by Adriana Zehbrauskas
Adán Abraján de la Cruz was 24 years old the night he disappeared. A first-year student at the Ayotzinapa Teacher’s Rural School in the impoverished Mexican state of Guerrero, he went missing along with 42 other students when the buses they were traveling in were attacked by a drug cartel in Iguala which handed them over to local police, who, working in complicity with city officials, later disappeared them.
I started covering this story from day one, on assignment for various media outlets, and at that point, although I knew it was a big story, probably the biggest in Mexico in recent years, I did not know that it would consume more than two years of my life. While on assignment working with the families of the missing students, I was doing regular reportage pictures with my reflex camera, but also relying heavily on cell phone images for my clients’ and my own Instagram feed. I would post images as the story developed, portraits of family members, small details of their lives, their homes, fleeting moments of joy, more lasting moments of pain.
Instagram was a space where I had the freedom to edit and publish my images, and although always following the same ethical guidelines of my assignment work, it allowed me to be more personal. It also gave a direct line to an audience that was as global and varied as it could be. I was very impressed with the response and interest I got. People cared about the story, about the people of Guerrero.
I followed the family of Adán Abraján de la Cruz for six months. He had left behind a wife, two children, two sisters, two parents and two grandparents. I wanted them to tell their own story, so I started a small multimedia project, using interviews, small video clips and still images, for which I asked for personal photos and footage of their missing loved one. And I kept hearing: “I don’t have any, I had it my phone, but I lost it,” or, “I replaced the phone and didn’t save the photos.”
After hearing this so many times, from Adan’s family and others, one thing became clear to me: not only had their relatives been stolen from their future, but a memory of who they were also was doomed to disappear. Apart from a few mugshots and blurry, very low-res cell phone images, very few family members had pictures of their disappeared loved ones. When I finished the story, I went back and handed them a stack of photographs I had taken during those six months but their reaction to the portrait I took of them after the first communion of Adán’s son, Angel, was what made me stop and think.
My idea was to photograph families living in communities surrounded by violence and the real threat of forced disappearances. But I also realized that nobody had family pictures anymore, so the “Family Matters” project would be a series of posed family portraits, photographed with the same tool responsible for the lack of printed images in the first place–the cell phone. I would then print them on the spot, using a small printer connected by wireless to my iPhone, and hand them the portraits.
It struck me as a great paradox of the times we’re living in: there have never been so many images produced, photography has never been so popular, we all have cell phones, we’re all photographers and, yet, fewer and fewer images are being printed. These people were disappearing twice, from life itself and from the memory of their family and friends. Would this be a generation that would only have pictures in a cloud somewhere? Are these children growing up without a family album where later in life they can see themselves and their families and show it to their own children? Will children remember what their parents looked like? Who are we without our memories?
More than 30,000 people remain missing or disappeared in Mexico, but the real number is much higher; many cases go unreported for fear of retaliation or because of distrust in the local and federal authorities.
The photographs were made in Huehuetonoc, a little village in the mountains of Guerrero, where the population, from an indigenous group called Amuzgo, created a self-defense group and were able to protect their community from the neighboring cartels and their poppy fields.
The story of the family told by posed portraits is one of change over time; family groups look different at different times, thus also telling a story about where and how we live.
A person photographed has achieved a moment of redemption, saved from the fate of those forever forgotten.
Adriana Zehbrauskas, a documentary photographer, has worked with The New York Times, BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, among other publications.
Huehuetonoc, Guerrero, Mexico, December 2015: Rosalinda and her daughter Samantha. This is the first time they ever posed for a photograph. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Huehuetonoc, Guerrero, Mexico. April 2016: Monica, Mariana, Celeste and Yaribet, sisters and friends. The Amuzgo people are an indigenous group that lives in the region along the Guerrero/Oaxaca state border. They maintain much of their language and dress and are known for their complicated handwoven textiles. It is a very poor area with an economy mostly dependent on subsistence agriculture and handcraft production. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Huehuetonoc, Guerrero, Mexico, December 2015: Don Gerardo and his horse El Guero. He asked me if he could bring his horse to be photographed with him. “I want my grandson to know what a good friend I had.” Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Huehuetonoc, Guerrero, Mexico. April 2016 Gloria and her grandchildren, Gabriel and Lisanet Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Allison, Adán’s daughter, cries often and calls for her father in her sleep, says her mom Erica. Adán Abraján de La Cruz went missing exactly seven months before this photograph was taken, after his student group was ambushed by the police in Iguala, Guerrero. The families are still in the dark and many questions remain unanswered. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Huehuetonoc, Guerrero, Mexico, December 2015: A portrait of the girls Elsi Meredith, Alma Aleli y Daila Gisel. I set up camp in front of the main church, with the little WiFi direct printer. It was moving to see all the people coming over and asking to have their pictures taken. Rubi, the mom, said it was the first picture they ever had. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas
Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico, Jan. 22, 2015 Jakilina Virguen Balthazar, grandmother of Jorge Luis and Dorian Gonzalez Parral, both among the 43 missing, in her home in Xalpatlahuac, hometown of four of the missing students and one survivor. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas