a soap bubble touched by a curious finger.

My Oaxaca — La Vida de la Madre

Mother’s Day – el Día de la Madre.

No one deserves a day of recognition more than single mothers who hold their families together through force of love, work and will. Doing so is never easy, and it is even more challenging in Oaxaca, where single women head up at least a quarter of all families.

Many are women abandoned by men who have gone north or moved on to another warm bed. Many are women who have left partners who drank too much or ruled the house with their fists. All of them have learned to be independent, both from necessity and desire, in a culture that in almost every circumstance values men more than women.

These mothers welcome me into their homes. They insist on feeding me; they invite me to graduations, baptisms and birthdays; and they bestow on me the gift I treasure the most: their trust.

They humble me with their work; they inspire me with their dedication to family; they make me laugh with their antics; and, when they are not looking, they sometimes bring me to tears.

My Oaxaca — El Caballo Rápido

When I met Axia, she drew horses. In the bedroom she shared with her mom and two younger siblings, she had papered one wall with sketches of horses. She’d given each a name; for example, El Caballo que Vuela – the Horse that Flies.

I made some photos of Axia while she sat and drew in the light coming through the bedroom door. She asked me for a piece of paper, so I handed her my notebook. A while later, when I was on the patio talking to her mom, Axia walked out of the bedroom and handed me this drawing – El Caballo Rápido — The Fast Horse.

A few months later, I returned to the farm town where Axia lived and brought her a large sketchpad and pens I’d bought in the U.S. She filled all the pages with drawings of horses and added many of them to the gallery on the wall.

The following year, on my next visit, I was surprised to see the wall was empty; all the horses were gone. I asked Axia’s mom what happened. She said Axia’s younger sister, angry about something, had ripped up the drawings and the sketchbook as well.

Axia, whose full name is Axianeydt Ramirez Ojeda, is older now and has moved to New York. She still draws, but mostly anime characters. She seems to be done with horses.

My Oaxaca — Azul

Azul is one of four sisters who lived in Hijos de la Luna, a children’s shelter so named because the kids’ mothers supposedly worked as prostitutes at night (under the moon – la luna). A few did, but most were just hard-working and poor. They cleaned houses, washed clothes, worked in markets, making enough to pay the rent but not enough to care for their kids.

Someone told me Azul’s mother was a prostitute, but I never met her, so I didn’t know for sure. What I knew was that Azul lived deep inside of herself. She stared at me like no else ever did or has. In the 10 or so times I photographed her, she never said more than 10 words to me. One day, when she put on a red clown’s nose, her face fell into the closest thing I’d seen to a smile on her.

After the government closed the shelter on charges of abuse, the children scattered. I heard that Azul and her sisters moved in with their mother, who afterward had a baby boy who died in infancy. Before each trip to Oaxaca, I message Azul’s older sister, asking her to ask her mother if I may visit. Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t. She’s never said yes.

My Oaxaca — The Dead Dog

Mexico is tough on dogs. They die from starvation on sidewalks. They die on highways, flattened by buses and left as a feast for the crows. The die from poison in farm towns because folks prefer dead dogs over dead chickens. They die from fights with other street dogs, clawed, bitten and infected.

This dog died in a children’s shelter. It ate something toxic, perhaps poison, maybe rotted meat. Death came slowly, performing its last rites before an audience of children. All afternoon they watched the dog lie on a slab of cement and gasp for the breath its flooded lungs could not produce.

When stillness finally came, the children stood over the corpse. A few touched its fur, moist with sweat from the exertion of dying; others, less adventurous, poked the body with their shoes.

My Oaxaca – The Procession in Teotitlán

When I began to photograph in Oaxaca, I avoided three things: Other photographers, Americans and religious ceremonies. A couple of years ago, though, after the death of my friend, Mary Ellen Mark, a few of us who were her students and friends returned to Oaxaca, to be there during the time of her annual workshops, to photograph together and to share our memories of her.

During her workshops, Mary Ellen sent students to photograph a religious procession marking the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent in Teotitlán del Valle, a foothills village on the outskirts of Oaxaca. I never went; doing so seemed invasive. This time, though, to honor Mary Ellen and to be with my friends, I rode with them to the town at dawn, when the procession began.

I took a Leica and a wide-angle lens, hoping to be unobtrusive. As the procession meandered through the village, the sun rose, scraping the cobblestones of the streets and brushing the stucco of the buildings. I stood in a shaded doorway across from a painted wall and waited for the parishioners to come to me. When they passed, I made a half-dozen frames. This is the one I kept.

My Oaxaca – The Girl in the Uniform

This might be the first decent image I ever made in Oaxaca. I had a new Nikon D200 that I’d gifted myself because I wanted to resurrect the photography career I’d abandoned years earlier. I was mediocre when I gave it up and not much better when I restarted, but the instant of making a photograph excited me as much at age 50 as did at age 25.

Mostly then I shot pretty pictures for a magazine near San Francisco. I enjoyed it, and they paid me, which I also enjoyed. Still, I wanted to do something more real, something more journalistic, and that meant I needed to move beyond “pretty.”

I began photographing people on the streets of Oaxaca, but I was too timid to make anything intimate or powerful. This girl was part of a group of students having their class photograph taken near the famous Santo Domingo church. I stood back from the group, hesitant, and made six frames, all of them average. Then this girl turned to look at me and I shot one more.

That was on New Year’s Eve, 2006. Six more years passed until I met Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca and she urged me to photograph with more passion. Ever since then I have.