A version of this article, "Mexico | A View from Both Sides: Stories of Migration by Photographer Encarni Pindado," was originally published on OF NOTE Magazine.
By Asmara Pelupessy
Photographer Encarni Pindado has been living and working in Mexico for the past three years, covering social issues with a focus on gender and migration. Journeying alongside migrants and collaborating with shelters, local non-governmental organizations, human rights activists, and other journalists, she has gained the trust and access to tell integrated, truthful stories about migration.
Pindado is especially passionate about confronting the issue of violence as experienced by women migrants. As she explained to me during a recent Skype conversation, while the top forces driving people to leave their homelands are often economic and environmental, for the women she documents, it is violence—whether structural, cultural and/or physical—that shapes both their decision to immigrate and their experiences of migration.
Every year, over 400,000 people cross Mexico’s southern border. That they make this journey northward to Mexico despite the extreme economic costs, physical demands and dangers gives us some indication of the conditions in their home countries, their vigorous ambition, desire, strength, and capacity to dream, as well as the lure of U.S. living standards. These men and women are profoundly vulnerable to the increasing violence and impunity of Mexico’s narco-trafficking networks. On what is already a dangerous, arduous route in which people ride on top of cargo trains known as La Bestia (The Beast), they are forced to navigate and survive the thriving business that organized crime has made out of migration.
Juana from Michoacan, Mexico, with her son, an American citizen, photographed in Tijuana, Mexico. Juana was kidnapped while trying to cross to the United States. The kidnappers held her for three days, beat her, and stole her son’s birth certificate. © Encarni Pindado
Recently, Pindado has expanded her practice—photographing migrants as well as encouraging them to represent their own experiences of migration. As Pindado shared with me, she was motivated by the fact that stories of migration "have been reported in the media from many different angles but rarely told by the migrants themselves. There is a gap in knowledge about what migrants actually experience, as well as a stigma and misconception about migrants, especially in the communities they have to cross through."
In July of 2013, Encarni founded the participatory photography project MigraZoom, in which migrants and members of the local communities are given disposable cameras and free photography workshops to tell their own stories. The United Nations Development Program funded the first phase of the project.
A Central American couple in a migrant shelter in Lecheria, El Estado de Mexico. The woman pictured is seven months pregnant. Some pregnant women migrate in hopes that their child will be born in the U.S. This shelter was later closed by authorities due to pressure from local residents accusing migrants of criminal behavior. © Encarni Pindado
MigraZoom launched at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Tecun Uman and covered the first 400 kilometers of the journey north, through Chiapas. The photos reveal personal and intimate views, as migrants take photos in areas simply too dangerous for journalists to cover. In the first leg of the journey, many of the photos express hopefulness and optimism—a sense of adventure and youthful invincibility. While the participants record positive memories, MigraZoom has also heard stories of struggle and loss as these men and women continue towards the U.S.
They take take their cameras with them as they travel, dropping off the exposed cameras at the next shelter where they stop. There, MigraZoom picks them up, scans the film, gives local participants prints of their own photos, and emails migrants the images whenever possible. The MigraZoom photos continue on their own journeys through exhibitions and slide shows at cultural institutions and migration forums, including the Mexican Senate and Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano’s caravan of Central American mothers of missing migrants.
A 13-year-old boy traveling with his 19-year-old brother (not pictured) from Tapachula to Arriaga, Chiapas. In order to avoid checkpoints, migrants walk from Mexico’s southern border to Arriaga where they catch cargo trains North. The roads and fields they pass through are sites of regular attacks by organized crime and migration authorities. MigraZoom was later told that the brothers were extorted on the cargo train and were unable to pay the demanded fee. The older brother was thrown from the train and it is not known what happened to this boy. Photo by MigraZoom participant.
A migrant couple, photographed by a local Arriaga resident, before their departure from Arriaga, Chiapas to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. This local Arriaga resident is part of a church group that prepares food for migrants once a week. It was the first time she had any contact with migrants outside of the migrant shelter. Photo by MigraZoom participant.
The images made by migrants and community members who experience migration as part of their daily lives add an essential layer to the visual representation of migration’s complexities. While the MigraZoom photographs are created principally to engage their makers in the process of self-representation, dialogue, and exchange, these images are also valuable documents. Like all photographs, they record not simply what is in front of the camera but also reflect the perspectives of those behind the lens. As global and timeless as the story of migration may be, each photo invites us to encounter a unique story, a particular life, a singular moment, and a subjective feeling.
Exhibitions of the MigraZoom photographs are planned for Mexico City and Tapachula, Chiapas. The project hopes to raise funds to continue MigraZoom all the way to the U.S. border.
Asmara Pelupessy is co-editor of the book UNFIXED: Photography and Postcolonial Perspectives in Contemporary Art. She was researcher and producer for Via PanAm, Dutch photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen’s yearlong project on migration in the Americas. She also worked as Archive Researcher at World Press Photo.
[Photos courtesy of Encarni Pindado and MigraZoom]