Behind the scenes of “Reframing Mexico”
Thirty-two students from UNC Chapel Hill and Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology recently published their latest documentary project, Reframing Mexico, which documents stories other than the drug war in Mexico. Several months ago I attended a screening of the stories and by far my favorite was Cath Spangler’s “Enough to survive,” a story about a mother who works in a dump to feed her children. Thus, I asked her to detail her experience finding her story subject, dealing with unexpected challenges while documenting in the field, and finding a way to give back to the mother.
“I spent my spring break in the unlikeliest of placesâ€”a sprawling Mexican garbage dump. Ignoring travel warnings and admonitions from friends and family, a team of Carolina Photojournalism students traveled to Mexico City for ten days to tell stories that we felt were missing in media portrayals of the country.
I set out to produce a multimedia documentary on trash pickers, or as they are known in Mexico, pepenadors. Because the topic seemed so remarkable to me, I knew it would be important to find a universal angle to the story. I imagined that a story about a family of several generations living at the dump would humanize a dehumanizing profession.
My partners Aldo and Gerardo, documentary students from Monterrey Tec, worked for about a month to secure our entry to Bordo Xochiaca, the dump outside Mexico City where roughly one thousand pepenadors live and work. They got access by being persistent and befriending the gatekeepers to the site. There they met Sabina Morales Gomez, a 23-year-old mother raising her three young children in the only place they could afford to live.
The dump is a truly toxic environment. An indescribable stench permeates everything. Dust storms whip trash and particulate through the air. The threat of illness is everywhere in pools of fetid water, streams of raw sewage, and roving packs of feral dogs.
Shooting a multimedia story in this atmosphere required stamina. Because I am still honing my â€œsteady arm,â€ hand-holding my DSLR was not an option for most video shots. This meant that I carted my tripod around with me everywhere, comically sprinting across bogs of soft trash to catch a shot.
Although my Canon 5D Mark II is as unassuming as a video camera can be, there remained the threat of it being stolen or damaged from flying debris. All together, I found my lenses, tripod, flash recorder, and mics to be more of a burden than an advantage. By the end of the shoot I simplified my gear to a single lens and an on-board Sennheiser mic.
A particular source of anxiety was deciding when to take stills or video. I quickly got over the thrill of being able to â€œdo it allâ€ with one little device. When I felt overwhelmed I would choose one form of photography and commit to it for twenty minutes, just working every angle until I was ready to move on.
In total, I spent seven days shooting and about a month in post-production. Halfway through the shoot, my group got a surprising call. Sabina told us that she had a fight with her family and was going to leave the dump. Her plan was to stay with a friend and try to cobble together enough income to rent a room.
I am ashamed to say now that my first instinct was utter disappointment. All I could think about was how much more shooting I still had to do at the dump. It took me a moment, but I did find my head. Not only was Sabina doing what was best for her family by moving them to a safer and healthier place, but also I was lucky enough to be there with her while she went through this remarkable transition.
From a documentary perspective, the situation was ideal. Suddenly the story embodied those magic ingredients of risk, tension, conflict andâ€”most importantlyâ€”unfolding action. A transformation was taking place in real time to witness and record. Sabinaâ€™s bold decision became a focus and provided a clear structure for the story.
It is common for us documentarians to tell stories of extreme hardship in places that are very different from the ones we ourselves live in. In such situations, I sometimes have serious doubts, and question whether the act of simply telling a story can help to combat suffering.
I do this work because I believe that people have a fundamental need to be seen and understood. That is what documentary aspires to do. And regardless of the challenges, there is great power in it.
As a result of getting to know and care for Sabinaâ€™s family, our group wanted to give back in a tangible way. We took up a collection as a token of our appreciation for their generosity in sharing their story.
Currently, my partners in Mexico are repurposing some of the materials we collected to raise awareness about the conditions pepenadors live in. Their next goal is to work with a nonprofit to start a fund for Sabina and her children.
Let me know what you think of the story, and do keep in touch if you are interested in learning about how you can contribute.”
To learn more about Cath, follow her on Twitter and view her portfolio.
Other posts that might interest you:
Tags: Carolina Photojournalism, Catherine Spangler, documentary, Mexico, Pat Davison, student project, UNC