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Alejandro Cartagena: Born in the USA

Cartagena's carpoolers expose the "invisible" human cargo between the US-Mexican border

“Carpooler” usually evokes the rather bland vision of soccer moms and suburban commuters, so the cramped figures literally packed like human cargo into the backs of pick-up trucks in Alejandro Cartagena’s photographs are anything but expected. Based in Monterey, Mexico, Cartegna employs such startling portraiture as a means of examining greater social, urban, and environmental issues. In ironic contrast to those below, we are given a god’s eye-view of the “invisible” traffic often illegally shuttled over the US-Mexican border. And yet, chances are, this "cargo" will be responsible for providing a majority of indispensable services "on the other side," such as construction work, pool and garden maintenance, as well as minding other people’s children.

More than a simple problem of border control or immigration, the greater question raised by Carpoolers and Born in America concerns the arbitrary line drawn between the haves and have-nots of the world—underscored by a growing gap of wealth distribution and equal employment opportunities. Cartagena’s direct gaze on our increasingly globalised yet polarised communities makes this question impossible for us to ignore.

What’s the story behind Carpoolers and Born in the USA?

These two projects are continuations of the main subject of my work: the city and the border. In Carpoolers I was interested in making visible how people here in Mexico are buying into the “American Dream” of homeownership, without considering the consequences. For Born in the USA I am exploring the border-towns between USA and Mexico—a place charged with the dreams, violence, struggles, and customs that have become natural to its inhabitants.

What influences your work?

Living in Latin America, and having the opportunity to explore different cultures through traveling or study. I want to talk about the things that make me who I am. I hope I can present alternative views on these cultural constructs that I´ve inherited.

What are you trying to achieve through your photos?

I wanted to show how many people are still trying to cross the Mexican border to have their child in an American hospital, just so that it can acquire automatic citizenship. The people portrayed in my work are doing what their parents did, or what their great grandparents did, without asking too many questions. 

Is there anything unique about the techniques you use?

I usually work on long-term projects that add thematically to what I’ve already addressed in previous works. Sometimes I end up contradicting myself, and that always makes—at least for me—the work more interesting and honest. 

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting these series?

Lately its been a bit scary to shoot here in Mexico, but I try not to think about it too much. Most of the people potrayed in my work are strangers. I think I’ve been quite lucky to have so many participate in my photographs as its normal to be scared off for security reasons.

Alejandro Cartagena's Carpoolers is on show at the Houston Fine Art Fair on September 19th-22nd 2013 and Paris Photo on November 14th-17th 2013. 

Thanks to Capricious Magazine, buy issue #14 here