by Alison Zavos for Feature Shoot
Born and raised in Mexico City Carlos Alvarez Montero now lives and works as a photographer in New York and Mexico City. His work focuses on the relationship between appearance and the creation of identity.
This series, M (of Michoacan), and a lot of your work in general, deals with street life and counterculture. How did you become fascinated with this subject matter and how do you go about gaining the degree of access and trust you need to complete these projects?
My fascination with the street culture comes from music. Almost all of my projects are music driven. I love music and I'm always looking for new sounds, I'm very attracted to music that comes from the streets and the folklore around them, from Hip Hop to Cumbia. If there are places that use music as their voice, I'm interested in this places and their people. About the access and trust, I usually do some research on where I can find the subjects I'm interested in, then I just go there and I start talking to people. I'm as honest as I can be and let them know why I'm interested in them. Respect is a very important ingredient. If they know you respect what they do, then they know they can trust you. People can sense if you can be trusted or not. I always make myself clear that what I want is for them to tell me their story, that I'm not coming with a preconceived idea. When it's possible, I always give them prints of their photos.
You also shot video for this project. Is it your intention to make a documentary of this work?
Yes, the first time I met Jimmy "El Pinto" Lopez (the guy in the wheelchair), and talked to him, I was amazed by his personality and history. At the end of our talk, I realized I wanted to make a documentary about Jacona, the small town in Michoacan, Mexico where he lives, and I wanted him to be the main character. I asked him if he was interested and he agreed. As soon as I arrived in Mexico City, I contact my friend Pedro Jiménez Gurria and asked him to co-direct it with me. We have been working on it for three years now. Every time we go to shoot, I keep doing photographs.
Were you familiar with all of the people and settings that you wanted to shoot for this series or did you discover some of them by accident?
I was asked for a magazine to make a story about these guy that went to the U.S. to work as illegal aliens and while there, they turn into gang members. Then they go back to their hometowns and take the gang culture with them. I knew about some guys in Mexico City, but I didn't have the contact. Talking with a friend that lived near this small town, he told me he saw a lot of cholos (a word that references Mexican-Americans who belong to street gangs) in a town near his. So I went for a weekend and started looking for them, I finally found them on a street and I approached them. They were really friendly. As we were talking and I started to take pictures, more and more of them arrived and wanted their picture taken. I was there for a couple of hours. Before I left, I brought them some beers and told them I had to leave but that I was going to be back in a couple of days. They said "yes." After that, it became like visiting old friends.