By Marco Vera
Photographer Stefan Falke's "La Frontera" project compassionately portrays the multidisciplinary and spirited arts and culture topography of the unconventional dissection between Mexico and the United States. Both a pilgrimage and a devoted reassertion of artistry as a valuable jewel, photographed in important cities on both sides of the border, "La Frontera" succeeds in humanizing the dividing line through an invigorating use of portraiture. Artists in border cities such as Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros were documented by Falke, spanning the entire 2000 mile physical divide and assembling 180 skilled creators to demonstrate that the border region is much more than the sensationalism portrayed in the corporate media for ratings through depictions of violence. As valuable a document as the remarkable statement it presents, "La Frontera" fences off prejudice, bias and compromised visions of frontier life by situating us face to face with its masterminds and popular culture.
Stefan Falke experienced a comparable contact with boundaries growing up in Germany, a relational reality that highly influenced his attraction to this photographic journey. "The "La Frontera" project started because I wanted to understand the border, see it, and then find out if there is normal life despite all the bad news we were getting in the U.S.," comments Falke. "I grew up in Germany and we had our own brutal physical border, which is gone now, but the US-Mexican border is growing day by day. I wanted to show a different picture about a region that is only portrayed by bad news about murder, kidnappings, drug wars, illegal immigration issues, etc." Stefan Falke was particularly taken aback by the border region's magnificent size and its abundance in cultural styles, movements, and identities. "I was surprised to find 'La Frontera,' the border region, the size of a country almost; a 2000 mile long stretch on both sides of the border with very different regions and a rich and vibrant culture," exclaims Falke.
The trajectory of the project commenced on the west coast border, later migrating eastbound via Falke's constant determination to obtain a comprehensive portrait of the frontier's cultural players and their legacies. "I started in Tijuana in 2008, always wanted to travel there. Then I returned there several times because the art scene there is so big and lively, which gave me the confidence and contacts to branch out to other cities. After successful funding through a public fundraising campaign and money from a German photography foundation grant, I went to the 'opposite' side, to Brownsville and Matamoros. From there to McAllen and Reynosa, and Juarez. Then Arizona, Nogales, Agua Prieta, back to El Paso and Juarez again. Juarez is very big and has lots of interesting artists!" exclaims Falke. The project called for several return excursions and for more empathetic, artistic exchanges. "All in all I think I did eight separate trips to the border. I always researched a few artists just to have contacts there when I arrived. Then I would photograph those and ask them whom else they found interesting. Artists along the border mostly know of and work with other artists, they all seem to help each other out and create art together, so it was kind of easy to find them. I would also always go to the local art museums and institutions and ask for their favorite artists," states Falke.
Stereotypes are born from some sort of reality, and the border was definitely a violent place around the time the "La Frontera" adventure commenced, always a fascinating factor for any photographer seeking to go beyond the evident perils in order to develop a more intimate portrait of a community. "I was very afraid and paranoid in many cities, especially in the beginning. Always thinking about the dangers. But as soon as I would meet an artist and started to work with him or her, the fear was gone! Artists usually know their cities well, so they could tell me what to do and what not to do and which areas to avoid at what times, plus they always made me feel at home. Every city had someone who would kind of adopt me, drive me around and introduce me to artists. I met so many very kind people, many of whom are friends now," confides Falke. The trip did not continue without its share of hazards, censorship and humor. "I walked across the bridge from Brownsville into Matamoros and the Mexican army made me delete a picture I took of the 'Bienvenido a México' sign on the bridge. I guess for security reasons," confesses Falke.
As more artists and cities lent their time and experience to the "La Frontera" project, enduring connections tied the border together in the collaborative concept of sharing frontier arts and culture with a larger, international public. "In Nogales I was hanging out with the cool videographer Tino Varela who was essential in getting to know the city and it's artists. Tochirock Gallegos in Reynosa is a very good photographer who became part of my project and whose photo has been published widely. I like the effect the project has for some of the participating artists. Alfredo Libre Gutierrez, a great muralist from Tijuana, was just invited to Frankfurt, Germany, along with TJ artists David Maung and Pablo Llana to show their work. The project is starting to show a ripple effect internationally. We love that. As I said elsewhere, many of the participating artists have become friends and we are in touch a lot," affirms Falke. Falke also affirms that border arts and culture are not exclusive, male dominated affairs. "I was also most impressed by the many female artists in all the border cities, like Perla de la Rosa (theater director/actor/writer) in Juarez or Patricia Ruiz in Matamoros, two of the most outspoken and courageous artists I have met," confirms Stefan Falke.
The resemblance between Stefan Falke's upbringing in Germany and his work on the Mexican border runs deep in trying to build comprehension and excitement beyond the political or legislative realms. "The similarity between the German border and the Mexican border is its physical presence. And its 'one way-ness'. You can cross one way but not the other. Both borders were built by one side. But East Germany built it to prevent its people from leaving. The U.S. built it to prevent people from coming in," explains Falke. Culture is not a physical component that can be stopped by a tangible border, the exchange endangering this myopic boundary between nations. "The German border allowed for very little cultural exchange," expresses Falke. "It was really perfectly and brutally sealed. The U.S.-Mexico border doesn't stop cultural exchange. It's very open in that sense. But it does prevent Americans from visiting and experiencing the 'other' side because the travel time to come back is often very long (TJ, Juarez) and the negative picture and fear of it is mostly kept alive by the media and politics."
Top Image: Jellyfish collective in Ciudad Juarez | Portrait by Stefan Falke.
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