The Art of War

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Fernando Brito was a marketing graduate who couldn't find a job in his hometown of Culiacán. His photographer brother turned down a photo editor job at a newspaper there, but recommended Brito, who up to that point had taken photos only as a hobby. Brito says the paper was "half violence and half family." Every front page would have a "dead body, a seminude woman and 'tips for the family'" — basically articles for homemakers with tips for tasty and inexpensive meals.

Since 2004, Brito has recorded death, photographing the casualties of the drug war. His work is a standout in FotoFest's "Crónicas: Seven Contemporary Mexican Artists Confront the Drug War," a show that features a lot of other strong work. Curated by Jennifer Ward, "Crónicas" ­presents the work of seven young artists who grew up in regions that are today plagued by widespread narco-related violence. Their work addresses the violence that skyrocketed to horrific levels during President Felipe Calderón's militarization of the drug war, an act that led to commensurate militarization of the cartels.

Houston-based Ivete Lucas created a scathing montage of video clips that indicts the United States and Mexico in the drug war. Lucas took scenes of massacre and darkly intercut them with U.S. spring breakers partying in Mexico. Dancing and singing children from a cheezy 1980's Mexican TV show are thrown in the mix with pontificating politicians, weed-smoking Paris Hilton and "drug war" news coverage complete with shots of bought-in-the U.S.A. assault weapons. Pedro Reyes's Palas por Pistolas (Shoves for Pistols) practically and poetically attempts to heal the violence by collecting weapons and melting them down into shovels used to plant trees — an exchange of death for life. (Citizens of Culiacán donated 1,527 guns and received coupons for home appliances. Forty percent of the weapons were military-style automatics. They were crushed by the military using a steamroller and melted into 1,527 shovels used to plant trees in Culiacán.)


"Crnicas: Seven Contemporary Mexican Artists Confront the Drug War"

Through March 9. FotoFest, 1113Vine St., 713-223-5522.

A couple of the artists have left Mexico, like Lucas, and most have left their hometowns or go back and forth between them and other cities. Brito, as the photo editor of a daily newspaper in Culiacán, is the most entrenched. Culiacán is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, home of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, reportedly the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in the world. Its leader, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, was included in the Forbes list of billionares and was No. 63 on last year's list of the most powerful people. His reach is so far and so nefarious that he was just named Chicago's public enemy No. 1.

"I always think of the family and think about how they would feel; I put myself in their shoes," Brito says of photographing hundreds of murder victims during his nine years as a newspaper photographer. I spoke with Brito while he was in Houston to present his work in conjunction with a lecture at the University of St. Thomas by Dr. Tony Payan, "A War That Can't Be Won: Binational Perspectives on the Drug War." The paper Brito started out with walked the line of violence and gore. Death was not shown in all its full-frontal gore. Brito says, "We started to show a detail, to show what happened. If a woman is murdered, we don't show the woman, we only show their feet with the socks. You don't have to show violence; you know you are going to read about violence."

As Brito was taking photographs for his job, he started taking additional images. "One is for the history, why it has happened; the other is for the newspaper to publish and the other is for my project." Brito's photographic project didn't start out as such. It was more of a personal response. He recorded the corpses in the larger landscape, not as gory evidence of the drug war. Brito didn't show those photos to anyone for years. And then someone saw them and told him they were good. 'When I began this project, I never thought it would be successful. I only thought to show a problem."

Images from his series Tus Pasos se Perdieron con el Paisaje (Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape), 2006-2012, are included in "Crónicas." In one untitled photograph, a shirtless man is curled on the ground against a backdrop of lush green vines. He could almost be napping, dwarfed by tall, rangy trees that run off the picture plane. The image is dominated by the lovely landscape, which reads almost like a shrine to the dead man lying in it. It's as if Brito is trying to ennoble the scenes into which these people — fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters — have been dumped like so much garbage.

The landscapes are tranquil, offering respite from the violence of the victims' deaths. Morning mist hovers over two prone figures in another untitled image, a deep wound visible on the hip of one. The hazy silhouette of a tree is in the center of the picture, its trunk angled as if kneeling in grief.

These photos show the dead, and people are inexorably drawn to images of the dead. But the photos aren't sensationalist. Their goal isn't to show us what we look like when we die violently, when we are executed, when we are tortured to death. The photos are images captured by someone who has easily seen as much death as any combat veteran but who is struggling to retain his humanity and empathy and who wants us to remember ours. "That is something I don't want to lose; I want to go to a murder and feel bad."

Brito says than when he started working for the paper in 2004, there were maybe 300 murders a year in his city; now it is more than 2,000 a year. In his presentation at St. Thomas, Brito said, "The news only shows numbers. These are not numbers, these are real people with families. We judge these people only for the way they died." He explained how the government tries to minimize the murders by asserting that the victims had to have been criminals themselves. According to Payan, who is a scholar with the Latin America Initiative of the James A. Baker III Institute, there is a 98 percent impunity rate for murder in Mexico — only 2 percent of murder cases lead to conviction.

"Too many innocent people are in the middle," says Brito. "They decide to call it a drug war, but it's only business. They aren't fighting for an idea; it's only money."

The estimates of drug-related deaths in Mexico since 2006 vary widely, anywhere from 60,000 to 150,000, a number offered up by Payan in his talk. Payan also said that 70 journalists have been killed in the six years of the drug war.

"Compared to the innocent people who have died in the middle of this drug war, it's nothing, 70 is nothing," said Brito. "They say it's hard to be a journalist in Mexico, but it's hard to be a civilian."

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