The most memorable photographic exhibition I visited during my eight-month Mexico sojourn – and I went to quite a few – was much more than just a Sunday afternoon diversion. It was a lesson in cultural difference, and in a Mexican way of looking at death and disaster.
I’d already seen too many images of dead humans in the spacious gallery space by the time I examined a black-and-white photo of a boy lying dead on a road, blood streaming onto the concrete. He’d been knocked off his bicycle by a car in Colonia Roma Norte. Next to this image, another shot, taken the previous decade (the 1950s) and another child, sprawling lifelessly on the same street; in this one, children and adults have gathered around to stare.
A colour photo from the late 1970s showed a female journalist who had been hit by a car in the city centre one sunny afternoon. According to those in the know, she had visited a beauty parlour just that morning. She appears to be straddled over a diagonal metal pole – eyes to the sky, and nails shining.
Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos
I saw these at the Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos, a sleek modern gallery in a scrappy, flyblown part of Mexico City, while walking round an exhibition of work by Enrique Metinides, a photographer employed by La Prensa who is still alive in his 80s.
The walls were arrayed with images of murder victims, suicides and still more grisly accidents. Nowhere in the exhibition notes, nor in the quotes by the photographer, was there any recognition that close-ups of car smashes and pylon electrocutions are at all macabre.
A taste for the macabre?
Dead bodies are still a source of intrigue in this part of the world. While having my shoes polished on a street corner one day I looked at the front page of my polisher’s tabloid. A roadside sweet seller had been mown down by a wayward car. Here he was, prostrate and surrounded by packets of mints, under a headline which translates something like ‘Not So Sweet’.
A few days after the Metinides exhibition I was walking to a Spanish class in Avenida Baja California, Roma Sur, when I saw a police motorcycle blocking a road at the big intersection. A guy had come off his own motorcycle and was lying flat out on the road. A few policemen stood around him, and on the pavements at all four corners passersby had stopped to look. I only looked for as long as it took me to cross the road and go about my business. (And I say this merely to describe my reaction for you, and not to pass judgement on the starers).
But was it, in fact, alright to look? If it was alright to look around that exhibition, then the answer is probably yes.
Meanwhile, the victim wasn’t receiving the slightest bit of medical attention or comfort. A sign that he was not badly hurt; or, conversely, a very bad sign.