Tag Archives: Photography

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 — The Guardian of the Past

Don’t live in the past. Everyone says that. Some things – and some people – are gone, though, and all that remains of them is the past. What are we to do with what is gone?

The dog stands vigilant in the late hour, a black shape in the darker night, watching who comes and who goes, a guardian of that moment in time.

He, un perro callejero, and I, un extranjero perdido, share a blink of an instant. He ignores the camera, trusts me to betray him well in his duties. During the brevity of the open shutter, the dog makes a promise: Keep this image, hold tight this memory, and you will find what was lost.

Sagacity arrives from unexpected sources, even from the salivating maw of a street dog.

What was lost was love. What was lost was promise. What was lost was renewal and transformation.

A dog is what remains. A black shape in the darker night.

My Oaxaca — City of the Boys

After the state closed one of Oaxaca’s best-known children’s shelters and arrested the founder and her family on charges of abuse, the priest who ran the Ciudad de los Niños got scared. He feared the scandal would touch his shelter, which provided refuge, food and education to more than 50 boys whose parents couldn’t – or wouldn’t – care for them.

The priest’s fear seemed unfounded because the two places were so different. His shelter sparkled with cleanliness and smelled of bleach; the other was filthy and often reeked of urine. His children stood in orderly lines, waiting to wash or eat; at the other, disorder prevailed: preschoolers fought each other, toddlers fell from chairs, and no adult intervened or offered aid. His boys slept in individual bunks, neatly made each morning; in the closed shelter, many children shared mattresses, some set on the dirty floor.

After the scandal, the priest told me I could no longer visit. “I don’t want to complicate things,” he said. “You are a complication.”

A couple of years later, I came to know a family who lived near the shelter. When I went to see them, which was often, I would think about stopping by to see if the priest had changed his mind. I didn’t though, because I suspected he hadn’t.

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 — 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 – The Woman and the Umbrella

“Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.” – Bob Dylan

The umbrellas float atop the crowd, bobbing like comic word bubbles above the women – always women – who snap them open and thrust them skyward as they step from the shade of street corners, churches and buses into the glare of the Mexican sun.

Beneath the umbrella, beyond shelter from the solar storm, the canopy creates a protective sphere. Inside, the woman navigates the eddies and swirls of the sidewalks, fends off unwanted solicitations, commercial and libidinous, and broadcasts, with a portentous downward tilt of the umbrella’s pointed tip, that she is about her business and is not to be messed with.

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.

My Oaxaca – Meeting Irma

This is the first photograph I made of Irma. She stands in the afternoon sunlight in the front door of her beauty salon, which was located in the Colonia America Sur, a neighborhood with streets bearing the names of South American countries. Irma’s street was Brasil. She named the salon Michelle after her daughter, Betzi Michelle. Before opening the salon, Irma cleaned houses and worked in a laundry, living week to week on what she made. The founder of a shelter where Irma’s two children lived during the workweek helped her go to beauty school and set up the salon. The business was going to be her ticket out of working-class poverty, but it only lasted a few months, killed by too much competition and too little funding.

When Irma closed the salon, she took its furniture to her one-room apartment. Each time she moved, which was about once a year, she dragged the furniture with her – a reclining chair used to wash hair, a sink that drained into a bucket, a dressing table with a tall vertical mirror, a bright green chair made of mesh, and a pair of plastic tables. For a while, Irma did haircuts and styling out of where she lived, but eventually she gave it up entirely. Piles of clothes, food, cleaning products and toys now cover the furniture.

Home from Oaxaca

I came home from Oaxaca ahead of schedule, something I’ve never done before. After 15 days, I was exhausted. Each day the heat and the humidity sapped me. At night, I’d recover, but not 100 percent, so I started each subsequent day with less than a full recharge. I walked five to eight miles a day. I had a thirst I could not slake, even with a several bottles of water at a time. I lost nearly five pounds. My rented room held the heat and sleep never really arrived for long. The day before I decided to leave, I played basketball with a group of kids for 90 minutes. Afterward, my body barked in loud protest. I answered by changing my flight.

Part of me feels like I gave in, like I allowed a bit of discomfort to drive my decision. That’s my 30-year-old ego talking. Another part of me is soothed by the cool ocean air and the opportunity to stand in the scalding stream of the shower for as long as I want. That is the sound of seven biological decades exhaling in relief.

I returned with a few strong photographs and with memories whose images are even more powerful. Together, they illustrate the great challenge of photography, the effort to preserve with the camera what is seen by the mind’s eye and felt by the soul. I am proud of my photographs, but I am also frustrated by my inability to gather into a frame the vividness, in all its glory and in all its pain, of life in Oaxaca.

When I stand on a Oaxacan street corner and see and hear and smell the chaos around me, I want the camera to vacuum it all in – the noise of the buses, the smell of the sewage and the food vendors, the hunched shoulders of the working men, the wide-bodied grandmothers making passage on the sidewalks with their hips, the sweat and the sun and the steam of the humidity. I want all that in a photograph. That is the picture I have yet to make.

In that sense, I return this time as I always do also with a sense of inadequacy, of lacking either the technology or the skill or both to fill a frame with all that I see and all that I feel. In this image I want the mothers and the children and the dark rooms of dead air in which they live; I want the four Hondurans sleeping on the floor waiting for a chance to sneak into the United States; I want the boy with leukemia being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother between buses on the street because the sidewalks are too narrow to navigate; I want the food – the chicken cooked over a wood fire with tomatoes and chilies, the lentil soup a mother made me before she went to work, the huge plastic glasses of jamaica, the tortas of breaded pork sold on the corner for a $1.50, the smoky, silky mescal that burns and then drains the pain from the body; I want the eyes, dark all of them, bright with laughter, reddened with tears, empty of expectations; I want the nascent beauty of the children and the fading dignity of the grandfathers; I want the conversations – with the taxi driver deported from L.A. who practices his English with me, with the obese sweaty cop and his elegant Belgian shepherd, with the mom who is happy to be pregnant at 35 even though she is without work or husband.

I feel as if I need to make this one picture. I need it to remind me of everything I have done and I do in Oaxaca. I need it to show to people when they ask me why I go there because to explain it with words takes too long.

It is a fanciful desire, to be sure, but still one that nags me.

***

Some other thoughts from the trip:

* Poverty is relative. For a while, I visited a mother and her two kids who lived high on a dry hill in a tin shack. There was no water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. Electricity was boot-legged off a shared power pole. The road was nothing more than rutted trail that ran thick with mud when it rained. Still, I never felt as deep in the Third World at this mother’s house as I did in Oaxaca’s public hospital, where I went one afternoon with one of my favorite children, who had fallen and was visiting a neurologist to see if she had epilepsy.

Outside the hospital, dozens of people camped on the concrete patio, family members visiting hospitalized relatives, or sick people waiting days for appointments. Many slept on cardboard boxes, others used the cheap, synthetic blanks that are so common here to create seating areas that converted to beds at night, and still others had commandeered a row of chairs, stuffed cardboard into the gaps between them and slept on the hard plastic. Buckets of food, scraps of garbage, empty liter bottles of soda and backpacks were everywhere. The faces of the people on the patio bore the weight of lifetime of acceptance of these conditions. This hospital is in one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Four blocks from this desperation, moneyed Oaxacans buy Frappuccino’s from Starbucks and shop for clothes in fancy European stores.

* A lot of money for someone who has nothing changes nothing in the long term. My generous friends contributed enough money to help the mother of a boy with leukemia live for months without working, which she needs to do after the live-saving transplant she hopes will come. When I gave her the thick wad of Mexican pesos, her face lifted momentarily in gratitude only to return quickly to its resting visage of resignation, a recognition that no matter how much hardship she endures it cannot guarantee her son’s survival in a society where one’s chances of a long life or an early death are determined at birth. Hers is not a poverty that be bought off with a few thousand pesos.

* Two types of Americans live in Oaxaca. There are those, like the ex-community organizer from California and his wife, an attorney, who use their retirement hours and their professional skills to involve themselves in the community and improve the lives of those who have less than they do. They are in the minority. The majority, most of whom seem to be women, live amongst themselves in an ex-pat bubble, don’t speak Spanish and mix with the locals only when it is time for a festival or an art opening, where they show up dressed in indigenous blouses and skirts and are the first to attack the free food and drinks.

* Intimacy and distance don’t play well together. The closer I get to the families in Oaxaca, the further away I feel when I leave. This is not a new sensation, but on this trip, it grew stronger than ever. I return to a life of comfort, and to a personal calendar that holds fewer and fewer pages, and I leave behind young people with a long future in front of them. For some, the years to come will be good ones of education and family and achievement. For others, there will be decades of labor and sorrow. I wonder how much more of them I will see. I wonder if the goodness I wish for them will ever come to be. I wonder what they will be like at my age, when I am a memory to them, if that.

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.

How Was Oaxaca? Well … since you asked

How was Oaxaca? That’s what everyone asks each time I return. It’s a polite, succinct question and what’s expected in return in the form of an answer is something similar in character, such as: “It was great, thanks.”

And after dozens of trips to Oaxaca I’ve learned to limit my answer to what people are expecting, sometimes adding a short augmentation: “It was great, thanks. Complicated, but great.”

Most folks leave it at that and move on in the conversation because in reality only a small percentage of our fellow humans want to hear about our vacations (even though for me Oaxaca is not a vacation; nonetheless, most of my friends see it that way).

The other day, though, someone asked me in Spanish about my recent trip, from which I returned home a week ago, and when I delivered my stock answer she then asked: What do you mean when you say complicated? Qué quieres decir cuando dices complicado?

So, I told her.

I told her about  the single mothers from the children’s shelter that was closed nearly a year-and-a-half ago when the state accused the founder and her family of mismanagement and physical and sexual abuse. I have stayed in touch with some of the mothers and continue to photograph some of them and their kids.

One of the mothers has put her son and daughter in two others shelters run by the Catholic church and now lives in a 12-by-12 room paid for by an older doctor who seems to use her for sex and companionship but doesn’t want anything to do with her kids. The children are the product of a marriage that went bad when the husband’s business failed and he began to drink. He beat her, locked her in the house and made her dress like a man so that other men wouldn’t look for her. I took her to lunch and when we walked by the house in which I rent a room she sat on the steps and began to cry, saying the beautiful colonial building reminded her of the happy life she had before her husband became violent. On the day before I left, we met again briefly in a tiny chapel near her room so I could see her daughter. The doctor won’t let me visit where she lives. He appears to be jealous. The daughter has grown taller in the year since I last saw her and in the chapel she modeled a paper mask she’d made in school as her mother and I sat in a pew. I made a few frames of the girl. The mother took my hand and we sat in silence.

Another of the mothers lives outside of the center of town. She works every day, cleaning houses in the morning, cooking food in the afternoon to sell at her daughter’s school during recess and doing haircuts in the evening. She and her kids – a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old daughter – also live in a single room, this one about 10 by 15, for which they pay 600 pesos a month. The neighborhood is poor-ish and safe except for one thing: There is a guy on her block who is killing cats and dogs. He poisoned this mother’s two dogs and then her cat. When the mom got another dog, he ran it over in the street and left it to die from suffocation, the result of its shattered ribs piercing its lungs. The mother wants to make a poster to hang from the front of her building that will say: Beware! We have a neighbor who kills.

The mother has a new dog now, the uncle of one of the dead ones. To keep the dog from being killed, she keeps it on a small plot of land owned by a friend. We walked there one morning carrying a heavy plastic pot of gruel made from noodles, tortillas and rice and a bag of day-old bolillos – dogs love bread, she told me. It’s a 45-minute slog, most of it up a steep hill. What I lacked in breath when I got there, I gained in view. A half-dozen dogs live on the land, which also features an unfinished cement house. She fed the dogs the bread and gave them water she’d collected from a well we passed on the route, hung around for about 10 minutes and began to walk back. Ninety minutes of walking for 10 minutes of dog time. She loves this dog as much as she hates her murderous neighbor.

A third of the mothers I’d only met a few months ago. She is a smart, street-savvy, tattooed young woman with a 5-year-old boy. This trip we met in her aunt’s house, which sits a dusty rise overlooking the west side of the Oaxacan valley. The house is new, built of cinder blocks and concrete – all of it gray. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – all of it unfinished concrete. Were it not a two-story structure located above ground, it would seem like a bunker. An impressive black-and-gold metal door fronts the street. The second floor has a terrace. The roof grants an immense vista. The house is the product of 14 years of work in a San Diego suburb by the aunt’s husband, who she last saw five years ago. They have two children, a boy 14 who wants to study gastronomy and another boy 5. The father needs another year or two in the States to finish the house.

 

What else?

There were the mother and the father and their four daughters who drove two-and-a-half hours to Oaxaca, much of the journey over sinuous dirt roads, to pick up a photographer friend and I and then continued driving another two-and-a-half hours to the lovely mountain town of Capulálpam so that two of those daughters – the two who aren’t twins and who aren’t deaf – could participate in a folk dance festival that didn’t end until well after nightfall. Ten hours of vomit-inducing driving (not for them, but for me) in a 25-year-old car so their kids could dance. Don’t talk me about how American parents support their children until you meet this family.

There was the day at the horse races in the countryside when I met a fierce looking cowboy whose buddies had nicknamed Bin Laden because, well, because he looked just like the dead Al Qaeda leader. The whole group of them was pretty far drunk when I stumbled upon them. My presence triggered a round of jokes and insults, which didn’t stop until one of the largest of them told me he had a big dick and asked me if mine was bigger. When I answered that I didn’t know, but that he could ask his mother, all his pals roared and one of them offered me a beer. Ice broken.

There was night at the dances when another mother, this one a tall beauty from a farm town who had returned to Mexico after living with her three U.S.-born kids in Chicago and New York for more than a decade, put on a beautiful huipil from the Pinotepa and danced with the other moms from her kids’ primary school carrying pineapples.

There was the lunch on a Sunday in another farm town, where I ate outside the cinder block-and-lamina home of a teen-age girl who is about to graduate from high school – the first in family to do so – during which she told me, as she looked at her two grandmothers seated at the wobbly table: This is why I wanted to come back to Mexico from Los Angeles; my friends there talked about things they did with their grandmothers and I never had that. Now I do. … I couldn’t hide my tears.

There was the nauseous van ride to a valley a few hours east of Oaxaca where a religious man, who with wife runs another children’s shelter, is building a massive round church in the butt end of lush green canyon split by a river that provides the only relief from the valley’s oven-like temperatures.

There were the new kids at the other shelter in Oaxaca – three 3-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old boy whose sweet disposition and engaging smile belie the abuse he’s clearly suffered. At age 6, his legs remain infant-like, soft, flexible and too weak to be able to walk. He cannot talk. He has the height of a 3-year-old (although some of the hardness of facial features betray his years).

There was – as always – the food: The entomadas in Ocotlán, the chilaquilies one of the moms made on the stove in her room; the vegetable soup eaten with the grandmothers; the 40-peso plate of tasajo, frijoles and onion in another market, the nieves in the plaza (several times) and the mescal, the mescal and the mescal.

And there was the photo exhibition at the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo – the reason for making the trip at this time. Seven of us went, those participating in the show, as well as a few spouses and friends. We talked one evening at the gallery (although I mostly croaked, the sound effect of a bad cold), ate together much more, went shooting together and left, well, I’m not sure how we left. We’ll see what next year brings.

How was Oaxaca? I’m so glad you asked.

 

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.

Less and Less

oaxacascenes_101916070

Each time I go to Oaxaca I lower my expectations.

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

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

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

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

I returned from Oaxaca last night after 11 days there.

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

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Dreaming in Spanish

dreaming in Spanish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I woke up.