My View

Focusing on the Human Spirit Along the Border

Texas photographer Monica Lozano seeks to humanize the struggle of individuals along a divide, especially on the Juarez-El Paso border.

Monica Lozano is a photographer from El Paso, Texas.
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Monica Lozano
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Monica Lozano
Nov. 15, 2013, 6:11 a.m.

Mon­ica Loz­ano, 33, bon­ded with pho­to­graphy at age 9, cap­tiv­ated by her pink Po­lar­oid. Now up­graded to mod­ern gear and hold­ing a mas­ter’s in pho­to­graphy, she fo­cuses on ways to bring the world closer to­geth­er by doc­u­ment­ing life on the bor­der — and bey­ond.

Her work is on ex­hib­it in New York, Bar­celona, Mex­ico City, and El Paso, Texas, where she now resides. She also re­cently dis­cussed her ef­forts to “hu­man­ize the struggle along the bor­der” at the Septem­ber TEDx El Paso event, “De­fy­ing Bor­ders.” (See her seg­ment at 8:10:56).

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

I was born in El Paso. but was just an in­fant when we re­turned to Ciudad Juarez. When I was 14, I star­ted high school in El Paso. I stud­ied at San Ant­o­nio Com­munity Col­lege but went back to Monter­rey to fin­ish col­lege, earn­ing my de­gree in visu­al arts. In re­tak­ing a pho­to­graphy class, I began to ex­per­i­ment in the streets of down­town Ciudad Juarez, and I found beauty where you might not think there is much.

I went to Min­neapol­is to live with my aunt and uncle and I got a job do­ing graph­ics for a TV sta­tion, and my boss let me use the sta­tion’s cam­era on week­ends. I real­ized I had the ideas and I could see what I wanted to take pho­tos of, but I didn’t have the tech­no­logy skills. My aunt and uncle op­er­ate the Car­penter Edu­ca­tion Fund and offered me a schol­ar­ship to study pho­to­graphy in Spain. There I presen­ted a pro­ject on bor­der por­traits that was in­spired by my earli­er work in Juarez and by a photo my mom sent me about a guy who hid him­self in a car seat to try to cross the bor­der.

For three months, I really came to be in front of this raw situ­ation of des­per­a­tion among people who cross bor­ders around the world. I gathered 18 stor­ies, and to my sur­prise it was something that has changed my life.

It was amaz­ing to see how bor­der is­sues are world­wide. That’s something I know about. The bor­der between El Paso and Juarez is ex­tremely ori­gin­al. We have our own cul­ture, we have our own lan­guage and form of sur­viv­al. We have to make it work.

Ori­gin­al­ity is in the minds of people who are des­per­ate to cross the bor­der. They’re will­ing to cre­ate and make any­thing hap­pen in or­der to cross. I wanted to speak out on this sub­ject, tak­ing out all the drama and in­stead con­cen­trat­ing on what people are will­ing to do un­der pres­sure.

I am def­in­itely at­trac­ted to telling these true stor­ies and tak­ing these so­cial por­traits, so I went back to Juarez in 2010, a vi­ol­ent year. After liv­ing away, I could see a type of numb­ness be­cause of the fear — I could sense it. I felt with pho­to­graphy I could do something to shake up the situ­ation, make some people wake up and bring a new con­ver­sa­tion to the table. I was like, “Let’s do something. We can’t stay like this.”

I got in­volved with the In­side Out pro­ject col­lab­or­a­tion [a glob­al art pro­ject that fly­posts por­traits]. We went in­to Juarez and pas­ted faces all around, por­traits of people smil­ing and laugh­ing, to bring back to life pub­lic spaces. [About 300 of the 800 from the Mex­ic­an side were hers.] I can say that it def­in­itely did shake up the city be­cause this happened in Septem­ber 2011 and right now the city has opened a lot. I can say maybe 60 per­cent or 70 per­cent more busi­nesses and shops have opened. And now down­town is be­ing re­modeled, many old build­ings are be­ing torn down and they’re re­build­ing a walk­ing park.

Some people in Juarez had the eco­nom­ic abil­ity to get to the U.S. through an in­vestor visa or many have dual cit­izen­ship, so they moved to El Paso. It was amaz­ing to see the con­trast. El Paso was ranked as one of the safest cit­ies and Juarez was one of the most vi­ol­ent. It was really crazy. So many people went to El Paso to pro­tect them­selves from the situ­ation. I did speak to Amer­ic­ans who live in El Paso who say, “We really would like to help in a way — we are con­scious of the situ­ation but don’t know what to do.” This is one of the reas­ons we did the col­lab­or­a­tion, pro­posed by Ann Horak, dir­ect­or of re­li­gious stud­ies at the Uni­versity of Texas at El Paso, be­cause we mixed pic­tures on the re­bar in­stall­a­tion of people from El Paso and Juarez who wanted to unite. In­side of the city, some of the pho­tos re­main, and most people do re­mem­ber.

What happened along the Mex­ic­an-U.S. bor­der was that a lot of people were really touched. Oth­er In­side Out lead­ers were in­spired by this ac­tion, spe­cially the lead­ers from Athens, Greece. They’d say, “Smil­ing? In El Paso, in Juarez? Really?” They were really sur­prised and ex­cited about tran­scend­ing bor­ders. Lead­ers from Athens then pro­posed a big­ger col­lab­or­a­tion where we ex­changed pic­tures not only between neigh­bor coun­tries but between con­tin­ents. We called his ac­tion “Be the Change.”

I hope something con­tin­ues to hap­pen. I can say that the art scene along the bor­der has def­in­itely had a boost. A lot of in­ter­est­ing pro­pos­als are per­col­at­ing.

For me it is talk­ing about the oth­er side that ex­ists, through art. It is about hav­ing the whole pic­ture and ex­press­ing the whole story, not part of it, and the people be­hind the story. If that can bring about some peace, that’d be great. It goes to the roots of the hu­man be­ing and all these things they hold on to — the sur­viv­al of the hu­man spir­it, the res­ist­ance and fra­gi­le­ness of life — and how at the same time we’re all the same.

This pro­ject has been one of my biggest and most hum­bling learn­ing ex­per­i­ences of my life. It star­ted with 30 pic­tures I took in down­town Juarez, and it ended as an art and so­cial move­ment. The com­munity em­braced it. It was al­most two years of vo­lun­teer work that taught me so much, spe­cially how to keep a team mo­tiv­ated and united in such ad­verse situ­ations. This shapes my fu­ture in many ways, un­der­stand­ing that I am not an act­iv­ist but an artist. My work does talk about so­cial is­sues, and it ex­presses what I see and feel. I am in­ter­ested in talk­ing about these stor­ies of people that res­ist and ex­plor­ing the dif­fer­ent ways they have to hold on in or­der to sur­vive. I want to do more work, pos­sibly film pho­to­graphy in the fu­ture.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICA

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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