Helena was a heroin addict who lived in a modified shipping container in Reykjavik, Iceland. I met her some years ago while photographing folks who lived on the fringes of the country’s overly orderly society.
As most Islanders do, she spoke English, but her accent was American, a gift from her father, with whom she’d lived for a while in San Diego, California. The details of our conversation elude me because I was making photos as we talked, but I do know she spoke about the beach and the Southern California warmth and her hope of returning someday.
As you see, Helena had an open, adolescent face, one dotted with acne, anchored by a strong nose and adorned with large green eyes that alternated between lively and vacant. Atop her head was an unruly collage of yellow and orange hair going dark at the roots. What the photos don’t show is how Helena moved constantly as she talked: her arms intertwining around the torso, her hips arcing left and right, her waist bending forward, each motion a nervous punctuation. She smiled readily, then frowned just as quickly, displays of emotions in motion. She posed for camera at times, imitating what she’d seen, but she couldn’t sustain the façade.
I’m not sure Helena ever understood or cared why I was there, not that it mattered. For her, I was a diversion. After that hour, I never saw her again nor do I know what became of her. I could find out without much difficulty, I suppose, but I’m not sure I want to. Most young drug addicts face hard futures. Once people are broken, it’s hard to put them back together.
For me, what remains of Helena are the images. This is what photography does: preserves a micro-moment, and an incomplete one at that. The image lacks sound and movement, and any emotion it might convey is second-hand at best. What was seen is all there is.
I have not told you about Oaxaca, the last visit, now a full month ago, because there is so much to say, even though most of it is the same, and so little of it comes out spare you the details and speak only of feelings, or the facts might spatter into a gory mess on the page.
My strength, if it is such, is not to regard the contents of the glass as half-full or half empty, although the latter is my natural bent, rather to ask where the rest of the water is, who has it, and why isn’t it in the glass. These are the questions of a mind that is not so much focused and inquisitive as of one that is restless and anxious, poor qualities in a human being, but nonetheless useful in the practice of journalism, which I practiced, but never conquered, for a long period.
Applying this mindset to Oaxaca, where I’d gone to find what I was missing and then soon began missing what I found, I routinely returned home to my American comforts after visits with mothers and children and meanderings through city streets more saddened by the experiences than heartened by them. As time passed, the only lives that seemed to improve were those of children who were born in the United States and returned there to live with a family friend or a relative. Everyone else continued their slow-motion collision with cultural and institutional walls that kept them encaged in a world with little work, less education, almost no health care, and the absence of long-term hope.
The pandemic made everything worse.
In my eighteen-month separation from Oaxaca, teenage boys stopped going to high school and began working for five dollars a day; the brightest girl I knew, forced to study via her cellphone, sought refuge in a violent video game, lost interest in school, and allowed her grades to drop – on a scale of 10 – from 9.5 to 7.2; another teenager, a girl, one who never showed interest in studying, ran away from home, and her mother hears reports of her wandering drugged on the streets; one mother left her son at home and took up with a guy hoping for love but found he only wanted her womb so he could sire a son, and then kicked her out when he learned she lacked the necessary female plumbing; a teenage boy I’d met years before in a shelter, headed for the U.S., got a woman his mother’s age pregnant on the why, crossed the Texas border, got arrested, and sat in a state prison the day his child was born.
That’s enough, isn’t it? Multiply these tragedies by thousands, at least. The work lost, the classes missed, the families separated as parents left Oaxaca for other cities in search of jobs. COVID arrived in Oaxaca as a ravenous beast and feasted on the poor.
Truthfully, I didn’t deal with it well. After a conversation with a mother who showed me sheets of medical bills for her son, who has had leukemia for several years and is somehow still alive, and then withdrew from a folder another set of papers having to do with the search for her constant pain, I sat in silence in the car of a mutual friend who had driven me to the mother’s house. The friend, too, didn’t speak. We were, I would say, overwhelmed. By the enormity of it all. By the relentlessness. By the incessant march of calamity.
I felt small and impotent. I began blaming myself. I could have done more than I’d done, I thought, which, to be honest with everyone, was not that much. I’d applied a few financial bandages on a sucking chest wound that needs a surgical suite. Even the child I’d most focused on, having pled to some unknown deity, just this one, please, just this one girl, dangled from a gossamer string of hope over an adolescent abyss from which, in Mexico, there is no return. I thought about a woman named Becca Stevens I’d met earlier on the trip who, driven by will and passion, founded an organization named Thistle Farms that throws lifelines to woman who have been abused by men (and by society), and wondered why I couldn’t be more like her. She located the means within herself to focus and to do the work that results in resurrecting hundreds of women. I couldn’t manage somehow get one promising young woman through high school.
Here at home, tucked into the trees on the damp north side of a hill, I realize that what drew me to Oaxaca may no longer be there, and that was the intimacy of the experience, the ability, not my own, but one gifted to me by the families, to witness the scope of their lives – smiles and sadness, joy and tears, hope and despair. The stories of child abuse, rape, and beatings, told to me at kitchen tables, in cafés, or via Whats, were leavened with birthday cakes, new-born babies, grade-school graduations, weddings, baptisms, and long, silent hugs that shrunk the great distance between our lives into a space where we could not tell one from another.
That’s what may be gone. Time claims everything. Another voracious beast, it consumes the terrible and the delightful with equal persistence. All that remains is change.
Old age, or to be more gentle with myself, older age, does not care much for change. It prefers consistency. Clothes it knows well, food it finds agreeable, familiar faces, and well-trodden paths. Change is for the young. In fact, for the young change is obligatory. If they don’t adapt, they get stuck right where they’re born – and for many that isn’t so great.
Once more, I tell myself, do it once more. Molt, shed the skin of current expectations and allow another to grow. Brace for the moment between the old and the new when I am emotionally naked and once again clad only in uncertainty. Preconception shields us from both the world’s harder realities and its more alluring charms. In looking for what we expect, we are blind to the surprising.
The timing is right. The fallen leaves of the red maple litter the patio bricks of the same color. The big buckeye plunks its fist-sized nuts onto the wooden stairs below the street. The mornings are moist, promising chill and, we hope, rain to our parched, fiery north state. Winter and change are close cousins.
This is what I return to, a change of season, a change of reason, a chance to once more begin anew.
During the humid summers of Oaxaca, spiritual warmth and physical heat are partners in houses of prayer. On a wedding day in July, a 17th-century church seals guests in its ancient stone as the southern sun warms the nave to roasting temperatures. Fidelity is measured in sweat.
Religion is theater, and a catholic wedding in Mexico is a work of many acts: the mass, the blessings, the exchanges of everlasting devotion, the honoring of the many padrinos, the signing of official documents. There is no intermission.
The bridesmaids – las damas de honor – whose duties of procession are part of the opening and closing acts, wait off-stage as the play progresses, attendant to the script, but also wilting in the heat, which intensifies as the day lengthens. Unlike the flowers on the altar, they have no water for their stems.
In front of them, a boy whose walk-on role is done, takes advantage of his parents’ absence to do what everyone else in the church wishes they could do.
A fellow from New York is going to interview me in a few days about my photography in Mexico. In normal times, he gives tours of galleries and museums, but in these Covid days he stays active and engaged by holding on-line conversations with photographers.
He is quite taken with some of the images and, overall, very complimentary of the work, even going as far as to compare some of the frames to those of famous photographers. His words are kind and welcome, but they also make me wonder if he really knows what he is talking about – despite his art degree and experience – because his view is so distinct from mine.
It is difficult for me, as it is for many of us, to see myself as others see me. To do so requires an honesty unclouded by ego or defensiveness or yearning, and I am not free of those impediments. Even were I capable of veracious self-reflection, accepting the image I see in the mirror would demand both bravery and humility, characteristics of which I possess only in limited supply.
I am guilty on all fronts, at once unable to gain the exterior perspective of others and short of the requisite fiber to take those views to heart, be they negative or positive. That said, I more easily embrace criticism than compliment. A slam feels more natural than a slather. Must be the Catholic upbringing, a religion built on low earthly expectations. Suffer now, dance with the angels later – if you get the invite. When I am told that my photography is mediocre or unfocused – two criticisms I’ve heard – I lean toward agreement. A self-flagellate prefers the whip to the caress. Should a friend or a reader toss a kudo or two my way, I am grateful for the praise, but I am apt to dismiss it. What do they know, after all?
It doesn’t take a session on the couch – or on a Zoom call these days – to diagnose this way of thinking as a protective mechanism. What doesn’t exist can’t be killed. A critic’s barb stings less if you expect nothing more. If you don’t value your photography, your writing, your art, then what does it matter if it is labeled mediocre or unfocused? That’s just a confirmation of what you believed, anyhow.
There is an expression in Mexico that goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. There’s nothing bad from which good doesn’t come. The ol’ cloud and silver lining thing. Too often, I’m the other way around: No hay bien que por mal no venga. No translation needed, right?
So uncertain am I of the work, I cannot edit it, so I ask the fellow from New York to select the images for the slides. He pulls out a few I love – a waiter with a tray, a mother and child with a bird (wonderful, he says) – and others I have consigned to the bin marked Not Good Enough, an ample space packed to overflowing – a old man in front of a wall, a masked rider on a horse (magical, he says).
As he talks about the photographs, describing the forms and the people and the intimacy he sees, the images no longer seem to be mine. I listen to his words and allow them to penetrate my protections. For a few moments, while he talks, I see what he sees. And the realization that I made these pictures amazes me. Not because I believe they merit his encomiums, but rather that I somehow maneuvered myself into the position to make them – to be in the homes of these families, to see them laugh and cry and eat and sleep, to walk amid the chaos of the streets of Oaxaca, to attend the weddings and horse races and transvestite parades. And more and more.
Most people when they see the photographs ask me: Why are you doing this? Is it for work, a book, a show? I’ve never been able to construct a concise answer. Satisfaction. Intimacy. Completion. Something like that.
Now it occurs to me there is a better question: How am I doing this? How did an aging gringo, who years earlier abandoned what he loved for something he was good at, find his way back to that first love and then, without any apparent purpose and even less skill, manage to put himself in the middle of so many lives? How did that happen? I suppose that’s another question I’ll never be able to answer well.
Intersect. To meet and cross at a point. To overlap. To share a common space.
Life consists of intersections, of crisscrossing, of bisecting and squeezing into, onto and through the public commons, bound for or coming from our more private lives.
Street corners are theaters of intersection. There is a daily playbill of drama, comedy, and tragedy – not everyone who ventures off a crowded curb navigates intact to the opposite one. In Oaxaca, the troupe of pedestrians performs to a cacophonous score – the guttural grind of diesel, the bleating grievance of car horns, and the incessant blare of amplified advertisements for cheap eyeglasses, miracle herbs, knock-off denim and dozens of other quotidian products.
With each change of the signal light, a fresh queue of citizen actors strides onto the stage. Their props identify them – mothers laden with infants; students encumbered with bloated backpacks; invitees to weddings or graduations or birthday parties juggling floating balloons and shrink-wrapped gifts; vendors carrying candied apples, bottled water, or plastic bags stuffed with slices of fruit drenched in lime and salsa.
Three things never change: the flow of humanity; the asphalt, lampposts and buildings; and me. I wait in my space. For the intersection, for the overlap, for the crossing of our lives.
Gone missing is the current expression. A terrible phrase. Bland, imprecise and deceptive. It doesn’t mouth the truth: someone has disappeared, someone was kidnapped, enslaved, or is dead. They are not “gone missing.” They are on the run, they have been taken, or they have been killed.
Se busca. Wanted. Wanted to be found. The headline of a thousand posters pasted onto walls and stapled onto utility poles all over Mexico. Mostly women, mostly daughters and sisters and wives and nieces and cousins and friends. Runaways some, but more likely victims of femicides. Young men, too, are missing, often caught in the crossfire between poverty and crime. Plomo o plata, güey.
Se busca. Last seen wearing jeans, a white blouse and black boots. When she laughs dimples form in her cheeks. Her hair is tinted red.
Se busca. So many are wanted that the nation’s public TV channel shows several posters of the missing each day, some dating back a decade. Wanted for ten years or more. Loss and hope travel together through time.
Se busca Evelyn García Macías. Se buscan Montserrat, Cielo, Caterin, Isis, Eduardo, Misael, Cecilia, Ingrid, Haydee and Verónica. Ayúdanos localizarlos. Mexico, your children are missing. Help us find them.
Three faces caught in a moment, each frozen in falling strands of sunlight, a random assortment of movement, expression and emotion, life sliced thin, but not so much as to be transparent.
A woman on foot, her hair tousled by the labors of the day, wearing a sweatshirt dotted with symbols of a northern animal not found in Mexico, looking for safe crossing at a chaotic corner. There is more to her, given away by the furrowed brow. The distress of her life lasts longer than this instant.
A teenage boy framed in an open window, his gaze lowered, his thoughts kept to himself, a silent presentation of self, enduring the ride that connects two corners of his existence.
A young man posed with nonchalance in the doorway, a working stance, calling out the route at every stop, hustling up eight-peso passengers, being paid near nothing, but enough to style himself in fresh sneakers.
They are nameless to me. The bus, though, introduces itself in red letters: Londres – London.
There is an unpleasant sense of slipping away, an inevitable loosening of what I once held firmly, like a grasped hand sliding from my grip against my will.
Five months have passed in the house, nearly six since I’ve been in Oaxaca, where for the last seven years I poured out all the passion and compassion of which I’m capable (and even that was never enough). A pandemic doesn’t freeze lives, it only alters them. Life continues for the families I’ve photographed. A child returns to the United States. A mother and her children move to a new apartment. A teenage boy lives alone while his mother works. Another teenager leaves home to live with an uncle, driven out by disputes with his mother and her boyfriend. Yet another teenager, a girl, runs away from her mother. The same mother has no work and tells me she is eating air. A wedding is canceled. A quinceañera is celebrated, as are several birthdays.
I am there for none of it. I always missed a lot, but I was also present for many things, for birthdays and births and graduations, for fights with the landlady and night-time moves to new apartments, for visits to gynecologists, neurologists and optometrists, for the killing of chickens and pigs and, once, a bull, for the laughter and the tears, so much more of the former than the latter although the tears dug the biggest hole in me, and for the many goodbyes, said on dirt roads, at bus stops and in doorways, and sealed with hugs and smiles and promises to return, never thinking at the moment that any one of those farewells might be the last, but never escaping the foreboding eventuality of that coming day.
What remains are memories, feelings and photographs. The mental images and emotions are incomplete, as they are by nature. The mind and the heart are unreliable witnesses to our lives. They would never survive voir dire. The digital files portray with accuracy what the camera recorded but they seem to me, in my absence from their origin, sterile inadequacies. They testify to my presence at the time, but they do not assuage my absence at the moment.
In a lifetime, six months is not much (although, to do the math, it is one one-hundredth-fifty-sixth of the average lifespan of an American male), so I can’t validate this sense that Oaxaca is now caught irrevocably in an outgoing tide. If I return next summer, the children I know will be changed. The mothers I photographed will be more worn down. The city and I will need to become reacquainted, like former lovers finding the boundaries of a post-breakup relationship.
The thing that most clamors for telling is the most difficult to relate.
I feel empty. Oaxaca and the children and the mothers demanded so much of me, not in a negative way, not in asking for things or seeking my help, but in an all-engaging, three-hundred-sixty-degree emotional way. I needed to be present every moment I was with them. They opened themselves to me, and I felt obligated to return the trust. I tried to show them the best of myself and to do so I had to demand more of myself than I do at home, where the routine comforts of my American life indulge my tendency to disengage.
It is hard to say what I fear most: losing Oaxaca or losing myself. There are so many people in my life there: hard-working fathers with forearms as thick as tree trunks; mothers who work from dark to dark cleaning houses, cooking meals, and washing clothes; grandmothers who suffer the abuse of drunken grandfathers; cousins that know how to kill a pig with kindness (cradle its massive head in your arms as you slit its throat); aunts who work as seamstresses, cooks, and hair-dressers; uncles who drink, uncles who live in the United States, and uncles who care for their nephews when they run away from home; lovers who lock their women in rooms, lovers who have other families, and lovers who leave teenage girls pregnant. So much intensity and immediacy. So much relentless necessity. So much life. So much more than I ever imagined.
What all of this occupied with me is now vacant.
Oaxaca realized dreams I walked away from. The children became those I never had. The families became the one I lost. The tears and the laughter and the sorrows and the celebrations disinterred what I thought I had buried in myself forever. I have never been able to succinctly explain how I became so involved in Oaxaca nor answer adequately when people ask what I am doing there, but more than anything the photography and the families and all the engagement required to make the pictures and to be with the people gave me what I felt I’ve long been lacking: a purpose.
This is what I fear – losing that purpose. Is that such a selfish thought? I suppose it is. Shouldn’t I be thinking of the mothers and of the children? Yes, and, truthfully, I do think of them – every day. The separation mandated by the pandemic, though, has forced me to see a truth I had ignored or denied until this point: I cannot save them as I once thought I could. The persistence of the poverty, the crappy schools, the dysfunctional government, and a culture of low expectations that neither encourages nor sustains efforts to rise above one’s station of birth will smother their fragile hopes. I saw signs of the suffocation even before the time of the virus, the mothers confronting futures filled with nothing more than the economic instability that defines them now, and the children realizing that the small world in which they live values more the work than can be done today than the rewards more education can deliver tomorrow. I have no control over any of that, almost no influence over their destinies. I can provide short-term relief, but I cannot fulfill long-term promise. I can only save myself, and even that is a fifty-fifty proposition at best given my track record.
Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, The Sense of an Ending, talks about the revelations that come to us as the years advance, once of which is awareness of the gap between what we expect at that time of life and what realities in fact arrive with it. For example:
“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”
Echoing his words, I say: the encounter of purpose is not life’s business. Simple passage through the labyrinth of time guarantees nothing, much less satisfaction with the journey. The purpose of life is to live. Nothing more. And we cannot live the lives of others. Those who try are destined for disappointment.
Oaxaca gave me more than I ever expected, and in the thrall of that discovery I embraced the delusion of permanence. Revived by the innocence Oaxaca resurrected in me, I grasped at the notion that the families and I and our flush of shared experiences would last forever.
The last time I saw Betzi I expected to see her again soon. I never imagined how mistaken I could be.
The day was hot and the dust from the road was rising despite being a couple of weeks short of spring. Tensions were high between Betzi and her mom. Normal teenage stuff – school, friends, the cell phone. I was flying home the next day and had come to say goodbye. I always hated leaving because I never knew what awaited me when I returned. This day was the worst. Amid the heat, the familial stress and a growing global pandemic, I felt something slipping away – a tenuous grip on an education, on a chance for Betzi to be more. More of what exactly didn’t matter. Just more than what she was born into.
Betzi was abloom with adolescence, a wildflower of a chica, all legs, attitude and desire for independence. I wanted to fence her in, to protect her against the predatory poverty that destroys such precocious blossoms. A suffocating heaviness befell me, the realization of my powerlessness over her fate.
When a cab to the city came, I hugged Betzi and said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be here with you. See you in July.” I didn’t return then, nor for a long time. Every day while I was gone I wondered if the Betzi I said goodbye to, the girl with the best grades, the rapid wit, and the smile that touches your soul, was still there.
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.
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.
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.
“Let me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
In your face. That’s where the money is. Parading, sashaying, and proclaiming, right there in public, showing itself off to the locals and the tourists and the poorest of Oaxaca’s poor, the indigenous refugees from impoverished mountain towns who survive by peddling trinkets to tourists.
On weekend evenings, the teenaged quinceañeras dressed like Vegas showgirls and the slick, rich novios from Mexico City or Monterrey disgorge themselves from Oaxaca’s grand Dominican temple, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, to celebrate their passage into adulthood or their society-page marriage with ostentatious displays worthy of the cheesiest of telenovelas. Tuxedos, gowns, stilettos, pomades. Fireworks. Mescal. Mariachis. Troupes of costumed folk dancers and athletic stilt walkers.
The tourists love it. They pose for selfies with the dancers, a chance to experience “real” Mexican culture. But the celebrants – young men whose arrogance signals “keep your distance” and women whose toned, enhanced bodies broadcast lives of leisure – huddle amongst themselves. They know it’s all a show – and all for show. The self-conscious smiles, the unfelt whoops of joy, the momentary mingling of the moneyed with the un-moneyed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.