Tag Archives: documentary

My Oaxaca — Se Busca

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.

My Oaxaca — A Bus Named London

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.

My Oaxaca — Separation

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.

That is what is slipping away.

My Oaxaca — Leaving Betzi

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.

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 — 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 — Money

“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.

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 – 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 — 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 — 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 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.

My Oaxaca – The Boy and the Box

This boy, whose name is Manual, is one of four children I met by accident one day when I went to Zaachila, a town outside of Oaxaca, to photograph a group of transvestites. It was the second day of a three-day festival. The transvestites had marched in the town’s parade the day before and partied late into the night. I arrived around mid-day and they were still sleeping in a small concrete house located at the front of a long piece of land.

I heard voices on the other side of the yard and, not wanting to surprise or scare anyone by my presence, I called out. Several children emerged to greet me. They lived with their mother and father in a tin shack at the rear of the property. I walked back with them to say hello. We all talked a while and I began making pictures.

Manual and his older brother, whose name I’ve forgotten, were playing with a pair of plastic tops, wrapping them in string and flinging them onto a large cardboard box that once held a small refrigerator. The tops spun longer on the cardboard than they did on the ground. The sheet of cardboard had a hole in the middle and Manuel crawled underneath and stuck his head through it. His brother began throwing a top toward him, trying to get it to bounce off Manual’s head. That’s when I took the picture.

Looking for (Good) Work

During the early years of the digital revolution, I wrote a wrote a blog that focused on the challenges journalism and newspapers faced in an increasingly digitized society, and the entrenched cultural traditions that inhibited the ability of individual journalists as well as entire institutions to adapt to a changing world that was eroding their relevance and siphoning off their audiences.

I called the blog First Draft, a nod to the description of journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” The blog coincided with a three-year project I did on newsroom culture and learning for a journalism foundation (which resulted in this slim volume of advice) and served as my exit ramp from the professional world of daily newspapers where I’d lived for a quarter-century.

I left voluntarily and more or less at the top of my game – unlike the many thousands of my former fellow wretches who were riffed or bought out of their careers by collapsing newspaper companies. I was seeking something to fill holes the newspaper couldn’t, especially in those days, when news was defined rigidly, when hidebound hierarchies shaped what was covered and how and by whom, and when middle-age managers like myself saw a future in which deep shadows of uncertainty dulled any glow of promise.

A decade has passed. In that time, I’ve been freelancing wherever I can – and celebrating the hustle and the paltry paychecks as rewards for my liberation from management – and immersing myself more and more in photography, the pursuit that drew me into journalism in the first place.

For the last few years, I’ve been photography poor single mothers, repatriated families, children’s shelters and more in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is documentary work and is both intense and, at times, terribly saddening because of its intimacy. It is also immensely satisfying. I feel privileged to be allowed into the lives of these families and angry at the injustice, indifference and corruption that touches them every day. I regularly return home inflamed with the same passion to tell their stories that I felt decades ago in San Francisco during my first years in journalism as an enthusiastic, but unaccomplished photographer.

Therein lies the irony: I am working in what I love the most, photography and journalism, but it is not good work.

Good work? Yes, good work – “work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.” In other words, “good work” is at once personally satisfying and socially beneficial. The concept was the focus of a book (Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet) by three Stanford psychologists that explored the challenges and rewards of doing “good work” in various fields, including journalism. The authors found a direct connection between the ability to do good work and self-fulfillment.

“Doing good work feels good,” they write. “Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done.” … Good work is “something that allows the full expression of what is best in us.”

I’m not going to go further into the book, but it is well worth reading by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the current collision of values in what is now lumped under the term “the news media” and also between journalists who wish to adhere to the profession’s traditions of truth, fairness and, hopefully, justice, and the politicians and government institutions on which they report. In other words, in a world of lies and liars, how much currency does the truth retain?

For now, though, I am focusing on “good work” in a more selfish way: What I need to do to upgrade my documentary photography in Mexico from work to “good work.”

What I lack the most, I believe, is the opportunity to publish. An image that hides in a computer file is not “good work.” Stories that languish untold are not “good work.” A reporter who doesn’t empty her notebook or a photographer who does little more than fill his archives is not doing “good work.”

That’s what organized journalism provides, not only the opportunity to publish but the obligation to. Journalism does not happen in a vacuum. It is not just the academic, but also the journalist who must publish less the work perish. If good work, as Damon wrote, “allows the full expression” of the best inside each of us, then I am falling short because I have always expressed myself publicly.

In this context, I miss the newsroom. I have yet to accomplish alone what I did with other journalists, imperfect as it was. I miss the sense of purpose journalism provides. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the demands of deadlines. I miss waking each day with the belief, however misplaced or self-delusional it might be at times, that the day’s work ahead will matter to someone and perhaps make the world a more informed, more just or perhaps simply more functional place.

That desire is a universal characteristic among good journalists. In June 2004, after interviewing dozens of journalists for a project, I wrote that they possessed a common goodness: “ … the deep, abiding desire … to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.”

When these journalists could overcome “the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis” they achieved that purpose.

One reason I left the newsroom was that felt I could not otherwise escape that tyranny. What I have since discovered is just as there can be too much tyranny for some people there can be too much liberty for others, of which I am one.

I work better with structure. I work better on deadline. I work better under pressure. I need these things to do “good work.”

All that I had when I was younger even though I was less skilled, less accomplished and more full of myself. However, and I can say this now with the clarified vision of hindsight, I didn’t truly appreciate the work, the people and the basic purpose of journalism until I had it no more.

I want it back. Or as much of it as I can get back at my age. But how? I am too old to be hired somewhere, too experienced to be naïve and to hope to begin anew, and I carry far too much baggage filled with failures and (fewer) successes to share company with those who view reporting and photography as “content” designed to drive clicks.

You might think, given my age, that what I miss is not journalism, but my youth. That’s a reasonable assumption, but I can assure you that my longing for good work is not the waning pang of an aging heart. I would not wish my younger days on anyone (although I admit that certain less salubrious traits of those years served me well in newspapers, which at the time celebrated the aberrant as long as you could hit a deadline.)

No, what I want reflects a desire that only comes with age – the opportunity to do work that encompasses what I’ve learned over the years, that utilizes the skills I’ve acquired and forces me to challenge myself and confront the truths of the world around me. Good work.

Making this happen will be my greatest challenge.

Our Oaxaca / Nuestra Oaxaca: An Exhibition

OAXACA, Mexico – The late documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark had a 20-year love affair with Oaxaca, an affection she demonstrated in the many indelible images she made here of children, animals and regional rituals, but also in the passion she imparted and instilled in the hundreds of amateur and professionals who attended her biannual workshops here.

After Mary Ellen died in the spring of 2015, several of us who have become friends through knowing her and working with her in Oaxaca decided to return to Mexico together each year to honor Mary Ellen and continue the projects she had helped us shape.

Knowing of our desire to keep Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca spirit alive, the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (where Mary Ellen had convened her workshops) invited seven of us to show our images from Oaxaca. It was a bittersweet invitation – on the one hand an honor to participate in an exhibition at Álvarez Bravo, on the other another reminder of how much each of us miss Mary Ellen, as a teacher, as an editor, as a friend.

After much planning by the staff of Álvarez Bravo (and much patience and tolerance by its director, Adriana Chávez, for our lack of understanding of the metric system and constant mangling of the Spanish language), the show opens this Friday, Jan. 20, and will feature photographs by Björn Árnason (Iceland); Ina Bernstein, Chae Kihn and Jody Watkins (New York); and Lori Barra, James Carbone and me (California).

The evening of the opening there will be a reception at 7 p.m. (I will be there and I hope my friends in Oaxaca can come.) On Feb. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. Álvarez Bravo will graciously host an event with all seven us.

Below, in English and in Spanish, is the introductory text to the exhibit, as well as a gallery of the photos I have in the show.

Exhibition Introduction: Our Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark brought us together. Most of us came to Oaxaca because of her. Through her we became friends. Because of her we became better photographers. With her in mind, we come back – to pursue the work we started here, to nurture the relationships we’ve made with local mothers and fathers and children, to become the photographers she believed we could be, to honor her passion and, perhaps, to find hope and inspiration in it.

More than anything else, Mary Ellen believed in the potency of the singular image. “I like a picture to stand out individually, to work on its own,” she said. “… It’s hard. If you get a couple of good pictures a year, you’re doing very well. It’s hard to get a great picture. Really hard. The more you work at it, the more you realize how hard it is.”

As a photographer, Mary Ellen embraced relentless authenticity. As a friend, she wrapped us in generosity. As a teacher, she demanded much and encouraged even more.

Mary Ellen held her students to the same lofty standards by which she lived. Two years before her death in 2015, she told an interviewer who had asked how her photography had evolved during her 40-year career. “I’m not sure it has changed that much,” she answered. “… I’m still just trying to make powerful and truthful photographs — great photographs. Perhaps my standards are higher. I’m less satisfied with what I do. I want to go further. Reach further.”

Go further. Seek truth. Be honest. These were Mary Ellen’s qualities – as a photographer and as a person – and these are the characteristics by which she judged her work and to which she urged us to aspire.

Some of us are professional photographers, some are not. Some of us have been photographing the same families for a decade or more, some are drawn to the spontaneity of the streets. Some of us use the camera to document, some of us prefer to interpret. All of us are grateful to have known Mary Ellen, to have worked with her and to have been counted among her friends. In our work, we can only hope to emulate her, each of us in our own way.

Mary Ellen once said, “Photograph the world as it is. Nothing’s more interesting than reality.” These photographs are our reality, our Oaxaca.

***

Introdución a la Exposición: Nuestra Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark nos unió. Ella fue la razón por la que llegamos a Oaxaca. A través de ella, nos hicimos amigos. Debido a ella, nos convertimos en mejores fotógrafos. Pensando en ella, regresamos – para seguir las obras que empezamos aquí, para alimentar las relaciones que hemos formado con madres, padres y niños oaxaqueños, para hacernos los fotógrafos que ella creía que podríamos ser, para honrar su pasión y, quizás, encontrar esperanza e inspiración en esta.

Más que nada, Mary Ellen creía en el poder de la imagen singular. “Me gusta una imagen que resalte individualmente, que surta efecto sola,” dijo ella. “ … Es difícil. Si sacas un par de buenas fotos cada año, estas haciendo muy bien. Es difícil sacar una gran foto. Muy difícil. Cuanto más trabajas en ello, más te das cuenta de lo difícil que es.”

Como fotógrafa, Mary Ellen abrazaba la autenticidad implacable. Como amiga, nos envolvía en la generosidad. Como maestra, exigía mucho y animaba aún más.

Mary Ellen insistía en que sus alumnos se adhirieran a los mismos estándares altos en los que ella se mantenía. Dos años antes de su muerte en 2015, le dijo a un entrevistador que le había preguntado a ella como su fotografía se había desarrollado durante su carrera de 40 años: “No estoy segura de que haya cambiado mucho. … Solo sigo tratando de hacer fotos que sean potentes y verídicas – grandes fotos. Quizás mis estándares sean mas altos. Estoy menos satisfecha (ahora) con lo que hago. Quiero ir más allá. Alcanzar más allá.”

Vaya más allá. Busque la verdad. Sea honesto. Estos eran los atributos de Mary Ellen – como una fotógrafa y como un ser humano – y estas son las características por las cuales ella juzgaba su obra y a las cuales noså urgía aspirar.

Algunos de nosotros somos fotógrafos profesionales, otros no los somos. Algunos de nosotros hemos estado sacando fotos de las mismas familias por más de una década, otros estamos atraídos por la espontaneidad de las calles. Algunos de nosotros usamos la cámara para documentar, otros preferimos interpretar. Todos nosotros estamos agradecidos de haber conocido a Mary Ellen, de haber trabajado con ella y de haber estado entre sus amigos. En nuestra obra, solamente podemos esperar emular a ella, cada uno en su propia estilo.

Mary Ellen dijo una vez,” Fotografíe el mundo como es. Nada es más interesante que la realidad. Estas imágenes son nuestra realidad, nuestra Oaxaca.

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.