Located two hours south of the U.S. border, Monterrey, Mexico, has been the unfortunate poster child for the drug war and ensuing violence that has claimed thousands of lives and sent the country into chaos.
But there is another side to Monterrey, one in which hard-working residents seek to rise above the grisly drug-fueled crimes that have grabbed headlines around the world and have a better and more normal life.
It’s those people who are the subject of “The Car Poolers,” a project by photographer Alejandro Cartagena. He took pictures of workers commuting to jobs riding in the back of pickup trucks in Monterrey. The series will be shown at the United Photo Industries Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., from Dec. 5 to Jan. 31.
Cartagena, who is from Monterrey, had spent years documenting the impact of development and suburban sprawl on his city — a rapid expansion fueled in part by residents trying to escape drug-related violence.
Some workers were buying homes more than an hour from their jobs — a somewhat inconvenient move in a city with little to no public transportation. While working on a project in 2011 about how people used their cars, Cartagena peered down into traffic from a bridge over Highway 89, the main thoroughfare into Monterrey, and began to notice all the men in the back of trucks riding to work — a practice that is illegal in Mexico.
While he had seen the “car poolers” before, Cartagena had never seen them from this perspective. Some were sleeping, others were reading. Some were piled under blankets with their co-workers. Others were crammed next to construction equipment.
To Cartagena, it seemed to be a quick peek into a private world, and for a year, he went back to the bridge every day during the morning rush and trained his lens straight down into the traffic for two hours.
“The trucks would sometimes go slow, sometimes fast. … I had many shots that did not come out. I got one or two a day,” Cartagena said. “It was not easy, but I eventually found a rhythm to the cars and how to spot the ones with people in the back.”
The photos not only reveal an intimacy about their subjects but document workers doing whatever they can to earn an honest living and survive.
“There are opportunities here in Monterrey, but not for everybody, and we see that in the five years of the drug war we have been immersed in,” Cartagena said. “So to see people struggle but get by legally, it is uplifting. I hope people can reflect on … how people’s resilience helps them keep their hopes high in a country filled with social, political and violent issues.”