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.
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