Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
I first met Carlos Álvarez Montero more than a decade ago when I was taking students to Mexico City to study urban culture in one of the most interesting cities in the world. Carlos was instantly warm, excited to talk about the city, alternative music genres, and photography. And I was struck by his pattern of leading DIY photography efforts in Mexico City. The quality of his work combined with his supportive drive meant that every photographer I have met in Mexico City has discussed Carlos with me. His documentary portraits emerge from an interest in music photography and his DIY efforts to bring people together reflect an understanding that collective efforts can inspire photographers in Mexico and help viewers at home and abroad learn about Mexico’s rich and complicated cultures.
Daniel: Let’s start by talking about your early exposure to alternative genres of music.
Carlos: I used to have a band. I was a skate kid. It was harder to get access to music in Mexico. At that time someone had cable or had satellite antennas they would record Headbanger’s Ball and make copies. We all got a copy of a copy of a copy. I had this Minor Threat cassette, but I didn’t even know it was Minor Threat until much later. We were all listening to it, but we didn’t know who it was. If you ask the people of my generation, of the same area, we all listened to the same cassette that was copied from one cassette. I listened to the Violent Femmes ten years after that record came out.
Daniel: And how did you get into photography?
Carlos: Around nineteen. I wanted to study fine arts, to go to college to do fine arts. But it wasn’t possible; I had some issues with my family. They didn’t want me to be an artist. I was studying communication science, but I wanted to be a graphic designer. This was good, communication science, because it was close to art. It’s funny because the first time I thought about photography was more for drawing. I like drawing but I’m not good just drawing. I’m good at copying. I was like, “I can take photos of things that I see and mix them together in a drawing.” I wanted to make photos, but I didn’t have a camera. It wasn’t the usual story of someone giving you a camera and then everything begins. When I entered college, one of the perks was that in the first semester you had the photography course. Since I was studying there because of my parents’ pressure, I was like, “I need a camera.” And they said, “Okay.”
Daniel: An SLR?
Carlos: Yes, an SLR. I had a Pentax K1000. I had to have an interview with a teacher before I could do the photography workshop. He asked me: “Why do you want to study photography?” And I said, “Because this is what I want to do for a living.” I don’t know why I said that. It wasn’t something that I thought, but I was there so this is what I said. From then on that’s what I have been doing. I started working for magazines before I graduated from college. I was already having a professional career.
Daniel: What kind of work at that point?
Carlos: I was always interested in music and magazines. I used to collect music magazines and skate magazines (Skateworld and Thrasher) and one horror film magazine called Fangoria. A lot of the music the magazines had photography issues. So, I was mainly interested in music photography. I understood pretty quickly that there was a guy doing the photo who made that artist look bigger than life. You saw it and it was like, “This guy looks so cool.” But I knew it was the artist but there was someone behind, doing something with the photo to make them look like that. That’s what I wanted to do.
Daniel: Let me ask a few questions about this timeframe. You did the interview and are admitted to the program. Were your professors giving you a lot of positive feedback or are you the kind of person who has drive, which means you were going to send your photos to magazines?
Carlos: It was not a big program; it was just a teacher and just one class. A couple days a week. We don’t have a photography program in Mexico. There are a couple places but that’s really new. You can’t get a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in photography. So, I was a student. And there was this photography Biennial that happens in Mexico that is really important, and I submitted my work. I got selected. Every time I went to this museum called Centro de la Imagen, the photography museum of Mexico City, I thought, “I want to be there.” I entered this contest, and I was part of the show so that pushed me to feel like I’m ready to start pursuing a job.
Daniel: What year was this and how old were you?
Carlos: I was twenty-one. This was probably ’95 or ’96.
Daniel: In terms of submitting the Biennial, were getting positive responses to your work and thought: “Fuck it, I’m going to submit.”?
Carlos: I have always struggled with acknowledging if I am good or not.
Daniel: I think most people do that, which is why I’m asking this question. People err on the side of not submitting work.
Carlos: When I did the Biennial, it was in my photography class: you should do it. Everybody should do it; this is part of the class so everybody should send stuff. I sent something that wasn’t what my teacher told me to send. He said, “You should send whatever you want but I think this is better.” But I sent the other one. It was a portrait, but it was this big black and white photocopy. I submitted and they were like, “What’s the technique?” And I said that it’s xerography. It took them an hour to find out that they were photocopies. Because they were huge ones.
Daniel: They wanted to know if it was a “legitimate” form of photography?
Carlos: Uh huh. You had to put what was the process and they wanted to see if it was something valid with the rules. It said xerography because that’s the technical name for a photocopy. They were like, “So, this is a photocopy?” because there was no Google. [laughs]
Daniel: What was the process? You made the photograph and then you photocopied the photograph?
Carlos: I did the photograph, then I did a bigger photocopy. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t make from one photo immediately to a huge photocopy, but I needed a bigger photocopy, photocopying that to a bigger one, a bigger one, until I got to the size. I think it was probably 50 x 40 inches. Then in the process you were losing quality. I really liked the way it looked.
Then I felt a lot of pressure because I was just a photo student and now people are seeing my work as a photographer’s work, not a student’s work. Also, there was a lot of controversy with this specific Biennial. Usually, you had around one hundred selected works, but this one around five hundred entered and only thirty-two or thirty-three selected. It was very experimental. None of my teachers were selected. A lot of established photographers were really mad because they weren’t in. At the same time, I was taking an experimental workshop at the museum. And one day the teacher comes and he’s like, “I just realized that that guy, Carlos, those are photocopies.” He didn’t know it was me, but he was like, “Did you know that?” “Yeah.” [laughs] “How?” “Because those are my photos.” So, there were people who were mad because I was submitting photocopies.
Daniel: Think about the word, “photocopy”: copy of a photograph. Of course, things have changed in terms of how people think about photography.
Carlos: Now a lot of really famous photographers have done it. But back then that was unusual. Then I got all this pressure because I’m thinking, “Oh my god, now people are going to expect things from me.”
Daniel: When you say that people were going to expect things of you, do you mean as a photographer more generally or to keep doing this type of photocopied work?
Carlos: I felt the pressure that I have to deliver as a photographer. But then I was like, “Calm down. Your ego is so big to be thinking that.” [laughs] So I get to school, and they used to have a free newspaper that had an important column about photography. That’s not usual, but these guys had it. So, I get it and I start reading. They’re talking about the Biennial. “There’s some work that I like a lot and we have to expect a lot from Carlos Álvarez Montero.” And I’m like, “Whaaaaaaaaat!” And I’m just in school reading it and like [has a shocked look on his face]. Then my girlfriend at the time was like, “I think you’re ready. You should start going to magazines.” Pushing me so I would start doing it. I went to a magazine store and I peaked at the magazines that I liked.
Daniel: Photography magazines or magazines in general?
Carlos: There are no photography magazines in Mexico. “I like this one, this one, this one, this one.” I wrote down the address. At that point the figure of the photo editor was non-existent, so it was the art director. And I just went. “Hey, I’m Carlos. I want to show you my work.”
Daniel: You went to the offices? You just showed up?
Carlos: Uh huh. Just like that. And they were like, “Okay, come in.” The first one was a magazine called Complot, an alternative, independent magazine. All photographers wanted to be in because you could do whatever you wanted. The more alternative, weird stuff, they would publish. I went there and talked to the art director, and he was like, “Okay, I want to publish this, this, and this for this article.” I did that and then I did another one and he was like: “I would like a photo of this.” And I would do everything: I would do Polaroid, I would do Polaroid transfers. At the time I was doing a lot of experimental stuff: photocopies in color.
Then one day I was like, “I want to do a cover.” But that was the second or third issue that I was working with them. And they were like, “Okay.” [Laughs] They usually had a rock artist on the cover. There was this movement in Monterrey known as Avanzada Regia, the translation is something like the Regio’s Outpost, Regio/a is the demonym for Monterrey. The bands were releasing their first records and so the magazine said, “We have a cover with Plastilina Mosh. Do you want to do it?” So, I did that and did the photos in the pool, under water. Crazy things. From then on, they started calling me to do covers. That was also interesting because I used to have a band and that was what I really wanted to do, play in a band. But then stuff happened and I stopped playing because the lack of commitment of my bandmates. I made my peace with the music scene, and I was doing photos in the music scene.
Daniel: It was a way for you to connect with music, but in a different way.
Carlos: Exactly. I started doing a lot of music photography for magazines, for record labels, and sometimes for the bands for their press. At the same time, I stopped liking the artwork. When I was in the Biennial, I thought that I am going to be an art photographer, but I went to a couple shows and everyone was a snob. I thought, “I don’t want anything to do with this world. I don’t like it and don’t like the people and bluffing. I’m done.” I was just going to do music work.
Daniel: How old are you by now?
Carlos: At this point I was twenty-four or twenty-five.
Daniel: So, a lot happens in a short period because you said you were twenty-one when you did the Biennial?
Carlos: Yes, very fast. The first publication was when I was twenty-one; it was just a couple months after the Biennial. I remember doing this cover with a magazine with this Argentinean band called Illya Kuryaki And The Valderramas. It was a band I really liked, and they were really cool guys. They were young; they were like my age. I showed them the Polaroid, the test, and they were like, “This looks very professional.” And I was like, “What do you mean, this looks very professional? Of course, this is professional.” Now I understand. I was twenty-one and probably they have never been photographed by a twenty-one year old, right? So, twenty-one up to twenty-five I was doing that. Then at twenty-five I did my first ad campaign, so I started doing advertising, too. And I started doing some other things, like politicians and actors.
Carlos: It has always been portraits; that’s my thing. And then, in 2000, I think, I decided I didn’t want to be here. I was twenty-five and I wanted to move to London. I went to London and when I was about to rent a place I got robbed. I didn’t like the vibe of London. So, I went to Spain. I was in Madrid for three or four months and didn’t like it there, so I came back. But when I was there, I connected with some magazines and started doing work for Spanish Rolling Stone and for Vanidad and Neo2, two of the alternative magazines in Madrid. I started working with them doing music.
What I did in Madrid is that I came with my portfolio and just went to the magazines, arrived to the office: “I’m here to see this guy, I’m from Mexico.” And they were like, “What? Okay. Come in.” Rolling Stone was a new magazine there and the editor, I had to wait for him two hours. He comes out: “I’m sorry. Did we have a meeting?” I’m like, “No. I’m from Mexico and I just came.” “You’re from Mexico? [says sounding surprised] Come in. Tell me your story.” I told him everything and he said, “I like your work. I like your attitude. I’m going to get you some work. I’m going on vacation tomorrow, but from the beach, I will make some appointments for you. So, call my assistant in two days.” I called and he was like, “Yeah, you have a meeting with this guy, this guy, this guy, and this guy.” Everything worked. I did some stuff, but I was like, “Ahhh, I don’t want to be here” so I came back to Mexico. But then I did the same thing in New York. I was young, I didn’t have any idea about how things worked, and I wasn’t as self-conscious as I am now. In New York you can’t do that [laughs].
Daniel: Did it work?
Carlos: It did. I went to Photo District news, PDN, and the photo editor was Paul Moakley, and he now works at Time. I showed him my work and he was like, “Well, we don’t assign people to do photos. We use photos that we already have, but I want to see your photos.” And he said something that I remember: “I have never met a Mexican photographer. Never. I know about Manuel Álvarez Bravo, but you are the first Mexican photographer I’ve met.” That’s interesting. So, I think that everybody wanted a photographer from Mexico.
That happened with The Fader. Eddie Brannan was like, “It’s good that we see you because we want to do an article about Mexico called “México: La Nueva Ola” (“Mexico: The New Wave”) and we would like you to do it.” The thing with me is that I always think about is that if you ask me for a photo that you are going to give me ten pages, spreads, and stuff like that. It’s not always the case, but I start by thinking that that’s what they want. So, I did the photos and it ended up being sixteen pages with big photos, a lot of photos. So, I did that for The Fader just in my first trip.
Daniel: Did you go back to Mexico to shoot or he wanted photos that were in your portfolio?
Carlos: I was just there for a month. I just went to show my portfolio. I came back, I did that, and sent it. But then in 2003 I decided to move to New York and see what happens. So, I moved, was looking, bringing my portfolio everywhere. Nothing happened.
Daniel: Is part of your desire to move a product of being restless: You want to move out of Mexico and have a new experience? Or do you want to move to New York because you think the opportunities to make a living as a photographer are too difficult in Mexico?
Carlos: It was just because I wanted to grow as a photographer and New York is the place to be if you want big assignments or you want to do stuff that matters. It’s New York, the big leagues. I have always had this drive. When I was a musician, I was thinking about touring all over the world; when I was a kid and played baseball, I thought about the big leagues; and when I played soccer, I thought about the World Cup. So, I was thinking, photography: New York. I’ll go to New York and see what happens. A lot of photographers do that. I moved to New York, and nothing was happening and then a friend in Mexico City called me and said, “Remember, we always dreamed about doing a magazine?” I would be the photo editor and we could do it like this, blah blah blah. She was like, “I just found someone who is going to invest in the magazine. Let’s do it.” So, I came back, and we started this magazine called Picnic. It was social, anthropological.
Daniel: What year is this?
Carlos: I came back in 2003, worked a year on the project, and the first issue came in 2004. I stopped doing whatever I was doing because I didn’t have time. We were doing the magazine and I was shooting everything. We had a budget but everything that was outside that budget. I had to do it. But at the same time, I knew how much a magazine in the U.S. pays. At that time, the U.S. dollar was ten pesos. They usually paid $500 to do an assignment and here they paid you 5,000 pesos. So, I was like, okay, we can ask people from all over the world to do things.
With the magazine, I was like, “How can I make the scene change? How can I make the photographers in Mexico know that they are as good as anyone?” I can hire photographers from the U.S. with photographers from Mexico, they will see themselves in the same magazine, and they will see that it’s the same. Also, I will take the photographers from here and they will be seen outside Mexico because I will send magazines. I was also putting the contact emails for everyone, because something that happens a lot is that people will see the photographer and call them. So, I started working on that and when I started doing the magazine. I focused more on documentary work. I stopped doing music work.
Daniel: Your street photography and documentary work features portraits. That seems to be your approach, as you said earlier. And that seems to set you apart from other photographers since many focus on candid, action-oriented street photography. You do really interesting and engaging portrait work. Is that what you were doing with the magazine?
Carlos: It has always been documentary but focused on portraiture. I do portraits and I will make other photos to complement the portraits to give context. At that time, I was starting to explore this mix because I hadn’t done it before. I started to photograph Romani in San Luis Potosi or going to Veracruz to do something. And probably since I had been doing all these band shots, that are basically portraits, that’s why I was focused on portraits.
I did that and then after a couple years doing the magazine, I started getting bored. I was at the office the whole week. There started to be problems at the magazine because photography was one of the more successful things at the magazine so now everybody was trying to push photography things; that was my part. At one point I thought, “I’m going back to New York.” So I quit.
When I started as a photographer, I was assisting another photographer. He just came from New York. He did a master’s as a Fulbright at the School of Visual Arts. My assistant at the magazine just got a Fulbright grant and she was going to New York to do a photography master’s. She said, “You should appl. I will help you with your application.” She basically pushed me to do it and helped. So, I got a grant to go and study in New York.
I left Picnic in 2006 and in 2007 I moved to New York to do a master’s. In between, every year I went to New York and I showed my portfolio. I went to this magazine called Mass Appeal and they called me and said, “Let’s do something about Mexican gangsters. Do you have the contacts?” “Sure.” I didn’t but I ended up doing some photos of gang members in Michoacán, I sent them back to the editor and he just got fired so that didn’t happen. But it was a good project, so I kept working on that. Then I moved to New York and was living there for two and a half years.
Daniel: Let’s stop and talk a bit more about the Michoacán project. You said you didn’t know gang members there, so how did you find the guys to shoot and get them to participate?
Carlos: I had the assignment and asked for a month to do it. It had already been three weeks and I couldn’t get the contacts I wanted but I had a friend who was living over there in a small town called Zamora. It’s a really small town but he ended up living there and doing tennis classes and was like, “There are a lot of cholos around. You should come.” I was on a deadline, so I’m going tomorrow. I went and there were these little kids who run for the balls/bring the balls. He said that these guys know some guys. They took me but it was just a homeless guy who used to be a gang member. He used to be in jail in California but no gang. It was just him. They said, “There’s this street over there but it’s really dangerous. There’s some guys that look like this and there’s a guy in a wheelchair. They might rob you.” I said, “Let’s go.” I asked if they could introduce me, and they said no so I just went there and talked to them. “Hey guys, I’m doing this and blah, blah, blah.” It was crazy because I had a red Rage Against the Machine T-shirt and in gangs it’s red and blue. These guys were blue. I didn’t know anything about that. I just talked to them and started shooting. I started creating a relationship with them, staying for like three or four days. Then I came back.
Daniel: In the documentary Everybody Street, Boogie, one of the photographers who is featured, talked about shooting gang members and drug dealers in New York. He would get someone to agree to shoot and then bring a photo back. The guy loved how he looked and showed the photo to his friends, who then wanted to be photographed so they could have a photo of themselves.
Carlos: I did the photos the first day. This was before Facebook, Instagram, and that. Usually you go and say, “I want to take your photo” and he’s like, “Ah, I’m going to be in a magazine.” And that was supposed to be in a magazine. I sent the photos. But the second time I went looking for the gang and I didn’t find them, so I went to see the other guy, Jimmy. He’s like, “Hey Carlos, how are you?” He didn’t really care about the photos. I asked if he saw the photos. “Yeah, yeah.” Whatever. He asked: “Did you see the other guys?” “No. I was looking for them.” “Ah, oh. They want to kill you. Yeah, because after you came, there was a raid. So, they thought you were a cop and that’s why you were taking photos. But I told them: ‘Did they take anyone of you?’ No. Because they were looking for Malas.” Malas is a gang from El Salvador. The tattoos are different. And he said, “If you do something to him, you will have to respond to me.” I’m like, “Okaaaaaaay.”
Daniel: Don’t know what you did to deserve the protection, but it’s good to have it.
Carlos: Exactly. This guy was really interested in having his story told. He’s an OG, so from then on, I get going with the photos.
Daniel: I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of photographs you’ve made. I would say that you were slotted outside the conventions of art photography and street photography. Let’s talk a bit about what you want to do and how you see your photography within a broader context of documentary photography.
Carlos: Sometimes it didn’t look like what I was trying to do. You want it to look like that or to look like this, and then you do it and something else comes. I think that also has to do with what I feel about music: rocksteady and reggae, they were trying to do something, and it came out different. I was trying to do something, and it came out Mexican style or whatever. Here, people want you to do stuff that looks like the USA but in the USA, they were like, “Wow. What is this?” I also understood what was appealing about my work. And just to embrace it: this is the way I shoot and what I do. And that also gave me a lot of confidence that, as I was telling you, we don’t have as a country. We don’t have that for many reasons. To feel like I could be part of this world. When I was there, people appreciated my work.
Daniel: I assume that might be part of the problem for any artist in that artists compare what they do to other artists. Then there’s the idea in general that what is elsewhere is always better. People in small cities in the U.S. tend to look to Los Angeles or New York and think that what happens in those cities is better or more important. But I understand what you’re saying. On a global scale the U.S. casts a massive shadow over Mexico in so many ways.
I’d like to return to our conversation earlier about your efforts with the magazine and then later with some workshops and gallery spaces to work with Mexican photographers and to help those artists see their work as important. Is that way of thinking a spark for you that you could be at the center of a photographic community in Mexico City? I get that for you to say the same thing would sound egotistical, so I can say it [laughs] and maybe can ask you to narrate how these connections and projects came together.
Carlos: I just think that when you want things to change, you cannot wait for someone to do that change. You have to do it. It’s weird because the reality is that I wish someone else was doing it for me. [laughs] That doesn’t happen, so I have to do it for me and for everyone because I want to.
I think about that time that I told you about where Paul Moakley told me: “You are the first Mexican photographer I know.” I was the first Mexican photographer he met but he told me he knew about the famous ones like Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who was contemporary to Cartier-Bresson. How come? Why don’t they know us? There’s a lot good photographers. What can I do to put us on the map, for me and for the photographic community in Mexico? If you want a better country, a better life, a better whatever then you have to start by yourself to make that change. That’s why we did the magazine. I thought that I have a chance to do this. “How can I push to make it better?”
Also, I have always found people who want to give, so when I went to Spain, there was someone who helped me. And every time I met someone who said, “I’m not the magazine for you, but I will help you with this and I will help you meet some others.” And I used to assist a photographer, Edgar Ladrón de Guevara. He was a very generous photographer. I was an assistant but he wanted to teach, so he took the time teaching me things, so I learned a lot from him: photography-wise, human-wise, and business-wise. I have always thought about that: Let’s all go forward. If we all go forward, I will go forward. I already went to Europe and the U.S. and see that I am competitive. How can I help all these people who don’t know that they are good, know that they are good? It’s like when Alejandro González Iñárritu won an Oscar. Before that, I’m sure that almost all Mexicans thought it was impossible for a Mexican to get an Oscar. Now you have a new generation of filmmakers that know that they can have a career at the highest point.
When I opened the school, 357, it was the same thing. What I learned in grad school is that you have to give it back to start creating things. When I closed 357, I had a column on photography for Vice Mexico and I met this photographer from Detroit called Mark Powell. He has lived here for twenty years. I knew his work and met him to do an interview. He’s one of the owners of Cine Tonalá. It’s an independent movie theater and it has a restaurant and a bar. I was closing the school and he said, “I want to do something related with photography using the movie theater.” Let’s do it. Let’s do artist talks. Two months after that we started doing a series of artist talks called Sin Perder de Vista (Without Losing Sight). It was Mark Powell, Alfredo Esparza Cárdenas, and me. Let’s bring a photographer and show their work. We can show the photos on the screen but let’s not make it too academic, too technical. The idea was like an uncle showing the slides of the vacation. So, we will sit there, we will talk about the work, it’s casual. People can come and at the end they can talk to the photographer by themselves.
We did that for two years. Now I have a photographer’s agency with Mara García, called OJO. It’s kind of the same: I want to change photography. Let’s do it different. Ad agencies are like, “This work is only done by foreign photographers.” I am going to show them that there are photographers in Mexico and we can do it this way or we can do it that way. I wish somebody called me and said, “We want to represent you.” But that doesn’t happen.
Daniel: The last question I have is about your eye as a photographer. If you compare your work now to your work ten years ago, how has your photography changed?
Carlos: I think it’s hard to understand the work I do because a lot of people see it as documentary work; that I just go out and do photos because I bring my camera with me. But that is something that I don’t do. I’m always thinking of something more than just the portrait. When I do a portrait of a cholo, I’m not just doing a portrait of a cholo because he’s a cholo. Instead, I’m thinking about cultural adaptation. I’m thinking about construction of identity, how you go from here to here. I’m doing this project called Somos lo que hay. The translation might be something like, “We are what we are.” It’s an exploration of Mexican identity. We are a result of two big colonizations. The first one is the Spaniards. Our identity is a problematic one that is a product of native—Aztecs, Mayans, you know—mixed with Spanish, right? But I don’t think many of us really like the Spanish part because we were conquered. We are the result of rape, a forced conquest, a violent conqueror. We have Spanish blood, but we are not okay with that. I am Carlos (Spanish name) Álvarez (Spanish name) Montero (Spanish name). But it is hard for us to make peace with being part Spanish.
Then we have the other big colonization, which is the cultural colonization by the U.S. We grew up listening to the same music, watching the same cinema and TV, exposed to the same fashion. But we also want to be that. A few years ago, there was this boom when Trump got into power. This guy did a varsity jacket that said, Mexico is the shit. And a lot of people were so proud of it. But it was in English, so it was like, “What? You are proud of being Mexican, but you say it in English?” It was usually the aspirational class or the higher class that like, “I am so cool that I am Mexican that I will say it in English.” So that’s part of what we are. The U.S. impacts the whole world, but we are right next to it, so we have this identity that is hard to tell. I’m speaking with you in English, I’m dressed wearing Adidas tennis shoes, and one of my biggest influences is rock bands. Federico Gama did these photos of indigenous kids in Mexico, but they are punks. So even the indigenous communities might be further away, but they are still influenced by the U.S.