Mexico City’s heart is in the barrio

Alex Coghe is a photographer, journalist and writer based in Mexico City. He is the publisher of the e-magazine The Street Photographer Notebook, a project he begin in 2015, showcasing an eclectic number of street photographers from around the world. He is the founder of the Italian street collective la.strada and also leads workshops and expeditions. He also has produced a number of books, featuring work from several artists and has recently launched, VOX PHOTO, a collective for freelance photojournalists. His latest project is La Strada, which may be purchased here.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the Sept. 19 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, killing more than 350 people.  While Alex made it through the earthquake without injury or property damage, the disaster still took its toll. He spent several days documenting the devastation, including one of the hardest hit areas where he watched as workers pulled bodies from the rubble. Afterwards he said he returned home and had an emotional breakdown.)

Mike Lee: Tell us about your background, how you came to photography, and your early influences. In early influences, were you familiar with the work of Giacomelli, Gardin or of the group of Neapolitan and Roman photojournalists of the 1950s and 1960s? If they were in an influence, discuss what appealed to you, and why they are important to the history of street and social documentary photography.

Alex Cloghe: I am first a writer. Writing is the most important influence on me for my vision and approach as a photographer. Secondly, I have through the photographers from the golden era of Italian photojournalism, a great impulse to know what the path I should take. This explains my long faithful past as a black and white photographer. I’m inspired by Neorealism and Scianna, Berengo Gardin, but also Mario Dondero and, of course, Henri Cartier Bresson. But if I mention Bresson, I must not forget André Kertész. I have been always focused on photography with a documentary value .While this tells me not that much of this work emphasize aesthetics or technical choices. For me, photography is always a question of balance between form and content. If then you ask me who I consider important for my photography, I would say Ferdinando Scianna, and also David Alan Harvey. Harvey is a master, and I feel him close because of his attitude, his approach to photography and life. And he loves Oaxaca, so…

ML: Tell us about your history as a writer, and how it influences your photography.

AC: Well, we should include first of all my experience as a reader, because the background of any writer is to read. I think the influence of literature for a photographer acts on different levels and inevitably includes what generates the aesthetic we try to approach.

I am an avid reader of everything. I read the classics, Russian literature, but the North Americans are my greatest influence: Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, and then Barry Gifford, Tom Robbins, Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski.

As a visual journalist words and photos nourish one another. I consider Hunter S. Thompson and his gonzo journalism as inspirations as I pursue my career path.

ML: What brought you to Mexico City?

AC: Love, man. For this reason, I decided to move to Mexico and marry the woman I love.

ML: What are you looking for in this series?

AC: My barrio project is not something I am just documenting as other themes. This is because I’ve been here for almost eight years. This is not about “going to make photos,” it is more about life–my life, because man, I live in a barrio. Yes, I know, many photographers coming here go to stay in Condesa, or in Polanco or other nice places, but I am living in a neighborhood in the north side of the city.

And this is on the border with the state of Mexico, the current dangerous EDOMEX, so you know…it is not pussy stuff.

What I want to show with this project? An honest and sincere portrait of the barrios in Mexico, avoiding rhetoric, not hiding the violence issue, but also saying with pride that living in a barrio can also be a nice experience.

ML: What attracts your mind (vision) in the course of the journey through the barrios?

AC: Exactly what I said before: the fact I am showing something I have a real experience of this, and not something I make for two or three hours, and then I take back home–because my home is the barrio.

ML: Are you looking for story, or visual impact?

AC: Photography is an infinite marriage between form and content. With that said, I am not interested at all in those photographs aiming totally to aesthetics. The visual impact is the focus of many photographers today, but a photograph without content has a short life.

ML: Which do you place an emphasis on?

AC: I am interested in a story, because I am sincerely interested in the subjects. I don’t love photographs perceived as jokes. I think photography is more important than a smile or a laugh.

ML: What is the social message you are trying to convey through your work?

AC: Here we have a saying: “Because when you live in the barrio, you belong to barrio forever.” I believe in this because you need to have an attitude to be part of a barrio, some skills, because you have to know some rules to live here.

My social documentary project is focused on life, I do not want to spectacle things that are not working fine, I don’t want to propose the cycle of violence, because this could get me easily more popular as a photographer, but it would be not correct for the kaleidoscope of what is really a barrio. Man, just 2 months ago, here we heard clearly a series of shots at night, a young man has been killed, another seriously injured.
I could document the day after. There was still the blood there…but this is not the message, this is not the goal with my project. There are other ways to report things and facts. And sometimes in being subtle you can still reach your goal.

ML: What do you think of Alex Webb’s work in Mexico, and other non-Mexican photographers who have done work in this country?

AC: Mexico has been portrayed by many great photographers. To the point I consider Mexico City a relevant city for the history of photography: What about the prostitutes of Bresson, man? Yes, HCB has been here, then Helen Levitt.

Alex Webb realized an interesting work, considered seminal by many on the frontiers with US. But Mexico is not a single place–how it could be? We talk about a huge country, 32 states plus Mexico City.

You can’t think to represent the entire country with just one part, of course. Oaxaca, only the state of Oaxaca, do you know you need to drive 7-8 hours from the capital to Oaxaca de Juarez?

Let me say a thing: to realize a great work here is not easy at all. It could appear easy, but is not. Also limiting yourself on downtown is very risky for a person coming just some days here, to obtain just clichés, and nothing more than this. And this is happening a lot of times. I have seen this also with experienced photographers. And we are talking just about the Downtown in most of the cases!

I think David Alan Harvey and Mary Ellen Mark realized a stunning work in Mexico, but we are talking about photographers that were able to dive really deep into the culture. You have live it, not just be an observer.

ML: What is your view of the barrio and its people, in the context of the modern Mexico City?

AC: The real Mexico is in the barrios. What you see in Downtown is still Mexico City, but is not the real Mexico. The people, the way of living, the food…Mexico City has its heart on the barrio.

ML: What do you see as the future of the barrios?

AC:  We have seen politics totally impact the life of people. In particular, in the barrio the security and the issue of violence reflect this. In eight years I can say that, depending who is the governor, this can change a lot.

There was a time where Mexico City was cleaner, quieter and more secure and now we have the worst traffic of the world, with a lot of pollution, and also security is getting bad.

Barrios are totally influenced by decisions of the politicians. When I see a new public outdoor gym, when I see works aimed at improving the lives of those who live in the barrios, I am happy. Because any playground or a skateboard track will leave people out of drugs and other bad things, for sure more than cutting green spaces to open a new commercial center.

Politics should focus their attention on the barrios, by electing people coming from the same barrio because they know what is and where is the problem to solve. Active politics for young generations can be definitively the real and best answer.

All images © Alex Coghe. You can see more of his work on his website.

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