More than a Wall/Mas que un Muro: Photographs and Oral Histories by David Bacon
reviewed by Alberto del Castillo Troncoso
From the Afterword: A journey through images By Alberto del Castillo Troncoso. The book is bi-lingual with text face to face in both languages.
Documentary photography occupies a very important place in the history of photography. Toward the end of the 19th century, Jacob Riis dared to explore how the other half lived and showed the dangerous conditions of immigrants. At the same time, later, Lewis Hines depicted child exploitation in the United States - presumably the land of progress and prosperity. Documentary photographers have long been aware of the enormous contribution that the language of images makes when displayed in the public space.
David Bacon has worked with images as vehicles for consciousness in his effort to show the working conditions and exploitation of immigrants and other groups in the U.S. and Mexico since the mid-1980s. This determination is part of his activism and work for the defense of workers' rights on both sides of the border. Through the solidarity he has created with workers and migrants, he has been able to build the necessary empathy to carry out his work, which is unique for the respect and closeness he achieves with these groups, the affirmation of their political struggles but also of their personal identities, and his purpose of going beyond the merely descriptive record of their lives to produce images and essays of a great aesthetic and documentary richness.
In this new book, More than a Wall/Mas que un Muro, Bacon confirms that for thirty years, his work of photographing the border has been about not only accounting for the physical presence of migrants but also incorporating their voices. Indeed, this intimate dialogue between photography and oral history stands as one of the most significant elements of his work, distinguishing him from others and at the same time, bestowing it with a personal signature, that of an author committed to political activism and who uses it to create a harmonious relationship between the images and texts he writes, which also culminated in photographic books and exhibitions.
The 413 images published in this book, made between 1985 and 2018, are the result of an intense process of review and editing by the author drawing from his almost 20 thousand images. The chosen photographs are intertwined in a visual narrative that leaves no room for anonymity as it chronicles a succession of real conditions in people’s lives, turning them into active subjects that defy oppression and not merely passive victims of circumstances and repression. The photos focus on human beings with real names and surnames, who are generally made invisible by the powerful and the media but who, in these pages, recover their voice and intimacy, and their physiognomy, as unique and unrepeatable.
Bacon’s images are not limited to being vehicles of denunciation but use framing and composition to create a distinctive aesthetic, sometimes achieved with telephoto shots and others using a wide-angle lens. “I am a man of extremes,” says Bacon with irony in an interview with the author of this epilogue-, showing a personal interpretation of reality that identifies him as a creator with a particular vision of the world, building his own universe.
In this unusual journey, the photographer looks at both sides of the border to collect the life stories of immigrants as well as their community and work experiences, crossed as they are by important struggles of resistance we learn about throughout the book.
The visual narrative of this book gives context to these stories and many others. It also does much more than simply illustrate them, offering the coordinates to build and create a variety of different imaginaries that allow other readings of the border and migration.
An important theme is that of deportees and their families. These are the portraits of people who have been expelled from the U.S. and who are photographed on the Mexican side of the border, in their new life circumstances, living in modest encampments, hotels and shelters, or wandering in the streets and avenues of cities in northern Mexico, facing, day after day, the precariousness of their surroundings, in conditions of extreme vulnerability to poverty and violence.
Tragedy is seen through concrete stories with subjects identified by their full names. These images could be hung on the walls of any museum, but they belong to and express the type of photography that is at the service of a political cause. Bacon manages to overcome the stereotype that surrounds the theme of migrants and bring us closer to their true human faces.
The photographer says these images are intended to document not only the real struggles of people but to be used in other places and contexts to inspire others to organize their own efforts to confront and try to put an end to this competitive, unequal and inhumane system in a spirit of solidarity.
As David Bacon points out in this book, these images' uniqueness enables their universality. The particular approach to the resistance, struggle and dignity of migrants and workers in very specific conditions is what allows us to read these images differently and place them as part of the world puzzle in which other conflictive places are recognized, from the migration of people in Libya and Honduras to the increasingly dangerous journey to cross from Africa to Europe through the border of death that the Mediterranean Sea has become.
This complex photographic work, encompassing the experience of several decades of an author with a strong professional and political commitment, with the proven skill to handle a diversity of angles and perspectives, genres and themes, ranging from portrait to landscape, is, above all, a work that categorically shows the enormous transformative power of images.