'El Camino de la Luz' or 'The Way of the Light', Mexico City 2011
"The Mexican", writes Octavio Paz in his Nobel prize winning 'Labyrinth of Solitude', "is familiar with death. He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
I'm not quite sure whether this rings true or not, certainly death is not something to be enjoyed but there is certainly a strange interplay of life and death here in Mexico that mixes faith, magic and history in a unique way. Stanley Brandes in his anthropological history of the Day of the Dead in Mexico 'Skulls for the Living, Bread for the Dead' recounts in the book's introduction how, on one of his first trips to Mexico in rural Oaxaca, he was invited to a funeral. Rather than stand as a passive spectator he was shocked that the family members and friends invited him forward to the coffin to take pictures of the corpse. The family wanted to remember this moment in the person's life as much as they wanted to remember him alive and smiling for snapshots...and so began Brandes' fascination with these cultures and customs in Mexico.
Contrary to my expectations and while different to many of our own experiences, this Mexican affiliation with death is not borne from a lack of respect or some kind of thin bloodlust. True, it's up front and laid bare for all to see but one of the greatest indicators of a deep feeling and sensitivity for the dead is the custom of 'El Camino de la Luz' or 'The Way of the Light'.
While working on the crime beat and photographing what the night throws at you naturally it can be highly charged at times but for the most part there is often an eerie calm and quiet to be observed in the faces of the spectators and the movements of the emergency services and police who deal with these things in the course of their daily work. There is a strange silence to the spectacle of the event.
Often, one of the first things you notice is a small white candle laid in proximity to the body. This practice is done in much haste and as soon after the person has lost their life according to the Mexican tradition. The candle is lit, people tell me to provide a pathway of light, 'El Camino de la Luz' for the angels, so that they may come quickly and retrieve the soul of the deceased and provide it safe passage to heaven.
La vela, or the candle seems to provide a kind of instant shrine at the scenes of these incidents that somehow helps you understand and appreciate this affiliation with death in Mexico. People gather around and watch the proceedings, the scenes are documented and discussed but everyone pays heed in these first moments as the candle burns.
While not exactly magical - I have yet to have visions of angels descending from heaven - 'El Camino de la Luz' somehow provides a sense of peace and detracts from the horror of the incidents. As time passes and people begin to disperse, as the bodies are moved into Coroners vehicles, often times an anonymous person steps forward to extinguish the candle, satisfied that the person has gone to a better place. This act is never met with disagreement and it's a kind of instant closure that, whether religious or not, brings solstice and a broader sense of compassion to otherwise tragic things.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Shout out to the doyen of photo-bloggers J.M. Colberg for featuring one of my favorite snaps from my eternally uncompleted body of work currently titled 'The Afghans'. Joerg also recently featured the work of Irish photographer Kenneth O'Halloran whose large format series on Irish horse fairs has been knocking 'em dead in this heady season of photo-awards. Some epic images of the unique faces of the Irish Travelers who come to buy and sell ponies all over Ireland that are well worth checking out.
In other Traveler related news meanwhile, Ian Palmer's 12 year documentary odyssey on feuding gyspy boxers 'Knuckle' which I wrote about here has been blazing a trail this week at the Sundance Film Festival. G'wan Ian.
Already with precious international distribution secured, Ian's film has gone one step further with Indiewire reporting today that the team that brought us 'Eastbound and Down', namely Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill are hoping to turn 'Knuckle' into a TV series for HBO.
Only time will tell, but can the public handle the idea of an Irish Kenny Powers?
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Sometimes you get the impression that life really does imitate art and listening to the story of photographer Enrique Metinides, the Godfather of 'La Nota Roja' was one of those times. This week I had the privilege of meeting the man sometimes referred to as the Mexican Weegee at his home in Mexico City; where he told me how he got the nickname 'El Nino'.
A little older now but his tiny frame still buzzing with energy, he begins to show me his collection of DVD's recounting how, in the early 40's he was obsessed with the movies of Al Capone and the noirs and gangster flicks that filled Mexico City cinemas during his youth. This formative time in the boy Metinides' life coincided with his father closing up his city centre camera store to open a restaurant and gifting his son an old Brownie camera and a bag of film to keep him out of trouble. At the age of 10, while helping out in his Dad's new place, Enrique began chatting with the local cops who came in to chow down, popping around to the local police station to snap pictures of corpses and criminals they would drag into the precinct.
By the tender age of 11, Enrique had secured himself a job as a sidekick to one of the photographers from Mexico City's largest daily 'La Prensa' and so began the fifty year career of 'El Nino', the youngest crime photographer in history, a career spent riding around on the top of firetrucks, listening to the police and emergency radio frequencies for news of car crashes, murders and crimes of passion and, in time, photographing perhaps more 'muertos' than even Weegee 'the famous' himself.
As Enrique recounted his - by now well told story - I couldn't help but get the feeling he has managed to live out a real life fantasy that was borne in his early youth watching hard-boiled gangster films of the 1940's. For half a century Metinides endlessly placed himself right at the heart of these horrific scenes as 'that guy with the camera', rendering his images with a cinematic flair that seems a world away from mere tabloid sensationalism. It is something he himself appreciates, the proximity with which he worked, the details and panoramas he captured, the fact his images were used, at times, to solve crimes as much as to seduce the imaginations of a public that devoured the huge photo layouts that filled the papers of the day.
His images defy logic and reason as much as his amazing life does, his photographs, although filled with horrible tragedies have such artistry that for some reason we feel romanticized by them rather than repulsed.
Planes nose dive from the sky, a crashed train zig-zags it's way towards the horizon like a fissure in the ground from an earthquake, an actress lies party suspended, crushed on a lamppost from a car crash only minutes after leaving a beauty salon, her stunning, perfectly made-up eyes frozen in time. Forever.
David La Chapelle couldn't even dream of it. And yet Metinides lived it.
Like other photographers who plied their trade with passion, conviction and sometimes madness in far flung parts of the world only to be discovered by the art world later in their life: Miroslav Tichy, Seidou Keita and Li Zhensheng to name but a few, Metinides has had mixed experiences.
It hasn't really made him rich but his work is appreciated by admirers and collectors around the world. He regaled me with stories of German television crews walking through the same little rooms in his house as I was, the famous collection of 3500 toy firetrucks and other emergency services toys and paraphernalia, press clippings from the exhibition that he had in a former Nazi bunker in Poland, the television sets where he watches action movies, disaster stories and historical documentaries and I couldn't help but get the feeling that even today, long after he put his camera down as the greatest 'Nota Roja' photographer there ever was, the life of 'El Nino' continues to imitate art.
Images Copyright Enrique Metinides
New York Times
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Two radio handsets, perched on top of a city trash can at the base of the Monumento de la Revolucion, bleep and squawk muffled and garbled information and codes, punctuated by screeching sirens, incoherent speech and interference. These bursts from the scanners monitoring the police and emergency frequencies are urgent and dramatic...and usually followed by complete silence.
It's about ten o'clock on a Sunday night and I just arrived at ‘El Monu’, the de-facto operations base for the members of La Nota Roja, the Mexico City crime photographers I am working with. It’s not the most attractive place to spend eight hours of your life and in the wee hours of the night but it’s central and the media hawks from the local papers, television and radio stations can quickly scramble to most parts of the city as nocturnal events in Mexico City’s underworld unfold.
I feel double-lost in translation on these cold nights.
For one I’m straining my ears trying to decipher the incessant static firing out of the police scanners. Things sometimes sound dramatic and urgent, rapid fire speech and howling noise belches from the handset but mostly 'La Nota Roja', Luis, Jaime, Alex, Gabriel and all remain calm and go back to chatting, leaning against their cars, smoking and hanging out. When the prospect of a news event dissipates with the lowering of the volume on the radio, I’m forced to switch back to trying to figure out the rhythm and cadence of the speech of 'La Nota Roja' themselves. This at times proves more frustrating than trying to understand the police scanners.
Their patter is fast and laden with Mexican street slang and my ears only pick up several words and phrases. I spend my time trying to string things together often with little success. The word ‘El Verde’ was being used so much for the first few days I worked with 'La Nota Roja' I was convinced it was a swear word, only to find out that ‘The Green’ was the nickname of Jaime, one of La Prensa’s photographers and a fatherly figure among the group. ‘Pinche Verde' or 'Fucking Verde’ they would mutter joking amongst themselves.
Mostly I’m lost between two worlds of double talk but Alex gives me a dig out and begins to explain the significance of the police codes.
If the radio squawks ZETA UNO (Z1), he says, it means there’s been a murder. ZETA DOS, a shooting but the subject is still living. He goes on through the list detailing the litany of grizzly circumstances which make up the bread and butter of La Nota Roja.
DOS BRAVO, EQUIS TRES (X3), ‘Un Catorce’, the romantic sounding ‘Apperitivo’ and so on. Car crashes, police raids, drug busts, the dead, wounded and mutilated, it’s a grim list of codes that I was probably better off oblivious to. But now I know.
I’m a little tired of the night shift. I bring less equipment than normal after a dead quiet week and show up a little late to the ‘Monu’, where for the last seven nights or so I have been eating tacos and sleeping in the back of whoever’s car has a spare seat.
'Es la Navidad’ Jacobo told me earlier, ‘Los Sicarios van a vaccaciones'
Ca-Qua, a radio journalist from the radio station Cadena Tres has two radio’s in his hand, he adjusts the volume to a minimum and catches up on the scandals from the various Christmas parties that have been going on all week.
Luis or 'El Virgo', a photographer from Universal and my main point of contact with the group arrives even later than me and we all shake hands. Luis has taught me that things can happen at any moment in this type of work and often do.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to get what you wish for and it’s not long since Luis has rolled up in his massive old red Ford that our quiet week is to be transformed.
Ca-Qua has turned his radio up to full and the TV Azteca guys are scrambling to check their equipment. Something is happening somewhere in the city. I turn to Luis, slinging my backpack over my shoulder and making for the car. ‘Zeta Uno’ he tells me, ‘a man killed in the Barrio Buenas Aires’ but he doesn’t elaborate any further. Everyone is rushing for their cars, phones begin to ring and engines are started.
I’m mostly oblivious to the communications, my body tensing as we hurtle over Mexico City’s potholed and speedbumped streets.
I hit the street running behind Luis and it is immediately apparent that this incident is still unfolding. At first sight I can see a plethora of police arriving and people are moving in all directions. To my left I can see that they are fleeing a nightclub, streaming through the door and scattering past the arriving policemen.
'El Charro' is not going anywhere for now and after a preliminary few photographs, Luis is off down the street following the action as it unfolds. It is difficult to decipher what is actually happening amid the confusion. Police scurry after the fleeing nightclub patrons, grabbing some and holding them for quick questioning. A man is dragged into a squad car kicking. He puts his head down as the media begin to assemble around the car, his face caught in freeze frames of red and blue light.
A Federal Police man in full flak jacked and helmet marches past me, short and impossibly squat, he looks like the Sandman from Fantastic Four. In a cordon of police cars, other officers brandish what I assume to be the murder weapon in the car headlights, a destructive looking thing that they twist and turn in curious examination.
The tempo leaps again as Luis urges me to get down low. I do and find it hard to run as police begin to stream past me, pointing their weapons into a building site on the corner.
Luis, leaning against a lamppost, watching the proceedings, looking cool as you like. Instead of church and a few hours on the couch of a Sunday it seems he can be found at hanging out at the odd police shootout. Just another day at the office.
The helicopter zips off to another part of the city, the thwack of it’s rotar blades fading into the night.
I ask Luis what the fuck just happened but he kind of shrugs and I pass him by to see what has become of El Charro.
Order is being restored to the crime scene, police begin to stretch their hot pink ‘Peligro’ tape in a wide cordon around the body, pulling it tighter as it waves and flaps in the wind.
People begin to gather to look at the body and the restored order is once again punctuated as a small group, maybe friends or relatives arrive at the scene. Two women are distraught, screaming and crying and trying to push their way closer to the body past the police cordon only to be restrained and comforted by a female cop. They push their way along the cordon to get closer.
Another relative arrives, she twirls and spins, wailing, distraught and overwhelmed. She feints in the street, flat on her back, her arms flayed out beside her. Bystanders look on as the closest to her aid her to her feet, all the while the continuum of red and blue flashing police lights pulsing across the scene.
The forensics van arrives and the detail work begins. Two men place little yellow signs with numbers around the corpse, near the white BMW alongside which the deceased lies and at other areas of interest. It’s a curious sight, these men in white coats moving back and forth around the scene like curious tourists, taking photographs with utmost attention to detail and leaving their little markers like sightseeing spots ticked off their map.
The white chalk lines are drawn and I’m still curious to see the scene through, to see the street empty out after the body has been lifted and to feel calm return to the Barrio Buenas Aries but the guys want to leave.
I make a few final frames, long exposures, of the forensics guys tending to the body of El Charro and make my way back to the car.
Gabriel clips his radio back to the sun visor above the drivers seat. I’m back to being lost in translation but Gabriel and Luis’ chatter is all about the scene we all just witnessed and I feel a little more involved. ‘Bien Cabron’ remarks Gabo. ‘Si Guey’, ‘yeah man’ confirms Luis as we pull away from the scene. ‘Una chinga madre’ is all I can muster by way of remark about the night's events so far.
A real motherfucker.
The radio bursts out another siren howl and the voice of a police man or an ambulance driver somewhere in the city. I look at the guys to see what’s happening, raising my eyes inquisitively. 'Zeta Siete' they say and I’m back in the world of codes and double talk. Gabriel presses the accelerator and Luis reaches into his bag to pull out his flashgun and we’re off again, I sit back in the seat and watch the city flying by, waiting to see what’s going on in Colonia Centro.