Battle Lines: The Valley of the Shadow

By Dzana Tsomondo

© David Rochkind
A girl walks by a caravan of police vehicles during a security sweep in Nogales, Sonora. It's common for police forces on the border to sweep through communities, looking for criminals and searching for anyone they deem suspicious. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Every war operates under its own immutable logic and yet, in the end, every war is the same. No matter what sets the grisly machinery in motion, the obscene becomes mundane, each depredation fueling the next. So it is that a relatively modest “police action” in one of Mexico’s 32 states has become a gyre of unspeakable violence and cyclical retribution with no end in sight.

David Rochkind’s new book, Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit, is an attempt to photographically document the toll that unrelenting carnage is taking on Mexico’s social fabric. “The title encapsulates the mood of the book and it represents the general mood of the people I spoke to and photographed,” says Rochkind. “There was a severity to the violence that seemed to depress the mood and cultural vibrancy in each place that it occurred … [It] seemed that, at least from the outside, the heat of the conflict was melting two worlds together, making a singular Mexico defined as much by violence and tension as by history and culture.”

Rochkind’s book, recently released by Dewi Lewis Publishing (www.heavyhandsunkenspirit.com), is a harrowing account of a nation besieged on all sides. That said, it is to Rochkind’s credit that Heavy Hand is neither a grotesque nor a voyeuristic catalogue of human cruelty. The photographer often turns his lens on the “collateral damage” of Mexico’s drug war; images of bereaved families, impoverished towns and masked policemen sit alongside photographs of exhausted migrants, dingy black-lit bordellos and hollow-eyed prisoners. Rochkind uses the term “tension” several times to describe the miasma of fear and rage that hangs over every portrait. “I tried to show how the violence was affecting different parts of life in Mexico, from changing migration patterns to an emerging narco-culture,” Rochkind explains. “One of the most severe effects that people mentioned was an increasing culture of impunity, where criminals were not likely to be arrested, much less to go to jail. Many people I met had a general mistrust of the police and army, [and] were afraid to be involved in the judicial process in any way.”

Rochkind came to this story, and Mexico, obliquely. After five years of working as a freelancer in Venezuela, straight out of college, Rochkind began to tire of “illustrating other people’s stories as opposed to creating my own.” Wanting to work on something without a “preconceived set of ideas,” he chose Mexico and “showed up, hung out and waited to see what would happen.” That trip didn’t immediately result in any work, but over the next year he became increasingly interested in the intersections of poverty, migration and drugs in the country. He decided to leave Venezuela for Mexico City.

From 2007 to 2011, Rochkind watched the conflict grow from a federal incursion in a corner of Mexico to a chaotic civil conflict that has already left its indelible mark on Mexico’s government and society. Although then-President Felipe Calderón’s ostensible aim in militarily confronting his nation’s drug cartels was to stop drug killings and overthrow the cartel’s leadership, the eventual result was an explosion of violence across much of the country. Under intense pressure from the government, the cartels retaliated with unprecedented attacks on federal authorities even as they splintered into smaller and more inchoate feuding factions.

As with any war, the longer it goes on, the more it infiltrates every level of society, creating a situation in which no one is unaffected and no one is truly safe—journalists included. When we discuss how he ensured his own protection, Rochkind emphasizes that, compared to the local journalists he depended on, he had it easy. “I always … speak with local contacts before going to an unknown place. Local journalists are incredibly courageous. Everyone knows who they are and what they are doing and, in comparison, I was able to work in relative obscurity. My images and byline were not published locally and I never stayed for more than a few weeks in any one spot.”

Still, he harbored no illusions about his situation. “The danger that existed while working on this story felt very murky and nebulous,” he recalls. “You could never be totally sure of who you were talking to or photographing, and there was always an initial mistrust of who I was and what I was doing. If something doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t really explain it, then it is time to move on … Every situation required a different approach. Sometimes I could access a place very quickly by getting lucky and connecting with the right person at the right time, and sometimes I would spend weeks building relationships that would not ultimately result in a photograph.”

In discussing the delicate balancing act that a photographer must attempt when trying to tell these life-and-death stories while still respecting the wishes of his often-vulnerable subjects, Rochkind insists that “you have to be clear with yourself about why you are taking a picture and you have to be ready for people to disagree with your choices.” But he also was clear that he didn’t want to include any images solely for “dramatic effect”—instead seeking “emotion or context” that can facilitate dialogue rather than a mere “visual representation of statistics.”

When I ask what he wants people to take away from the work, the answer is simple: “I want people to feel like, if they had been standing in the same place at the same moment in time, that they would have seen the exact same thing … I hope that people see precisely what I saw and that the book acts as an emotional catalyst to explore the issues surrounding the conflict.”

Related Article:

David Rochkind Photo Gallery

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