Antonio Turok confronts historical turmoil with the defiant smile of someone who understands that narrating the facts is a way to save them. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” warned Robert Capa, a master of photojournalism who paid the price for his audacity when he stepped on a mine in Vietnam. Turok has followed in Capa’s hazardous footsteps. At this point of his long career, it’s clear that the goddess of fortune protects him. As soon as he shows up somewhere, something decisive occurs (the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the APPO rebellion in Oaxaca, the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York). A virtuoso of opportunity, he immortalizes explosive moments, always keeping his finger on the pulse—or his emblematic hat on his head. Each of his images captures an unrepeatable situation. We find ourselves in the presence of “singular moments.” But Turok doesn’t settle for collecting slices of reality; he integrates them into a sequence, a story, that makes them more powerful. His graphic depictions of the relationship between Mexico and the United States began in the most improbable of places: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, where the Zapatistas (EZLN) took up arms to protest the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada. On January 1, 1994, Turok spent the whole night on the streets of San Cristóbal when he glimpsed the EZLN ski masks. Their incredible protest against globalization was the first episode in a narrative that remains ongoing, and whose temporary protagonist is Donald Trump.
For over two decades, Turok has clicked the shutter on both sides of the border. His travel log can be seen as a reflection on the uses of time: by halting transience, every photo alludes to what will never return, what only endures by exception. All together, though, his images are inserted into a different logic, a long-term storyline. His travels through Mexico and the US constitute a road novel that could easily begin like Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood: “I am a camera.” After covering the revolt in Chiapas, Turok turned his attention to another side of the same story: the migrants who leave Mexico because they have to, and whose northward course affirms the relevance of the Zapatista protest.
Art and outrage
A photographer chooses a special way of looking at reality, an angle for focusing on his objective, and adds something personal to the lights and shadows he registers: the aura of his own gaze. No one else sees the same things in the same way. Even in circumstances that seem to reject aesthetics altogether, Turok finds what Kundera calls “unintentional beauty.” In his convulsive records, there are no “prepared” effects: landscape isn’t perceived as a set, and people don’t strike choreographed poses. The photographer isn’t trying to aestheticize suffering. At the same time, his perspective and composition add dignity to the scene; the image incorporates art without ceasing to serve as documentation. Met with Turok’s lens, the dream of setting out in search of an ambiguous “better life” is filtered through peculiar protocols: A boy stands on the train tracks, balancing in the way of someone who understands that fate itself, not the rails, is what causes vertigo. A young man bends his body in athletic desperation and yanks at a fence, showing his eagerness to cross it. Three youths gesture with their hands —their fingers are signs, codes, claims, promises— and look earnestly northward; behind them is a desolate landscape, the suburb of poverty that demands to be abandoned. A woman faces the camera with resolution and melancholy, the look of those who have no choice but to leave. We find her in a cantina where a stuffed eagle, the emblematic snake in its beak, evokes the national shield. Is the woman still in Mexico, or has she already crossed over? Does the eagle symbolize rootedness or the nostalgia of unrootedness? The image is a border in itself: a no-man’s land where a woman awaits her chance. Possible jobs lie beyond the Rio Bravo and the border patrol. Such jobs include taking care of the sick and the elderly, raising other people’s children, picking strawberries and cotton, harvesting grapes, cleaning offices at night, laying tile, lashing cables, and guarding property at all hours. Trades that depend on hands and trust. The most common ones are found in kitchens: Mexicans administer the meals and plates of empire. Turok’s account would be insufficient if it didn’t include migrants in the sanctuary where they officiate over slow heat. Here, we aren’t regarding a “casual” shot: the protagonists pose deliberately, almost ceremonially, wearing the aprons that represent the investiture of those who are already on “the other side.” Turok portrays them with the same gravity that August Sander attained in photographing the blonde, ruddy cooks of Germany, serious people who understood the sacramental importance of sausages. Sometimes those who cross the border achieve a second miracle: having their papers in order. Unsurprisingly, they have many different ways of displaying these documents. Yolanda Araujo, for example, won’t settle for carrying around the laminated proof of her identity in her purse. She has designed a banner to hold up at protests, declaring the contradictory legal category that the United States uses for foreigners in this situation: resident alien.
Battle in the heaven, fire on earth
Turok traveled the land that flashes promises of well-being in neon lights until he experienced something that defied all comprehension. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two planes cut across a cloudless sky and became the most unexpected projectiles in history. New York’s Twin Towers collapsed right before brave spectators’ eyes. Turok was there and documented a lower Manhattan beset by brutality and subsumed in blackened air. Cars were covered by false snow, the thin dust of death. The omnipresent witness made an account of the damages, but he was also able to look back at those who looked like him: the curious and desperate people trying to repair the horror with their eyes. There was no way to grasp what was happening. Even if it was impossible to decipher the horizon, someone had to try. One photo demonstrates this “hunger to see”: an executive on top of a dumpster, trying to read the dirty wind of catastrophe in the distance. Late in the day, Turok captured the solitary heroes of the crisis, coated in soot and marked by a weariness that refused defeat. Everything had been destroyed—110 floors per tower—and yet it still seemed possible to recover something. Fire was the final enemy. For the first time, the protagonists in an American battle weren’t soldiers; they were firefighters. There was no lack of compassion in response to the suddenly vulnerable colossus. That said, the open wound received a misguided remedy. The new foreign policy of the United States bore scurrilous names like “Guantanamo,” “Patriot Act,” and “Desert Storm.” American customs became even more hawkishly patrolled. And the regularization of migrants—a subject that was being disputed with Mexico at the time, christened like a hybrid Tex-Mex dish (“The Whole Enchilada”)—was delayed until the arrival of better prescriptions for everyday life, a moment that has yet to come.
Turok’s narrative found an oasis with the victory of Barack Obama, a stirring time in which a nation of immigrants seemed to remember Emma Lazarus’s lines at the foot of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
In 2009, Turok followed a crowd of people who shouted “Yes we can!,” were stunned by their own power, and paraded with banners exclaiming “Yes we did!” on the crucial night.
The jubilation he captured was short-lived. Obama deported over three million Mexicans, a historic record. One iconic photo heralded such a future: amid a throng of supporters, Turok zeroed in on a sweet Dachshund wearing a sweater with Obama’s name on it. In retrospect, the image could be seen as an oracle. The winner of the election wasn’t a lion willing to brave the elements; in the end, he was a charismatic figure who would govern with the adaptability of certain agreeable pets. Another photo conveyed Mexicans’ true fate: a billboard shows the silhouette of a Quaker, accompanied by the motivational slogan “Go, Humans, Go!” It’s an oatmeal ad, but the brand goes completely unmentioned. One might say that the company’s only interest is to urge humanity to keep on keeping on. But reality has other things to say. On the street, a sign announces “Mexican Town Detour.” If you’re looking for Americans, follow the arrow of history. If it’s Mexicans you’re searching for, you’ll have to take a bypass road.
Permanent address: the future
Bob Dylan referred to “Desolation Row” as the road where postcards of hangings are sold and passports are painted brown: the gallows of life and identity. Throughout his career, Turok has paused in old centers of labor that serve as monuments to abandonment and oblivion. Old workplaces where people expended their final efforts. Sooner or later, someone was going to harness the dreams that once inhabited these places.
Donald Trump emerged on the scene as the outsider that some wanted—the enemy of their enemy—and nobody needed. Turok’s discourse results in a tragic carnival. It’s hard to say who the millionaire-turned-politician hates most: his opponents or his followers. In one image, cardboard effigies of Mussolini and Hitler declare their support for Trump. At first, we think the people behind such figures must be his adversaries. Amazingly, though, they could just as easily be his advocates. Reason lost its way in the 2017 elections, which the photographer documents in his portrait of an elderly citizen wearing a Mexican charro hat stamped with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and clutching a toy Trump. It’s an image of a redundant doll: proof that a caricature can have a caricature of its own.
The story continues with manifestations of dissent, wars between slogans, gestures, disguises—people who embrace each other to form a wall of solidarity that opposes that other barrier proposed by Trump—and culminates in the ultimate witness to human struggle: a dog, indifferent to the events themselves but willing to accompany them as they unfold.
With respect to the intrinsic strangeness of migration, the Welsh writer Richard Gwyn offers the following micro-story: “I set out on a journey, but the geography would not stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended going.” Mexamerica deserves a map that can depict this state of involuntary errancy, an uncertain geography that seems to move of its own accord, confronting and mixing people and cultures, forging a third country: a country where everything is border.
No one can predict the next episode of an adventure written by need, domination, pain, and hope. The only thing that’s certain is that, amid the confusion, Antonio Turok will be there to tell the tale and offer invaluable testimony. As long as he keeps taking photos, all is not lost.
Cover Image: Antonio Turok