Equipped with his Leica Q-P, the Mexican photographer documented life at the Matamoros migrant camp. Extending over three hectares, the camp is located very close to the southern Texan city of Brownville. The American Dream seems to be within grasp; yet the camp and the so-called land of unlimited possibilities are worlds apart. Rodríguez’s haunting black and white images speak not only of sadness, but also of hope for a better life. He tells us here about his approach, what he observed, and what message he hopes to convey to the viewer.
You are a documentary photographer, focusing on social documentaries. What took you to this camp?
Ever since I took a basic photography course, people have been my main focus. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I’m really interested in other people’s stories. I’m interested in the big stories, but also the not so obviously big ones.
How did you come across this particular camp in Mexico close to the U.S. border, and what triggered the idea to make a story there?
This was an assignment for The Washington Post Magazine. Hector Guerrero, a photographer and friend, told me he had passed my name on to the editor, Dudley Brooks. Mr. Brooks contacted me and told me the story. The story came from Emily Kaplan, the reporter I accompanied to the camp. She was the one who pitched it and then I was assigned to cover it. It was a fast assignment. I started on February 12th and finished on February 16th. Emily Kaplan had already been to the camp and she knew a lot of people there.
Are you planning another visit in the future?
I am planning to go back. Covid allowing, around September-November. I received a grant from The Ground Truth Project to continue documenting the people in the camp and their stories.
How did you manage to get access to intimate situations, like family life in the camp?
Sometimes Emily had already spoken with the people and told them what we were doing; so when I arrived, they were okay with my taking photos. Sometimes it was a matter of them opening up and letting us be there to document and be in the moment. It really wasn’t us who “got access”; it was the people letting us be there, trusting us to document their stories with objectivity.
From your observations, what would you say were the most significant things about the the people living under these conditions?
I can only imagine how extremely hard living in the camp must be; but, despite this, people are trying to be positive, they are self organized, they have tasks, and, from time to time, they try to have moments of liberation, like the quinceañera party, (sweet 15 celebration). Moments like this can perhaps distract them just a little bit from what they are experiencing.
Did you have your camera on hand all the time when you were in the camp?
I walked around with my camera most of the time; but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think before I take photos. Sometimes I believe that photographers can see small glimpses of the future: if we are good observers, we can predict things before they happen; so, sometimes that means staying in one place for hours just waiting for things to happen. In projects like this, when there is only a short time to take photos, the interactions can be quick ones, which is why I say that the first minutes are important.
What would you say is your biggest challenge when taking photos in general?
The biggest challenge may well be the first moments of interaction with the people I will be photographing. I have to establish some kind of relationship. It might just take a minute, or maybe days. It might just be saying “hi” or smiling.
How do you find your narratives?
I look for things that capture my attention, things that I am interested in; and if I want to know more, I go and look for myself.
Why do you prefer black and white over colour? What do you see as the advantages of black and white?
I have always liked black and white photos. When I took my basic photography course, we started with black and white film, so maybe that is one reason; otherwise, there is no particular answer except than I love black and white photos.
Why do you prefer natural light? What does light mean to you?
I don’t use a flash. I have one flash and sometimes I take it with me, telling myself, “take it, explore and experiment with it”, but I never do. Sometimes I would like to be more experimental and try new things, but I haven’t yet managed to do so.
What do you intend to achieve with the Matamoros project? What message would you like to get across?
I would like people to understand what people who migrate from their homes have to go through, to maybe have a chance of a better life. People who migrate have the hope that life will be better at their final destination, but the road in order to get there is very difficult for most of them. Even when they are in places like the migrant camp, suffering, struggling, missing their loved ones, and scared, they are still hopeful that they will have a better life. So I want people to realize that they are seeking the qualities of a better life, just like us all. I want people to relate to them; I want to make people think and question.
Weary of his job working in a chocolate factory, Mexican-born César Rodríguez turned to photography in 2013 – a decision that changed his life. After studying photography for a year, he began working on projects that tell the stories of his fellow human beings. His aim is to give a voice to those who are too often overlooked by society. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram.