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The W. Eugene Smith Grant awarded to Yael Martinez

The W. Eugene Smith Grant awarded to Yael Martinez

On October 17, 2019, photographer Yael Martinez won the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his projet entitled “The House that Bleeds”. It is among the oldest photography awards and it is presented annually to a photographer whose work follows the humanistic tradition of W. Eugene Smith.
Juana Escalante member of las Rastreadoras del fuerte searching for graves in the  Ejido Primero de mayo in the Ahome Area. She belives  will find her son in a grave in this area. On november 4th, 2018. Los mochis Mexico. © Yael Martinez

In 2013, Yael Martinez’s brother-in-law Beto was killed by organized crime. After these events, he began to document his family and the families of other missing people in Mexico. Across the country, more than 37,400 people have been categorized as “missing“ by official sources. The vast majority of those are believed to be dead—victims of ongoing violence that has claimed more than 250,000 lives since 2006. These disappearances are the source of lasting psychological trauma for families left behind.

Yael Martinez’s work focuses on communities fractured by organized crime, in a physical and psychological sense. It represents the relationship of absence and presence and this state of invisibility in a symbolic manner. “The symbolic construction of the territory where violence penetrate all and this violence crosses the physical and spiritual space of those who inhabit it,” he says.

Why is photography a good way to tell the story “The House that Bleeds”?

Photography touches everything in our actual life; and more than photography the image. We have to think about how we use the codes to create that image. Photography has been for me a life experience. It has given me a great sense of history that helps me see and photograph the present, that I hope would help define how our society would see the future, to help deepen our foundation that can withstand any adversity. Trough photography is the way I can express myself about how I relate with the world and with my reality; that’s why I chose photography to tell the story about my family and the families of missing people in Mexico.

Alin Granda at her father’s home in Taxco Guerrero.Ignacio Granda went missing in Iguala Guerrero on May10, 2013 Alin was  one year old.With more than 100 thousand deaths that the fight against organized crime has left, there is a generation of children growing in a context of violence. Guerrero Mexico on July 13, 2017. © Yael Martinez

Why is this story important to tell?

My goal is to constitute in a documentary essay a historical memory as a substantial way to face the violence of a power that not only destroys the body, stifles life and controls existence. It is vital and really important for Mexico to construct a memory of our actual history, a people without memory is condemn to repeat their mistakes. I must represent the physical and psychological wear that accumulates over time without the slightest response from the authorities, which burdens families with despair and profound emptiness. The title “The house that bleeds” is symbolic. The house as metaphor that can be the body of a person, a community or a country. The symbolic construction of the territory where violence penetrates all and this violence crosses the physical and spiritual space of those who inhabit it.

Shadow of a person in a wall in the comunity of Metlatonoc. The Mountain of Guerrero has been a territory without law. dozens of persons has moved to other places to live.Located on Mexico’s southern Pacific Coast, is home to most of the poppy bulbs that yield heroin consumed in the U.S.The United Nations estimates that Mexico has the world’s third-largest geographic area dedicated to illicit opium cultivation, after Afghanistan and Myanmar. Guerrero Mexico on February 15th 2015. © Yael Martinez

“The work of the photographer and artist must have an impact on society”

Because it is also a personal story, you tell it with intimacy. On your opinion, what does this point of view bring?

Photography and art are always personal, and personal accounts are social accounts. It is essential to bring this to my work and I will definitely say this changes the way we see, feel the world and the reality we are into. From my perspective, the work of the photographer and artist must have an impact on society and the community. Today, more than ever, the photographer has to generate spaces for reflection and analysis on the issues he or she is generating. It is imperative to understand documentary photography from different perspectives, in which the main collaborators are the people who are opening their hearts and the doors of their homes to be able to generate a memory about the social processes that they are living.

If the work does not impact the community directly, it is not working to create a social change, it is vital to create educational and training spaces for the communities that do not have access to them. Understanding photography and art as a vehicle for social transformation. My approach dynamics are always long-term processes working with the community and now I want to learn to generate integral collaborative projects with different fields of study.

A man working at the slaughter House. Acapulco Guerrero. He has one missing brother. But his family decided not to filed their case with the PGR (Attorney General’s Office). Acapulco Guerrero. On Saturday April 15, 2016. © Yael Martinez

Your pictures are often suggestive. Why did you chose this type of expression?

When we were going through this tragedy in the family, I was trying to understand the problems we were facing and for me it was essential to transfer those experiences and emotions to a visual plane. Many of these times I felt that reality exceeded the way I usually understood it. Many times it seemed that we were on another state, in a dream or in a nightmare. Things seemed surreal. That is why I decided to take images that contained metaphors and analogies to these experiences.

Self portrait with my daughter and a presence of a  hanging man. Guerrero Mexico. A week after Beto’s funeral, I picked up Itzel from Kindergarten. On the way she looked at me and said, “Dad, can I tell you what I dreamt yesterday?” I told her yes. She told me that she was very afraid, that she dreamt that she was falling towards a place that was very dark and that no one was holding her; I was puzzled and my heart was beating intensely, I looked into her eyes and smiled at her, you do not have to be afraid, my daughter, would you like to make a photo of your dream? But you don’t have to worry because this time I’ll be in your dream and I’ll be waiting for you to hold you. © Yael Martinez

What does winning the Smith Grant represent for you as a photographer, and for this documentary essay?

It is a big honor to be awarded by an institution like the Eugene Smith memorial Fund. When I discovered photography, Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Graciela Iturbide, Josef Koudelka were my biggest influences and that is why I wanted to become a photographer. I was fascinated with their work and I loved the way they bond with the people they photographed, that beyond just images. They generated life experiences and deep connections with life itself.

I think winning this award gives me the opportunity and the responsibility to continue working with all the families that are facing this violence in Mexico and to try to be the channel so their voices can be heard all over the world. I just want to thank my family and the families of other missing peoples, thanks for the trust to give me the accessto share their stories and life because I think photography is a collaborative project, where personal voices come together to create one single voice.

Liliana Felix, stopped talking when  her sister Zumiko went missing. She and her mother Lizbeth became part of a group of women call “Las rastreadoras del fuerte” whom search for their missing people.The search for the missing frequently becomes an obsession for families, a mission sometimes handed down from one generation to the next Los Mochis Sinaloa, Mexico on November 3rd, 2018. © Yael Martinez
ucero Granda (My wife) taking a shower at home. The trauma of Mexico’s missing is an open wound in the nation’s psyche. Families who can’t grieve for their loved ones spend the day alternating between doubt and despair, praying for, and dreading, the blessing of certainty.Taxco Guerrero Mexico on November 23,2014. © Yael Martinez
Digno Cruz (My grand-father-in-law) was crying at home while he was talking about his  missing grandsons. Guerrero Mexico. The discovery of several mass graves during the search of the 43 normalistas Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, shows the magnitude of the crisis of enforced disappearances in the country. The goverment have found 60 clandestine graves in the cities of Iguala-Taxco with at least 129 bodies (20 women and 109 men). None of them belonged to the 43 normalistas missing in Iguala during the month of September 2014. Official figures show that in recent years there have been 30 000  disappearances and Guerrero is one of the Mexican States that have been most affected. Guerrero Mexico on November 3rd 2014. © Yael Martinez

Interview by Jonas Cuénin

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