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IZTAPALAPA, Mexico —By the time Alam Bernalturned 11 he was mute.The boy stopped talking after his mother was shot in front of him and his father went to jail for murdering her killer. The aunt who became his guardian didn’t know what to do with the boy. She feared that in this rough part of Mexico City he’d succumb to a similarly violent fate.
Then someone told her about a cultural space called Faro del Oriente, or Lighthouse of the East, located near her house. She brought the boy to the photography teacher, Jesús Villaseca, who had gained fame for steering youths away from trouble. Villaseca, a walrus of a man with a giant moustache who himself knows about pain, gently coaxed the boy out of his shell and gave him an outlet for his rage. Slowly, Alam learned to frame shots, document his neighborhood and, most importantly, trust. He resumed speaking, and today is studying politics at a leading university to prepare for a career in photojournalism.
“Jesus saved my life,” Alam reflected at a recent exhibition of student work at Faro. “Photography gave me a way to channel feelings and support myself. It gave me a way to seek justice and a reason to live. This psychological help kept me from turning to guns or drug. Crime is an easy path. I could have ended up that way but now I feel part of something larger. “
True to its name, this gritty center on the violent fringes of Mexico City is a beacon for youths who would otherwise be lost. It’s located in Iztapalapa, a neighborhood with one of the highest incidences of murder and gang activity in the capital. To keep kids off the streets, the city government formed Faro in 2000, and today it offers an array of classes including dance, theater, carpentry, metal work, ceramics, yoga, painting, video and poetry.
Photography is one of the most popular, due to Villaseca’s charisma and his teaching of a marketable skill. Since he began his workshop 12 years ago, 40 of his acolytes have gotten jobs as professional photographers.
Driving in from the highway that leads out of town, Faro looks like an abandoned airplane hanger spray-painted with graffiti. That main building lies on cracked cement where stray dogs sun and sculpture students exhibit giant papier-mache skulls. For lack of space, photo workshops are held in a cement tunnel of the type normally used to channel sewage. The students sardonically call it the “narco tunnel” and for further whimsy painted it Pepto Bismal pink.
Classes can last eight hours straight. “It’s hard to breath when it gets so hot in the tunnel, but we get so emotionally caught up that we forget the heat, the thirst and hunger,” said Bernal.
Villaseca, now 50, says his own troubled past helps him connect with kids. Growing up in Iztapalapa, he abused drugs — “all of them” — and dropped out of school at age 15. Three years later he discovered photography in a rehab program, went back to school as a photo technician and then got a job as a leading lensman for a major Mexican newspaper, La Jornada.
His life serves as an example to despairing teens. “I know where the kids are coming from. The workshops are like psychotherapy. They talk about themselves and learn who they are. They have another way to connect to their community. We use a Socratic approach, ‘Who am I and where am I going?’ When you learn to observe as a photographer you become more sensitive and begin to contemplate. It’s a safe space where they can cry and talk freely.”
That was certainly the experience of Irving Cabrera Torres, who graduated to work the police beat for a popular tabloid, La Prensa. (A lot of the alumni go on to cover crime for newspapers.) Fellow alums are still his best friends and they meet for beers every Friday or hang out at Faro. “They are like family to me. I studied journalism in the university but learned more with Jesus. Nothing is impossible here. We have a crazy idea: let’s form an agency! And we do. Let’s publish a book! We do.”
Many of his buddies work as professional photographers for politicians or a photo agency Villaseca formed, called Latitude Press, that is sort of the Getty of the ghetto.Villaseca rattled off some of the national publications that have hired his students: La Jornada (where he still works), Revista, Ola! (of Spain), Excelsior, Universal, Milennio, Grafico andProceso.
“It’s tremendously important for the reconstruction of the social fabric,” said John Mraz, an American academic who teaches photo history at the Autonomous University of Puebla. “Jesus gives them a sense of hope that they can get of out here and do something with their lives other than drugs and weapons. It breaks that cycle of not knowing where to turn.”
That was the case for Jair Cabrera Torres, who today works forUniversal.
“The first time I was in the black room, watching the image appear in the chemical solution. I felt something magical happen. I probably would have ended up unemployed or dead, like many of my friends. Suddenly I saw new possibilities. Jesus, with his passion and conviction, provided a purpose to my life.”
The appeal is also free tuition, which is unusual in Mexico City. The 12-week seminars, offered thrice a year, also draw students from other marginalized areas, some traveling as much as four hours per round trip.
Even experienced photographers say they have bettered their craft at Faro, where Villaseco insists that stories are well-researched and balanced with data. Rafael Villalba, 28, fled to Mexico City from a more northern city, Matzalan, where he received death threats from drug cartels for his reporting. “This workshop completely changed my work. It’s more sociological and documentary now, more sympathetic to the suffering of people,” he reflected.
He recently shot a video about the underworld of crystal meth and is now reporting an expose on a factory that does not provide workers with proper protection.
At a recent showing of student work, themes resonated with social issues close to their lives: drug abuse, mental illness and demonstrations against the government.
Sitting rapt in the audience was Emiliano Lopes Cruz, who at 8 is the youngest pupil today. He picked up his first Faro camera before he could read, at age 4, and now conducts his own photography workshops in an indigenous community outside the city. (“My parents prepared a black room and bought the materials.”)
Proffering a plastic binder that serves as portfolio, Emiliano showed an impressive maturation from blurry pictures of trees to artistically framed shots of protests against the disappearance of students.
“I prefer shooting black and white, and pictures of daily life,” he said with a confidence well beyond his years. “I think I want to be a photographer when I grow up. But I might become an engineer or veterinarian as well.”
Villaseca, and the boy’s mother, glowed with pride, and some bemusement.