This Week In Photography Books: Alejandro Cartagena

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quoted Joseph Goebbels in my college-entrance-essay. It’s true. Of all the strange things I’ve told you about myself, I bet that one tops the list. Hard to believe I was accepted anywhere at all, dropping Nazis into my text.

If I remember correctly, I mentioned his theory that with respect to propaganda, if you’re going to lie, lie big. The larger the falsehood, the more likely people are to swallow it. Or so he said.

Little fibs will be sussed out by a suspicious public, but outright fantasies, they might swallow. I’m sure my good buddy Vlad Putin was paying attention, the way he blames his attempted takeover of Ukraine on the Ukrainians.

Stay classy, VP.

That’s one way to perpetrate your population: to make shit up. Another way, quite the opposite, is to stop talking entirely. To use the shade of secrecy as a way of enveloping the truth. It’s equally insidious, when utilized properly.

I bring this up, as I caught up with Alejandro Cartagena last weekend in Los Angeles. (Culver City, to be exact.) He was at the Kopeikin Gallery for a new solo show, and as I was in town, I dropped in to give him un abrazo and see how he was doing.

For those of you who don’t read my stuff with perfect regularity, Alejandro is a Mexican photographer based in Monterrey. I interviewed him two years ago, and he shared with all of us the harrowing reality of living in the middle of an active war zone. The kidnappings, the fear, the murders in public places.

How Awful.

Now, I’ve been to Mexico twice in those intervening years. My folks spend time in Playa del Carmen in the winters, and I’ve basically been tasked with delivering my children to their door. Gotta see the grandkids, que no? Tourist Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, is literally a thousand miles from the drama that Alejandro was enduring.

Lately, at least since President Nieto was elected, I’d heard very little about the Mexican Drug War. Almost nothing. Their economy was booming, went the conventional wisdom, and Nieto has taken on some of established monopolies. Things are looking up, it has been implied.

And then, a few weeks, ago, that horrible story broke. The 43 young college students who protested. How they were kidnapped by the local police. Hoarded into buses. Delivered to the Cartels. Never to be seen again. (Goebbels would be proud.)

That is among the worst things I’ve ever heard. And their bodies are hidden so well that the truth will probably never come out. Locked away in a cave somewhere, shrinking from the clarity of light.

I mentioned this to Alejandro. How I’d been suckered into thinking Mexico was on the way up. How foolish I felt, hearing how bad things really were. How naive.

It was no accident, he told me. That was the plan. Nieto’s big idea was to stop talking about the Drug War. Entirely. Denial by omission. A coordinated PR campaign in lieu of a genuine solution to the misery.

That’s what he told me, at least. And he pointed out that despite the publicity generated by the missing students, it was not properly reported on, how many mass graves were discovered while searching for the boys. Multiple mass graves. Lots of them. Each filled with decomposing bodies.

Casualties of War.

Now, sometimes, you come to this column to read funny things. I get it. I keep it light when I can. I’m not trying to ruin your morning coffee, or your lunch break, or your quiet-time looking at your iPhone on the light-rail home.

Forgive me.

But sometimes, in my duties as a quasi-reporter, I learn things. Things I ought to share. Here.

Alejandro is on my mind not just because I saw him a few days ago, but also because when I came home, I found “Carpoolers” in the mail. Wrapped up tight like an X-mas present. (Yes, the Christmas season is practically upon us. And it was just summer. WTF?)

The book was published by Conaculta/Fonca, and is a special production indeed. I included a photo of the wrapping, which was sealed with a sticker that says “please carpool.” A few extras are included with the book, seemingly encouraging you to tag them, Shepard Fairey style, to make the point that carpool lanes get you to work faster. Or save the planet by limiting carbon emissions. (Or something like that.)

The book is well-built, with a photo cut into the hard-cover, and a royal blue spine that matches the denim-on-denim dude in that image. He sits beside construction supplies, a ladder, and a bunch of junk. (Foreshadowing.)

We showed a few of these pictures in the aforementioned interview, but the whole endeavor has grown up like corn stalks out of a secret grave. The book makes sense as an object, and is experiential, like most of the books I’ve been reviewing of late.

The premise is simple. Alejandro hung out on an expressway overpass, and photographed poor Mexican workers on their way to work. It’s meticulous, getting the compositions just right, and I’d bet anything there are thousands upon thousands of misfires. (Occupational hazard.)

The reason the book sings is that he’s been able to develop patterns. Several times, we see the same truck, which seems impossible. Which guy didn’t make it to work that day, and which is there each time?

Are they reading the paper one day, and zoning out the next? Does the garbage get cleaned out, or is someone sleeping on the very same dirty piece of torn foam? Honestly, how did he do it? Find the same trucks more than once?

I have no idea.

There is a piece of newspaper included, halfway through, and I was curious why. (Except for the boob shot inside, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books.℠) Sure enough, the next few pictures depict the guys reading the local tabloid rag. A way to pass the time.

They’re all guys, now that I think about it. A few times, they look up and smile. Which breaks the implicit barrier between subject and shooter. Once or twice, they spy him and scowl. More what I’d expect, given the discomfort of the situation.

One time, apparently, Alejandro rode in the back of a truck himself. To get the vibe. He made photographs with the camera pointed up, documenting the view, which often featured helicopters. Ferrying Monterrey’s wealthy elite? Or perhaps a cartel jefe?

Who knows?

But this is one book that will give you a peek into a world you couldn’t possibly know. And I was happy to see it, even if it distracted me from thinking about those 43 stolen boys. RIP.

Bottom Line: Thoughtful, well-constructed view down into pick-up trucks in Mexico

To Purchase “Carpoolers” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. Very interesting read indeed! Your writing is entertaining. I just spent 2 months on Isla Mujeres for various reasons and found myself taking pictures sort of in the same way Alejandro did. I was locked into grabbing 3 to 5 people on scooters. Nothing of great life changing importance, just wanted to capture the humor I found there. Best of luck to you. Rick