For the past six years, German photographer Stefan Falke has been traveling the 2,000-mile-long border between the US and Mexico, meeting local artists and taking their pictures. The resulting series, La Frontera, offers a welcome reprieve from the media reports and rumors of violence that surround the area today.
In May, Edition Faust published a German-language book about the project, and many of Falke’s images will be on display at Photoville in New York, beginning tomorrow. We spoke with Falke about his expansive project, the artists he met along the way, and how the border wall has impacted cultural life for them.
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Laura C. Mallonee: When did you first develop the concept for La Frontera?
Stefan Falke: I started La Frontera in the fall of 2008. I wanted to find out if there was a normal and cultural life along the border despite all the bad news that reached us about the violence in most cities there. I simply was interested what life in the shadow of the border looked like and if it was as bad as the news media wanted us to believe.
LCM: You’re a German immigrant to the US, and you live in Brooklyn. How did you become so interested in a subject so far away?
SF: I grew up in Germany and moved to New York at the age of 30, and the border between East and West Germany had a huge impact on my imagination. My old hometown used to be 100 miles from the border with East Germany. Now it’s in the middle of Germany. The wall, or the disappearance of the wall, had a big effect. If you look at Berlin, the arts scene is vibrant now. Difficult humanitarian situations always produce a lot of art. People need to find a way to express themselves. I wondered if that was true in the case of the US–Mexico border wall too.
LCM: Why did you feel it was an important topic to pursue?
SF: I believe constantly negative news about a particular region in the world turn our minds to think negatively about that region and to stop caring about the people who live there and who have normally nothing to do with the negative or violent events.
LCM: Why should we pay attention to the cultural side of troubled places?
SF: Because when we realize that a region has more to offer than we hear about in the news — like culture, every place has culture — we will start caring about the people who live there and we will value the troubled places more and be more concerned about the well-being of the people lIving and working there.
LCM: Why do you think the cultural side of this region has been ignored in the US?
SF: It has been ignored to keep the fear of it up in the US. Many people — or ‘forces’ — are interested in keeping a negative image of the border region alive in order to build more walls or fences and spend more money on border patrol, etc. And the more negative its image, the less questions we ask about what exactly is going on in that region.
LCM: Are you saying news about the violence is exaggerated?
SF: I’m not denying any of the violence. But at the same time, the violence is created by a few people who disturb the whole society. And it shifts. It’s getting better in some places and worse in others. People still talk about the violence in Tijuana and Juarez, which today, in my opinion, is not really true anymore. It’s going more east today. When we talk about violent cities these days, we usually point at the wrong ones.
LCM: Several of the artists featured in the series deal with violence in their work. What are the advantages of an artist talking about violence versus the news media?
SF: The usual forms of local media — TV, news reports, the radio — are just not reporting on it as much any more, because it gets too dangerous. So they resort to reporting on arts and entertainment. The entertainment parts get bigger and bigger, and the news part gets smaller and smaller. So what’s happened is that some artists who deal with the situation are often the only ones talking about it, because they’ve usually been left alone [by the gangs]. Some of them have projects in the works that I couldn’t even talk about when I came back from various trips to the border for fear of putting them at risk. I always ask them, ‘Do you think I’m putting you at risk?’ And they usually say, ‘No, not at all, but at the same time we don’t know if we are at risk. You just don’t know until something happens.’ With journalists, they just know, because a lot of aggression is targeted toward them. As soon as someone reports on something that somebody doesn’t want in the papers, they will get attacked.
But there is a lot of ‘normal’ art along the border, lots of fun art, and lots of young people expressing themselves more with color than with content. I would say it is about 50/50.
LCM: How did you find the subjects you photographed?
SF: I usually do some online research about a few artists before I travel to a region on the border in order to have a few good subjects and contacts when I get there. Then I photograph those artists and ask them about their favorite artists in the area. That way, I’m not biased before I get there. The project is not about me liking somebody or their art. It is about finding artists who are actively and currently working in their field and who have some kind of an influence (usually positive) on their community. It is more about the artist than about his or her art.
LCM: Do any of your subjects stand out in your mind?
SF: All the women I photographed stand out. There are very brave and outspoken artists like theater director/writer/actress Perla de la Rosa (Juarez), performance artist Patricia Ruiz (Matamoros), photographer Sandra Jasso (Nuevo Laredo), and many more who have risked a lot in order to do their art and educate their communities about what is really going on around them.
LCM: How has the wall impacted these artists?
SF: The worst part I think is that people — especially Americans and very particularly American art collectors — are too afraid to visit any border city because of the constantly negative news. Even today, when cities like Tijuana and even Ciudad Juarez are relatively safe to visit, Americans do not cross the border any more. Needless to say, the lack of a market makes the financial survival of the artists very difficult. Most artists who are successful financially are in places like Tijuana. Some are museum directors or have some kind of institutional role. Almost all, in some way, shape, or form, are teaching in schools or universities. They really want to teach others about their art.
LCM: What about the wall’s impact on cultural life?
SF: The border does not stop cultural exchange at all. Artists seem to know each other very well, and lots of them collaborate. Since there is no market for their art, especially on the Mexican side of the border, there is also no competition — which is good in the sense that the art is made for the art, not for commerce. Where I come from, we try to protect our knowledge because there’s a market for it. In New York, art is about who is who, gallery openings, being seen, etc. Along the border, the art is often (though not always) there to educate, communicate, share, and have fun. The striving for individual fame is not in the forefront. I’ve never seen so many artists willing to share their knowledge and work together, sometimes four or five people working together on the same painting. Nobody cares about mine and yours. It’s ours.
LCM: You’ve visited 180 artists already and published a photo book about the project in Germany. What’s next?
SF: There are still some smaller towns along the border I have not been to yet, and I do not want to leave out any of them. And then there are so many more interesting artists to visit in the larger cities. One of my main goals — besides a book in the US and more exhibitions in the US and Mexico — is a large interactive website that would connect the whole border with itself on a cultural basis. For that — if I find the funding — I would continue to travel to the border at times and add more artists and stories to the site.
Stefan Falke’s La Frontera will be on display at Photoville (Pier 5, Brooklyn Bridge Park), from September 18–28.