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Interviews

October 2010

To many in the west, Mexico has become synonymous with drugs, violence, swine flu and illegal immigration. In an exclusive article for CPN, Mexican photographer Rodrigo Cruz - whose work has been consistently praised by CPN Editor's Choice guest editors - paints a more complex and intriguing picture of the world's 11th most populous country.

The reason I go out onto the streets with my camera is simple: I want to tell people's stories in an intimate way through powerful imagery. I know it's difficult to show the world as it is or in its entirety, but I can show fragments of our reality through these stories. However, the truth is that being a photojournalist in Mexico can be dangerous, and exercising the freedom of the press is a high-risk activity.

Several reported cases of violence against journalists, and even kidnapping and deaths, have not been solved. Fieldwork is becoming more dangerous each day, and photographers and cameramen are often barred from crime scenes. Journalists now sometimes work in groups for protection and some have decided to have their work published uncredited. One of my latest projects is called 'Violence in Mexico', centred mostly on the border city of Tijuana. This is a place where it's easy to be a witness to violence - caused by drug trafficking, addiction, kidnapping and prostitution - but not so easy to document it. The combatants are not well defined; it's not a case of 'good' or 'bad' people, like in the movies - it's a war between guerrillas.

© Rodrigo Cruz

From the 'Violence in Mexico' series.

Yes, I have trained my lens on these issues - the ones that, sadly, most foreigners think of when they think of Mexico these days - drugs, violence and the constant attempts by many people here to get to the 'promised land' of North America. But I've also documented the condition of women and children, indigenous communities and the role of religion and rituals.

I have been a freelance photographer for six years working for different media and non-governmental organisations. Since I began I have tried to develop stories that show the human rights violations, especially of women and children. It is satisfying to know that in some way my photographs have helped raise awareness of these issues and played a part in action being taken to address them.

It all started for me in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. This state has the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the country, and a high percentage of indigenous people. I began my first documentary project here about agricultural field workers and it took almost three years. My interest grew as I began to learn about the region: the lack of employment, harvests that only produce enough food for five or six months of the year, and a shortage of land. All this has led to farm workers being forced to make long journeys in harsh conditions to the agricultural fields in northern Mexico looking for temporary jobs.

© Rodrigo Cruz

From the 'Agricultural Workers' series.

I've made several trips with the men, women and children that are recruited and transported by bus to the fields. They work 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I have documented the tragedy in the fields, the exploitation, the overcrowded conditions and the lack of medical assistance. Frequently, women leave their children along the edges of fields while they work. Some children have suffered accidents when the agricultural machines, the drivers not realising they were there, ran over them. One of my favorite pictures is one in which a child looks out through the back window of an old, junk bus. On his shirt is a picture of the great revolutionary Che Guevara and it makes me think what, if anything, it signifies in this world of poverty.

This chasm between the rich and poor is what drives migrants northwards to the Mexico-US border, the most frequently crossed international border in the world. In 2007, I did a project about Central American migrants and their experiences during the attempt to cross Mexico travelling 3,500 kilometres atop 'the beast', as they call the train that takes them to Mexico's northern border.

Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras leave their communities due to the lack of work and opportunities, but during the journey they risk being assaulted, kidnapped or even murdered. During one of my journeys, I got a shot of a young Honduran migrant that had a big effect on me. He didn't move from the railway tracks, always staring down the lines, waiting desperately in the rain, always vigilant, his only shelter a piece of cardboard.

I have focused my documentary work on women and children because they are the most vulnerable in our society. Women are the poorest of the poor, and women in rural and indigenous communities have the fewest educational opportunities. Access to health care is limited and expensive. Frequently, they also suffer oppression and violence from men, and justice can be a long, costly and sometimes dangerous process.

© Rodrigo Cruz

From 'The promised Land' series.

I've documented the Tlamacazapa community in the north of Guerrero. Many men have to migrate temporarily to sell their palm products. The women are illiterate, and suffer poverty, malnutrition, violence and illness. Due to the lack of clean water they have to collect and consume water from the main village wells. This water contains natural but harmful metals, such as arsenic and lead, causing fatigue and serious illnesses.

Religion and rituals play a large part in indigenous communities. Throughout the agricultural cycle many celebrate different rituals in springs, mountains and sacred places to ask their gods for favourable weather, a good harvest and protection from hunger. In La Esperanza, a ritual takes place between women to encourage the rainy season to begin in which two barrios of the village gather in the middle of a field. Two women fight bare-knuckled and without head guards to protect their faces.

Inhabitants of the Zilacayota community, also in the state of Guerrero, celebrate an old ritual with candles and flower chains called the 'Dance of Mice', in which they ask wild animals to respect the crop and seeds. An old man sacrifices a hen over a sacred stone and other men offer food and aguardiente (a rum-like, alcoholic drink) to mice, pray in the church and dance with the mice through the streets.

© Rodrigo Cruz

From the ‘Dance of Mice’ series.

Folklore and colourful traditions and cultures have always attracted foreign people to Mexico. It's a shame that in recent years Mexico has mainly been of interest to the international media for the appearance of swine flu and it's increasing violence. I am part of the struggle to document the reality of life here, and sometimes it's not easy, but I hope that my work also shows that there is more to Mexico than the pictures we see each night on the TV news.

Technical

Rodrigo Cruz's equipment:

Cameras:
EOS 5D
EOS 5D Mark II

Lenses:
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF135mm f/2L USM

Accessories:
Speedlite 580EX II
Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2
EF2x II Extender
Lowepro camera bags
SanDisk and Lexar memory cards
Apple laptop
Lacie Rugged mobile hard drive

Biography: Rodrigo Cruz

Rodrigo Cruz

Rodrigo Cruz is a freelance photographer with a particular interest in abuses of human rights, especially against women and children in his native Mexico. His work has been published by the likes of National Geographic and The Washington Post, and by NGOs such as Amnesty International. He was shortlisted for the 2010 Anthropographia Award for Photography and Human Rights; received an honorary mention in the photo contest ‘Global World: through the lens of human rights’; and was selected last year to participate in PHotoEspaña’s Descubrimientos in Guatemala City.



Showcase

From 'Dance of Mice' series.