They might not want a portrait, but they let me photograph the candy-colored skulls and blue-haired women tattooed on their wrists, the scars fat like blisters on the napes of necks, the constellations of crude prison-tattooed stars across the ribs. Those, I have discovered, are the stories I want to tell. I show them the jagged white edges of a scar that runs across my forehead like some badly scrawled, indecipherable word. They run their fingertips over it as if reading Braille.
The stories of the flesh are not clear, straight roads, not maps that lead you to the same destination. To photograph scars is to frame imperfection as the central narrative of human existence.
I wandered Mexico City like a stray dog, not heeding what anyone told me about where I should or should not go. I was looking for something, watching and waiting for unexpected images. At the time, I was recovering from the end of a decade-long relationship and a deep sense of loss, and I found solace in the streets, in the idea that I could connect with anyone, no matter how fleetingly.
My first love was faces, and I longed to make portraits of the characters I met in my wanderings. But rarely did the faces I was interested in want to be photographed. Not the old sex workers on San Pablo Street whose emotionless eyes were framed by shimmery blue and green eye shadow, not the young guys with stoic expressions getting their nipples pierced in La Lagunilla Market on the edge of Tepito.
I was faced with a decision: steal their images or ask for them. But, as I found once I started asking people, there was a third way: the way of scars and tattoos. When they said “no” to my request for a photograph, I got close enough to discover these secrets, and our relationship began. Even if they didn’t let me photograph anything, they wanted to talk, to share the stories of their flesh. I photographed tattoos of Panthers, Holy Death, Saint Jude, the devil. I photographed burn scars, knife scars, vaccination scars. They weren’t good photos. Often the light was bad, and I snapped them hastily, fearful that my imperfect subjects would be taken away from me.
Sometimes I got to photograph the scars and tattoos, and other times I didn’t. But there was always a story. I met La Güera, a tough looking bottle blond with a howling laugh, in La Merced. She let me take her photo, tattoos peeking out of her teal shirt as she threw up four fingers. She told me she had been in prison, so I assumed the four fingers were a gang sign. Later, she told me that while in prison she took a class on self-esteem. The fingers stood for 1) respect yourself 2) respect others 3) forgive 4) love.
Eventually I had the idea of setting up a table in the main plaza and sitting at it all day with a sign that would say “Scars and Tattoos – Tell Me Your Stories.” It was a romantic idea based on my love of the public letter writers who sit in squares with their typewriters and compose letters for the illiterate for a small price.
But I left Mexico without ever setting up my table, exiting the country with only grainy photographs of scars stashed in a suitcase full of dirty clothes. I continued to think about imperfection and sought out books by street photographers. I wanted to understand how they connected with their subjects in the city. I felt like the faces of their subjects would tell me something about them as photographers, which would in turn teach me about what kind of a photographer I wanted to be. When Rodrigo Jardón, a photographer from Mexico City, visited me in the U.S., he gave me Diane Arbus: A Chronology. I had never seen Arbus’s photographs, so I came to know her through her words first. Arbus (1923-71) had an obsession with imperfections, oddities, and extremes: an endless hunger to befriend contortionists, fortunetellers, strong men, and bearded women, all of whom would become both her friends and her subjects.
I can relate to the yearning to enter the lives of others, lives so different from my own. In Mexico City, I was told not to go to Tepito and La Merced because people there were violent, crazy, and impossible to get to know. I was X and they were Y, and we would never understand each other. But I believed that in those cracks between their lives and mine we could figure out who we were collectively, and how to communicate across the breach.
I mostly hung out in La Lagunilla, a market on the edge of Tepito that offered beers in Big Gulp-sized plastic cups rimmed with chili and lime, and open-air tattoo and piercing kiosks in the street. Other vendors sold Nazi paraphernalia, antique telephones, “butt boosting” jeans, and discount makeup. I was told I would be robbed and that nobody would let me take photos. Only the second proved mostly true.
Arbus and I shared impulses, the same greedy ones we all have: to take without asking, to take because we are consumed and haunted by images so different from what we know in our own lives. I wanted to fill myself up with other people’s images, to replace the loss of one person with collected bits stolen from the lives of others.
In 1960 Arbus wrote to photographer Marvin Israel and described her visit to a disinterred saint: “I got a terrible impulse to photograph her and I tremulously did which wasn’t legal so I pretended to be praying and pregnant and once I used the long lens and that camera makes such a fearful groan and clamor that I almost was praying.” There are images that I become obsessed with, and I have only the briefest moment to decide if I will capture them. Riding down the Calzada de Tlalpan at night, I see bare-breasted transvestites lining the streets, their bodies flashing under the streetlights as we fly by. I roll down my window, and they howl. My camera never makes it out of my pocket.
For at least a decade of my life, I thought perfection was a goal, that finding and making order was the way to be a writer. It took me a long time to realize that stories lie in imperfection, maybe because I was trying to protect myself. I did not understand that being vulnerable was my greatest asset, that opening up did not mean waiting for an attack.
Arbus’s photography changed after seeing an exhibit by Hungarian photographer Brassaï, and, in her 1971 master class on photography she explained, “He taught me something terrific, about obscurity, that obscurity could be as thrilling as clarity, which for a long time I didn’t realize because I had been moving more and more towards clarity for years.” Scars represent obscurity and imperfection – narratives we often try to hide, as if beauty were so starved as to only include perfection and clarity.
In a 1972 interview Arbus’s daughter Doon said that, for her mother, photography was a way to explore “the whole question of what’s sane and what’s insane, what’s real and what’s unreal.” This obsession with exploring the margins led Arbus to be criticized for exploiting her subjects. In On Photography (1977) Susan Sontag describes Arbus as photographing “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive […] based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”
In a February 4th, 1960 postcard to Israel, Arbus wrote, “I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.” I believed her and found myself unable to judge her for her obsessions as Sontag did. Her letters are unexpectedly poetic and full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the lives of others. She had an uncontrollable attraction to the fringes and a will to test the limits of what was palatable in national magazines by photographing elements of society that generally remain invisible. In her letters, she time and again describes photography projects that she spends months working on for one magazine or another, only to have the editors cut her contribution.
While Arbus was certainly better off than many of her subjects, I don’t think that makes her wish to connect with them and tell their stories any less genuine. For Sontag, Arbus was drawn to exoticism, was out to exploit something, but the letters make it clear that Arbus was curious, that she hungered for connection, and that she wanted to find meaning in the lives of others who seemed, but were actually not, so different from herself. Many of her subjects – midgets, dwarfs, and transgender people – remained friends for life.
In a January 5th, 1960 postcard, Arbus wrote only the following lines to Israel: “I think it does, a little, hurt to be photographed. Please may I someday photograph your house, your ark, your things?” Arbus’s words speak to me of the way we desire to enter into the lives of others, to rifle through their things and come to some kind of understanding about where our lives meet. The fact that photography can hurt, that there is some give and take, heightens the negotiation.
I like the negotiation of street photography, which depends on quickly reading people, on trying to understand their house, their ark, their things, with only the slightest of visual clues. With my eyes, the tilt of my head, even the knots in my unkempt hair, I ask, “Please may I photograph your stories, the tales hidden in your wrinkles, freckles, and the intimacy of your skin?”
Just as important as asking is being able to let go, being able to see the most beautiful mohawk of my life, blooming green and turquoise in the Chopo market and being able to let it go, to accept that the owner of the mohawk said “no” in response to my silent message. I didn’t take the picture, but I never forgot the image, the spectacular height and flatness of the hair, the time implied in maintaining such a creation.
“I am sitting in the meat market waiting for the heads,” wrote Arbus in January 19th, 1960 postcard to Israel. There is something to be said for waiting, for sitting down and planting roots in a public square, for hanging around for so long that everyone, including yourself, forgets that you don’t belong there. The artistic process is a lot of waiting for heads. If you wait, you often find that what you initially thought you wanted is far less interesting that what you have discovered. In waiting, I discovered that my own vulnerability, which I had tried so hard to hide, was my story.
I scan the crowd in La Merced, reading people and searching and hoping to find my story in the body of another. I feel indebted to these people for letting me inhabit their lives, for letting me wander along their streets and alleys, through their abandoned buildings, and allowing me just for a second to feel that our narrative is the same.