Nothing says rural like a cast-off truck. Doesn’t matter if it’s a rusted dually in Texas, a well-weathered flatbed in Montana or – in this case – the cab-end of semi sitting askew on a Mexican ridgetop.
My first, and only, photojournalism teacher, a wonderful photographer and an even better human being, Fran Ortiz of the now defunct Hearst-version of the San Francisco Examiner, used to tell us wannabe phototoggers: Be sure to look behind you.
That’s what I did on a winter day in Teococuilco de Marcus Pérez, Oaxaca, where I’d gone to photograph the quinceañera of a lovely set of twins, the daughters of this truck’s owner.
Everything in front of me was loco – a tent the size of a soccer field, a stage holding a dozen musicians, a plastic dance floor lit with color lights, a dozen tables of food, towers of cases of beer, parents, godparents, relatives, five hundred of the town’s residents, and, of course, the two beaming señoritas, who achieved fifteen years during COVID and had to wait a full year more in order to have their day.
Behind me, it was the full opposite, nothing but tranquilo: the serrated crest of the Sierra Norte, dots of distant villages, and the sky dressed in its own extravagance, as if it knew it was party time. And a truck.
Dave Mitchellbecame a hero to we young news-sters in 1979 when his tiny weekly newspaper, The Point Reyes Light, took on the “violent drug rehabilitation cult Synanon” and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Dave once worked for the San Francisco Examiner, where I also mainlined ink for a number of years under the management of Will Hearst. Dave, though, was too much of an iconoclast for a corporate newsroom and he eventually returned to the Light, where he continued to afflict the comfortable until he sold the weekly in 2005.
Some years later I also left daily journalism to return to my first love, photography, and when I got the chance to photograph Dave for a regional magazine it was a thrill. I photographed him in 2003 outside his home in Point Reyes Station, California.
I have not told you about Oaxaca, the last visit, now a full month ago, because there is so much to say, even though most of it is the same, and so little of it comes out spare you the details and speak only of feelings, or the facts might spatter into a gory mess on the page.
My strength, if it is such, is not to regard the contents of the glass as half-full or half empty, although the latter is my natural bent, rather to ask where the rest of the water is, who has it, and why isn’t it in the glass. These are the questions of a mind that is not so much focused and inquisitive as of one that is restless and anxious, poor qualities in a human being, but nonetheless useful in the practice of journalism, which I practiced, but never conquered, for a long period.
Applying this mindset to Oaxaca, where I’d gone to find what I was missing and then soon began missing what I found, I routinely returned home to my American comforts after visits with mothers and children and meanderings through city streets more saddened by the experiences than heartened by them. As time passed, the only lives that seemed to improve were those of children who were born in the United States and returned there to live with a family friend or a relative. Everyone else continued their slow-motion collision with cultural and institutional walls that kept them encaged in a world with little work, less education, almost no health care, and the absence of long-term hope.
The pandemic made everything worse.
In my eighteen-month separation from Oaxaca, teenage boys stopped going to high school and began working for five dollars a day; the brightest girl I knew, forced to study via her cellphone, sought refuge in a violent video game, lost interest in school, and allowed her grades to drop – on a scale of 10 – from 9.5 to 7.2; another teenager, a girl, one who never showed interest in studying, ran away from home, and her mother hears reports of her wandering drugged on the streets; one mother left her son at home and took up with a guy hoping for love but found he only wanted her womb so he could sire a son, and then kicked her out when he learned she lacked the necessary female plumbing; a teenage boy I’d met years before in a shelter, headed for the U.S., got a woman his mother’s age pregnant on the why, crossed the Texas border, got arrested, and sat in a state prison the day his child was born.
That’s enough, isn’t it? Multiply these tragedies by thousands, at least. The work lost, the classes missed, the families separated as parents left Oaxaca for other cities in search of jobs. COVID arrived in Oaxaca as a ravenous beast and feasted on the poor.
Truthfully, I didn’t deal with it well. After a conversation with a mother who showed me sheets of medical bills for her son, who has had leukemia for several years and is somehow still alive, and then withdrew from a folder another set of papers having to do with the search for her constant pain, I sat in silence in the car of a mutual friend who had driven me to the mother’s house. The friend, too, didn’t speak. We were, I would say, overwhelmed. By the enormity of it all. By the relentlessness. By the incessant march of calamity.
I felt small and impotent. I began blaming myself. I could have done more than I’d done, I thought, which, to be honest with everyone, was not that much. I’d applied a few financial bandages on a sucking chest wound that needs a surgical suite. Even the child I’d most focused on, having pled to some unknown deity, just this one, please, just this one girl, dangled from a gossamer string of hope over an adolescent abyss from which, in Mexico, there is no return. I thought about a woman named Becca Stevens I’d met earlier on the trip who, driven by will and passion, founded an organization named Thistle Farms that throws lifelines to woman who have been abused by men (and by society), and wondered why I couldn’t be more like her. She located the means within herself to focus and to do the work that results in resurrecting hundreds of women. I couldn’t manage somehow get one promising young woman through high school.
Here at home, tucked into the trees on the damp north side of a hill, I realize that what drew me to Oaxaca may no longer be there, and that was the intimacy of the experience, the ability, not my own, but one gifted to me by the families, to witness the scope of their lives – smiles and sadness, joy and tears, hope and despair. The stories of child abuse, rape, and beatings, told to me at kitchen tables, in cafés, or via Whats, were leavened with birthday cakes, new-born babies, grade-school graduations, weddings, baptisms, and long, silent hugs that shrunk the great distance between our lives into a space where we could not tell one from another.
That’s what may be gone. Time claims everything. Another voracious beast, it consumes the terrible and the delightful with equal persistence. All that remains is change.
Old age, or to be more gentle with myself, older age, does not care much for change. It prefers consistency. Clothes it knows well, food it finds agreeable, familiar faces, and well-trodden paths. Change is for the young. In fact, for the young change is obligatory. If they don’t adapt, they get stuck right where they’re born – and for many that isn’t so great.
Once more, I tell myself, do it once more. Molt, shed the skin of current expectations and allow another to grow. Brace for the moment between the old and the new when I am emotionally naked and once again clad only in uncertainty. Preconception shields us from both the world’s harder realities and its more alluring charms. In looking for what we expect, we are blind to the surprising.
The timing is right. The fallen leaves of the red maple litter the patio bricks of the same color. The big buckeye plunks its fist-sized nuts onto the wooden stairs below the street. The mornings are moist, promising chill and, we hope, rain to our parched, fiery north state. Winter and change are close cousins.
This is what I return to, a change of season, a change of reason, a chance to once more begin anew.
If there ever was going to be a return to what we once knew as normal for me it was going to come in a trip to Oaxaca, where I am now.
In ten days here, in the city where a passionate photographer revived me with her insistence on doing the work and her remarkable belief in the talent I’d allowed to lie fallow for decades, I’ve found pretty much what I thought I would find – endurance and loss, celebration and sorrow, an obdurate adherence to traditions that reward self-interest and tolerate impunity, and a double-fisted defiance of the norms by the rising generation.
I was so worried about Covid before I came that at one point I canceled my flight. The fretting was not without merit because Mexico still lags in vaccinations and the government is notoriously mendacious when it comes to public reporting. What I see is a mix of sensible safety measures (everyone wears a mask everywhere except in restaurants) and illogical practices that do nothing to slow viral spread (stepping on rubber mats of bleach to enter any business). At every entrance someone squirts antiseptic gel onto your hands. By day’s end, my hands are gooey with it.
What concerned me most was getting around. When it is too far to walk, I am a public transportation guy – cabs, buses, even the five-people-to-a-Nissan collectivos, all of which I saw as Covid factories. A week-and-a-half in, I’ve set aside caution for convenience, at times questioning my own judgment (especially one evening while my complaining legs held me upright for thirty minutes on a vomit-inducing bus ride so full that my nauseous stomach was pressed against a grandmother’s ample indigenous behind the whole time.
Half of the people I’ve met aren’t vaccinated, some for lack of opportunity (the government controls the vaccination schedule; the dates are few, the lines hours long) and others for lack of understanding (rumors of chips and side effects, and belief in divine intervention). Many of the vaccinated lack a second dose (see government above). Everyone knows people who have died (one woman’s doctor, a gynecologist, just died a few days ago). And many have been sick and survived, a few with lingering conditions such as chest pain or persistent shortness of breath.
There are tourists, quite a few. The grey-haired Americans fill their usual haunts, cafes that serve smoothies and muffins; the tall, blonder and younger Europeans hang out in the mescal bars. Of which there is more, expresso machines or mescalerias, it is hard to say, but there are more than enough of both to absorb the influx of dollars and euros the businesses in the central historic district hope arrives this peak season, which begins with Muertos at the end of this month and continues through New Year’s.
Beyond the cobble-stoned downtown streets, in the sprawling chaos of Oaxaca’s urbanized municipios like Xoxocotlán and San Antonio de la Cal, everyday life remains a scramble for survival. A mother who lives with her three sons (twins and a teenager) on a dirt road only a block off the main highway that goes to the airport and two blocks from a Walmart, tells me she is lucky because her house is secure. There is no water, but there is a tall metal gate that keeps out the lost boys who roam the colonia at night. A mile way, a 17-year-old boy, a first-year architecture student at the local university, cares for his four younger siblings. Their mother has been gone for six months, working in other cities because she couldn’t make a living in Oaxaca. This family, too, lives on a dirt road in a muddle of rooms built from tin. The floors, though, are cement, and swept clean of dust.
The pandemic didn’t diminish the inequality that lives behind the brightly painted facades of the tourist zone. I suspect it got worse here, just as it did he United States.
Some reunions for me have been very emotional. After spending a wonderful Sunday with a family whose mother was on the edge of Covid hospitalization, but is now recovered enough to cook and feed me two sumptuous meals in five hours, I cried as I left them. Don’t do that again, I said between hugs. Don’t. I have come to love some of the people I’ve been photographing for years more than my own family, which is dispersed. Here, there is the intimacy that eludes me at home. Even as I type these words my eyes fill.
I first came to Oaxaca for love, that of my wife. Then I came for curiosity, and later the photography. Now I come for these families. Even though they break my heart over and over, they fill it so abundantly that the inevitable ache that comes as I see the vise of poverty squeezing them into smaller and smaller lives is tolerable.
Truthfully, I also come for myself. As an adolescent a part of me ran from home in search of anything other than what I had (although hindsight later showed me the stigmatism of my perspective). That part, that yearning for life lived fully, finds a home here.
Oaxaca survived. The empanadas stuffed with potatoes and chorizo still satisfy beyond description. The mescal still burns – until the second one. The dark eyes above the masks still gleam. The women are still beautiful, the men still strong. The buses still spout fumes, but – hey – we all have masks!
It is not as it was, of course. My favorite corner restaurant, where enchiladas were cheap and tortas even cheaper, is closed, a Covid victim. Yet another useless folk art store occupies the space. The bookstore is gone, as is the first mescal bar I went to long ago. A friend died, not of Covid, but dead nonetheless. Children have moved – four returned to the U.S., where they were born – and others have dropped out of school (see the heartache reference above).
That is life, though, isn’t it? We are more defined by change than consistency. Oaxaca lives on, just as I do. The same, but different.
For the first time in a year, I saw the whole frame yesterday, all of the edges as well as the corners. I saw the shapes and the shadows shift across the rectangle, blocking the light in some spaces, permitting more in others. My left thumb and index finger held the focus ring of the stubby German lens, nudging it left or right, following the big guy with the baby or the brown-skinned boy wearing a mandarin jacket or whoever was in the frame. They moved, I moved. A dance of unintroduced partners. A rush of pleasure filled me. The moment was both timeless and fleeting. To preserve it, I pressed my right index finger down and heard the satisfying squish of the shutter.
That instant symbolizes everything photography is to me. I’ll explain.
There was a time, when I was working less, drinking more and prone to bouts of gloom, during which I took comfort in watching videos of those singing competitions like American Idol. What I enjoyed most were the timorous contestants, those so lacking in presence or self-confidence that the judges and audience alike flinched at the performance to come, as if they involuntarily turned their gaze from an accident so they would not feel more of the pain that was palpable on the stage.
Of course, you know what happened. The instant the garbage man or bullied teenager or rejected girlfriend opened his or her mouth they transformed themselves into the brilliant, fearless soul they always were at heart but never had the courage to display to the world. As they sang, they became eternal. Forever that voice, forever that fulfillment of self, forever freed from the everyday fetters of life. I think this is the enduring appeal of these shows – the triumph of the ordinary, the tempting dangling of hope, the instantaneous miracle that results from the momentary repudiation of fear, the possibility, shown right there on the stage, of bending the world to fit you instead of the reverse.
When I am seeing well with the camera, I am in that world of my own creation. There is no time, no sound, no tactile connection to what’s around me, even if I am physically standing amid a large crowd of people, as I often am. The horizontal rectangle – fifty percent wider than it is high – occupies all my attention and draws my eye deeper and deeper into it, looking, looking, looking.
Perhaps this sounds silly, even childish. Well, it is childish. The great gift of childhood that fades as we age is the ability to see the world with wonder. Children stare unabashedly. They focus on the new, the different. They engage visually, drawn to movement and shape and color. They absorb what they see, and allow it to fill their mind.
This is photography for me – the absorption of the moment. It has been so since decades ago when I walked the downtown streets of San Francisco with a used camera and a 50mm lens trying to imitate the photographers whose images I’d seen in the community college library – Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark. I was terrible, lacking courage and absent of technique and vision, but even though the results were consistently disappointing I loved the taking of the picture.
Even now, with a nicer 50mm lens, better technique, some vision and results that occasionally don’t disappoint, what most thrills me is finding the image and seeing it in the frame. I only open the shutter to prove to myself later that I in fact saw what I imagined seeing.
When I was younger, I wanted more. I wanted to work as a photojournalist, I wanted to be part of a creative community, and, it’s fair to say, I wanted some sort of acclaim. Things didn’t work out that way, and that’s how life can go. When I returned to photography fifteen years ago – more by coincidence than plan (that, too, is how life can go) – I discovered immediately that my love for the seen moment had not faded. Like high school sweethearts who reconnect late life, the ardor still burned between the frame and me.
In the last year – the first of the Covid years – I made pictures when I could, but most were of the house or the garden or the trails on the nearby mountain. The few times I inserted myself into the crowds, I rarely made a good frame. I appeased myself by saying it was practice, that I was keeping the visual muscles in shape. Still, I wondered – as I like to ask often these days – what would remain of the photography on the other side of the pandemic?
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.
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.
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.
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 lospanteones, 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.”
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.
Three faces caught in a moment, each frozen in falling strands of sunlight, a random assortment of movement, expression and emotion, life sliced thin, but not so much as to be transparent.
A woman on foot, her hair tousled by the labors of the day, wearing a sweatshirt dotted with symbols of a northern animal not found in Mexico, looking for safe crossing at a chaotic corner. There is more to her, given away by the furrowed brow. The distress of her life lasts longer than this instant.
A teenage boy framed in an open window, his gaze lowered, his thoughts kept to himself, a silent presentation of self, enduring the ride that connects two corners of his existence.
A young man posed with nonchalance in the doorway, a working stance, calling out the route at every stop, hustling up eight-peso passengers, being paid near nothing, but enough to style himself in fresh sneakers.
They are nameless to me. The bus, though, introduces itself in red letters: Londres – London.
There is an unpleasant sense of slipping away, an inevitable loosening of what I once held firmly, like a grasped hand sliding from my grip against my will.
Five months have passed in the house, nearly six since I’ve been in Oaxaca, where for the last seven years I poured out all the passion and compassion of which I’m capable (and even that was never enough). A pandemic doesn’t freeze lives, it only alters them. Life continues for the families I’ve photographed. A child returns to the United States. A mother and her children move to a new apartment. A teenage boy lives alone while his mother works. Another teenager leaves home to live with an uncle, driven out by disputes with his mother and her boyfriend. Yet another teenager, a girl, runs away from her mother. The same mother has no work and tells me she is eating air. A wedding is canceled. A quinceañera is celebrated, as are several birthdays.
I am there for none of it. I always missed a lot, but I was also present for many things, for birthdays and births and graduations, for fights with the landlady and night-time moves to new apartments, for visits to gynecologists, neurologists and optometrists, for the killing of chickens and pigs and, once, a bull, for the laughter and the tears, so much more of the former than the latter although the tears dug the biggest hole in me, and for the many goodbyes, said on dirt roads, at bus stops and in doorways, and sealed with hugs and smiles and promises to return, never thinking at the moment that any one of those farewells might be the last, but never escaping the foreboding eventuality of that coming day.
What remains are memories, feelings and photographs. The mental images and emotions are incomplete, as they are by nature. The mind and the heart are unreliable witnesses to our lives. They would never survive voir dire. The digital files portray with accuracy what the camera recorded but they seem to me, in my absence from their origin, sterile inadequacies. They testify to my presence at the time, but they do not assuage my absence at the moment.
In a lifetime, six months is not much (although, to do the math, it is one one-hundredth-fifty-sixth of the average lifespan of an American male), so I can’t validate this sense that Oaxaca is now caught irrevocably in an outgoing tide. If I return next summer, the children I know will be changed. The mothers I photographed will be more worn down. The city and I will need to become reacquainted, like former lovers finding the boundaries of a post-breakup relationship.
The thing that most clamors for telling is the most difficult to relate.
I feel empty. Oaxaca and the children and the mothers demanded so much of me, not in a negative way, not in asking for things or seeking my help, but in an all-engaging, three-hundred-sixty-degree emotional way. I needed to be present every moment I was with them. They opened themselves to me, and I felt obligated to return the trust. I tried to show them the best of myself and to do so I had to demand more of myself than I do at home, where the routine comforts of my American life indulge my tendency to disengage.
It is hard to say what I fear most: losing Oaxaca or losing myself. There are so many people in my life there: hard-working fathers with forearms as thick as tree trunks; mothers who work from dark to dark cleaning houses, cooking meals, and washing clothes; grandmothers who suffer the abuse of drunken grandfathers; cousins that know how to kill a pig with kindness (cradle its massive head in your arms as you slit its throat); aunts who work as seamstresses, cooks, and hair-dressers; uncles who drink, uncles who live in the United States, and uncles who care for their nephews when they run away from home; lovers who lock their women in rooms, lovers who have other families, and lovers who leave teenage girls pregnant. So much intensity and immediacy. So much relentless necessity. So much life. So much more than I ever imagined.
What all of this occupied with me is now vacant.
Oaxaca realized dreams I walked away from. The children became those I never had. The families became the one I lost. The tears and the laughter and the sorrows and the celebrations disinterred what I thought I had buried in myself forever. I have never been able to succinctly explain how I became so involved in Oaxaca nor answer adequately when people ask what I am doing there, but more than anything the photography and the families and all the engagement required to make the pictures and to be with the people gave me what I felt I’ve long been lacking: a purpose.
This is what I fear – losing that purpose. Is that such a selfish thought? I suppose it is. Shouldn’t I be thinking of the mothers and of the children? Yes, and, truthfully, I do think of them – every day. The separation mandated by the pandemic, though, has forced me to see a truth I had ignored or denied until this point: I cannot save them as I once thought I could. The persistence of the poverty, the crappy schools, the dysfunctional government, and a culture of low expectations that neither encourages nor sustains efforts to rise above one’s station of birth will smother their fragile hopes. I saw signs of the suffocation even before the time of the virus, the mothers confronting futures filled with nothing more than the economic instability that defines them now, and the children realizing that the small world in which they live values more the work than can be done today than the rewards more education can deliver tomorrow. I have no control over any of that, almost no influence over their destinies. I can provide short-term relief, but I cannot fulfill long-term promise. I can only save myself, and even that is a fifty-fifty proposition at best given my track record.
Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, The Sense of an Ending, talks about the revelations that come to us as the years advance, once of which is awareness of the gap between what we expect at that time of life and what realities in fact arrive with it. For example:
“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”
Echoing his words, I say: the encounter of purpose is not life’s business. Simple passage through the labyrinth of time guarantees nothing, much less satisfaction with the journey. The purpose of life is to live. Nothing more. And we cannot live the lives of others. Those who try are destined for disappointment.
Oaxaca gave me more than I ever expected, and in the thrall of that discovery I embraced the delusion of permanence. Revived by the innocence Oaxaca resurrected in me, I grasped at the notion that the families and I and our flush of shared experiences would last forever.
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, unextranjero 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.
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.
“Let me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
In your face. That’s where the money is. Parading, sashaying, and proclaiming, right there in public, showing itself off to the locals and the tourists and the poorest of Oaxaca’s poor, the indigenous refugees from impoverished mountain towns who survive by peddling trinkets to tourists.
On weekend evenings, the teenaged quinceañeras dressed like Vegas showgirls and the slick, rich novios from Mexico City or Monterrey disgorge themselves from Oaxaca’s grand Dominican temple, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, to celebrate their passage into adulthood or their society-page marriage with ostentatious displays worthy of the cheesiest of telenovelas. Tuxedos, gowns, stilettos, pomades. Fireworks. Mescal. Mariachis. Troupes of costumed folk dancers and athletic stilt walkers.
The tourists love it. They pose for selfies with the dancers, a chance to experience “real” Mexican culture. But the celebrants – young men whose arrogance signals “keep your distance” and women whose toned, enhanced bodies broadcast lives of leisure – huddle amongst themselves. They know it’s all a show – and all for show. The self-conscious smiles, the unfelt whoops of joy, the momentary mingling of the moneyed with the un-moneyed.
In a one-room world, where you and your mother and your sister and your brother all sleep in the same bed, where the stove and the mattress and the clothes and the toys and the food fill all but some squares on the floor, there is no place to be alone.
Solitude is elusive. Privacy is rare To find them, children hide – behind curtains, in corners, under the sheets, deep inside of themselves.
Carlos is a quiet boy. Behind his taciturn façade his mind runs at full speed. He says little but absorbs everything. Show him a machine, he knows how it works. When something is broken, hand him a tool. His intelligence is a serpent, coiled, and ready to strike. What it lacks is prey.
For a while, when the television set worked, he watched pirated American movies about superheroes and alien invaders. He memorized entire dialogs, dubbed into Spanish, and could mouth the words seconds before the characters did. When the bed was empty, he crawled into and watched, mostly hidden, from his personal space.
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.
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.
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.
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.