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Photographing the Unseeable: A review of Alejandro Cartagena’s Before the War

There is much that cannot be seen or found in Mexico. While the Mexican Drug War has taken a very visible toll on families and the cultural landscape across the country, there exists a clandestine coalition of corrupt law enforcement and drug cartels that have created an invisible community often referred to as Mexico’s disappeared, or “los desaparecidos.” Over the past ten years, tens of thousands of people have vanished without a trace including mothers, fathers, and school children who are kidnapped or killed, their bodies never found. This estimate does not even begin to count for the still thousands more killed in the war on drugs. While people and property have gone missing, Cartagena argues that evil is the most pernicious of the unseen. His photobook, Before the War (self-published, 2015), attempts to visualize its origins through a collection of portraits, landscapes, and text that focus on the roots of violence in the state of Nuevo León in northeastern Mexico.

The book itself is a reflection of what has become a true golden age for photobook production, in which the form becomes part of the content. It is delivered in a cardboard envelope that the reader must rip in order to get to its pages. Opening the book is a physical act that requires a nearly violent desire to see what lays sealed within. The staple-bound black and white photographs are printed on newsprint, as if meant to be delivered on doorsteps or sold on newsstands—intended to be visible and circulated in the public. Cartagena writes that these photographs, “obsessively…look for signs of an evil that lay underneath but were [then] invisible to everyone´s eyes,” capturing what was palpable yet had not become manifestly apparent.

Smaller newsprint photographs and texts emerge from the larger book like secrets, and many of the photographs frame obstructed views. A boy tucks his head under his shirt; trees cover up a bright sky; a portrait of a man is so pixelated his identity literally disappears into squares of ink. Within these larger poetic narratives are words from the community, that seem to be ripped out of actual newspaper articles: an accordion fold-out of a suited middle-aged man includes the underlined words, “No my friend, this is not violence generated by my government; it is violence caused by criminal gangs who have tried to seize society and because of that attitude of yours or those being you, by telling us ‘government…” and the text is cut off. Another insert folds out into a poster sized print of twenty-seven portraits aligned in a grid interspersed with squares of text that read, “The good and the bad”…“I told him I was afraid something bad would happen”…“Then the soldier shot him in the back of the head”…These seemingly found texts reflect the remnants of unheard voices.

Before the War is a fragmented story, in which what is seen or read is never fully complete, formally reiterating Cartagena’s frenetic photographic search for an origin of the evil that seems to haunt the region yet never appears as a singular event. Cartagena and editor Fernando Gallegos have thoughtfully sequenced an archive of individual histories, which fade in and out of a landscape that itself becomes a central character; and, in which it is difficult to tell what may represent good, and what evil. The book exemplifies the innovative spirit of current photobook production, as well as the ability of the photograph to capture what at times cannot be seen.

Ashlyn Davis is HCP’s Director of Development. Prior to moving to Houston, she worked with various arts and publishing organizations in New York City and Portland, Oregon. Ashlyn is also a writer, and she has co-edited a book of historic photographs of the American West, Islands of the Blest, which was published in 2014 by the Silas Finch Foundation. She holds a BA in Art History from Pratt Institute and an MA in American Studies with a focus on the history of photography from the University of Texas at Austin.