Photo © Itzel Aguilera.
Photo © Itzel Aguilera.

Documentary: If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces

Alice Driver, one of Vela’s staff writers, recently completed her first documentary, If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces. The film explores the complicated relationship between violence and photography in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Watch it below, and then read an interview with Alice about making the film.

Inhabiting the Lives of Others: An Interview with Alice Driver

1. Where did you first get the idea for If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces? What was the starting question or concern that drove you to begin working on this documentary?

The idea for the film was a long time coming. In 2010 I was doing academic research for a Ph.D. about literary and cinematic representations of violence in Juárez, which at that time was the most violent city in the world. The project was supposed to be purely literary, but I got obsessed with the idea of interviewing all the authors and filmmakers who formed part of my project. This led me to an interview with Charles Bowden, author of Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future, and at the end of our interview he recommended that I meet Juárez photographer Julián Cardona. At the time, I remember thinking “Photography doesn’t have anything to do with my project,” but since I was in El Paso for interviews I decided to meet Julián for coffee. It was one of those serendipitous meetings that ended up changing lives.

I started to research Julián’s work, and read a description he wrote of a photography exhibit he organized: “Juárez blows like cold wind through the windows of our souls and demands our attention. We embrace its images as if they could fill our own empty spaces, but we cannot hold on.”

The quote resonated with me on several levels. Here I was, a girl from Arkansas, researching a city that I had never visited because of words and images that had moved me. I was trying to put those words and images together to make some sense of the violence, but I felt that I couldn’t get a grip on what was going on.

I was driven to begin working on the documentary because I wanted to understand how art – literature, photography, film – could move us to care about places and people we had never known. I also wanted to explore our reliance on images, the demands we place on them to represent the truth.

2. You were doing your own postdoctoral research in Ciudad Juárez; how did that experience inform the film? What sort of resistance or response did you receive in your own work?

My postdoctoral research was parallel to my filmmaking. After I finished my Ph.D., I realized that very few people read or had access to academic research. I became frustrated with the idea of spending years of my life doing research that would reach a very small audience, so I decided to have two versions of my research – an academic one and a journalistic version.

I approached Juárez carefully. I didn’t want to be seen as a journalist who dove in for a story and then left. I interviewed academics, activists, photographers, and writers in Juárez. I also began to fundraise for the María Sagrario Foundation, which was founded by Paula Flores. Her daughter María Sagrario was murdered in 1998 in a wave of violence against women that began in the early ’90s and continues to this day. I wrote about activism in the city, and I donated the money from my articles to the Casa Amiga, a shelter for women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.

None of my activities produced a lot of money, but I wanted to connect to the city and give back in any way I could. I formed a community in the city, and without their support of my work, I would have no project. I am thankful for the way that the city and its people embraced me. Recently I told someone that although I haven’t spent a lot of time physically in Juárez, I have lived there mentally for years.

3. Did your research, and/or the process of filming If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces, change your perspective on the representation of violence in Juárez?

The most surprising experience I had while making the film was spending time with crime scene photographer Lucio Soria. He has photographed over 3,000 deaths, and I thought he would be an emotional wreck. However, he absolutely loves his work. While riding around with him to cover the crime beat, I began to understand why.

At each crime scene, he would show up and find himself among a number of journalists from local TV stations and newspapers. They would joke about soccer scores as they took photos or video, and then jump in their cars and rush off to the next crime scene. It seems disrespectful, but I could see that it was a necessary element of survival, something the journalists had to do to provide some levity to their work.

Lucio knew everybody in the city, and he was constantly on his two phones joking, catching up with other journalists, or getting tips about potential news. With Lucio, the city came alive, and I felt its pulse, the flow of information and news in the making. It was an addictive experience.

4. As someone who deals predominantly in words, as an academic, writer, and translator, what intrigues and perplexes you about images? You seem drawn to ethical questions about the representation of violence, and about the role of photography in particular: why this fascination with images? Where did this begin?

The fascination with images began when I met Julián Cardona in 2010. Up until that point in my life, I didn’t even own a camera. But when I become obsessed with things, I don’t just want to study them, I want to practice them.

My interest in images…picked up steam as I started meeting more and more photographers. While living in Mexico City, I discovered that one of my favorite things was to wander around the city with my photographer friends taking pictures and talking with people. I like inhabiting the lives of others.

I eventually submitted [a photo] to National Geographic My Shot, a website where people around the world can post photos. About eight months later, I got an email from Julián titled “Your photo in National Geographic.” The editors at National Geographic had chosen to publish my photo in the magazine, and the fact that Julián was the first one to see it seemed an impossible coincidence to me.

The role of ethics came into my research because in Mexico photographs of extreme violence appear in the media regularly, especially when it involves violence against women. I wanted to analyze how women were represented in particular, because their bodies were often used to convey overtly sexual messages.

For example, raped women were shown naked and then the accompanying news article might describe their lingerie or what color lipstick they wore. This discourse that linked sex and violence is something I wanted to deconstruct. In my film, I interview Jaime Meraz, who works at the famous Juárez burrito joint El Centenario. When I asked him about the PM, a newspaper that always features photos of dead bodies next to photos of naked pin-up women, he said: “Well, between sex and violence, some choose one thing and some chose the other.”

5. The film suggests a deep skepticism of sensationalistic representations of violence, but much of its admirable complexity comes from the ways in which it also explores photography as a subversive medium, as a necessary way of documenting economic and social injustices, and as a critical witness to societal ills. How did you navigate this complicated ethical terrain while filming and editing If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces? Many of the images are extremely violent; what sorts of decisions did you find yourself making about your own representations?

While working with my editor Rodrigo Jardón to shape the narrative, I saw the film so many times that I lost any sense of the impact of the images. Also, all of the photographers chose their own photographs, and they didn’t send them to us until the last minute. So I didn’t actually see the full film with the images they had chosen until a few days before it was released.

Even then, I was so familiar with the material that I couldn’t gauge the violence of the images. It speaks to how people can become numb to images of extreme violence. I was surprised when my best friend Tien wrote me to say that she saw the film and it made her feel like she was going to throw up.

6. Were there any moments during the filming of If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces, and/or during your time doing research in Juárez, that particularly complicated and shaped your understanding of the city and its situation? Were there any moments that made you question whether or not to continue with your work?

Initially, when I started doing research on violence in Juárez, I thought it would be too depressing and that I would never finish my Ph.D. However, once I went to the city, I was moved by the activism and grassroots work being done to address issues of violence, poverty, and economic disparity. The relationships that I formed in Juárez have sustained and inspired me over the years. My experiences there informed my decision to work with two human rights NGOs in Mexico City and to get another perspective on human rights aside from the academic one. There have been moments where I have felt saturated by the violent imagery that I read about, watched, and studied, but they have been outweighed by what I have learned from my relationship with the city and its people.

7. You spent several years living in Mexico City. How did that time in Mexico inform and change your ideas about Juárez? Has your understanding of the city changed since you moved back to the U.S.? How do you see Juárez differently on either side of the border?

The first time I saw Juárez, I was on a highway in El Paso, and I marveled at the fact that I could spit, and my spit would reach Juárez. I never imagined that the two cities were that close or that the disparities would be so visually evident. From the downtown high-rises of El Paso, you can see informal housing settlements made of recycled U.S. garbage. I now look back and see these first two impressions as central to shaping my work.

8. Do you have any plans to keep working in Juárez? What is your next project?

I am currently translating a collaborative book project between Julián Cardona and artist Alice Leora Briggs. It is Julián’s first book, and it is based on interviews he conducted with both victims and perpetrators of violence. I find myself translating sentences like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not very good with weapons – all that matters is that you have balls. Everything depends on having balls. If you decide to run with the best, the biggest motherfuckers, the ones with the most money – if you are a motherfucker, you’ll be right there with them. If you aren’t afraid of anything, you’ll be there.”

It is called the Abecederio de Juárez, and you can find more information about it here.

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Interview and introduction by Sarah Menkedick.

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