Through a Lens Darkly

Through a lens darkly Juarez's street photographers capture the face of a horrific future--and the future is closer than you think

Editor's note: Charles Bowden first came across the work of the Juarez street photographers while reporting on a murder in El Paso three years ago. His research took him to the dirt streets of Juarez, where drug murders, gang killings, and the disappearances of dozens of young women who work for a few dollars a day in the maquiladoras add a horrifying dimension to the border town's already desperate poverty.

Here, Bowden, a Tucson, Arizona-based author of 14 books, got to know several of the street shooters who follow the city's cycle of murders, violence, and accidental deaths with the changing of the seasons: drug murders in November and December, when the "merchandise moves north and accounts are settled"; fires and gas explosions in January as the poor try to stay warm; then turf battles and disease outbreaks in spring among the colonias, or neighborhoods.

Working for Mexican dailies with rationed color film and their own camera equipment--which ranges from primitive to adequate, but always "one lens shy of a load," as Bowden puts it--the street shooters capture the real-life face of Juarez's explosive, NAFTA-fueled economic growth. In their photographic record, which makes up much of Bowden's upcoming book, Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, the author sees a startling vision of our own destiny. And that future, he says, "to me looks like a face of a murdered girl."

What follows is an excerpt from Bowden's book, which is scheduled for publication by the New York-based Aperture Foundation in February 1998.

Since portions of Bowden's book ran as an essay in Harper's magazine last year, the Juarez street shooters' often grotesquely violent photographs have begun to receive critical attention. Media outlets from around the world have shown interest in their work. "I don't think these guys are gonna die rich, but they're a lot better off than they were before," Bowden says. "If nothing else, they have a much stronger sense of self-esteem--like somebody noticed."

--Julie Lyons

The white eye of the blank screen waits in the dark room. A few moments ago Jaime Bailleres was nuzzling his 13-month-old child and walking around in the calm of his apartment. His wife Graciela puttered in the kitchen and soft words and laughter floated through the serenity of their home. Outside, Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua, waited with sharp teeth. Now the lights are off as Jaime Bailleres dances through a carousel of slides.

I am here because of a 17-year-old girl. The whole thing started very simply. I was drinking black coffee and reading the Juarez paper and there tucked away in the back pages, where the small crimes of the city bleed for a few inches, I saw her face. She was smiling at me and wore a strapless gown riding on breasts powered by an uplift bra, and a pair of fancy gloves reached above her elbows almost to her armpits. The story said she'd disappeared, all 1.6 meters of her.

I turned to a friend I was having breakfast with and said what's this about?
He replied matter-of-factly, Oh, they disappear all the time. Guys kidnap them, rape them, and kill them.

Oh, he continued, you know, the young girls who work in the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories, the girls that have to leave for work when it is still dark. As a local fruit vendor told an American daily, "Even the devil is scared of living here." That's when my interest in border photography quickened. When I started asking around I met the herd of photographers who work for the two Juarez dailies and a fistful of bloody tabloids and other rags. I was stunned by their work because I am an American and the photographs showed a world foreign and sharp-edged. I came here with basic baggage--a belief in civility, hard work, decent pay, suspicion of any government and all authority. I am a creature of hope, a glass of wine in the evening, and music always in the air. Juarez is a city of violence, little hope, hundreds and hundreds of foreign factories, sub-living wages, vivid colors, and gory moments. I was instantly seduced and struggled not at all. I decided to write about the photographers in order to get people to look and think about Juarez, in order to get past vague terms such as free trade, NAFTA, GATT, and the global village. It was and is as simple as that.

After that initial decision, smells and sounds and tastes and blurry facts took over and I spent over a year writing and pitching one simple story about one little group of street photographers in one border crossing in a world where borders are increasingly flashpoints between races, cultures, economics, and nations. I came with little theory but outfitted with a few rough beliefs I had learned before I was old enough to make my own living. I believe that if you work all day you should be able to buy enough grub to feed you, have claim on enough space to shelter you, and live with enough security not to fear random violence or death. I believe a living wage means you can continue to live. That's about it.

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