Published January 11, 2013
Translated from Spanish after first appearing on Animal Politico.
This interview is based on Louie Palu’s 5-part series on the US-Mexico border, which covers a variety of border-related issues including the drug war. This work was funded with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellowship from the New America Foundation.
Animal Politico: To begin with, we would like to know how you decided to do this feature on the situation of the US-Mexico border. What was your objective in doing so?
Louie Palu: I am always attracted to stories that I feel are underreported. When I started working in Afghanistan in 2006-07 all the attention was focused on Iraq, making Afghanistan a forgotten war. When I was completing my work in Afghanistan in 2010, my sights were set on Latin America. Mexico in particular receives very little coverage considering what has been going on there relative to all the bloated coverage the Middle East receives.
Animal Politico: How did you prepare for your journey through one of the most dangerous borders in the world? Did you seek any kind of security/immunity? Did you talk to any Mexican photojournalists about how to work your way around the border towns and cities?
Louie Palu: The first thing I did was months before going to the border region I made multiple border-related contacts throughout the US and Mexico, including writers, photographers, poets, politicians, priests and humanitarian workers. I built a network of people throughout the areas I planned to work in that I could call on to get an idea of what the danger level was at certain times and in specific places. However, the most important contacts you can make are with people who live in the communities; this takes time. You have to walk around a lot and get to know the people who live in these areas. They are your best sources and contacts. Restaurant owners, street vendors and other people journalists don’t normally talk to are the best guides in my experience. I had no security or immunity from danger and I credit my experience of growing up surrounded by a variety of organized crime in Canada for teaching me how to behave in these environments. I also worked in Kandahar, Afghanistan for many years and learned many strategies to remain off the radar of people who are looking to do violence to others.
Animal Politico: Out of all you shot throughout the five cities, what stood out the most? What had the most impact on you?
Louie Palu: This is a very hard question to answer. What stood out to me was what I could not photograph. I was warned on many occasions by many people to never go to Nuevo Laredo or Tamaulipas in general due to the violence and organized crime groups there. I think what shocked me was that the Mexican government has no control over the state of Tamaulipas and it can be argued that several parts of Mexico are also not under any government control--after several months of work, that stood out to me. My wish is to go to Tamaulipas one day without the threat of death to do some work.
Animal Politico: What type of response did you get from your contacts, be it government or civil organizations? Being a foreigner, were your contacts open and willing to talk about their situation?
Louie Palu: If I was in the D.F. no one was afraid to speak their mind, especially the politicians. However the border states were very different, actually I found a big disconnect between the government and some journalists' views of what the northern border states were like from the reality of what I heard and saw. Being a photographer many people in violent areas initially are very afraid of being photographed for fear of being killed. People in the border regions were very open with me and helped me a lot. Many in these regions have suffered a lot and want everyone, including their government and the Americans, to know what is going on. I got many warnings through friendly channels to avoid certain areas or people. The problem is sooner or later you are seen enough times at crime scenes where people start to ask who you are and you have no idea who’s side the person is on or what interest they have in wanting to know your personal information. Sadly, the Mexican army is very closed and not open to journalists and though I was promised many times by a number of Mexican officials that the army would take me out to show me their operations, they always ended up saying no and stopped responding to my requests. It’s unfortunate, because I have been out on operations with numerous army units throughout the world and it communicates at a minimum some transparency.
Animal Politico: Now that you have captured the northern border, would you consider doing a piece on the southern one?
Louie Palu: Well there are still some unfinished areas of work throughout Mexico I would like to work on including Tamaulipas. The southern border would definitely be of interest to me, however I hear that it is even more dangerous than the northern one. I am also interested in covering the US side of the border, because it is as much a part of Mexican identity as the Mexican side of the border, because really for a long time the US states on the border were a part of Mexico. Many American roots in these border areas are more Mexican than American. That really interests me. My first visit to Mexico was in 1991 to Oaxaca. I remember people inviting me into their homes right off the street and offering me food and drink after they found out I was a photographer; they never asked for money.
Animal Politico: Without a doubt, the war on drugs has left behind thousands of deaths and stories that have been told throughout different media. What is your stance on Mexican photojournalism?
Louie Palu: I have worked with and around many Mexican photojournalists; they are some of the best photographers in the world. They risk their lives everyday to report the news. Tragically several have been killed for the work they do. I think the Mexican government needs to do more to protect journalists from violence, which starts by investigating, bringing to trial and punishing those responsible for killing journalists. For me, Mexican photographers such as Julian Cardona and Graciela Iturbide are great teachers who use photography to explain things that words cannot. They have been great inspirations for me and my work, I admire them very much.
Animal Politico: Back in the spring of 2011, more than 700 Mexican media outlets signed an agreement on how to better cover violence caused by organized crime in the country. Some of the criteria included not to become spokespeople for criminal groups, and to limit the broadcast and distribution of photographs depicting explicit violence. How do you stand on this? Are pictures of the violence caused by organized crime necessary or do they just feed our morbid curiosity?
Louie Palu: This is a very important question. It is true that Mexican organized crime groups have in many cases used and continue to influence the media to spread their message(s), intimidate the public and spread fear. However, without proper security and justice reforms protecting the media in vulnerable communities and cities, organized criminals are out of reach of the law and continue to exert influence on every area of Mexican daily life, including in the government and the media. When I use the words security and justice reforms, I use them to speak broadly on the issue of impunity in Mexico--which I feel is one of the core issues in Mexico that fuels the violence, the fact that few people are charged and/or convicted for their crimes. I have spoken to newspaper vendors in cities where there have been daily killings and they confirm that newspaper sales are higher when the front page and newspaper has images of violence. I think that people generally are interested in knowing what is happening in their community, but I think the problem is more with the fact that there are also many non-journalists taking photos and posting them online as well, adding to the visual “noise” that is shocking people. The question I think news editors should always ask themselves is, are the photos teaching something or simply just shocking people. Then again I am sure that the stream of violent visual imagery has put pressure on the Mexican government to confront the problem of drug related violence as well.
Animal Politico: Reporters like Jon Lee Anderson have assured that fear has saved their lives many times during the coverage of conflict zones. Throughout your experience in Afghanistan, what measures do you take in order to do your job without putting your life in danger? What advice do you have for young photojournalists who want to trudge the path of covering armed conflicts?
Louie Palu: The biggest issue I have been trying to impress upon young photographers who are thinking of covering conflict is being aware of the psychological trauma you face doing this work. Very few people prepare themselves for this. I personally know there is a point when you do this work where you permanently lose a part of yourself to the continual wave of tragedy and violence you witness. I have many friends and colleagues who suffer from mental illness from this type of work. If it doesn’t already exist, I think that some sort of support group should travel through Mexico visiting media outlets and offer free and anonymous counseling to journalists who cover violence. On the physical side of the danger, there is a point quite early on that if you decide to do this work you must accept that there are inherent dangers that come with the job.
In Afghanistan, my worst fear was stepping on a land mine and losing my legs. I saw many people step on land mines and have their body parts blown off, including severely wounded children. As a photographer you have be very close to events, usually a few feet away from what you are photographing. Photographers normally have to work closer to what’s going on than a writer, so the danger covering frontline combat as a photographer can be very risky. In Afghanistan there were times there when I covered daily firefights between insurgents and US/Canadian/British soldiers. Fear can save you, then again in a war zone you can be killed when you least expect it including indirect mortar fire, sniper fire, ambushes and IEDs, which are home-made bombs usually planted underground that you step on while walking down a path.
Animal Politico: In your experience, what is more complicated for a photojournalist, covering an openly declared war--like in the case of Afghanistan--or doing a feature on a country where there is no actual "war", but where as a journalist, you are a sitting duck at every moment?
Louie Palu: These are two very complex conflicts to cover, each having their own extreme challenges, especially when you have cameras hanging from your shoulders advertising what you do. I wanted to start by saying that many people compare what’s happening in Mexico to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very different in many ways. To begin with far more civilians and soldiers have died in Afghanistan over the course of what has turned into 30 years of continuous and total war and you are as much a sitting duck in Afghanistan as in Mexico if not more. There are also the issues of land mines, suicide bombings, kidnappings and all out battles using heavy weapons. Afghanistan is also the world’s largest producer by far over any other country of heroin. This means that there are plenty of narco-related criminals there as well. Added to this, Afghanistan sits between problematic states like Iran and Pakistan. Mexico is a G-20 country, Afghanistan is one of the poorest least developed countries in the world. Ironically, where they are similar is the level of corruption and impunity. The problem of working in Mexico is that you can’t see the danger coming and there are limited avenues for your protection. Right now, if I were in trouble in Afghanistan I could maybe run to a US base for help. By contrast, in Mexico you have no idea if the police you run to for help are good and will assist you or are corrupt. My biggest fear in Mexico was that someone would come and abduct me at night while I was asleep or that gunmen would pull up beside my car and shoot me, simply because I was a journalist.