Stark Images Capture Realities of Mexico City’s Forgotten Masses
If you come looking for “The New Outcasts / Los Nuevos Olvidados,” an exhibition of black-and-white-photographs at the Alliance Française in Washington, you’ll stumble across all kinds of ironies.
This isn’t a bad thing, by any means. The display—which seems to be equal parts visual art and literature—is one of those experiences that ignites ideas about juxtaposition, location, subject matter and the moment.
The 25 photos—stark, documentary, yet also artful—capture the lives of ordinary people living in Mexico City with whom one comes in contact on a daily basis.
The images project a certain empathy—a look-at-these-less-fortunate-people reproach that never fails to be hurtful and jarring when confronted in the relative comfort of safe places, such as museums, libraries, or in coffee-table books inside your home. It’s the experience of powerful images, usually of suffering and poverty visualized between the frames and often made harrowingly personal.
This isn’t meant as a smug criticism of the work, but rather as a comment on the inadequacies of experiencing such potent depictions, which may also spark viewers’ imaginations as they try to guess what life is like outside the frame for these essentially nameless people in the days and months after their pictures have been taken.
That’s the originality of photographer Octavio Kano Galván, and, for want of a more complicated word, writer Sonia Feigenbaum Karsenti, who wrote the accompanying text for the photos (and is of French origin—hence the connection to the French-based Alliance Française center).
The display attempts to be something more than a photo exhibition (although the photos are for sale). Rather, it’s a quasi-literary photographic show, in which images and words hang in a kind of tense, precarious balance. That some of the photographs bear no captions or words probably suggests that in some cases, a picture really is worth 1,000 words.
The images are compelling, but not shocking, capturing individual people (and one spectacularly individual rooster) in the course of their daily lives in Mexico City, barely surviving in an environment that seems full of crowded energy. This isn’t a documentary exposé meant to induce outrage or pity. It’s a chronicle, with poetic commentary, of grinding routine that robs people of hope.
In Spanish, the exhibit’s title pointedly references Luis Buñuel’s famous 1950 film “Los Olvidados,” or “The Forgotten Ones,” about a group of juvenile delinquents in the festering slums of Mexico City. Likewise, the portraits of these new “outcasts” document the streets of contemporary Mexico City and lives lived on the margin, with no room for schools, employment, dreams or upward mobility.
The contradiction in the photographs is that far from showing a kind of soul-deadening poverty, they depict highly individual people and scenes. What happens in the images may happen every day, but the people hawking merchandise or providing ordinary services are all unique.
And the accompanying descriptions add another level, a sort of back story, to the personalities. We’re told that the face peering at us as he washes the car window is a child who is not at school, and probably never will be. We read about Dona Lupita waiting to sell food that she attentively made at the Xochimilco market. We’re informed that these streets, alleys and markets are not the places and neighborhoods seen on Telemundo shows.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should look at the photos as a kind of archeological exercise, as if we were looking at scenes from an indigenous rain forest village. Although Karsenti has enough empathy and imagination in her descriptions, along with a decided touch of poetry, there is something about this collaboration that seems a bit much. She was obviously there when the pictures were taken, and she provides us with a wealth of details, but the photographs themselves invite you to go further. The words are skilled and beautiful, but sometimes they have the effect of trying to do the job for you—not giving you enough credit for being able to see and understand the images for yourself.
On the other hand, I would like to see a short story or even a novel about these people and places—the Chapultepec metro station, the shoe shiners at Zona Rosa, the people who made the religious carvings at Villa de Guadalupe—from Karsenti, who is actually a cello player turned novelist.
For his part, Mexican photographer Kano Galván appears to have been fortunate to have escaped the fate of his subjects, being able to attend children’s art school in Mexico City. His lens overflows with respect and love, as well as astonishing detail. The images are hard to forget precisely because they don’t pitch drama, but rather capture a moment in the lives of those who came before him and those who will come after.
As for the rooster, his name is Jacinto and he looks fighting-proud and confident in the forefront of Kano Galván’s photograph. Karsenti first saw him at six in the morning among the poultry crates in Xochimilco. It’s a nice little story she gives him, but—as it always has for roosters and chickens in the world’s marketplaces—it ends badly for Jacinto.
The New Outcasts / Los Nuevos Olvidados through Feb. 26 Alliance Française de Washington French Language and Cultural Center 2142 Wyoming Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 234-7911 or visit www.francedc.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.