I recently spoke with Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena, who’s based in the battle-torn city of Monterrey. His work has been awarded and honored like crazy the last few years. “Suburbia Mexicana” was exhibited this Summer at Kopeikin Gallery in LA, and his current project, “Car Poolers,” was published in the NY Times Lens Blog and Lens Culture.
Jonathan Blaustein: Are you well? I know you’re busy.
Alejandro Cartagena: Yeah, I’m doing great. I’m doing a lot more commercial work than I expected. Commissions too. All the publicity. I don’t know how you say it in English?
JB: The hype. The buzz.
AC: Right. The hype, the buzz, it helped because people you wouldn’t expect to hire me for jobs are hiring me for stuff. Not just documentary stuff. Right now, I’m shooting chairs for a chic design firm.
It’s been really cool to be able to expand my job like that. I’m not a particularly good product or advertising photographer, but pushing those limits seems interesting. It makes you understand a little more how an image works. I think I’m starting to like it. I don’t want to do too much, but it’s good right now.
JB: So your career has shifted because of the success you’ve had as an artist? People have approached you and asked you to do stuff you’ve never done before, and you’re learning on the job?
AC: Definitely. Three weeks ago I got a commission to go to El Salvador, to shoot a coffee farm. That was a 3 day shoot. The farm, the processing plant, the owner, the people working there.
What I tell the clients is that I don’t know how to do work that’s used as advertising, but I do know how to do portfolios for your products. You want to show off how nice the design is on something, I can take that out of your product to make it look really nice. Not to sell the product, but how you produce your product. That’s where I’m trying to push my commercial work.
I don’t know how you put that. Documentary Commercial Photography?
JB: Have you had to change your equipment to make the switch? What are you shooting with?
AC: Last year, I bought my first big digital camera. The 5d Mark II. And now I have a 3 piece lighting setup. This has pushed me to have an assistant, who knows about lighting, who helps me to produce the shoots. It’s something I’d never done before. I’d just go out with the medium and large format camera and shoot whatever I wanted.
I’m still shooting my projects. One here in Monterrey, and one in Guadalajara. I have the flexibility to still do that, and also do the commercial jobs that bring in some money.
JB: We kind of launched into this, because my first question was “How are you?,” and here we are. So let’s back it up a bit. Given your name, and your accent, and the fact that you live in Monterrey, 99% of people will assume you’re Mexican, but your bio says you were born in the Dominican Republic. How did you end up in Mexico?
AC: My Dad came to Monterrey to study in the 60’s. There was this big thing in the Dominican Republic in education where the government was giving money out to people to go study abroad. But they were obligated to come back to work in the sugar cane factories or any specialized engineering job.
When he was here, he married my Mom. They went back, and me and my other three brothers were born there. They left Mexico in ’69, and they stayed in the Dominican Republic until 1990. That’s when I came to Monterrey.
JB: Can you do the math for me. How old were you?
AC: I was 13 when I left.
JB: Do you feel Mexican?
AC: At this point of my life, I’m definitely Mexican. I feel Mexican, I love Mexican food, I love my city, I love my country.
There is a strange thing going on between me and my wife right now. It’s this going back to our roots. We don’t know if it’s the baby that’s coming? My wife’s Dad is Canadian, her Mom is American, and she was born here in Mexico. So she’s this weird NAFTA kid, you know? American/Canadian/Mexican. And she’s been listening to all this country music and american oldies songs.
Weirdly, I’ve been going back to listening to a lot of Merengue music, which is Dominican. So I don’t know. This thing about having a child, wanting to be in touch again with my roots, it’s bubbling out a lot lately.
JB: Congrats. When are you going to have a baby?
AC: First of October.
JB: So you’re coming up. I can’t bitch too much about my stress because you’re sitting right there too.
Let’s talk a bit about Mexico, though. I just learned that Monterrey is the wealthiest city in Mexico, which caught me off guard. I would have assumed it was the DF. But I was wrong.
So you’re based in the wealthiest city in Mexico, which is up there in the Northern desert, in the middle of the Drug War shitstorm.
JB: The World wants to hear about this stuff, and you’re right there. You got a new President elected, and the PRI is coming back. The guys who ran the country for, what, 100 years or so?
AC: 70 years.
JB: 70 years? I was close.
AC: It’s almost the same.
JB: Right. That’s a big deal, and geo-politically, you’re sitting on the front lines. And I know that you make work in and about Monterrey, but thusfar, it’s touched only tangentially on the Chaos, unless I’m mistaken.
What’s it like?
AC: I think precisely because it’s the richest, that’s why it’s the most fucked up at the moment. There’s so much money, there are so many people wanting to have more money, there’s so much ambition. The downside is there’s not enough jobs to have that money, so there’s a lot of poor people at the same time.
An ex-girlfriend used to work in a government agency, it’s like what used to be the FSA in the US. It’s an institution that goes around and finds poor communities, and they try to find them jobs, they bring them food, they document them. And Monterrey has more than 60 below poverty communities.
So that speaks to the disparity. There’s so much wealth, but also so much poverty.
JB: It’s kind of a popular topic here in the States. Our statistics on income inequality are rising. The problems that come from that grand a chasm tend to cause a host of problems.
JB: But as far as violence, is your quality of life impacted in the rising gang wars of the last couple of years in Monterrey?
AC: Yeah. Starting in that difference of income, that creates a sense of anger towards all the people who have so much money. And they’re so separated. The people who have money live in this part of town, and the people that don’t live in that part of town. I mean, this is nothing new in the world, but when the shit hits the fan like its happening here it feels like its never happened before.
Then with the building of all these suburbs, for the rich people it’s perfect. Just send them as far as you can. Only the rich get to stay in these prime lands.
That has created the perfect scenarios for the gang situation. I don’t know, when we talked before, if I told you how the drug war has moved into these suburbs I used to photograph. Those are the perfect spots for them to live, right now, because there is no police. And if there is police, they’re corrupt, or they’re actually part of the gangs.
My Mom’s from a place, it used to be a little town, it’s called Juarez. It’s not the crazy Juarez from Chihuahua, and it used to be 30,000 people in 1993/94/95, and now it’s more than 300,000 people, with the same amount of police and transit police. So that tells you how the growth of that city, and that suburb, has made it so easy for the drug people to move into those areas and just be Kings.
There’s nobody watching them, and if they are watching them, they’re part of the deal. That has made it very difficult to live in Monterrey. You don’t know who’s who. You want to be looking at people who look kind of sketchy, but at the same time, it’s the police also who’s sketchy.
That definitely impacted our way of life. We used to live right downtown, and six months ago, we decided to leave because its become unbearable. There are shootings in downtown. After 8pm, there’s no one on the streets. It was getting kind of dangerous.
We decided to move to just outside of downtown. It’s a bit safer. We’re close to a couple of embassies, so there’s police patrolling once in a while. It makes you feel a little safer, but definitely we changed our lifestyle.
You don’t go out at night that much. Or if you go out, you try not to go to a restaurant. Because that’s become a mess here. They go into restaurants, and they steal people. They take their cars. There’s been some cases where they rape women in the restaurants. So those kind of things just get you paranoid and scared.
You try to live your life around those things that you can’t do anything about it. You try to be in at night. You try to go out when you can. There was a point last week where me and my wife got a little paranoid about even going to parties.
The bad guys started going to parties. If they would hear music outside the house, it was a perfect place to come in and steal and make trouble.
JB: Wow. (pause.) I’m rarely speechless. I spent a lot of time in Mexico in the last 10 years, including going places 10 years ago that I would never go now. As an American, it almost looked like the whole Calderon Presidency was to see if the government was powerful enough to take down the cartels, and now that it’s over, it looks like the answer has been given, and the answer is No.
JB: Is there a sense of fatalism in Mexico now that the cartels are so rich and powerful? Do people feel like Mexico is doomed? Or do people talk about Columbia, and how fast things turned around there? What’s the mood?
AC: Let me think what I’m going to say. I definitely feel scared of what happened in these past six years. I vaguely remember, maybe it was in January of 2007 or 2008, when Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers, to Michoacan, or another region where there was a lot of trouble with the drug cartels. I remember feeling, “This is so awesome. They’re finally gonna get rid of all of this shit.” (Laughs.) At least, from my perspective, I was really excited that a President had taken such a big decision to attack the cartels.
But then it all just went to shit. It all went downhill from there. Everything started to get worse. Before 2010, in 2007, you would hear of the killings, but it was always out of the city. In the suburbs. There was no violence in the city, or downtown, where there was more police.
And then, in 2007, it all turned around here in Monterrey. You started to hear about people being killed downtown. Bodies being dropped in the middle of the street in downtown. It just started to rise and rise and rise and just get worse and worse.
It almost seemed like the cartels were in a campaign of terror, for us as civilians. They started to hang people on highways. They started to line up people on the street and just shoot them and leave them there. I can’t speak for the other people of Monterrey, but for me, that got really, really scary.
Of course, you become paranoid. You’re always trying to watch out not to get in the crossfire. I’ve had friends who were close to the balaceras, how they call them here.
In 2010, that’s when I really got scared. That’s when the shootings really started in downtown, just blocks from our house. I remember there was one shooting that was really crazy. It went on for like 30 minutes, and I never heard something like that. It was like a war zone.
It started with a couple of gunshots, pop pop, and we were in bed. I remember looking at my wife, and thinking, were those firecrackers? And then, suddenly, Boom Boom, and all different sounds of machine guns and grenades. That’s definitely not fireworks.
We dropped to the floor, and went to the middle of the house, and we were lying on the ground. It was so scary. I’m sure, for war photographers, that’s something that you experience. But for a city boy, in your city, at 12 at night, when you’re getting ready to sleep?
JB: I can’t imagine. I just can’t. You use the word terror, and it looks like the cartels have been robbing the playbook from the Taliban, and straight up terror groups. They understand that if you create that degree of bone-shaking fear in a general populace, then you can control that populace. It sounds like the rule of law is not really there with you guys right now, and it’s tragic.
I don’t want to make light of it just for an interview. I love Mexico, and I go, because my parents live in Playa del Carmen in the Winters. I’ve seen the growth there. I’ve got massive curiousity as to how the Italian and Mexican Mafias co-exist so well down there. But that’s another story. I want to be a fly on the wall in that sit down to hear how they divide up the town, because the money laundering is off the charts.
JB: But for “Suburbia Mexicana,” you were a guy walking around some sketchy rural and mountainous neighborhoods with some very expensive camera equipment, by yourself. Fairly recently.
So you’re telling the global photo community that now, even two or three years later, you could not do that work anymore?
AC: Now that I think of that, I feel so lucky that I was so naive to go into those places. At that moment, I didn’t know that those were the places that the drug people lived. From 2011 to now, it’s become really unbearable. Everything has become exposed, and you know that they live in these small suburbs in the outskirts of Monterrey.
I finished shooting in late 2009, early 2010. I would take my car and park outside of wherever I was shooting. I would carry my 4×5 and my tripod, and just walk. I felt that made people a little bit less scared of me, and made me not so vulnerable, even though I was vulnerable.
They wouldn’t be scared of me. I wasn’t in a car, and I had a huge camera. It’s not like I was going to run away or be trying to gather data on them. So people were very accepting of me an my presence. I don’t know. At this moment, I would not even think of doing something like that. I was lucky nothing happened. It’s getting scarier and scarier and scarier.
Most of the portraits in that book were done in Juarez, where my Mom’s from. My parents have a restaurant there, or they had a restaurant there. They actually had to close down the restaurant in February because of the Mafia-Cartels. They started to ask for money.
JB: Shakedowns. Protection. My god. We see photo essays about this. Maybe read an article in the New York Times. But I think it’s difficult for most people to straight up empathize, and to think about what it means to be living without governmental protection.
I know Mexico well, and I live in a border state. The fact that the US, this global superpower, has spent trillions of dollars, and essentially all of our political capital, fighting two wars on the other side of the planet…
JB: And in that exact time, our most important neighbor, (No offense to Canada,) is living with borderline Chaos in some places. It’s an underreported story, how the US squandered so much, and left our neighbor to eat the shit.
AC: Yeah. As you were saying, I think it’s very difficult to be empathetic to the situation here, because I think, even we as citizens of Mexico don’t understand what’s going on, at some point. There’s so much rhetoric by our government saying everything is so well and fine, and nothing’s happening. A lot of people believe it. I don’t think there’s anyone in government, any politician saying, “You know what, Mexico’s crap right now. We need to do something about it.” There’s nobody saying that!
At least the elected ones. They’re just saying, “Oh that was a minor incident. They killed 52 civilians in a Casino. Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just between the drug people.” Man!
JB: Are they afraid of assassination?
AC: I don’t know what the fuck are they afraid of?
JB: Maybe it’s that they don’t have the juice. We started this with me asking, did the government lose the war? And the results on the ground seem to say they did. They don’t have the money or the power or the clout to stop the cartels right now. That doesn’t mean it’s over. Colombia’s got to be a good example for you guys, that things can turn around.
AC: Yes, but its different in many ways and things aren’t complete cured in Colombia yet.
JB: But look, one of the things I love about your work is that you’re a humanist. You’re able to look into complex stories. “Suburbia Mexicana,” in anyone else’s hands, would have been a snarky, ironic look at how mass consumption leads to environmental degradation.
JB: And I reviewed the book twice, so I’m not going to repeat what I said, but you didn’t do that.
JB: You’re able to understand the human element. What you’re living through is proof that human beings are insanely resilient animals. You’re living through things that people who live in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iran, or Sicily have been living through for decades or more. God willing, that’s not going to be Mexico’s fate. But people like me, people here in the United States, we can’t help but take our governmental protection for granted. It’s crazy. You’re only a few hundred miles away from me right now.
Enough of my rant. Let’s segue for a second. I know “Suburbia Mexicana” is being exhibited right now, at Kopeikin Gallery, in LA. And concurrent with that, you curated a show called “Looking at Mexico.” So now we can call you artist and curator.
AC: No, no.
JB: OK, then we can call you a pretend curator like I’m a pretend journalist. Well, congrats. I don’t want to recite the list of honors you’ve racked up in the last few years. I know that you’re traveling a lot, you’re exhibiting across the world. You’re getting collected. All the things that people want.
On the surface level, you’re as successful as any of the colleagues I know. On a personal level, you’ve already shared that you’re living through an insanely difficult situation.
AC: Its a complicated thing.
JB: My heart goes out to you. But you were just in London, and in Amsterdam. When you’re in these safe European countries, with their decadent beautiful art cultures, is it difficult to reconcile? How are you dealing with that? Do you have to bifurcate your personality?
AC: That’s pretty cool that you brought that up. That’s definitely a sensation, not only when I go to Europe or the States, even to other cities here in Mexico. I understand how paraniod I’ve become. When I go to Mexico City, or Guadalajara, it’s like I can’t believe I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if someone’s following me.
There’s this huge sensation of relief that I can be myself. And I don’t have to be looking out for myself. So definitely, I think I’ve become two different people. One outside, which is the normal me, and when I’m home, I’m me the paranoid Alejandro.