Saturday, February 28, 2015

Working with Dignity: A Oaxaca Portrait - Part One

Don José: Blacksmith
Recently Colectiv-O,the photography collective to which I belong, initiated a photo project entitled "Oficios" (occupations) for World Art Day 2015. Our project is to choose occupations that are very old or in danger of dying out, and print them poster size to be plastered on walls in the Centro Historico of the city. Since I had already begun working on a project very similar to this, I was happy to participate. One of my shortcomings as a photographer is my fear of approaching people and asking permission to take their portraits. This project gave me the perfect point of entry; it recognizes the importance of the work that these people do, and it serves as good publicity for them as artisans.
Bonifacio: Organ Grinder

I was very touched by the openness of the people that I chose to photograph. Much like Marie's sketches, my session with them opened a channel for dialogue, for sharing personal feelings about their work, and their lives. It made me think of Stud Terkel's book,Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do. (1974). So I ordered it  for my Kindle (immediate gratification). But what I found soon into rereading it, was that most of Terkel's participants did not like the work they did. Few felt truly satisfied and many felt alienated by the work they did. What I was discovering was to the contrary. My neighbors here in Oaxaca were proud of what they did! They were a dying breed in many instances, but they recognized the value of their work and the skill involved in doing it. It gave me an idea for a book about these people and their feelings about their "oficio". It appears I am much better at starting books than finishing them! So this entry is a sampler, the embryonic stage of what someday might bring Studs Terkel out of his grave: Working with Dignity: A Oaxaca Portrait.

Bonifacio is an organ grinder, an occupation that is held in high esteem in Mexico. The occupation goes back to the end of the 19th century when the German government sent a gift to Porfirio Diaz. It is hard work, as the organs are heavy and must be carried from place to place to perform. Organs are not easy to find anymore and outside of DF, there are not many grinders to be found. It is a disappearing profession. Bonifacio got his from some artisans that were closing up shop. It is an old organ, simple but solid. He plays on markets days throughout the city. He is from the Mixteca, a mountainous area outside of Oaxaca, and has a wife and five children. He also makes wooden toys that he sells sometimes in the market, and his daughter Marisol sells gardenias along side of him.The day I photographed him, I bought two bunches from her for Marie's altar. I hope they were not too fragrant for her! Today I went to the Merced market and gave him copies of some of the photos I took. He was thrilled, and so was I. 
Pepe & his Monos de Calenda

Pepe is the subject of yet another book project, one that I started soon after arriving in Oaxaca this fall. We met last year at a festival and we had a strong connection. Pepe used to repair tires, even came to your house to do it. But that business went under, so now making the monos, giant paper-mache puppets, is his only livelihood. He rents them out and sells them as well. Monos are big in Oaxaca, almost every wedding, church festival, and community event is not considered a "true event" without the monos, the "banda municipal", and dancing. Pepe is a social butterfly, a fixture in his neighborhood where nearly everyone that passes by stops to have a few words with him. If they don't stop, he talks to them anyway, especially the women. But he does so in a respectful, comical way that draws a look back at him and a smile. He never knew who his father was, and when he asked his mother, she told him "Pedro Infante", one of Mexico's most renowned actors. He took it to heart. You can see Pedro looking over his right shoulder in this photo and Pedro's photo is on Pepe's altar alongside of his recently deceased mother.

Don José is one of two blacksmiths that I visited. His workshop is in his home, a humble space where he spends most of his day. It is full of pieces of iron, wrought iron furniture, and tools of all sorts. When I returned at night to give him a copy of his photo, he was playing guitar to relax from the day's work. 
He takes great pride in the detail work he does, the difficult bending and shaping of hot iron. He has been working iron for over forty years, and he makes it look so easy. His eyes sparkle like the charcoals that heat his iron rods as he pounds them into shape. There is no one learning his trade from him, no one to pick up his hammer and man his anvil when he is gone. "It is too much work, takes too much patience for the young people today", he tells me. So he continues to do the work he loves as if he will do it forever. After all, there is no reason to stop doing what you truly love to do. Bonifacio, Pepe and José take pride in the work they do. They may struggle financially to make ends meet, but then, most artist do.Their art form brings meaning  and satisfaction to their lives. It puts bread on their table, gives them a much deserved sense of self worth, and allows them to hold their heads high.That is what work should do for people. (More stories and photos to follow).