Two photographs hang side by side in a gallery. On the right, in a white frame, is a photo of two little girls in front of a white-and-red house decorated with multicolored birthday balloons. Both girls wear brightly colored headbands and gaze directly toward the camera with patient expressions. On the left, in a black frame, is another photograph focused on two girls, but in very different circumstances. A teenage girl in a spaghetti strap top walks toward the camera, her distraught gaze directed away. Following closely behind her is a little girl in a pink tank top. Trailing both of them are four uniformed law enforcement officers. Dust and smoke swirl through the air, and a line of police trucks fills the right side of the composition. A hilly city recedes into the background.
For Border 2010, the University of Texas at El Paso’s Rubin Center creates a distinct divide between the work of two photographers, David Rochkind and Alejandro Cartagena, to illustrate the coexistence of extreme realities. Each photographer documents scenes from Mexican border towns—Nogales, Sonora and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua for Rochkind; Juárez, Nuevo León for Cartagena. But beyond that, the subject matter and documentary style couldn’t be more different. The installation visually and spatially separates the two photographers’ work—Rochkind’s ten photographs are displayed in black frames on the north side of the gallery, and Cartagena’s ten photos are framed in white and hung on the south walls. It’s easy to come up with a list of diametric opposites when looking around the gallery: black/white, night/day, movement/stillness, light/shadow, anxiety/calm.
Rochkind, whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Time and The Guardian, documents Mexico’s drug violence. In the statement on his website for the series Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War (from which the photographs on display at the Rubin Center are drawn) the photographer describes the violence as a symptom of President Felipe Calderon’s battle against drug cartels, not the problem itself. Born in Michigan and now based in Mexico City, Rochkind photographs all over the world, but he writes that for this series, capturing the Mexican-ness of the problem is key: “…when documenting this conflict it is important not to reduce what is happening to a series of nearly anonymous images of carnage that could be happening anywhere. I am not creating a story about violence that happens to be set in Mexico, but rather a story about Mexico’s present situation….”
His photographs aptly capture the “symptoms” of the drug war playing out in Mexican border towns: anxiety, police sweeps, prostitution, migration and increased drug use. Reminiscent of Baroque paintings (especially in contrast to the stark classicism of Cartagena’s work), Rochkind’s photographs have lots of movement, a strong sense of narrative, and chiaroscuro lighting.
In Night Patrol #1(Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua),(2009) Rochkind photographs police frisking a man during a security sweep. The faces of the police officers are obscured by black helmets and a metal structure (perhaps attached to the back of a security vehicle), but Rochkind captures the look of astonishment and fear on the face of the man being frisked. Rochkind’s composition directs his viewer’s attention to the key point of scenes played out in each photograph. In Night Patrol #1, the frisked man’s face is just slightly off-center. In Prostitute (Nogales, Sonora) (2007), Rochkind photographs a woman as she sits on a cheap-looking bedspread and pulls her shirt up over her head. Her face is obscured, and the viewer’s gaze rests on her body, the object for sale in this transaction.
Cartagena’s interest lies in photographing suburban sprawl surrounding Monterrey, Nuevo León, particularly the suburb of Juárez, where his family has lived for more than a century. He describes his work as “the visual study of the unending capitalist endeavor of urban growth.” In his series Suburbia Mexicana/People of Suburbia, Cartagena photographs the people and buildings of Juárez, Nuevo León, creating a kind of suburb-scape of land rich with his own personal history. His compositions seem straightforward and simple—an empty street shot straight on, or a family standing centered in front of the camera, gazing forward with emotionless expressions.
In Marielenas Siter With Her Corn Outside Her House in Juárez, (2009), a woman stands in front of a house nearly identical to the one pictured in the photograph of the birthday party. Only the front yard of Marielenas Siter’s home is lined with a row of tall corn plants. The woman, dwarfed by the plants, stands firmly on the sidewalk between the stalks gazing at the camera. In Family Outside Their House in Juárez, (2009), a woman sits in a chair in a front yard, a crying baby on her lap. Two little boys stand behind her as a scene of driveways and vehicles makes up the background.
In an artist statement on his website, Cartagena outlines some pretty radical ideas, quoted in part in the wall text for this exhibition. “My commitment as a photographer is not only to denounce our need for a privately owned household, but to point the struggle our contemporary world faces between the ideals of capitalism and the strive and desire for fairer and more equal cities in which to live in.”
In Border 2010, it’s impossible to see Cartagena’s work without it serving as a foil to Rochkind’s images of violence. What otherwise may have scanned as a criticism of life in suburban sprawl registers here as normalcy. In the world Cartagena photographs, not everything’s perfect—there’s litter on the ground, and houses share the same monotonous facades—but his photographs project a sense of balance, order and general OK-ness. Cartagena’s static compositions, light-infused scenes,and often-unfeeling expressions contrast the diagonal compositions, intense shadows and anxiety-stricken expressions on the faces of the people in Rochkind’s photographs.
What does it mean to consider Border 2010 within the context of its audience at the University of Texas El Paso, which is made up of people who live on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border? The wall text for this exhibition uses the word “tandem” to describe how the two worlds depicted here exist in northern Mexico. For those of us whose only view of Mexico has come from the media and has included violent images such as Rochkind’s, Cartagena’s photographs provide a much-needed balance.
Bembnister is a writer currently based in Marfa, Texas.