A young girl walks by a caravan of police vehicles during a security sweep looking for criminals and drug dealers. Law enforcement officials along the border say that increased border security has resulted in more drugs staying in Mexico, which has elevated crime and created a variety of social problems. The consequences of this conflict are felt, and exhibited, throughout the daily lives of many communities in Mexico.
Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit documents the social costs and consequences of Mexico’s violent drug war. We recently talked to Detroit-born, Haiti-based photographer David Rochkind about his experience photographing a conflict that he says is increasingly “melting two worlds together, making a singular Mexico defined as much by violence and tension as by history and culture.”
How long did you work on this project? Did you live in Mexico the entire time you were working on this series?
“I started the project in 2007 with a trip to Nogales, Sonora. At the time I was living in Caracas, Venezuela and didn’t know the exact shape that the project would take. In 2009 I decided to move to Mexico City to be able to work on the project more consistently and with more depth. The last images I shot for this were in 2011.”
This stretch of the border divides Nogales, Arizona at left and Nogales, Sonora at right. There has been little violent spillover into the US, though recently US citizens have been killed with more frequency in Mexico. In March of 2010, two US Consulate workers were gunned down in Ciudad Juarez.
It looks like you had an incredible level of access. Can you talk about how you came across most of your shots/subjects?
“Every situation required a different approach, but the most important thing is just to be kind to people. You have to make sure that the people you are working with understand that they are not simply props in a tableau that you are creating; that you are not only interested in them to the extent that they can help you make an interesting picture. I found that people are usually open if you are honest with them and are truly interested in the story they have to tell.”
Members of a Norteño band sit in their tour bus after giving a show in Mexico City. Many Norteño groups sing corridos, or ballads, that tell a story. Some of these are narco-corridos, ballads that tell the stories of famous drug dealers. There has been a wave of killings of musicians that sing narco-corridos.
Followers of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, attend a mass that takes place on the first day of every month. Many drug dealers and criminals follow Santa Muerte, as it is believed that she looks after those that the Catholic Church rejects. Saint Death is one part of a broad Narco Culture that is emerging in Mexico.
You started this project in 2008. How do you think the situation in Mexico (in the cities where you were photographing) has changed since then?
“In the years that I was working on this and living in Mexico I did see the situation change. On my first trip to Nogales, for example, people were just barely starting to talk about the violence and its effect on the community. But over the years, in the north and beyond, the violence and the number of deaths grew. It became a constant presence on the TV and in the newspapers and peoples lives were altered by it.”
Members of the Mexican army burn a field of Marijuana in the state of Sinaloa. Mexico was once primarily a transit route for drugs to the United States, but the country is increasingly becoming a producer of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetimines.
I imagine that you put yourself in some pretty compromising situations in order to make these photographs. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to make these images without being harmed?
“You always have to determine what level of risk you are willing to take. I think the most important thing is to understand that you are working in a potentially dangerous situation and you are not immune to that. It is important to do research before you go so you can understand what the potential dangers are and how to minimize them. I almost always worked with local contacts and journalists who better understood the situation on the ground and could help me navigate it. And if something ever felt too dangerous, even if I couldn’t say exactly why, I would leave. It is important to trust your instincts.”
Drug use and drug addiction has risen over the past 5 years, bringing with it a variety of social problems that the country will be dealing with long after the violence ends. As security on the border tightened more drugs remained in Mexico allowing the cartels to create a homegrown market. In addition, small time dealers have been increasingly paid with product instead of money. Here, a woman shoots heroin in front of her lover and a baby they are supposed to be caring for.
A pregnant 14 year old girl was shot in Ciudad Juarez. Her father and 2 siblings have also been killed, leaving behind a grieving family trying to make sense of their new reality.
What were some of the more memorable moments you experienced while making this work?
“I was especially struck by some of the personal stories of loss that I heard. If you spend enough time covering the conflict in Mexico you are bound to witness truly heartbreaking things—children killed at a birthday party by masked gunmen, a pregnant teenager shot and killed in the street, or a man killed while waiting in his car at a traffic light.
“So much horror was happening and, in some cases, perhaps by necessity, it seemed like the violence became a seamless part of people’s lives. But amidst all of this, you still found warmth, generosity and beauty. I remember a group of migrants offering me food and water on top of a train as we all headed north. They knew that I was American, had an expensive camera and probably had a wad of cash in my pocket and could get off the train at any time, but they were still looking out for me and offering to share the little that they had.”
Central American migrants ride atop a freight train carrying cement as they head north in an attempt to enter the US. Traveling by train has become more dangerous as kidnappings and robberies have risen in recent years with increased drug cartel activity.
Your book, Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War, was released in 2012. How did you know when this work was complete and ready for publication?
“It is hard to know exactly when any work is complete. The issue doesn’t end and you never finish telling the story of every angle of the issue. But there does come a point when you have told the story you wanted to tell in a way that has a beginning and an end, and that really shows what you saw and felt.”
A man who has just been returned to Mexico after trying to illegally enter the US stands right across the border at a Mexican customs and immigration office in Nogales, Sonora.
As you are currently based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, do you find many similarities between the ongoing situation there and what you found in Mexico?
“The issues that people are dealing with on a daily basis really are quite different in Haiti. There is extreme poverty, public health disasters and a total lack of infrastructure. But I find that in many places there are several overarching themes that remain the same—corruption, lack of educational opportunity and lack of economic opportunity.”
A prostitute undresses in a short-term love motel in Nogales, Sonora, where she entertains both American and Mexican customers. The drug cartels have been increasingly diversifying their business into prostitution and human trafficking.
Two young men are arrested for burglary in Mexico City, Mexico. Violent crime throughout Mexico is rising. The intimidation and reach of the drug cartels affects witnesses, police and lawyers, many of whom are afraid to get involved with any type of criminal trial. Impunity throughout the country is spreading.
You mention that for people of Mexico the scars will linger on long after the violence subsides. In your opinion, what must be done/what will it take for the violence to subside?
“I really don’t know. It is a difficult question and not one that I set out to answer. It is important to deal with the issues of corruption, education and jobs, but I don’t know if that is enough or everything.”
via A Photo Editor