Mira Mexico: Louie Palu’s Conceptual Project About the War on Drugs

March 21, 2014

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Louie Palu/Zuma Press

Luis Avila Archulata, 40, is a former gang member who spent his whole life in Arizona. Archulata was jailed multiple times in the U.S. and finally deported to Mexico, where he now lives. He was recruited into gangs and first exposed to drugs in the U.S. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Photographer Louie Palu’s Mira Mexico, a 15 x 12-inch “conceptual newspaper” on the Mexican Drug War, forces its audience not only to confront the grisly violence of the conflict, but also to wrestle with ideas of censorship and modes of representation. “Something I like doing is blurring the lines between journalism and art,” Palu says of the project, a departure from his years of work as a photojournalist covering conflict for major media organizations. “At this stage of my career I’m not afraid to challenge myself. I’m not afraid to look in the mirror and face my own criticism.”

The son of Italian immigrants living in Toronto, Palu grew up in a neighborhood where the power of the criminal underworld was an open secret. Organized crime was a subject that he had long wanted to explore photographically, but thought doing it in his own neighborhood would get him “knocked off, probably,” he says. After five years working on and off in Afghanistan, Palu was looking for his next move. He applied for and won a fellowship from the New American Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank. That grant enabled Palu to take the first of what would become several trips to Mexico over a two-year span.

“I started doing some research. I looked at how people were covering the [Mexican Drug War] and then I just [went] down [to Mexico] and started covering violence,” Palu explains. “But [my work] became something more than just understanding the violence. It was about understanding how the violence happened and what were the mitigating factors that let that violence happen.”

He worked along the U.S.-Mexico border, wading through the bottomless depravity of America’s often forgotten drug war, eventually securing funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The years Palu spent covering the Afghan war proved invaluable as he soon saw the many parallels between the conflict he had just left, a world away in Central Asia, and this one, right on North America’s doorstep. The pervasive corruption, the absence of social infrastructure, the erosion of the rule of law, the prisoners, the refugees, the dead bodies—all these things dominated the day in Mexico, but to his mind, the true scale of this conflict was going unseen in the West, particularly in the United States and Canada.

Palu believes the bloodbath raging in Mexico is far more relevant to the interests of the United States than the conflicts in Syria or Afghanistan. “What’s going on in Mexico is much bigger than what people really understand,” Palu insists. “There are sections of Mexico that are not in the control of the government, and I’m not talking a corner—I’m talking about large swaths of territory.”

To Palu’s eyes, Western media was largely ignoring the reign of terror in Mexico while conflicts in the Middle East dominated front-page news. That observation led him to think about how to approach the realities of the war and media coverage conceptually. “With this work, what came to mind most was how the war was being documented, talked about and represented with pictures in the media,” Palu says. “It became a project about questioning what we see, what we don’t see and who are the gatekeepers that control this.”

Creating visibility was at the forefront of Palu’s mind when, eschewing a more traditional approach, he partnered with three different media entities to release his work in January 2013. Canada’s The Globe and Mail; Foreign Policy in the United States; and Mexico’s online news magazine Animal Politico all simultaneously published individually tailored photos and writing from Palu in their respective corners of NAFTA. For Palu, the idea was to maximize the discussion, to put Mexico’s trauma in front of as many eyes as he could and keep it there.

The broadsheet Mira Mexico project, produced in collaboration with the New America Foundation, was another way of expanding that dialogue. Most conflict photographers have experiences of their work being cropped or edited in a way they don’t agree with, or used in a context other than they intended. By printing and publishing Mira Mexico himself, Palu decided what would be included. The newspaper has been distributed at university events, museums and galleries, and limited quantities will be available online through the photo bookstore photo-eye.

On one side of the paper are unflinching images from the drug war’s blood-soaked trenches: bodies lying in the short grass, wrists bound, pockets pulled out like rabbit’s ears. A needle dangles from a junkie’s hand as he bends to his task next to the Tijuana River. The rubber-gloved hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents stacking bricks of seized contraband in Laredo, Texas. But turn the paper another way and that story disappears, replaced by images of “another Mexico,” where orderly new factories churn out exportable goods in a Free Trade Zone. Children play in the waters of the Rio Grande, laborers carry their harvested produce to market and a mayor-elect beams at her ecstatic supporters celebrating a victory at the polls.

While Palu’s newspaper allows readers to decide which side of Mexico they view and encourages them to think about the selection of images, Mira Mexico shows there is little distance between everyday life in Mexico and the pestilence of drugs and death. The Mexico of the hard-working peasant, the hopeful migrant, the youth at play in the slum is the same Mexico occupied by stone-faced gangsters, the sick and destitute, and the corpses of the condemned, given over to rigor mortis and left twisting in the sun. The maladies of poverty, corruption and inequality hover behind it all, the drug war the most prominent symptom. In one photograph a man with a U.S. passport waits to cross the border into the United States with his bicycle. In the background of this would-be innocuous example of open borders and cultural exchange—somewhat out of focus—a drug dog stands, tongue lolling. There is just one Mexico. Either you choose to see it all, or you don’t.