Q&A: Carlos Alvarez Montero, New York

Carlos Alvarez Montero was born and raised in Mexico City and now lives and works in New York and Mexico City. His work focuses on the relationship between appearance and the creation of identity. He believes that you must judge a book by its cover since it’s there that you can find hints of what’s in the mind of a person. His work has been published in Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Fader, Vice, Picnic Magazine, and Neo2. He currently attends the School of Visual Arts Photography, Video and Related Media MFA program.

This series, M (of Michoacan), and a lot of your work in general, deals with street life and counterculture. How did you become fascinated with this subject matter and how do you go about gaining the degree of access and trust you need to complete these projects?
‘My fascination with the street culture comes from music. Almost all of my projects are music driven. I love music and I’m always looking for new sounds, I’m very attracted to music that comes from the streets and the folklore around them, from Hip Hop to Cumbia. If there are places that use music as their voice, I’m interested in this places and their people. About the access and trust, I usually do some research on where I can find the subjects I’m interested in, then I just go there and I start talking to people. I’m as honest as I can be and let them know why I’m interested in them. Respect is a very important ingredient. If they know you respect what they do, then they know they can trust you. People can sense if you can be trusted or not. I always make myself clear that what I want is for them to tell me their story, that I’m not coming with a preconceived idea. When it’s possible, I always give them prints of their photos.

You also shot video for this project. Is it your intention to make a documentary of this work?
‘Yes. The first time I met Jimmy ‘El Pinto’ Lopez (the guy in the wheelchair), and talked to him, I was amazed by his personality and history. At the end of our talk, I realized I wanted to make a documentary about Jacona, the small town in Michoacan, Mexico, where he lives, and I wanted him to be the main character. I asked him if he was interested and he agreed. As soon as I arrived in Mexico City, I contact my friend Pedro Jiménez Gurria and asked him to co-direct it with me. We have been working on it for three years now. Every time we go to shoot, I keep doing photographs’.

Were you familiar with all of the people and settings that you wanted to shoot for this series or did you discover some of them by accident?
‘I was asked for a magazine to make a story about these guy that went to the US to work as illegal aliens, and while there, they turn into gang members. Then they go back to their hometowns and take the gang culture with them. I knew about some guys in Mexico City, but I didn’t have the contact. Talking with a friend that lived near this small town, he told me he saw a lot of cholos (a word that references Mexican-Americans who belong to street gangs) in a town near his. So I went for a weekend and started looking for them, I finally found them on a street and I approached them. They were really friendly. As we were talking and I started to take pictures, more and more of them arrived and wanted their picture taken. I was there for a couple of hours. Before I left, I brought them some beers and told them I had to leave but that I was going to be back in a couple of days. They said “yes”. After that, it became like visiting old friends’.

Your photographs of gang members seem very serious and quiet. What was the intention behind photographing your subjects in this way?
‘The idea is to be able to read all the symbols and codes that create their appearance: from the clothing, tattoos, body language, to the background. I try to approach them in an anthropological way, taking a distance that will let you see with detail what they have chosen to build their identity around’.

Can you talk a little about photographing the young girl in the hat?
‘While we were shooting for the documentary, we decided to go to a new neighborhood to talk to the members of a gang that is mainly composed of young kids. When we arrived there, I saw this beautiful mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the front of a house. Inside the house was this family: the mother, the grandmother, a young girl, and a couple of kids. I asked them if I could take a picture of them in front of the mural, and after a while, they said yes. But they asked me to wait for them to get ready. After 30 minutes of waiting, this girl comes and says she is ready. I didn’t know who she was. I was a little confused but I wasn’t going to let go of the opportunity of photographing her. When I was about to take the first frame, I realized it was the same girl that was part of the family. She had transformed from the granddaughter/daughter/sister into this strong young woman that represented everything I was looking for: the importation of lifestyle and how they adapted it to their circumstances and made it their own. The construction of an identity’.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get some visual inspiration into your day!