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Deep Focus: Rafael Veytia Velarde's Immersive Border Photography

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Toro Manchado | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde.

In Partnership with Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center: Mexicali Rose is a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Baja California.

Rafael Veytia Velarde has been assiduously photographing the Mexicali border scenery and its shifting social conditions for over a decade, bestowing visibility and a portrayal of the neglected and misrepresented portion of Mexicali's society throughout his work. Adept at capturing the decisive moment and at gaining his subjects' confidence, Rafael's journalistic urgency is attained by spending days, if not weeks, fraternizing and working with the audacious community players he depicts in his gritty photographic work. Heavily influenced by the work of cinematographers from the golden era of Mexican cinema and the urban life portraits by European pioneers in the field of candid photography, Veytia Velarde reflects the underbelly of a Mexicali rarely accessible to the more conservative photographic guilds in town. His work seems timeless, a consummate example of the camera's power to preserve emotion and circumstance in our hearts.

686 | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde
Design Free | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde

A transplant from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Rafael's first contact with photography surfaced during his youth in downtown Los Mochis via an apprenticeship with a local studio photographer. "The smell of the chemicals in the alley, they really attracted me. Watching an image appear on the darkroom tray was magical. Initially, I wanted to be a writer, but leaned towards something more visual," affirms Veytia Velarde. His upbringing in the tough turfs of Sinaloa accentuated his confidence towards approaching subjects to photograph and assembling a body of work. Having made the Mexicali border region his home as an adult after moving here on business, Veytia Velarde captured the city with a virgin eye that many of the native photographers had unfortunately left behind. Rafael started to venture more and more into the city's art scene and his prolific output earned him a career as a cultural promoter and as a photography teacher at the local university. "Students have become quite limited with digital technology, images are not as planned out and I take it upon myself to walk around without a camera, locate ideas and themes, and then later return to photograph these subjects," states Veytia Velarde.

Hotel del Norte | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde

One of Rafael Veytia Velarde's most captivating photojournalistic projects deals with life within the urban border pool halls of Mexicali. Inspired by the calm demeanor and geometry of pool billiards, Veytia Velarde has approached the experienced pool sharks and domino players who have made these pool halls their dwelling with understanding and respect for their life stories and street wisdom. Resembling a game of carambola (carom billiards), Rafael Veytia Velarde feeds off these characters to create a visual ode to a Mexican downtown littered with tales of abandonment, cons and illusion. Another recent theme of Rafael's is the misrepresentation of bearded men roaming around Mexicali's downtown district, the beard symbolizing rebellion and empowerment in these men who are often mistaken for vagrant or mentally impaired individuals. This series of photographs, entitled Apóstrofes, seeks to reveal the essence of these subjects whose liberty is represented not only in their beards, but also in their looks, and in their life stories. States literary professor Alejandro Espinoza: "Being in life, being the subject who recognizes the refuge, the signs and the codes of urban sites, of sites for thought and for the soul, becomes a poetic execution and at the same time an anointment which distinguishes the apóstrofe, he who directs himself to the world to express his grandeur."

Rafael Veytia Velarde is a socially oriented photographer, touching upon issues such as deportation and the disorientation it brings not only to the individuals faced with it, but to the immediate city landscape as well. Mexicali now being the city receiving the most deportations of citizens in all of Mexico, Rafael Veytia Velarde has been chronicling the community initiative entitled Hotel del Migrante, where a brothel was transformed into a safe haven for people to spend the night and situate themselves in the often inhospitable borderland. Hotel del Migrante supports deported migrants regardless of nationality or criminal background, an action often demonized by the city's conservative right faction. Veytia Velarde seeks to humanize statistics by providing real life stories, such as that of "Chiquis," a United States citizen who followed her deported life partner back into Mexico and resides with him in housing projects trying to make ends meet. Through his unflinching lens, the intermediate condition of Mexicali's newly arrived, destitute population becomes frozen in time and urgency, just as the subjects themselves.

From the Hotel del Migrante series | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde
Chiquis | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde

The work of Rafel Veytia Velarde does not stop there: he is an avid photographer of dance expressions and performs as a VJ throughout the local electronic music scene under the moniker "Desierto Urbano." "My grandmother was a vegetarian who listened to classical music and instilled in me a more refined outlook when it came to the accessibility of art with people," states Veytia Velarde. Rafael Veytia Velarde recently co-directed a feature length documentary entitled "Zona Cero," which details the desolation and adjustment of the Mexicali valley community after a year of rebuilding following a devastating earthquake which altered their lives forever. Rafael has also recently commenced participating in mural collaborations with local street artists featuring his work as a photographer in Mexicali's downtown walls, where the very subjects of his photographs can bask in Veytia Velarde's unique vision through portraiture. "I try not to shy away from reality, many other photographers are frightened by our reality. Photography should be political and capturing these themes makes them historical. I can't help but base my work on observation and respect. That is what makes this city colorful."

Dance series | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde
Mural Collaboration | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde
Billares Chavinda | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde
Chavinda Queen | Photo: Rafael Veytia Velarde

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