Photographer Captures Commuting Culture in Mexico
Photography by Alejandro Cartagena
Born in the Dominican Republic, but living in Mexico for the last twenty years, Mr. Alejandro Cartagena left his previous career to become a photographer. Currently, he divides his time between personal projects and assignments for international magazines and foundations, as well as caring for his babies, Fausto and Carlota. His upcoming book, “Carpoolers,” “is part of a larger body of work entitled “Suburbia Mexicana” which considers the interdependence of humans and landscape in the face of urban expansion. Although artists and activists alike have focused on the negative impact of urban sprawl since the 1960s, Cartagena’s work is unique in its preoccupation with the largely overlooked, irrevocable effects of suburban expansion within a local ecosystem.”
Q: How did you get interested in photography?
A: I had always been interested in art. I studied music but eventually understood I wasn’t that good at playing it. After that, I finished a degree in leisure management and worked in the hotel and restaurant business. Then I started shooting photographs for fun, took some workshops and felt I was doing something that was very, very fulfilling. One day I quit my job and started shooting. I eventually understood I needed to have some sort of education in art and photography but I didn’t want to do another 4 years of college, so I ended up volunteering at a photography center where I learned everything there is about photography. I started scanning the archive and ended up printing and curating exhibitions for them. That’s when I decided to get a masters degree in art to really dig into the art side of my practice. It’s been a ride!
Q: How did you come up with your “carpoolers” and “urban transportation” projects?
A: I wanted to portray the way people travel from the suburbs to Monterrey’s metro area. There is such a lack of interest from the authorities in building an ecological and efficient city that people have to risk their lives by going to work this way. For some, it is truly the only way to save money (transportation systems to the new suburbs are often are non existent or expensive) and get to work on time.
Q: What was it in particular about freeways and automobiles as part of the urban landscape that interested you?
A: It’s a love/hate thing for me. I find both of them very beautiful subjects for my photographs but at the same time I see them as symbols of how we were sold into believing that progress and development means bigger cities and highways. Representing their use is also a statement about how we need to rethink our approaches to building cities and transportation. We can’t be a society without automobiles but maybe we can design better cities in order to not use them as much.
Q: How did you physically shoot the photographs for these projects? Were you on a bridge or overpass? How long did it take you to complete both of the series?
A: I shot for a whole year. I went once or twice a week from 7am to 9am only. I found a bridge that crossed over highway 85 in Monterrey. This is one of the busiest highways that connects the north and south of the metro area. I would stand looking toward the oncoming traffic and if I spotted a truck with a full cabin, I would run into the lane and stick half my body out with the camera in hand to get one or two shots of the truck zooming bye. It took practice to get them in frame. I have a lot of misses!
Q: Do you enjoy classic cars? If so, which are your favorite and why?
A: I am not particularly in love with classic cars but I do find it fascinating how styles and designs have changed over time. You can see the zeitgeist of a time period just from the cars’ looks.
Q: Could you describe the vintage car culture in your city, and in Mexico in general?
A: In Monterrey, there’s a lot of love for the discontinued VW Beetle. They call them “boshos” here. Once a week near my house, a big group gets together in the parking lot of a mall to show off their cars. That car is a big symbol of the working class here in Mexico and there is pride that we were one of the last places producing them before production ended.
Q: How does where you live affect your work?
A: My work is about where I live. That’s why I love doing it: because it’s a commentary on the things that make me upset or happy about my world.
Q: Assuming you narrowed down your projects to a specific amount of photos, did the cars play a role in which ones you selected, or was it more about the people or contents of the cars?
A: Both. In some of the pictures, the actual automobile is what’s important and in others it’s the people and context. When I shoot I look for things that make me feel something, so I usually don’t discriminate much. The editing process is where I decide which photos I leave in, in order to tell a coherent story.
For a link to preorder “Carpooling,” click here.
To check out more of Alejandro’s photography, click here.