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Full Frame: Worshipping Saint Death

A photographer visits Mexico's most notorious barrios, where death is the only truth in life.

Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field. See more Full Frame galleries here and here.

This photographic essay documents the culture of violence arising from the drug war in Mexico. The story was photographed mostly in the notorious barrios of Tepito and Nezahualcoytl in Mexico City. I also visited Ciudad Juarez where I was able, with the help of local journalists, to document at least a fraction of the rampant violence that has turned the border town into a war zone.

For me, the most important thing when telling this story was to shy away from the cliches and gore commonly presented by the media. I didn’t want to produce another piece full of guns, the military and dead bodies. I was more interested in giving a peek into the other side of this conflict, a side I don’t think has been explored as much.

I hoped to achieve this by focusing on the culture of death in some of these violent barrios, and on the gang members who inhabit and control these neighborhoods. Over a period of six months, I spent many weekend graveyard shifts riding shotgun on ambulances in Neza, and many days with a leica camera hiding under my coat in Tepito. It was often too dangerous to take pictures, and I had my life threatened physically on a few occasions. However, the vast majority of people were very kind to me, and helped me along any way they could.

Tepito, or “barrio bravo” (angry neighborhood), is one of the most infamous neighborhoods in Latin America. It has produced some of the most famous boxers, as well as some of the most notorious gangsters in Mexican history. It is home to “La Santa Muerte” (Saint Death) worship, with the most famous altar to Saint Death maintained in the center of the neighborhood. Saint Death worship, which mixes Catholicism and parts of ancient Aztec death worship, has grown at a rapid pace in recent years, as many in the poorer neighborhoods see death as the only truth in life. Religion has also been glorified in the narco-culture that is often idolized in the poorer regions.

About the photographer:

A San Francisco native, I studied photojournalism at SFSU, where I was surrounded and inspired by a group of amazing colleagues who push me to this day. During my university years, I often found myself drawn to take a semester away from school to work on social documentary projects throughout Latin America, mainly focusing on workers rights and social injustice. My inspiration for this was always my parents, my mother being a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad and my father a paramedic and staunch union activist. During a long break from school, I drove an old 1972 VW bug across Mexico and landed in Mexico City, where I am based to this day. My current Mexico work has recently been recognized by Photographer of the Year International, The National Press Photographer’s Association, Photo District News and the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association. I am a 2008 Eddie Adams Workshop Alumni.

See the work of more photographers:

Tim Hussin: Piles of sponges, Bahamas

Khaled Hasan: Living off stones, Bangladesh

Beth Dow: In a secret garden, Europe

Edwin Koo: When peace deals break down, Pakistan

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/090626/full-frame-mexicos-saint-death