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Going Back

A Photographer, a Family, and the Borders in Between

Jaime, Angelica, Carlos, Pinto, Doobie, María, Carmelita, Alex. Mexico, 1994.

[clock] 12-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2017


In the fall of 1993, in a village near the US–Mexico border, an American photographer named Annie met a Mexican woman named María. María was eight months pregnant at the time, and walking up a steep hill in the noon heat—with two young daughters at her side—to take lunch to her husband, Jaime. He was digging clay to make bricks. The girls had just found an empty sketchpad. Annie gave them her pencils. 

Because Annie was a photographer, she asked if she could take some photos. Because she felt drawn to María’s warmth—and to her family, and to the land where she lived—she asked if she could come back and take some more. María said yes. Annie ended up coming back more than twenty times over the course of the next twenty years. 

These were two decades of flea bites and bellyaches and fevers; two decades spent sleeping on floors and napping with babies and learning slingshot strategy from four-foot experts; two decades of road trips and plane flights and time off her day job; two decades of counseling María through two abusive relationships, taking her sons to street festivals, registering her kids for schools that said they had no room. These were two decades of finding the right moment, the right dusk light, the right gaze between mother and child; or else not finding the right moment, or not being sure, and releasing the shutter anyway. 

Annie always carried the same three cameras: all Nikon, all fully manual—one color, two black-and-white, one wide-angle—no zoom lenses, no telephoto. If Annie wanted a close-up, she had to get close. She never used a flash, only ambient light, because she didn’t want to disturb the scenes she was capturing, which meant she had to keep herself absolutely still for long exposures in the dim adobe where Jaime and María often lived without electricity, illuminating their nighttime talking and drinking with candles. Annie never cropped images after the fact, in the darkroom, which put pressure on each composition: She had a vision for what each shot would capture. She says beginning photographers are always moved by her work, but have no idea what moves them. She suspects it has to do with these formal constraints she employs: Always the same camera, the same kind of film, 35mm—never digital, never zoom, never flash.

Over the course of those two decades, Annie took 21,000 frames of film. She made twenty-two trips. María started calling her Anita. María started calling her a sister. Annie got to know María’s mother, her children, her siblings, their children. She learned and relearned the tangled dynamics of their family, witnessed decades of caregiving, the knotted strings of feuds, the vagaries of puberty, the threat and residue of violence, the exhaustion of labor, the demands of poverty. But the more Annie saw, the more she felt aware of what she didn’t know. Mainly, she felt humbled. She started to keep a journal of her trips, hundreds of pages of observation and reflection. Nine years into the project, she wrote: I understand nothing.

Photograph by Annie Appel


 The first time Annie came back, María and Jaime were surprised that she’d returned. Someone had assured them she wouldn’t; that she’d be just like the last white woman who took snapshots and never came back. María greeted Annie at the doorway of their adobe by saying that the baby, Carmelita—whom she’d been carrying when she and Annie first met—had fever and diarrhea and wasn’t responding to her medicine.  It was like that, whenever Annie returned over the next twenty years: She was plunged right into the stream of their lives. 

On that first visit, Annie watched the kids do their homework by candlelight after the neighbor cut their illegal electricity. She bartered photos to coax the neighbor to restore it. She woke up at 3:30 in the morning to take photos with Jaime when he started laying bricks at four. She took photos when the cops arrested him as he helped her jump her car, an Oldsmobile they called “The Red Donkey.” Taking photos was the only way she knew to protest his arrest, but her photos didn’t keep the police from hauling him away. “Don’t take pictures of us, little bird,” the cops told Annie over their car speakers, as they drove past the edge of her frame. But she took them anyway. 

Proof sheets from Annie’s early visits show the world she found so gravitationally powerful in all its humble particulars, like microscope slides sharpened into focus to reveal mysteries in plain sight: a wheelbarrow full of dirty dishes; a stripped mattress box spring propped up as a fence; two girls sitting on a tower of bricks as tall as a two-story house; a mother laughing and—once in a blue moon—showing the rotten teeth she is ashamed of. Those early proofs show a box of cornflakes tucked into an alcove near the ceiling; a heart-shaped stencil in a plot of soil; a boy at a market table full of screwdrivers; a man lighting his cigarette against the ocean wind; the same man bathing himself, sheepish, with a mug and a plastic bucket of water, in a shack draped with a cloth that his wife is holding open—and the same man, punchdrunk with love, nuzzling his infant daughter’s neck. 

One of Annie’s earliest photographs, from that first return, shows María holding Carmelita on a beach. Wet sand and smooth stones glisten in the background, where her son plays by the edge of the water. Carmelita is just an infant, with her head resting against her mother’s chest in a primal posture of intimacy. The force of the photograph is concentrated in María’s face: focused, steady, unsmiling, determined, deeply protective of the daughter in her arms. Her grip is secure. The photo turns the pietà on its head: There is no death here, no martyr to be pitied or mourned—only life, and the living, and continuance, more ordinary days. 

Over the years, Annie’s photos track this baby becoming a sullen schoolgirl standing in front of arithmetic sums on a chalkboard, and then a woman putting up an orange tent at market, at her first paying job. The tent looks like flesh or tissue: the tarp filtering the sunlight like a bodily organ built from tent flaps and metal rods. In a shot taken fifteen years after they first met, Carmelita is a young woman in burgundy corduroy pants, standing in a field of flowers under swollen clouds—defiant, radiant. 


Annie Appel grew up in El Paso, Texas, during the sixties and seventies, directly across the border from Ciudad Juárez. She describes it as being “born and raised in twin cities divided by a river.” From the house where she lived on Thunderbird Drive—way up the mountain on the west side of town, in one of the wealthiest parts of the city—she could see Mexico as a distant horizon. Nana, her family’s live-in housekeeper, went back across the border on weekends to be with her own family. Whenever Nana got detained at the border, she’d be gone for days. Annie watched her duck into the house whenever the green immigration car cruised through their neighborhood.

It was already known, back then, that girls were disappearing in Juárez—but Annie didn’t know that when she accompanied high-school friends across the border as a fourteen-year-old tomboy to get drunk on tequila, in bars without a drinking age—where you just had to be tall enough to reach the counter—or when she walked over the bridge with her brother to buy a bag of what turned out to be locoweed, the stuff gringos got tricked into buying. Whenever Annie’s father’s family visited from the East Coast, they went across the border to buy embroidered dresses and cheap liqueur. 

The border was always there, and Annie was always aware of what side of it she was on. She had the guilt of growing up rich, what she calls “my age-old apology for being born into a well-to-do household in El Paso.” As soon as she turned sixteen, Annie started driving the housekeepers of her neighborhood to the bus stop so they could get across the border for the weekend. She would often see them walking down the streets in the neighborhood, streets where no one else was walking. It was the classic model of a rich neighborhood without sidewalks—no need, because everyone drove. Annie had been told that El Paso had the highest traffic fatalities in the nation, because of immigrants running across the highway.

Whenever her family drove down I-10, Annie would squint at Juárez across the river, hoping to see someone—an actual human person—amid its cardboard-roofed shacks. But it was too far away. The scale wasn’t right. “At night, without electricity,” she wrote, “the darkness on their side of the river was complete. It was [as] if I were staring into the empty horizon over open seas.” 

But it wasn’t darkness, and it wasn’t an empty horizon. Annie knew that as a kid, and spent twenty adult years—twenty-two trips, 21,000 frames—rejecting the delusion of that empty horizon. She forced exposures instead.

Her project doesn’t make the border crossing frictionless, and doesn’t want to. The two decades of her project neatly spanned the turning point of 9/11, when the border tightened and passage became even harder. Annie’s Mexico photos find a visual language for the friction and passion of her passage from one world to another—from her life north of the border to the lives of others living south of it. Her photos achieve something close to the ethical opposite of the promise to build a wall that spans the border: They find the glorious, vexed complexity of human consciousness—and make it visible in states of glee and boredom, curiosity and familiarity—where political rhetoric finds only statistics and scapegoats.


Photograph by Annie Appel Because she kept coming back, kept showing up, kept snapping shots, Annie granted her subjects the liberty of evolution and multiplicity. No one was ever trapped in a single frame. They were always granted the dignity of contradiction: In one early photo, Jaime pores over an encyclopedia in front of a junk heap; in another, he raises one finger in the middle of a drunken monologue; in another, he is covering a pile of bricks to protect them from the rain—in the midst of a rage, about to strike his wife. Annie’s photos aren’t seeking objectivity. They are saturated by the range of her feelings: Admiration at the fact of Jaime’s curiosity, shock and anger at his drunken violence.

In Annie’s photographs, her subjects are neither removed from their circumstances nor reduced to them. She lets their faces occupy her frames in radically different ways: sometimes so large that their particular features blur the background entirely, or crowd it from view; sometimes pushed partially out of sight, or vaguely illuminated by dim lighting—so contoured and filtered by context they barely emerge from it. 

The language of photography often conjures aggression or possession: You take a photograph, or capture an image or a moment. It is as if life—or the world, or the lives of others, or time itself—has to be forcibly plundered, or stolen. But Annie’s photographs feel responsive, rather than assertive: They aren’t insisting upon objectivity, claiming the truth as their own. They haven’t conscripted anyone into the service of a single moralizing thesis about inequality or guilt. They haven’t forced anyone to inhabit a single note of meaning. 

A single note of meaning would feel too resolved, somehow—too much like stillness, or conclusion—while Annie’s photos feel anything but static. They aren’t done. They aren’t done because they bristle with unresolved feelings— discomfort and awkwardness and yearning—and they aren’t done for a simpler reason: Annie kept going back. 

The lens was a relationship; not a retaining wall. Over the decades, María confided in Annie about Jaime’s abuse, the time he struck her across the face with the buckle of his belt,  and his transition from booze to heroin, when he started hitting the kids. Annie talked to María about her dying father, back in El Paso, wrecked by his chemo; and a lover’s rejection after twelve years together. When Annie took María’s sons to a street festival, or to a hypnotist show at the Teatro de las Estrellas, she felt “so much more of the me in me,” and this was something she would keep feeling, across the years—encountering herself, in new ways, with them. 

It can be easy to think about documentary works in terms of an imperative of absence—the writer or photographer or filmmaker stepping out of the frame to leave more room for her subjects. And over the course of her Mexico project, Annie sometimes fantasized about this kind of absence: “relinquishing self 100% so as to become a blank canvas of sorts, on which I can record the true colors of the situation at hand.”

But to me, the tremendous force of Annie’s project comes from the fact that this relinquishment—for her—was never possible. She was never a blank canvas. She was always a woman, and a friend, and a lesbian, and an American, and a photographer, and a daughter, and a lover—sometimes heartbroken—and a godmother, and a surrogate sister. She didn’t abandon these selves when she stepped behind the lens. 

For her, the project of engaging in a multi-decade documentary project wasn’t about absenting herself so much as becoming present—becoming present over and over again, rather than playing sentimental tourist and extracting what she needed. Her relationships with María and her family, those messy entanglements, those frame-broken intrusions—they saturated the shots. They made the shots possible.

Photograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie AppelPhotograph by Annie Appel

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