NMPBS ¡COLORES!: Photographer Don Bartletti

>>Lopez: Why are the people in your photographs important?>>Bartletti: They’re part of history. They’re part of the changing face of America,
and they represent a basic human need, migration for survival. It’s as old as humanity, as unstoppable as
the wind. And, I think frequently misunderstood, which
is why I’m paying so much attention to it. To take the mask of statistics away and to
take the stigma of a borderline, a political attitude. To let you see that these are real people
with names and histories, dreams, hopes, failures, tragedy, and incredible success.>>Lopez: Can you explain a little bit more,
the term you used, migration for survival?>>Barletti: Well, migration is the search
for something to fill in for what’s missing. And in a family it might be the lack of a
parent, it might be the lack of employment, shelter. It’s the human circulation system of the globe,
of the planet. People have been chasing the caribou or the
deer or the elk in the ancient days, over the horizon, looking for food. Now people are chasing the almighty dollar
over the horizon. So it’s a, it’s a basic human instinct that
I don’t think can be controlled by a fence, by politics, by threats, by guns. People want to survive and they will. Survival, migration for survival, is as basic
a thing as breathing.>>Lopez: So you’ve been doing this over 40
years, sometimes putting yourself in peril. In fact, your camera can even look like a
gun. Why are you drawn to these stories?>>Barletti: Well, photography is an incredible
way to record the truth. To record things for posterity. I consider photographic prints documents of
history. I didn’t have to parachute into this incredible
phenomenon. More people are migrating in the last part
of the last century and now. The numbers are as high as when my grandparents
came from Italy to Ellis Island. So living in San Diego County, not far from
the border, 70 miles north of the border, I saw people gathering on street corners in
the late 70s, early 70s, mid 70s, late 80s, looking for work. But more importantly, more alarming to me
were… there were farm workers camping in the chaparral in the hills in between established
communities, in the canyons, in little handmade shacks and huts. And my investigation found that there were,
these are like embryonic communities. These are like the new settlers. They had… they had stores, they had restaurants,
and then they had places to sleep. Places to play. Soccer fields. The thing they didn’t have was electricity,
running water, or sanitation. But the thing they did have was their dream
of a toehold on the California Dream.>>Lopez: And why did you want to tell that
story?>>Bartletti: Because I didn’t think it could
last. I thought it was so exceptionally out of synch
with the surrounding communities, I wanted to know, okay, what’s driving people to live
in such desperation. One night, I was on a perch above Interstate
five. Guatemalans were sleeping on bubble-wrap under
the stars and one of the men said, “We don’t live like this in Guatemala. We come from Huehuetenango, Guatemala. But we have a house. We have families. We have a roof over our heads. But the thing we don’t have is money. We don’t have work. That’s why we’re here. So, the desperation was something I wanted
to investigate. So, I left those farm worker camps and I went
to the border. Well, that’s like theater that dynamic plays
itself out, still does. Then deep into Mexico, almost every state
in Mexico, into Central America, even South America.>>Lopez: I’m going to ask you about a particular
image. It’s the two children on a horse. Can you tell us about those two children?>>Bartletti: My title is Chiapas Racers. It’s in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. And they’re racing the freight train. I am on top of the beast, the term migrants
give to this train that runs from the Guatemala border, to the Texas border. So, I’m on top and out of a coffee plantation
comes this galloping horse. First, I just saw the nose of the horse blurred
in between the greenery. And my God, I said. This is phenomenal. And the kids started whistling and clapping. I instinctively set my camera, the one with
the telephoto lens, to a slow shutter speed, because they were galloping the same speed
as the train was. And the train rocks back and forth. I thought, “Oh, I made a mistake. The shutter speed’s too slow. I can’t find the focus. I can’t keep them in the frame.” And, I didn’t think I had anything. But what I did remember was that race, that
race between the beast and the Beast, brought whoops and a few seconds of joy to the people
on this train of tears, on this horrible journey to uncertainty.>>Lopez: And what do you want us to look at
in that picture?>>Bartletti: Well, I want you to look at,
for, look at it for the simple beauty of that picture. The painterly look of the background. The noble look of the boy, holding the frayed
green nylon reins of the horse. It’s probably his little sister flying off
the rump of the horse, her curls in midair and the fact it’s probably his daddy’s horse,
because his rubber boot doesn’t reach the stirrups. But when the eyes of the riders and the riders
on the train met, you know, that was a symbiosis, a link that I’d never seen anywhere on that
three months that I did reporting on this… on this journey.>>Lopez: Tell us about the image of the man
who’s resting, and his mouth was open, his head is back, his arms are stretched.>>Bartletti: Well, I’m riding on top of the
boxcar with a little 12-year-old boy named Dennis. We’re lying flat on top of the boxcar. The train is kind of, you know, going back
and forth and it’s also slowing down a little bit. We’re just inside the Oaxaca border. Dennis knew what was happening. He told me the train is slowing down because
there’s an immigration checkpoint coming up. He had made the trip before, been arrested
and deported to the Guatemalan border. Well, there are also other, other guys, you
know, wondering why is the train slowing down? And they’re hopping from the top of the train,
down to the couplers, to the ladders on the side, getting ready to jump, because they
anticipate there’s enforcement ahead. They weren’t sure. When this one man grabbed the two railings
of the end of this freight car, and leaned his head back and closed his eyes. And I have the camera in my hand. I’m looking, this is, Oh, there… it’s a
pretty symmetry. Okay, we got the couplers. I got the man. We got his head. We got his arms. And when he opened his mouth, this blast of
emotion came right into my camera, like, you know, I couldn’t hide behind the camera anymore,
because the imagery came into my head and exploded. And, I had to scream at myself, push the shutter,
push the shutter. And I couldn’t even hear myself screaming. I couldn’t hear Santo Antonio Gamez screaming,
because of the squeal of the steel wheels on the rails, the wind, the thunder of the
iron boxcars. So, I managed to hang on, one arm on the rail
of the ladder and another arm with my little notebook. And, I got his name, Santo Antonio Gamez. Got his age. He’s going to Toronto, Canada. He’s from Honduras. He was a painter. He came home for a family emergency and he’s
trying to make his way back. So, I said, “Antonio, why did you have your
mouth open? What were you doing?” He said, “I was praying that I don’t get
arrested and deported on the bus of tears, back to the Guatemala border,” like he had
been three times before.>>Lopez: What was happening in the photo Gift,
for Northbound Migration?>>Bartletti: Well one of the important aspects
that migrants at the Texas border told me, and that’s essentially where I started the
story… people had already come north on the trains in the shelter. They told me lots of things. “Oh, it’s hard. There’s no water on the train. It’s hard to get on the train. Hard to get off.” And they also told me about the food throwers
of Veracruz. It wasn’t as easy to find as I thought. But, walking endlessly up and down the train
tracks in Ora Saba, and Fortun, Veracruz, I did find a shopkeeper of a little trackside
market, Mom and Pop market, and a teenage boy said, “Yeah, we’ve got some extra oranges. They’re a little old, but they’re still edible. I’m going to go when the train comes.” So, when the train horn blew, we both walked
up to the tracks and the train comes haulin’ ass past, and I thought he was going to throw
them like baseballs and to people on top. But no, he just reached out and hands came
out of nowhere, as the train came by. This picture is why I do photo journalism. It has two aspects that very few of my pictures
have and that’s substance and style. The substance of the picture is the clear
crystal clear orange. That’s the theme. That’s the story. That’s the gift for the northbound migrant.>>Lopez: What do you hope to achieve with
your work?>>Bartletti: Well, I want to try to get people
not to misunderstand why people are moving. I want to… them to translate the statistics,
and the crowing that we see from politicians, from people at the bars sitting next to you,
from your neighbors over the fence. Everybody’s got an opinion about migration
for survival. But you know what? All of their opinions are somebody else’s. It’s stuff they learned there, they heard
on the radio, or on TV, or from a stump speech. Well, I’m showing you… the number one subject
of all of my photographs, and that’s the people in those pictures. Yeah, I’m the photographer. But, I didn’t birth this picture. The people in it did. And secondly, the most important author of
every photograph I take is you. You, the viewer. And when, when I show you pictures of people
in their home villages and on the north side of the border and experiencing this incredible
drama of crossing over. When I show you the old man with a cane saying,
“Yeah, I want to go to the United States to see my son one more time before I die,”
maybe you’ll say, “Well, I misunderstood.”>>Lopez: What does it mean to you, Don the
photographer, to capture these images? How does it affect you?>>Bartletti: Well, I consider myself, in some
respects, a historian. So, it’s my obligation, and my ability, and
my desire to update our history constantly. But, you know, the story that never ends,
and it will never end. And I don’t even know when it began. Is migration. It’s a human trait that must be recorded.

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