Behind the camera

Visiting photographer at Notre Dame documents violent conflict in Mexico.

Voces Latinas

By Pablo Ros

One of his photographs on display at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies shows a Zapatista rebel bearing a no-nonsense expression on his face while pointing a firearm directly at the man behind the camera, Antonio Turok.

In another, a freckled boy with light hair is doing the same. A third shows a bus in flames that the artist is spying from behind the camera after a bout of civil unrest in the colonial streets of a Mexican city — the bus burning brightly, and beautifully, in the night.

Such violence.

The 20th-century history of Mexico and Central America is plagued with civil war and unrest. And Turok, Visiting Fellow at the ILS who is teaching a photography class at ND this fall, has documented much of it.

The exhibit, titled “35 Years of Photography,” includes images of civil uprising in Chiapas and, most recently, Oaxaca. But it also contains scenes of everyday life in Mexico — particularly Chiapas, where some of the poorest and most disregarded people of Mexico live and where Turok resided for 30 years — consistent with what I understood to be the artist’s vision.

Those who took up arms might have seen no alternative to violence. Like the Zapatistas, they had been victimized by abusive, apathetic and ineffective government. The world around them seemed hostile.

One of my favorite photographs in Turok’s exhibit is titled “Solar Eclipse.” It shows the chaotic, fearful reaction of a flock of birds to the total eclipse of the sun above them — a metaphor, perhaps, for the neglectful, social circumstances where violence germinates.

Turok was born in Mexico City but is half American and speaks English without an accent. If it weren’t for the three layers of clothing he wore on a day when temperatures reached the upper 60s, I might have taken him for a local.

The night before I met Turok he had been in Chicago documenting the jubilation that followed the election of Barack Obama as president.

Turok is a documentary photographer with a keen, aesthetic eye. Many of his photographs are striking because of their beauty.

Turok told me he already knows what he is looking for before he goes out to shoot.

So I asked him what he had been looking for in Oaxaca, where a teachers’ strike in 2006 turned violent.

Turok said he wanted to answer this question: What makes human beings so desperate they’re willing to die for something? Why does David go up against Goliath?

It’s a question he’s probably asked himself throughout his long career.

But if Turok has a journalist’s passion for documenting history, he also has an artist’s ability to convey meaning from a reordering of the world around him.

If the theme of the photographs on exhibit until Jan. 9 encompasses violent conflict, it also touches on the human condition of some of the world’s most unseen people