Fernando Brito: Witness to a Lost War

Azucena Manjarrez

"In truth, what affects me about taking these photographs is that I know they have family; it doesn’t please me. People think that they [the dead] must really have done something to deserve a death like that, but no one deserves to die in that way." —Fernando Brito, photojournalist

It is the goodbye, the memory of the last breath, of a man, of a woman, a youth, an old man with a name and surname.

It is the image of those footsteps that were lost in the landscape. Now there are no more dreams. Their traces have been recorded in an instant, a click, in a penetrating gaze that hides stories of horror, of that which has become everyday in a city that lives in fear.

A body riddled with bullets, a mutilated body, a burned body, a piercing pain, a perennial melancholy. That is the day-to-day that Fernando Brito confronts.

His shield is a camera, and his strength is the hope that the panorama of the future will be different. But, while this is taking place, he cannot stop documenting. He is also afraid.

No one can say that they don’t feel it; in Sinaloa, everyone is potentially one of the dead. Brito explains this on an ordinary day in Culiacán, a rainy afternoon, in a café in the historic center of the city, as his camera waits in its bag and he takes a moment to reflect on what he has experienced as a photojournalist.

For the last four years, his work has been to gather images of the violence that has taken over. His most recent series is called Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape (Tus pasos se perdieron en el paisaje). Paradoxically, these are non-violent scenes; they are melancholy images, sad, nostalgic. He has an explanation: “In truth, what affects me about taking these photographs is that I know they have family; it doesn’t please me. People think that they [the dead] must really have done something to deserve a death like that, but no one deserves to die in that way.”

What Brito seeks to do with these images is confront people with the reality of violence, pushing them to stop seeing it as part of the everyday.

Brito emphasizes that he is deeply upset by the unfolding violence and that, although his work may not change anything, it will document the existence of a fundamental social problem that has devolved into spectacle.

The Paths

The beginnings of Brito’s career as a photojournalist have always been tied to daily life in Sinaloa—to violence. In the family newspaper, La i, he was asked to take pictures of murder scenes without showing the violence.

This was the first crossroads. He turned to the tastes he had always had for art, making the landscapes into his subjects. Now, as the head of photography for the newspaper El Debate, he continues with this principle: to show but without turning into a spectacle.

Each morning, he knows that things will remain the same. There is nothing to celebrate. No change has taken place. The state is in complete retreat, with the number of violent deaths climbing to historic levels.

“There is a general feeling of insecurity. We have had no change nor progress; we are going backwards; we are all potentially one of the dead, because no one knows whether they will make it home at the end of the day.” This he knows well.

“I hope that things will change. I am not thinking about the politicians, but about the people, who can make change happen.”

Light at the End the Tunnel

The act of taking photographs has become a way to relieve the tension; Brito shields himself with his camera so that the horror of these murders does completely overwhelm him.

The point of these images is not, Brito clarifies, to offend our sensibilities; his focus is not the morbid object but a person without life.

The viewer, then, standing before these images, can establish a dialogue and ask themselves difficult questions.

“I am always afraid, like anyone else. No one is safe in this city. Nor do I want to be a martyr. I just want to show what is happening.”

His strategy for doing so has been to “disguise” his work as art, so that the deaths captured in his photographs don’t become yesterday’s news.

This is his critique: “I take my courage from what is going on. It is sad. It is about re-signifying life and about not being complacent about what is taking place.”

Showing Realities

Although he is considered a practitioner of the New Documentalist movement in Mexico, Brito does not consider himself an artist.

The driving force in his work is self-criticism. He is adamant that he is not an artist and, perhaps, not even a good photographer, because: “All of this is the result of my employment, I have a hard time taking a good photo.”

Having received the most important photography awards in Mexico, as well as PhotoEspaña and World Press Photo awards, Brito considers his success an enormous responsibility and is certain of his role as a politically committed photojournalist and not as an artist. He always seeks to improve his work and improve his own knowledge of Culiacán, a city that is turning red. It is here that he must follow the routine: to tell the real story of those who once walked and breathed among us.

Translated by Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra.

Awards: Fernando Brito has won the three most important photography prizes of Sinaloa and mexico: the Bienal de Artes Visuales del Noroeste (Arts Biennale of the Northeast), the Bienal del Salón de la Plástica de la UAS (the UAS Fine Arts Biennale) y the Bienal del Centro de la Imagen (Biennale of the Center for the Image). He has also received the Premio Descubrimientos (Discovery Prize) from PhotoEspaña and was placed third in the General News category of the World Press Photo awards.

Azucena Manjarrez is a Mexican journalist; her work appears in the publications of the Noroeste group, amongst others. A previous version of this piece was published here.