Copyright Enrique Metinides.
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A Fearless Chronicler of the City

Enrique Metinides spent most of his life chasing death and tragedy around the Mexican capital. He was also good at avoiding it

 

Enrique Metinides’ first brush with mortality came at the age of six, when a few kids hung him off the roof of the seven-storey building where he lived with his family and pretended they were going to drop him. Many more brushes would follow. In his fifty-plus years working as a newspaper photographer, Metinides captured the full palette of misery that Mexico City regularly dishes out to its inhabitants: train crashes, airplane crashes, drunken brawls, suicides and homicides, fierce gunfights pitting policemen and robbers, gas explosions, and fires that brought down entire buildings. He arrived at all these scenes with camera in hand, throwing himself into the action with such professionalism and gusto that he often risked death himself.

Metinides’ photos chronicle the chaotic mixture of humanity and chance that results from urban sprawl — lives that took a turn for the worse in one of the world’s busiest cities. Nota Roja (red report) journalism has long been a staple of Mexican print media, depicting criminal violence, accidents and all types of catastrophes. Starting off as a kid profoundly affected by American gangster movies, Metinides became the doyen of the genre, working for newspapers such as Le Prensa, El Zócalo, and Alarma, the cult magazine that focused on the country’s most gruesome crimes. Taken over a career spanning fifty years, his pictures found the art in disaster.

In the living room of his Avenida de la Revolución apartment, he talks about human misfortune and the randomness of its distribution. His home is packed to an extent that can only be achieved by the most avid collectors: porcelain houses alongside Venetian masks, and his collection of good luck frogs. His parents, Greek immigrants that arrived in Mexico in the 1920’s, owned a store that catered to tourists, and sold souvenirs, cameras and film. When his father closed down the business, he gave Enrique Metinides his first camera, an inexpensive Brownie. With this camera in hand, the 9-year old Metinides would skip school to take pictures across the city. “After a traffic accident, the smashed cars would remain on the street for a long time, so I would go around photographing them.”

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Copyright Enrique Metinides.

Later, his father opened a restaurant near a police station, which attracted cops and other judicial personnel during lunch hours. “I would show them my photographs and they started to invite me into the police station to take pictures.” The influence of 1930’s and 1940’s American cinema in his photographs is palpable. I ask him about one in particular: a police officer is seated down holding a gun inside a store, several cashiers duck behind their tills and two paramedics assist an injured woman. The picture was taken in 1988, during a gun battle in one of the city’s supermarkets. An armed gang had just robbed a bank van, shooting one of the guards dead. A few of them hid in the supermarket and started firing when the police arrived. Enrique Metinides got there in one of the ambulances and started taking pictures. Above the wounded woman and paramedics assisting her, you can partially read the supermarket sign saluting customers: “We thank you for your preference.” This type of all-encompassing imagery was always the goal of Metinides’ work. “I wanted to make pictures that were similar to the movies I saw, one picture that could show the whole movie,” he explains to me. He looks back at the picture and adds that the gunmen were never caught: “They escaped through a back door.”

His precocious talent, honed in streets throughout the city, was soon noticed. One day, while he was out photographing a car crash in 1947, an older photographer asked him what he was doing. “I told him I was just taking pictures for my own collection.” The man was Antonio “El Indio” Velázquez, reporter for the daily newspaper La Prensa, who invited the child photographer to work as an unpaid assistant at the newspaper. This gave him access to the city’s daily occurrences. “I was already taking pictures of the dead bodies at the police station, but when I started working with Velazquez I began to get to know the crime scenes and the accidents,” he says.

Shortly after, he began visiting the Red Cross headquarters, and would arrive at the crime or accident sites inside the ambulances themselves. At the suggestion of the Red Cross director he completed rescue training, and would end up helping out the injured in several of the accidents he photographed. Rescue workers, fire fighters and police officers would assist the child photographer by carrying him on their shoulders, earning him the nickname El Niño (The Boy). One of the rooms in his apartment is a testament to this close working relationship, jam packed with thousands of toy ambulances, fire trucks and police cars. I had heard about this room, and enter it with caution, for every available space on tables and shelves is occupied by his collection.

Death, despite its ubiquity in his work, isn’t the only theme of his visual stories. Equally troubling are the onlookers, sometimes hundreds of them.

Some of the iconic pictures that earned him worldwide notoriety were not published at the time they were taken. One example is the 1979 picture of Adela Legarreta Rivas, a Mexican journalist who was killed by a car in Avenida Chapultepec, right before a press conference to present her latest book. She had dressed up and gone to the hairdressers for the occasion, so the picture shows a beautiful face, arms and head leaning lifeless over a metal bar. “It was shocking because she was so pretty, and had fixed herself up,” Metinides tells me, as we look at the shot. “It is also eerie that her eyes were open. It was very rare to see a dead body with the eyes still open.” This now-famous shot was taken just seconds before the paramedic in the back covered Legarreta Rivas’ body. However, the picture that was published the next day in La Prensa was a different one, taken from the side, a few meters away, the victim’s body covered with a white sheet. His work’s intimate proximity with death, its blunt scrutiny of human lives swept away unpredictably, is hard to stomach for some.

Nota Roja remains a popular fixture of daily newspaper coverage. Walk past any newsstand and it hits you: the violently departed inhabitants of the city, the most recent unlucky ones. Indeed, these depictions of death have become steadily more graphic since Metinides’ time. A day before I visit him, the cover of daily newspaper La Prensa shows a picture of a severed head inside an open backpack. This level of violence shocks him. “We took black and white pictures of dead people. But they were not always published.” Sometimes a detail of the crime scene would make it into the cover instead.  “We would publish a picture of the house, a weapon, or a bullet,” he explains. Some of the pictures that did include the dead victim’s body would be altered to remove blood. He would usually ask the family for a living image of the deceased. “Only big cases would be illustrated with pictures of the dead victim,” he explains.

The nature of the violence has also evolved. The homicides Metinides reported on resulted mainly from drunken quarrels, marital disputes, robberies that escalated. But present-day Mexico has been changed by the grotesque level of brutality exercised by drug cartels and criminal gangs. “I’ve never seen those types of crimes, the dismembered bodies, the revenge killings that go after entire families,” he observes. “This is new.”

Death, despite its ubiquity in his work, isn’t the only theme of his visual stories. Equally troubling are the onlookers, sometimes hundreds of them. They are always there, next to a crashed car, looking at the remains of a bus torn apart by a freight train, or in a small circle of people surrounding a suicide fatality on a city sidewalk. You judge them for a moment, until you realize you are partaking in the same voyeuristic experience, albeit from a different vantage point. But look closer and there is more to the onlookers. In some instances, they are no longer interested in the tragedy before them, but stare blankly at the photographer. Some of the pictures, taken from far away give you the sense that the whole city has come out to watch.

This intense knowledge of the circumstances in which death can come became a personal obsession. For years he would barely sleep a full night, always on-call for whatever tragic event might unfold.

Events like this demand catering, and crowds of onlookers would attract food sellers. “See this man with a cart?” he points to a 1950 picture of a bus crash. “They would sell ice cream, and the voyeurs would be there, eating an ice cream and looking at the crash, as if it was a show.” Metinides says, impressed, as if all of this had happened to someone else. In some cases, the inclusion of the all-too present bystanders into the frame was done with ruthless mastery. In a picture he took in Lake Xochimilco in 1960, Metinides shows you a rescuer tied to a rope, swimming to fetch the floating body of a homicide victim. Reflected on the water but out of the frame are the curious onlookers standing on the opposite bank, lining up and inverted on the top of the shot.

His pictures are possessed by a visceral intimacy. To report on the suicide of a 27-year old man in 1974, for example, Metinides asked the parents of the dead young man if he could take a photograph from the window of their home. In the picture, you see the head of the deceased, his lifeless body hanging by the neck. On the street and the sidewalk, dozens of neighbours and passers-by look upwards at the scene or converse. It is exactly the level of composition in his photographs, coupled with its intuitive depiction of death, that have brought Enrique Metinides’ work to galleries and museums around the world, elevating him from long-time tabloid photographic reporter into an internationally recognized artist. Invitations to travel abroad for his shows arrive regularly, but are always met with refusal. “I am afraid to fly, I can’t get on a plane,” he confesses, a fear he attributes to his early experience on top of that seven-storey building.

This intense knowledge of the circumstances in which death can come became a personal obsession. For years he would barely sleep a full night, always on-call for whatever tragic event might unfold. I ask him about his accumulated experience of human suffering, its impact on his own emotional state. He tells me that sometimes he would cry in the evening. But there is also a certain level of restraint in his reaction to the events he describes, as if the intensified media attention that has resulted from his recent recognition has gotten him accustomed to the stories. One thing you do understand when you spend time with Enrique Metinides — evident in some of his photographs — is that alongside his drive to report on the sometimes unmentionable circumstances of human existence and its demise, there is a profound sense of empathy for the victims.

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Portrait of Enrique Metinides in his home by Francisco Serrano.

He could have been among them on numerous occasions. His constant pursuit of disaster would unavoidably put him in dangerous situations. Once, whilst reporting on fire at a factory, Enrique Metinides was surprised by the collapse of the whole building. He and five firefighters spent six-hours buried under the debris before being rescued. Another time, when he was photographing a shootout between the police and a gang that had raided a factory, an officer right next to him was shot. He can tell you about whole sections of buildings that fell just meters from him, leaving him unharmed, or about that time a car ran over seven people but stopped right before hitting him. He will mention the heart attack that struck while he was running up to the terrace of a building to take a picture of a flying helicopter. With his hands touching his torso, he will point to his multiple broken ribs — six on the front and one in the back — from falling down river banks, crashing in ambulances. He does not see these events as mere luck. “I was protected by the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he tells me before showing me his room, where several images of Mexico’s most iconic religious symbols hang on one of the walls, alongside pictures of his family, and an impressive coin collection.

He has two huge television sets in front of his bed. During his time as a press photographer, he would also make videos, which were sometimes used in the investigations, or by fire and police departments to train new cadets. He has also collected hours of footage recorded from action movies he would watch on television; everything from car chases, to explosions, gunfights, and natural disasters, all recorded back-to-back on VHS cassettes, random clips from different fictional movies.  It is one of his own recordings, however, that he suggests we watch. The first scene shows two firemen attempting to grab a dead body out of a river following a bus accident, the sound of fast-moving water drowning out the commands exchanged between rescuers. The scene cuts to a highway and shows a police officer shot dead on the ground. Other cops surround him, their talk muffled by the passing traffic. He has amassed hours and hours of similar footage, as well as daily newspaper clippings related to violence and calamity, both in Mexico and abroad. These he organizes thematically into carefully-curated albums, the pictures and articles glued onto page after page, a compendium of the world’s miseries.

When I leave, he takes me through the building’s inner patio, all the way past the door that leads back to the street. It is 1 pm on a Tuesday, and Avenida Revolución is living up to its reputation for traffic and turmoil. His politeness to walk me all the way out comes with advice. “You need to be careful,” he tells me, as he pulls the backpack I’m carrying towards the front of my body. “There was a homicide right there,” he says, pointing to a car garage across from us on the other side of the avenue. “This gasoline station to the right was robbed at gunpoint several times,” he adds. “I once had to go upstairs to get clothes for the staff. They had been left locked inside and completely naked.”  But he seems more impressed by the bank that was robbed about five months ago, on the opposite corner: “It was at lunch time, they shot the guard dead and even put several bullets in his dog. This city is a mess.”

 

In May 2016 the film “El Hombre que vio demasiado”, about Enrique Metinides, directed by Trisha Ziff, won two Ariel awards, for best Feature Documentary and for Best Original Soundtrack.