Tag Archives: Photography

My Oaxaca – Seeing Me (Again)

A fellow from New York is going to interview me in a few days about my photography in Mexico. In normal times, he gives tours of galleries and museums, but in these Covid days he stays active and engaged by holding on-line conversations with photographers.

He is quite taken with some of the images and, overall, very complimentary of the work, even going as far as to compare some of the frames to those of famous photographers. His words are kind and welcome, but they also make me wonder if he really knows what he is talking about – despite his art degree and experience – because his view is so distinct from mine.

It is difficult for me, as it is for many of us, to see myself as others see me. To do so requires an honesty unclouded by ego or defensiveness or yearning, and I am not free of those impediments. Even were I capable of veracious self-reflection, accepting the image I see in the mirror would demand both bravery and humility, characteristics of which I possess only in limited supply.

I am guilty on all fronts, at once unable to gain the exterior perspective of others and short of the requisite fiber to take those views to heart, be they negative or positive.  That said, I more easily embrace criticism than compliment. A slam feels more natural than a slather. Must be the Catholic upbringing, a religion built on low earthly expectations. Suffer now, dance with the angels later – if you get the invite. When I am told that my photography is mediocre or unfocused – two criticisms I’ve heard – I lean toward agreement. A self-flagellate prefers the whip to the caress. Should a friend or a reader toss a kudo or two my way, I am grateful for the praise, but I am apt to dismiss it. What do they know, after all?

It doesn’t take a session on the couch – or on a Zoom call these days – to diagnose this way of thinking as a protective mechanism. What doesn’t exist can’t be killed. A critic’s barb stings less if you expect nothing more. If you don’t value your photography, your writing, your art, then what does it matter if it is labeled mediocre or unfocused? That’s just a confirmation of what you believed, anyhow.

There is an expression in Mexico that goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. There’s nothing bad from which good doesn’t come. The ol’ cloud and silver lining thing.  Too often, I’m the other way around: No hay bien que por mal no venga. No translation needed, right?

So uncertain am I of the work, I cannot edit it, so I ask the fellow from New York to select the images for the slides. He pulls out a few I love – a waiter with a tray, a mother and child with a bird (wonderful, he says) – and others I have consigned to the bin marked Not Good Enough, an ample space packed to overflowing – a old man in front of a wall, a masked rider on a horse (magical, he says).

As he talks about the photographs, describing the forms and the people and the intimacy he sees, the images no longer seem to be mine. I listen to his words and allow them to penetrate my protections. For a few moments, while he talks, I see what he sees. And the realization that I made these pictures amazes me. Not because I believe they merit his encomiums, but rather that I somehow maneuvered myself into the position to make them – to be in the homes of these families, to see them laugh and cry and eat and sleep, to walk amid the chaos of the streets of Oaxaca, to attend the weddings and horse races and transvestite parades. And more and more.

Most people when they see the photographs ask me: Why are you doing this? Is it for work, a book, a show? I’ve never been able to construct a concise answer. Satisfaction. Intimacy. Completion. Something like that.

Now it occurs to me there is a better question: How am I doing this? How did an aging gringo, who years earlier abandoned what he loved for something he was good at, find his way back to that first love and then, without any apparent purpose and even less skill, manage to put himself in the middle of so many lives? How did that happen? I suppose that’s another question I’ll never be able to answer well.

A Confession of Uncertainty

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To have on your own, with no direction home
— Bob Dylan

There was a time when I was certain of everything – what a good story was and how it should be written, what was worth reading and what should be skipped, how a newspaper should be put together, who I should listen to for guidance and who I should ignore, and where the world was headed and me along with it.

I must have seemed insufferably arrogant to many people in those years, as well as personally ignorant of all I dismissed so readily as not worth my time or attention.

Things are quite different now. These days I am certain of almost nothing. My bullshit detector still functions (which enables me to read the news and maintain both sanity and skepticism), I remain adept at detecting fundamental goodness in people, and I know my wife loves me, but when it comes to my own life and what passes for my work I am enveloped in a fog of uncertainty. Are these photographs any good? Would they by better in color or in black-and-white? Are they derivative? Do they have anything to say? Are they banal? Worse, are they exploitive? Is this story worth telling? Is the writing too clever, too whiny or too boring? Is there a reason to a tell a story if there is no one to whom to tell it?

The line between self-examination and self-flagellation is a fine one. The former enables the compass to be reset; the latter leads to circling the drain. Which am I doing? Am I judging myself, being overly harsh, too severely critical? Of even that I am not sure. Yes, it could be judgment, but I am more drawn to the explanation that the cause is indecision.

Is the doubt a product of age, an inevitable blunting of the sharpness of surety? After all, the years erode the flexibility of joints and plunder the vitality of the organs; why not, as well, rob the confidence of the mind and the clarity of the soul? If such thievery is the case, then it is an ironic equation of life that produces absolute certitude when we are young, inexperienced and bereft of acquired skills and then later, after a lifetime of learning and acquisition of capabilities, results in persistent uncertainty. Of course, the very experiences that boost intellectual capacity and expand emotional range also train the mind’s eye to concentrate more on the grays of the world than on the blacks and the whites because therein lie practicality, convenience and rationalization – the trifecta of coping. However, within this change of focus there is danger: minus the harshness of contrast, what remains is ambivalence.

After decades of writing and editing and photography, I find myself inert, fixated on the notion that I am incapable of producing anything of value. There are a couple of ways to think about this. One is that I was never any good at these pursuits and that recognition of this fact in the home stretch of a lifetime has shock-frozen me like a deer caught on the road staring into the headlights of his past. The other is, as I posited earlier, is that I have lost whatever it was I once had. Time presents its bill and to pay it we pawn our skills, our experiences and our memories. We live on, but in a lesser form, dispossessed of some, or much, of what we had acquired.

Is it too obvious to declare that life’s journey consists of a series of crossroads? Onward, left, right, back. Simple choices in theory, but complex in reality. Each option leads to another intersection and on and on and until one day there are no more crossroads. The more religious among us may disagree, but I am content knowing that a Road Ends sign awaits.)

This year, this pandemic year, this year in the house, this year with myself, is the most complicated intersection I’ve encountered, more of a confusing round-about with multiple entrances and exits than the familiar square of the crossroad. Eventually, I must choose an exit and I will. For now, though, I am circling.

My Oaxaca — Intersection

Intersect. To meet and cross at a point. To overlap. To share a common space.

Life consists of intersections, of crisscrossing, of bisecting and squeezing into, onto and through the public commons, bound for or coming from our more private lives.

Street corners are theaters of intersection. There is a daily playbill of drama, comedy, and tragedy – not everyone who ventures off a crowded curb navigates intact to the opposite one. In Oaxaca, the troupe of pedestrians performs to a cacophonous score – the guttural grind of diesel, the bleating grievance of car horns, and the incessant blare of amplified advertisements for cheap eyeglasses, miracle herbs, knock-off denim and dozens of other quotidian products.

With each change of the signal light, a fresh queue of citizen actors strides onto the stage. Their props identify them – mothers laden with infants; students encumbered with bloated backpacks; invitees to weddings or graduations or birthday parties juggling floating balloons and shrink-wrapped gifts; vendors carrying candied apples, bottled water, or plastic bags stuffed with slices of fruit drenched in lime and salsa.

Three things never change: the flow of humanity; the asphalt, lampposts and buildings; and me. I wait in my space. For the intersection, for the overlap, for the crossing of our lives.

My Oaxaca — Los Muertos Nos Hablan

The dead talk to us. They tell us their stories, the tales they carry from this life to the next, the underworld, the upper-world, whichever imagined destination comforts you in the absence of those who are gone.

These are the stories we want to tell; these are the stories worth the struggle of the telling. But we must retrieve them and bring them back to this side, to the world where we, the not-yet-dead, navigate our time under a sky of dim stars, always hoping for a brighter path to where we are going, to what we will become.

In the los panteones, I walk amid the dead. I listen, I lean in, I strain to hear their voices. I have questions for them: Who were you? How did you live? Why did you die so young? What awaits me when I join you? What I hear in response are the rustle of dry leaves, the murmur of a street cat slinking amid the tombs, the pleadings of someone praying nearby.

I tell the dead: I have come for your stories. Lend them to me and I will share them with those you left behind and those who are yet to arrive. I still myself. I drop into my own silence, erasing every memory of every sound I have ever heard so I can detect the voices of the dead.

Faint but audible, a distant chorus, an eternal echo rewards my patience. The voices answer in unison: “Come closer, come closer and we will tell you everything.”

Returning — The Photography of Time

In the early days, when I bought 100-foot-long spools of Kodak film and hand-rolled it into reusable cartridges, when water temperature and strength of developer and acidic pungency were the alchemy of imagery, when the camera clunked and clicked, and when photography seduced me with its promise of capturing, in an instant, the subtle complexities of a baffling world, I walked amid familiar places, hoping to discover the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

Those were lonely days, part of the long hangover from an over-extended adolescence, so I meandered  by myself – through the great green swath of Golden Gate Park; up and down the salted ruins of Sutro Baths on the rim of the continent; in the varied neighborhood parks of San Francisco: Dolores, Buena Vista, Alta Plaza, Alamo Square; and inside Fort Point, the stout brick fortress that squats beneath the beams of the Golden Gate bridge.

During my walkabouts, I made photographs. I pointed my second-hand camera with its inexpensive manual lens at trees and rocks and buildings and an occasional human being, trying to create an image that resembled those I found in the library at City College of San Francisco, where I’d washed ashore when the turbulent tide of the Sixties receded. In my mind, I was a young Edward Weston or Minor White or Imogene Cunningham. In reality, I was an immature young man with little sense of what he was doing. What resulted were terrible photographs. But the act of photographing, the moment of the shutter forcing open the curtain, gave me solace, and that was something in short supply in my life, so I continued.

As you know, the years go by. Many things change. Many things don’t. Friends and lovers come and go, families form and then drift apart, bodies deteriorate and perhaps the mind as well. A women of 57 tells me she sees herself as a teenager. My mother, now dead five years, said in her ninth decade she felt like she was 20. Even I, a grown man whose self-identity resembles a walk through the hall of mirrors in a carnival funhouse, do not “feel” my age. The truth is I don’t remember how I felt at 20 or 30 or 40 so I cannot say with any certainty that I feel different now. I’d say I feel like myself, and some days that is OK and other days I’d prefer another option. Press 2 to continue as another person; Press 1 to be yourself.

What has stuck through the decades is the simple contentment of making a photograph. I still walk to the familiar places, framing again and again the same corners, the same angles, the same perspectives. I carry a better camera, a slick German instrument whose polished metal seems molded to the shape of my right hand. It contains an electronic sensor, but the lens attached to it is manual. The measurement of light – the basic ingenious equation of aperture and time – happens mostly in my head, which is how I was taught. Thus equipped, I revisit my beginnings, looking for shape and shadow and shades of black and white: charcoal, crème, ebony, beige, dun, ivory, onyx, bone, licorice.

Black and white. Strip out the color, let the eye decide on its own, without a rainbow of distraction, what has value, what is worth lingering upon and what merits no consideration.

A simplification in a life of complexity. I am complicated, or so they say. I confess, as I should, because complication often leads to confession and then, if we acquiesce to judgment, apology. Of each of those, I have a substantial inventory. Within the endless array of gray, I find focus. A teacher of yoga once said, with the purpose of us recognizing certain limits: The pose you’re in is your pose. It is as much of a mantra as I have. A concise acceptance of how things are. I return. I go back. I am sticky that way, unable to let go. This is the pose I’m in.

In the fort I find what I’ve come to see: the conical stairwells, the ample hallways, the bounce of the light off the brick, the breezy expanse of the decommissioned rooftop battery, where tourists snap selfies on concrete cannon placements. A uniformed ranger, poised to be helpful, asks through his mask if the visit is my first. I smile beneath my own mask. No, I say, my fiftieth. He is an older man, but younger than I – as so many now are – and I see his eyes twinkle with appreciation. He seems to understand.

I photograph the familiar place. The comfort of being there is almost deeper than any other, that of being wrapped in the entirety of my time. On each return, the images change. I see a shift, a subtle slant of light or shadow due to the hour of the day or the state of the weather. I am more alert – or less. I focus on the photograph, or I allow my gaze to drift to the sea. All of it is just as it should be.

This is the value of returning: to experience the conundrum: everything is different even though it is all the same.

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.