Friday, June 26, 2020

A Poor Start - Christmas in Mexico (part 1)

I am going to tell you the end of a story that you have never heard. Sometimes, you don't need to know the story to understand the ending. It's Humpty Dumpty's alternate ending.

We all wear masks. We play different roles in our lives. Some roles you are born into and stay with you until you die...brother, sister, father. Some, you need to play...a working man, a father not a daddy. And some roles you choose to play...a volunteer at an animal shelter, an addict, a hooker, a photographer. I have been told that with family there aren't any masks...there shouldn't be. This is not true. You don't want your sister knowing the last person you slept with or your mother knowing about last Friday night when you overdid it at the bar. Who wants family to know you threw up all over yourself behind a trash can full of beer bottles. We wear masks even around our family...and rightfully so. The only time a person ever really takes off the masks is when they are alone...in their underwear on the couch, smoking a cigarette with a favorite song blasting on the computer...alone at night in the dark staring at the ceiling...thinking about all the masks they just took off. That time is there for a reason. Because if you don't take off your masks often enough, sooner or later one of them might just get stuck to your face.

Vacation...travel...alone...this is the time to gather yourself. Some take the time alone...others may take it with family...but when you are alone you get to take off your mask...and stop playing a role. My Christmas in Mexico was my time. Two days with my camera and hundreds of miles of country side and towns to meet people and take whatever pictures I wanted.

Being a photographer is a very interesting thing. Alone with your camera you go within...you are still...you see the world exactly as you need to see it...not how you want to see it. I think most photographers would agree that when they are in that space alone with their camera...if anyone else were there....it would border on narcissistic. Thank god for alone time with my camera.

The road to Mexico is paved with hamburgers, Coke, and cigarettes. Apropos for Mexico where people go to do what people do in Mexico. To be fair I'm referring to the tourists who visit the border towns...the run down, bad smelling versions of Vegas without the gambling. It's easy to get there...1.5 hours south and the border is wide open. They don't care what shit you bring in...they just don't want you take anything out...at least not without paying the tax.

I had no map and it was that way for a reason. I entered Mexico and thought...I'll go wherever the road takes me...I don't need to know where I'm going...I'll just go. I passed right through Tiujuana because I thought...Hmppf, that's where people go to do what they do in Mexico. I had a grander idea...I would drive down Hwy 1..the scenic route...and just keep driving until I found something interesting. The green sign said...Ens nada 100km. So there is was...choice made by the first green sign I came too...Christmas in Ensenada.

I always got the impression that Ensenada was a cool tourist place where the cruise ships docked and the people played and shopped in town. The minute I drove through it I realized it was the same as Tiajuana...a dumpy town with a thousand pharmacies and ten thousand taco stands. This was no place to play or shop.

I was excited with my camera in hand driving around on Christmas eve. I started to get into that space with my camera...the whole town was mine. I knew no Spanish but I was on the prowl for authentic people....Christmas gatherings...fireworks lit by little children in the streets. The more I drove around looking the more I began to feel strong, and in control...this town was mine.

The liquor store was red, white, and blue. I drove by and saw a group of middle aged men with cowboy hats drinking beer and standing around their shiny cars and trucks that cost more than their houses on mud roads two miles away. There was one man among the crowd that I really wanted a picture of. His face looked different to me and the way he stood...I don't know...I just had to have it. I pulled over and got out of my van...a large white man in an overcoat, flat cap, carrying a camera on Christmas eve. I walked up and barged into their circle with my usual overconfidence in these types of situations. The man looked at me and said, “Habla, Espanol?” Of course I did not. In broken English he said, “So, you're here on Christmas eve. This is your town huh? The town is yours?” I looked at him and smiled, “No, I just got here...the town isn't mine.” yet. The man looked at me and I smiled a fake smile and said as nicely as I could, “Can I take your picture?” He looked both flattered and hesitant at the same time. After a few moments of thought he stood up straighter, adjusted his hat, and smiled. I took his picture. It was the first one of the night. I wanted more picture. I wanted pictures of people with their families...I wanted pictures of private moments...pictures of people in the streets...pictures of everything. And I was going to get them.

So locked into taking “good” pictures was I, that I drove into the poorest neighborhood that I could find where the streets were all dirt and many families were celebrating around fires lit in the streets. Here were people living their lives...having their moments...and all I could think about was taking their pictures. Some may say that this is good photography. It may be good, but a great photographer leaves the camera in the car and actually lives life with the people.

I came upon a family standing around a fire in what looked like an addition to their home that never got built. Up I walked and with only an “Hola.” pulled my camera out and tried to tell them that I wanted to take their picture. They didn't understand English so a small round of broken English and hand gesturing took place. The point was roughly conveyed. They all seemed excited but I could tell that a couple of the kids were embarrassed. Before I could take any pictures, an old man walked out from the house and another round of broken English took place to get across to him that I wanted to take their picture on Christmas eve around the campfire....a family having a moment...a semiprivate party beneath the cinder blocks. As the man of the house, he agreed and let me take his picture alone. Then he let me take a couple pictures of his kids. They were all laughing and seemed to be having a pleasant time but a couple girls in the back seemed uncomfortable. I knew that I had stepped into their family totally unexpectedly but I wanted that great picture, so stepped into I did. I was only there for a several minutes but before I left there was a little boy standing off to one side wearing an oversized cowboy hat. His sister said, “Take his picture...take it...he likes it.” I stepped off to one side and the little boy straightened his large hat and stood up straight and did his best John Wayne for me. As I took the picture I thought he looked more like the lone ranger without his mask. And I took the picture because I knew the little boy liked it.

I ran off to my car with my camera in full pursuit of the next tender moment. Where could I go next to find what I wanted. My drive was chaotic over the bumpy mud roads. Kids were in the streets lighting fireworks, families gathered around fires, and they stood close to each other like families do. And all I could think about was taking pictures...where was my next great picture? Not who are these people, how I can I connect with them in some meaningful way...but...I want more pictures. Sometimes I get into that selfish camera in your face mode...and that is when I wish someone were there to slap me out of it.

There was a hill...the highest dirt hill in the neighborhood and I thought...that looks different up there...lets see what I can find. My van took a beating to get up the hill. The lowest gears were almost not enough...but I got there and standing at the top...outside around a fire with a huge boom box playing...were a group of teenage boys drinking and dancing. When I got there with my camera they danced a little harder, and took extra big gulps of tequila punch from an oversized plastic Coke bottle. The camera can do funny things to people. I approached the boys and they all seemed cool with me being there. Having had a camera stolen by teenage boys in a strange neighborhood before, I didn't intend on staying very long...long enough to get what I wanted...more pictures. They stood there with their friends...having a moment...they stood there having that moment with slightly awkward smiles and increased machismo for all. My camera took away the moment and stuffed it away for me to look at later when I had taken all the pictures I needed. The boys offered me some watered down tequila punch. I drank from the paper cup but I didn't want to drink too much. Let them do the drinking. I let them celebrate their private moments while I watched.

Some photographers go for a long time like this. It's a sort of guerrilla photography...hit and run..say what you need to in order to get your perfect picture...and leave...only to come back to place after place searching for that picture with a dry smile and a permanent outsiders point of view. For myself, I can chalk it up to beginners photography 101 and realize quite quickly on these sorts of nights that this is no way to take pictures. I spent the following hour lost among the mud roads. I had reached a breaking point that evening where I realized what was going on and decided to do what I usually do when my enthusiasm gets the better of me...remove myself from the people and go away to shoot other things.

In my wandering around the mud roads I came to a small paved road with some newer small houses that overlooked the entire city. Sky rockets were screaming through the air and firecrackers thrown by little boys with their fathers were banging loudly in the dark. I took my camera to see if there was a good shot of the whole city. I have just never been able to enjoy artificial lights. I don't like them in pictures at all. I always prefer the natural moonlight or sunlight. As I walked away from the artificial lights I saw a stray dog under an orange streetlight. He wandered around my car for a while but he had obviously been abused so he stayed at a distance. I whistled to him and called him over but every time he would walk near to me...his common sense...he experience called him back to the street behind my car. I wanted to take his picture but he wouldn't get close enough for very long before he would run again. Maybe he wanted a private Christmas eve to himself. Or maybe he was lonely and wanted some attention.
 
 


The Man of the House
The Dogs View
 

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