Cartagena captures…the destruction…the phenomenon of densely packed housing

Alejandro Cartagena photographs the particularities of the suburbs of Monterrey, Mexico, which are relatively new and often hastily built, reflecting a general disregard for planning. Over the years, various governmental policies resulted in new, decentralized cities with limited infrastructures where the pursuit of immediate financial gain trumped any interest in sustainability. Cartagena captures both the destruction that rapid urbanization has imposed on the landscape and the phenomenon of densely packed housing. Only the landscape itself appears capable of limiting their proliferation, the mountains and rivers the only forces able to contain their sprawl. His new work Car Poolers is a succinct and witty typology highlighting the Mexican laborers aiding the country’s rapid development.

Kate Levy: Suburbia Mexicana discusses the modern human’s relationship with the landscape. Can you talk a bit about your own experience of home, and how this translates in your work?

Alejandro Cartagena: My home experience was a broken one as a teenager. Moving from the Dominican Republic to Mexico in 1990 was a major issue that made me more aware of familial and cultural constructs that defined me. I lived in a suburb in DR and was very much in a bubble. In Monterrey, I became mindful of this and it made me feel somewhat cheated of the city life I was now experiencing. I guess that clash of city and suburban living shows up all over my work, and it is a driving force for me to comprehend both lifestyles.

KL: The new series of work, Car Poolers, involves portraits of people riding in the back of pickup trucks amongst tools, hardware, and building materials, in transport to jobs where the individuals are employed constructing suburban developments. Can you talk about the physical process of making the photographs for Car Poolers, and your relationship to the subjects of these portraits?

AC: The images are shot from a high overpass about ten meters above the cars, on one of the busiest highways in Monterrey. The cars are going about 40 miles per hour, and I am trying to spot them in the distance so I can shoot once they are underneath the bridge. When I am lucky, traffic makes them slow down, making it easier to catch them. Because of recent events in state penitentiaries (44 killed, 30 escapes), cops are monitoring me because of my “unusual” behavior of taking pictures of cars. Yesterday I had three state police cars surround me and just stare for a few minutes. It actually makes it very uncomfortable to shoot.

KL: Suburbia Mexicana encompasses wide landscapes, evoking both the Hudson River School and the New Topographics movement, as well as tight portraits that are neither ironic nor sympathetic. How has your use of landscapes and portraits evolved into your Car Poolers series, which seems to adhere to a very specific formula of studies combining both approaches?

AC: I’ve always been interested in both landscape and portraiture and how they relate to each other. In Car Poolers, I am still looking for this relationship and more specifically how the overgrowth of cities impacts these workers’ lives. I tried to capture this situation from a vantage point that not only represents the literal issue of carpooling by construction workers but also gives a hidden view of this both intimate and public action. I wasn’t thinking of doing a closed “formula,” but I feel it is the best way to represent the idea.

KL: In Car Poolers, you have chosen to flatten the frame by taking an aerial view; it’s as if the people in your portraits who are along for the ride are elements in the cartography of a very complex, interwoven social history. The compositions are, in a sense, landscapes of time representing both short and long periods: on the one hand, the time it takes for one to travel out of the city, and on the other, time as symbolic of the larger process of suburban development. As we have learned in Suburbia Mexicana, many of the sites to which the subjects of your portraits travel will be left unfinished, as financial uncertainties often force developers to abandon these projects. Can you elaborate on this, and discuss how the element of transportation functions in this work?

AC: I don’t know if there is a specific answer to this question or the issues you point out. I think many photographers address the same issues or questions you ask [about], myself included. I feel content to have found a way to portray one of the consequences of suburban sprawl in such a particular way. There is an inevitable relationship between the suburbs and the construction of transit systems for the rich and poor. These images tend to somehow pinpoint a way of life that is difficult and risky, but with very few chances for change. But then again, what would change or progress be for them? Buy an old car? Contribute to the already horrible traffic problem? So again, like what I saw happen in the process of doing Suburbia Mexicana, there is no complete wrong or right; it’s more of a perspective.

Regarding the issues of the new suburbs being left in midconstruction, the Monterrey metro area has started its inevitable implosion. There are more than 100,000 finished and unfinished houses accounted for since 2011 that are being abandoned and eventually vandalized. Rather than financial issues, the causes seem to lean more toward people moving away from the insecurity of the Mexican suburbs and the drug war. The construction boom is still going strong, even though the houses are not sold in the end. The Mexican Housing Day in London and New York seems to be a clear stand on the money to be made in suburban development in Mexico today.

There are more than 100,000 finished and unfinished houses accounted for since 2011 that are being abandoned and eventually vandalized
carpooling by these workers…is about their working conditions, the city’s lack of proper public transit systems

KL: You seem to work in chapters, where each body of work is composed of many segments. Do you see Car Poolers evolving into a longer opus?

AC: I’ve been thinking of it but I haven’t really found a way to do it. For this project I am interested in producing something different. I do like the idea of being able to produce work with a closed or unilateral point of view when it can successfully suggest many of the subject matter’s issues. For me, carpooling by these workers is more than just people looking strange lying or sitting in the backs of trucks; amongst other things, it is about their working conditions, the city’s lack of proper public transit systems, suburban sprawl, and the risks taken in order to keep their jobs. I really feel that all of this is suggested in the way I am portraying them.

I want to find ways to deconstruct and deepen the way we look at these new landscapes in Mexican cities

KL: You home in on so many intricacies of complex social conditions and relationships between humans and nature, and you are very adept in exploring these complexities. Can you discuss any phenomena you feel you have not been able to capture photographically to your satisfaction?

AC: There are issues that have been on my mind that I have yet to resolve photographically. Some have to do with the drug war in suburbia, the psychological costs of living in the suburbs. I want to find ways to deconstruct and deepen the way we look at these new landscapes in Mexican cities and their effects. Right now I’m working on another idea that deals with unaltered landscapes, spaces that are maintained and resist “progress” because of a community’s commitment to owning their city and taking responsibility for what is done to it. It’s been hard to represent something that is not visible, like human resistance, without it being a news report.

It’s been hard to represent something that is not visible, like human resistance, without it being a news report

KL: Your work discusses some highly pertinent political issues — rapid suburban growth, sustainability, globalization, workers’ rights. What steps, if any, are you taking to position your work in a more active role, addressing those outside of the immediate photography community?

AC: I don’t have an exact plan for that, but I do try to introduce my work to other circles through contacting magazines or blogs that deal with urban issues. I have had the chance to lecture at several architecture and urban planning programs and have published with a number of research institutes. For me, creating images of these subjects in this context is more than enough, at least for right now.

KL: Which Latin American photographers’ work presently interests you?

AC: There are many, but I really like the work done by Pablo Lopez Luz, Yvonne Venegas, Claudia Hans, Alejandra Laviada, Roberto Tondopó, Melba Arellano, José Luis Cuevas, Mauricio Palos, Eunice Adorno, Alejandro Lipszyc, Pablo Martinez, José Castrellón, and Mauricio Alejo, to name a few. I think it is a great moment for photography in Latin America. Photographers are rethinking how to step out of the clichéd representations of our culture.

KL: hat have you been working on since the Car Poolers series?

AC: Several projects. Right now, I just finished a first edit of a work called “Born in the USA” in which I am portraying a common practice along the US-Mexico border. For decades people living in Mexican border towns have been crossing the border illegally into the US to have their children born there. Out of all the interviews I’ve done with the people I’ve photographed, most see it as normal and as an opening of future opportunities for them even though all presently live in Mexico. I will photograph at least one more border city this year.

Alejandro Cartagena

Alejandro Cartagena (b. 1977, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban, and environmental issues. Cartagena’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of several museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Portland Museum of Art. Cartagena has received the Photolucida Critical Mass Book Award, the Lente Latino Award in Chile, and the Premio IILA-FotoGrafia 2012 Award in Rome. He has been named a FOAM magazine TALENT and one of PDN 30 emerging photographers in 2010. He has also been a finalist for the Aperture Portfolio Award and has been nominated for the Santa Fe Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet Prize, the Photoespaña Descubrimientos Award, and the FOAM Paul Huff Award. His work has been published internationally in magazines such as Newsweek, Nowness, Domus, the Financial Times, Le Monde, Stern, PDN, the New Yorker, and Wallpaper, among others.

Kate Levy

Kate Levy is a Brooklyn-based photographer with an MFA from ICP-Bard. She recently co-organized the symposium “Memories Can’t Wait,” on alternative documentary strategies at the International Center for Photography.