By Daniel Hernandez
I stood on the sidewalk on thunderous Avenida Revolución in the Escandon district of Mexico City at 1 p.m. on a weekday in October 2006. It was a nondescript apartment building with a large metal gate, through which I could see a long concrete courtyard with a few levels of apartments rising on either side. There was no sign of a doorbell or ringer. I stood there and waited. After a few minutes, a short balding man in plain slacks and a collared sweater approached me from down the sidewalk. He held a few open envelopes of business mail and made no effort to hide the suspicion written all over his face. In this dog-eat-dog city, there is no other way to meet a stranger. “Señor Metinides?” I asked. He said that’s who he was, and I introduced myself as the writer from Los Angeles here to interview him. Enrique Metinides, the great Mexican photojournalist, opened the gate to his building and led me in silence to the rear of the courtyard, up the stairs and to his second-level apartment. It was a clean, bright space with tile floors and cream-colored walls. Framed photographs of family and children and knickknacks were displayed all over the furniture. Colorful couches faced a wide-screen television and several shelves of DVDs. We sat down on his couch and his look of suspicion did not waver. As I figure out what to ask him first, his eyes remained fixed on me, cool and aloof.
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“They’ve just given me an interview from L.A.,” Metinides huffed, “See, here, in this magazine of … fashion? Of whores…”
We laugh together at this outburst and this surprises us both. Metinides, I immediately realize, is a classic old-school journalist: hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, and blessed with a cynical and fatalistic wit. Which also happens to be one of the defining characteristics of cosmopolitan Mexicans.
Although he hasn’t published a photograph in almost fifteen years, Metinides can safely be called the most prolific news photographer of his generation. Between 1946, when he was barely twelve years old, and 1993, when he was muscled out of his “nota roja” newspaper job, Metinides was a tenacious documenter of death and brutality in the chambers of Mexico City’s hospitals, police stations, and morgues. He shot murders, suicides, auto and aviation accidents, fires, drowning, and crime scenes—sometimes in action. He breathed his work, sleeping at night with a police scanner always near his ear. He rode along to the scene of an accident or homicide on ambulances and fire trucks.
Metinides possessed throughout his career a reporter’s instinctual hunger for gore, taste for the absurd, and a classically Mexican affection for death. As often as he could, he framed shots at news scenes as wide as possible in order to capture the throngs of captivated but emotionally disinterested onlookers. He would find crime victims eager to pose seductively for his camera, even as their wounds were still fresh. When a woman shot herself at her wedding day altar after being stood up, Metinides photographed a close-up of her blood-splattered love letters. He owns a large collection of images of young children with their arms stuck in pipes and sinks, their faces grimacing in shock and horror, with gloomy adults lingering all around them.
The cinematic beauty of gangster flicks influenced him as a child. When his father gave him his first camera, Metinides approached even his earliest photographs—of arrested criminals at police stations, of car accidents outside his front door—stills from films that existed only in his head.
Hernandez: I read that you were given your first camera at age twelve. Is that true?
Metinides: Yes. What happened was my father sold cameras.
M: On Avenida Juárez, here in Mexico, in the Distrito Federal. A few steps away from the Alameda Central, there used to be a hotel that was called Hotel Regis, which was the most famous hotel of that era. My father sold cameras, film, and developed pictures. And he had a New York-style shoe shine place with twelve shoe-shiners, for tourists mostly.
On top of that he sold postcards from all over the republic, with pictures of monuments, the avenidas, all of Mexico. And when they remodeled that corner, they had to move five businesses, one of which was my father’s. That’s when he gave me a camera and a bag full of film. And he showed me how to put in the film. I was ten years old, if that. And my passion for photography grew because I used to go by myself to the cinemas, and there were many in the city.
M: And I would go more than anything to the action films. I would see all those movies in the cinemas. Especially James Garney, Al Capone, “Masacre de San Valentín,” all those films I would see. I would love to watch the chases, the shoot-outs—all the gangster movies. I would also see all the “Superman” reels. These movies lasted maybe fifteen minutes each episode. They would always end in the moment that someone was about to die, so that you would have to return the next week to see what happened. And so I would take my camera and photograph the screen. And then I started taking pictures of the city, the centro, monuments, avenidas, streets, cars—the people. That’s how I started my collection of pictures.
H: Where did you live then?
M: We lived on Avenida Hidalgo. And then we moved to Plaza de Vizcaínas—all of centro. On Avenida San Juan de Letrán, which is now called Lázaro Cárdenas, there was a cinema on every block. And in most of the cinemas they played action films. These movies. [He points to his extended collection of old gangster flick DVDs.] Then it occurred to me to take pictures of car accidents. Because back then when there was an accident cars would be left just as they were for up to a week. It wasn’t like today, where a car crashes and right away, it’s gone. They’d leave them. So everyday I would look at the newspapers and look for an accident that had happened. And I would go to the scene of the accident and take pictures and the cars would still be there. And even though I wasn’t even eleven years old, the police wouldn’t say anything to me. There would always be police guarding the cars. That’s when my father opened a restaurant. And so I would have all my little photos at the restaurant, and I would take them to school to show them to the teachers.
M: On one occasion at the restaurant some officers came to eat from the Seventh Delegation, a police delegation. It was half a block from the restaurant. And when I showed them my photographs to the officers, they invited me to come to the delegation to take pictures. So I would show up at the delegation to photograph the dead, the detained, the totaled cars out front. My collection grew.
H: They invited you themselves?
M: They invited me to the delegation. And so, the first picture I took was this one. [He shows me a picture of a police officer holding up a severed head.] He was murdered. They placed his neck on the train tracks and it cut off his head.
M: And this picture, when I took it, I was about to turn twelve.
H: And you weren’t scared? It didn’t give you nausea?
M: Well of course I was scared! Yes, I was scared. But I was cured.
H: Why were you attracted to taking pictures of dead people?
M: Because of the movies! [I laugh.] Seriously!
H: And what did your father say, your mother?
M: No, well, I hid a lot. “Chamacho!” they would tell me, mostly. But here comes the second part. Lots of cars passed through San Cosme. So I would always have the camera at the restaurant. The funny thing was one day a car crashed right in San Cosme, a couple blocks from the restaurant. So there I go, to take pictures. And a taxi arrives with a photographer from La Prensa. He saw me taking pictures and he asked me if I liked to take pictures. I tell him, “Yes.” He says, “Come see me at La Prensa. I am a photographer from there. I am Antonio Velasquez.” So I go, I talk to him, I show him my pictures, and he asks me to come work there.
I showed up every morning at ten with my camera, which was a camera de cajon that took black-and-white pictures, and I would tag along with him when he worked, going as a photographer from La Prensa to the police incidents of the city. The route we took every day was the jail and Hospital Juarez, where they kept the cadavers and the injured. And then the Red Cross. I would not only see dead people, but thirty or forty dead people in a single day. So I got used to seeing dead people—and more dead people—and I took their pictures. And we would go to where the dead person was, and since the authorities then the reporter do his work, we would go right inside the houses where the crime had occurred, on the street, in the factory, in a ditch, or wherever, and I would take pictures of all those dead people. And the funny thing is we would develop the rolls together, mine and his—and I had better pictures than he did! Because I would get in where he wouldn’t go. So I have pictures on the front page of La Prensa at twelve years old, with my name on the front page, which is a completely unique case.
H: But you would go where the crimes had happened?
M: Ah, no, [yes], I got to go to the scenes of the strong shoot-outs, the crimes, the action. But I had so much luck that in the moment that I arrived, the best stuff happened. Because I believe there is no good photographer without good luck. Why? Because I would get to a fire and the best picture happened when I got there. It would collapse, someone would jump–it was really something–really, it was very extraordinary what would happen to me, very rare.
H: And you wouldn’t have nightmares?
M: Oh, yes, I would cry at night. I would dream it. I was in this day and night. I would dream of something happening and it would happen.
H: You’re kidding.
M: On top of that, the other photographers were so jealous of me. Because the other photographers were already older, and I was just a kid. They were jealous, and know what they did? One day the put water in my developer. My roll was ruined. The editor got so mad, he fired me.
H: Better for you.
M: Of course. I worked, as a freelancer, for the magazine Alarma. And the entire magazine was filled with my police photographs. And I kept freelancing for La Prensa. Until 1960, when one of the police reporters managed to become editor. If you want to look him up, Manuel Buendia, who was killed on Insurgentes. In fact, I happened to take his picture when he died, at the scene of the incident.
H: And the public knew who you were? The readers?
M: Yes, no, well, the newspaper was well known, in journalism circles. All the newspapers knew me since I was a child. Me, as a child, at twelve years old, I rode in the firetrucks all over the city.
H: They let you?
M: The firefighters carried me on their shoulders! And I’d take these fotazos that no one else would get because I would go right into the biggest flames. That went on for many years. I had many firefighter friends. […] You know what was my password with them?
M: I’d give them pictures of the fires they worked.
H: To them?
M: In the Red Cross, I’d give them pictures of them picking up the injured. So we became friends, and they’d help me. The medics even let me take pictures inside the operating rooms, in the emergency rooms. And then I would give them their pictures and they keep them, as keepsakes. And so, they even started looking for me. They would look for me because I took pictures of them when they operated.
H: Very sharp of you.
M: I never sold them pictures, eh? I always gave them their pictures as gifts. So they would look for me. ‘Come because we have a person who’s been shot, a knife nailed in a heart…’ [He shows me photographs in the book “El Teatro de los Hechos,” published by the Mexico City municipal government and now out of print.] This is a young woman whose boyfriend wanted to kill her. And look at the report I did on her at the police station. [I laugh as he shows me a series of photographs of a beautiful young lady with long hair, dark eye makeup, and a go-go miniskirt and tall boots, first giving testimony to an investigator and then posing for Metinides’ camera on top of a desk.]
H: She got into a pose.
M: Yes! [We laugh.] Isn’t it terrific?
H: Yes, no. She liked the camera.
M: Yes. It’s not like today, the photographer goes, takes two pictures, and leaves. I liked doing a whole report. And another thing that I grew accustomed to doing was taking pictures of the people who were looking at the accident. Because in these movies [He points to his collection of DVDs of old gangster flicks] what really drew my attention was the people looking, looking at a burning building, and how you could see the flames off their faces, but in black-and-white. And so it got in my head that the miron, the crowd that comes near, is important as well.
M: Why? Because they life to the pictures.
M: So I would photograph the miron. All the photographers that arrive at accidents push the people aside when they are in the way. I did the reverse. Look. [He shows me another photograph, a classic Metinides image of an auto accident with a large crowd of onlookers.] Tell me if the mirones are not important. Doesn’t it give the photo more to look at?
H: Yes. Well, its full of people. Yes.
M: My photos became famous because of this, because the people gave life to the photos. The photographer today arrives and photographs just the bus.
H: And because Mexican people love to go look …
M: Ah, no! They’re practically walking on the injured, on the cadavers, and on top of that the police never says anything. [We laugh.] They’re all top of each other. Look. [Another picture of a bus accident.] Now don’t the picture give it more to look at? But the photographer today just photographs the bus. And I’d always look for a high spot, a building or something, or even posts, or on top of a bus, to photograph the people.