Your photographs could be used by Drug Dealers

In a dimly lit space, a number of dials hang, holding a series of backlit photographs. These small, intimate images require the audience to move in close, as they float gently around, rotating with even the slightest of breeze.  Set against a passage of text that runs along the surrounding wall and accompanied by a carefully crafted publication; this unusual method of presenting photography requires a different level of engagement from a viewer than a typical exhibition would. 

All of this is integral to the latest project of Mexican born photographer Monica Alcazar-Duarte, Your Photographs Could Be Used By Drug Dealers. Chloe True caught up with her at the MA Photojournalism and Documentary show ‘Where We Stand’ at the London college of Communication. 

Chloe True: Centred on a photographic process, your work often incorporates other disciplines such as sound, film, text and installation. What do you feel this multidisciplinary approach brings to your practice?

Monica Alcazar-Duarte: Six years ago I created an installation about the disappearing women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The work was exhibited in London and in Belgium. I noticed that the audience would engage with the subject in a more open manner. It felt like they were embracing the sentiment and subtlety of the exhibition, internalizing it. I realised that installation was a very good way to approach a complex issue. When I started doing photography I wanted to insert this principle of inclusion into my photographic work.  I decided that a multidisciplinary approach was the way to do that. 

I studied Performance Practice at Central Saint Martins before doing an MA in Photojournalism at London College of Communication. I have collaborated with sculptors, painters, choreographers, theatre-makers and filmmakers.  It is this kind of multidisciplinary approach that makes me want to produce work that encourages people to actively engage with the ideas presented. 

CT: For your latest project you have produced a series of photographs documenting life in two neighbouring towns on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Was your Mexican heritage a significant factor in your choice of photographic location? 

MD: Originally, I was going to shoot a project here in the UK, then I realised that Mexico kept on calling me for one reason or another. 

I am originally from Mexico and have been living abroad for 13 years -10 of them in London-. When I went to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo I had not been in Mexico for 6 years. This has made me an inside outsider when I am in Mexico, and an outsider that is inside when I am in the U.K. For this project I knew I didn’t want to make work that was exclusively of a personal nature. I also knew that my background, history and personal circumstances would have an influence on the work. This influence would hopefully lead me to a practice that would draw closer to a certain level of honesty. 

I went to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo because of their contrasting functions; one town is a tourist town and the other is where the workers live. The public services in one town are completely different to those in the other. For instance, the lighting; you would be on the main road between the two towns and suddenly the lighting would stop. It was not complete darkness, but the change in light gave the space a different feel. Although my initial interest was based on the differences between these towns, it evolved into a more complex multifaceted portrayal of the relationship between them.

CT: How did the project evolve from an attempt to challenge preconceptions of Mexico offered by the media and popular culture into capturing a sense of place?

MD: The project started as an exploration of the charged image of Mexico presented by the media and popular culture. This is an image of Mexico that appears as fixed and solid. I wanted to photograph different sides of Mexico, the sides I knew were there but which I never saw on the news or films.  

I would say as opposed to evolving from one thing into another, the project grew into an attempt to photograph how the place felt.  By this I mean presenting the subjective and personal qualities that shaped my experience of these two towns.

I started photographing a lot in transitional times of the day. The light is beautiful, it shines in a different way and the colours change. I became really interested not only in the light, but in how people change their attitude; the way we slow down a little bit and prepare ourselves for the night or how we start preparing ourselves for the day. 

CT: In another of your projects ‘Together’ you produced a series of photographs in the UK. How does your approach differ when engaging with communities in your native country compared to your adoptive home?

MD: I think in Europe we are very aware of the use of photography, we are aware of reality TV and documentary, and there is a different attitude when people are being photographed. I think that it influences the way you approach your subject and the way you approach telling a story. 

The light also has an impact, the quality of light is so different in the UK compared to Mexico. The colours in Mexico are more vibrant and the sun is high in the sky. The sunlight is on your face all the time. In the UK, I find the light much more subtle and much softer. It requires more investigation to unearth the layers not exposed by the light.

For me 'Together' represents who I am. I have lived in the UK for 13 years now. I know I will never become completely British because I’ve lived most of my life in Mexico, but little by little I am discovering what is underneath the layers of what I now call home. For me, it is great to be able to explore it through photography. Especially with a community like the one I met in the South West when working on the project ‘Together’, because I really believe in getting together, a sense of community, and knowing your neighbours. 

CT: Can you elaborate on the conversation that you had with the soldier when asking for permission to take his photograph? Why did his response; ‘Your photographs could be used by Drug Dealers’ become the title of the project?

MD: The Mexican government is trying to rebrand Mexico and they have bubble wrapped the tourist destinations like Ixtapa, which are very important to the Mexican economy. 

Everyday I used to pass in front of a residency for the families of soldiers that are protecting Ixtapa. One day I stopped outside and explained my project, I then asked a soldier if I could take his photograph. Initially, the soldier did not want his photograph taken for fear that it could be used by drug dealers. At the time it sounded ridiculous, however, within fifteen minutes he convinced me that standing there talking to him with a camera could put us both in danger.

In Mexico there is a fear which everyone lives with. The domestic tasks that fill the day can enable you to forget about it. The conversation with the soldier made the fear that is under the veneer of daily life so much more evident.

There is violence in the country, but it’s not the only thing and that was what this project was about. I thought titling the project ‘Your photographs could be used by Drug Dealers’ would immediately create a certain image in the audience’s mind. However, when you view the series of photographs, little by little the preconceived image disappears. Your expectations are subverted and there are more layers to be considered. 

CT: You have spoken about the principles behind the project stemming from an interest in exploring notions of meaning and interpretation in flux. How did this influence the installation and the format of the book?

For me ‘interpretation in flux’ relates to the way we experience life with its randomness and chaos. How our brains are constantly creating order, in an attempt to cling to a certain level of certainty. I would like to integrate this experience into the work, so that it would become evident that things that seem solid and fixed can be reassessed. 

I was a little bit scared that people would say you are relenting control as an author, it is easy to put things together with no sense of sequencing. 

However this is not what I was doing. Both the installation and the book are encouraging the audience to reconfigure and reassess the images in their own order, within a structure I have provided for them. The images have also been carefully curated and very much have my voice in them. I have learnt that if I don’t dictate my intentions for the project, but instead let audience make their own interpretations, it makes the work more engaging. 

I am interested in encouraging people to wonder why are they looking at things the way they are and what that says about the author, the images and themselves.

To see more of Monica's work click HERE

Purchase a copy of Your Photographs Could Be Used By Drug Dealers HERE

— Chloe True