A Faraway Borderby Sean O'Toole / 15.06.2011
William T Vollmann doesn’t mince his words. A year after the American author and journalist published Imperial (2009), a 1300-page autopsy of life along the US-Mexico Border, he was asked what readers might gain from reading his ambitious journalistic enquiry. His response: “We can gain an appreciation of the beautifully and horribly arbitrary nature of dilenation.” Ditto Damien Schumann’s Borderline photo essay.
Currently on show at Cape Town’s Association of Visual Arts, Borderline is a photojournalist’s account of urban life along the US-Mexico border. The essay includes portraits of Mexican fans of Japanese anime, Gay Pride revellers and, yes, heroin users. Hard drugs and fast living define the US-Mexico border region. It was recently reported that more than 34,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drug cartels four and a half years ago. The violence, which also includes a plague of femicides along the El Paso/Juárez border, is only ever hinted at in Schumann’s essay, which includes a shot of armed federales seen from a moving car and handpainted memorial for murdered women.
Sean O’Toole caught up with Schumann at the AVA to talk about his interest in extreme environents, cameras, nipple rings, hypodermic needles and tiaras.
Mahala: Let’s start with numbers. How old are you?
Damien Schumann: Twenty-nine.
And this exhibition, how many photos has it got in it in total?
Thirty pictures in total but we’re showing nineteen on this show.
So where are the other eleven?
Most of them are sitting in Kirsty’s office. [Kirsty Cockerill is the AVA’s Director.]
So, in other words, you couldn’t fit them in?
Yeah, they couldn’t fit in and just sort of curatorially these ones worked together.
Was it tough arriving here with thirty and then having to show only nineteen? Was it tough editing?
Yes, it was.
Because if one thinks about it, that process of photographing is always a process of editing. It’s part of the job. How many photographs did you take roughly, when you went to Mexico, in total?
I’ve been to Mexico three times now but the majority of these photographs were taken over a two month period.
Yeah, and I took almost 9000 pictures in those two months.
So you clearly shoot digital?
Yeah, this is all digital. It was a very, very intensive two months.
You basically went to Mexico as an embedded journalist. You worked with an NGO who facilitated your entry into a lot of these places?
I’ve ended up doing a lot of work, not officially as a journalist, but I’ve ended up doing a lot of work where I structure photographic and art exhibitions that can be used for advocacy and social mobilization purposes.
Who was the NGO?
It was a collaboration between Project Concern and The US and Mexico Border Health Association.
What did they use the images for, editorial or exhibitions?
I ended up building an exhibition for them based on an exhibition I originally made in South Africa, called The Shack, which is a life-size replica of an informal living condition, very commonly found in South Africa, and then my stories and pictures were incorporated into this environment. It was mobile so you could collapse it and build it up again. We built one true to Mexican conditions and it first went to the World TB Conference where it was used for advocacy purposes; from there it was exhibited in public spaces across the country.
As a professional assignment photographer your brief was accomplished. You went there, you took photographs and they were used by your commissioner. What prompted you to relook that archive and put together Borderline?
Two reasons. I found my work until now has all been based in South Africa but it’s got far more attention overseas than here, which really frustrated me because I want my home to recognize this. Secondly, when I was on the Mexican border I started seeing these similarities to South Africa.
Everything from health disparities, community resilience, aspects of drug trade and trafficking and although coming out of a slightly different background, the elements of violence and crime. Part of me thought if the work I do in South Africa is big overseas and I want to show in South Africa, maybe I should bring a body of work from Mexico into South Africa. Ironically this is work that’s finally getting into galleries here.
What was it like being a South African in Mexico?
No one considered me South African, they all thought I was American. The history that follows me as a white South African was lost. I felt like I lost my my status as umlungu. It felt like I was a gringo all of a sudden.
Did you get called gringo?
Yeah, a couple of times.
Often on assignments in Africa, umlungus have a certain privilege because they’re umlungus. It also doesn’t allow you access, so it plays both ways. So being on the Mexican border did you find being a gringo both beneficial as well as a drawback?
If anything, I felt it a bit of a drawback, particularly on the street. That was the most difficult. Once you’ve been introduced people are incredibly hospitable and welcoming.
Before you travelled the whole length of the Mexico-U.S border, did you do more research and reading?
A fair amount. My preferred means of research is first-hand experience but obviously that has to be supported by a lot of reading up.
And had you been to border areas around South Africa?
Yes, I’ve spent time up on the border of Zimbabwe.
Where? At Beitbridge?
Yeah around Beitbridge. A little bit of time around borders in Namibia and Botswana as well.
You were saying that you saw similarities. Are there any similarities between the US-Mexico border and here?
No so much because what makes the U.S-Mexico border unique is the big cities on either side of the border. It’s practically one big city with a steel fence going through the middle which opens itself up to all of these different contrasts and divides. But instead of looking specifically at a border region, I was far more interested in the divide. But that is so easy to document because there is this divide that is so blatant.
If I look at the work that you’ve put up, there are a couple of things that recur. One is perhaps your interest in children and adolescents. There are a lot of children pictured. Is that an area that interests you, like how young people experience the world?
Not particularly actually. The areas where I was spending time had a lot of children around.
With some of the images you’re kind of looking at yourself as a photographer. There’s that child looking out through the glass window, it must be a bus or something. There’s that woman with the camera photographing you. How self-conscious were you there? You’ve spoken about being a gringo, but how self-conscious are you as a photographer generally? Is it difficult when you pull out a camera?
There’s definitely like a persona that you learn to work with, with a camera because it is such an unnatural tool to be operating amongst people. But I find I am sort of constantly assessing myself and where I am with the people that I’m photographing.
I’ve worked with a couple of photographers on assignment. Some will tell their subjects, ‘Stand in front of the camera, do this’. It’s very mechanical. Others will spend more time speaking than taking photos. How do you do things?
I’ve got two kinds of styles. Whenever I’m going into a situation with a vulnerable person or subject, there is definitely a lot of talking that takes place. Getting a feeling for this person and an understanding of what they’re going through so I can work out how best to create the image. Earning trust and building a relationship with this person. My street photography is shot from the hip and there’s far less interaction. It’s more about finding a rhythm, accessing and picking up on what is happening around you, moving with that to make sure that you’re in the right place at the right time.
Your show includes a photo of guy shooting heroin. Your access was facilitated by social worker. Surely, though, even with that sort of access these guys must be quite resistant of you being there?
That heroin den isn’t really the best example because when the heroin arrived I could’ve been dressed up in a giraffe suit with a tutu and no one would’ve paid any attention to me. They just wanted their fix.
How about that shot of the army guys on the truck. Didn’t that cause any problems?
It should’ve. I was very lucky there. A journalist is murdered every week in that city, but again it just came down to an element of accessing the environment. I was sitting in the car behind them and I saw the picture. I wanted it and made my presence known, tried to work out how he was responding to that and in the end, I ended up getting my couple of frames, putting my camera down and stopping at that point, not making a big scene out of it and we were fine.
Prior to your first visit to Mexico, what were, let’s say the five words that you would associate with the country?
With Mexico? Before I went there? Uh it was my first time to any of the America’s actually. It would’ve been, very commercial, there’d probably be sombreros in there, tequila as well, Maya. Frida Kahlo.
And now that you’ve been, if you have to give some adjectives that describe Mexico for you?
Vibrant, alive, compassionate. There’s a lot of passion in the country. They’re people that when they’re happy they express it.
More so than here?
Yeah, I’d say so. But if they’re angry you’ll definitely know it as well. It’s also very colourful.
Cool. I’m going to wrap with a question, or maybe a series of questions that relate to something you said at the outset. You said you produce work that’s about South Africa but it tends to get shown and seen more abroad. Why do you think rewards are showered unevenly on photographers locally? I know a lot of photographers who are supremely talented but kind of get overlooked in preference of other photographers. Why do you think that happens?
I think marketing and people skills lay a great foundation for what comes out of a career.
Is that something that you feel you can do? Are you vigorous in marketing yourself?
This is where I struggle a little bit. And I think a lot of artists face this. We make what we make because we’re passionate about it. We love this. Whereas the business aspect of it is something quite separate and I think that’s where a lot of artists start struggling.
Who would you consider some of your role models?
Photographically, there is no one photographer who achieves everything I like or aspire to. Instead I seem to extract aspects of numerous photographers work. I love the intimacy with subject in Sally Mann and Nan Goldin’s work. Their work really is an extension of themselves and their lives and I feel it shines through in their images. On a documentary front I find James Nachtwey’s images striking but too sensationalist, too one sided. Mary Ellen Mark’s style I find more engaging, I think they reveal an element of life that surrounds the story on hand, giving a greater understanding of whats going on.
I love the way Graeme Williams sees. The writing of Jonny Steinberg is also definitely a big influence. I love how he immerses himself in his subject. And in his writing how he doesn’t remove himself from the story. He somehow manages to tell a harrowing story through a poetic dialogue that keeps me glued to the page. His writing style feels like a thought process to me, and in so doing personalizes something that is so foreign. He makes me want to know about his subject.
What draws you to the foreign places you’ve visited?
Is it really that existential? Okay, I’m being glib, but I’m also asking seriously. You arrive at immigration and they ask what are you doing here. If you say, ‘I’m coming to question,’ for sure they’ll put you in a padded room to be frisked.
No, I’ve learnt to answer those questions in the exact way they want to hear them.
So what are you going to question there? Conditions of humanity?
Yeah, I think a large part of it comes down to me wanting to know.
Know myself, know my environments. Exploring what my position in all of this is and where I fit into it.
Okay, we started with numbers lets end with numbers. What are the edition sizes of the photos on sale?
They are sitting at R3900, unframed.
How did you come up with that price?
I worked out the cost to produce everything and then put my mark-up on it and then the gallery put their mark-up on it.
So you’re not following some square-meterage formula you found on Google?
It was kind of a balance trying to work out the value of the work versus what people will pay. In general I find it quite difficult to slap prices onto stuff like that.
*All images © Damian Schumann.