The price of growth
In 2008, the Mexican government chose the metropolitan area of Monterrey for a major investment project: For the first time in the country’s history, 497,000 loans were granted to the population to buy newly built homes. In his work, photographer Alejandro Cartagena, who grew up in Monterrey, explores the associated ecological and social consequences for the region in various ways.
In his series “Suburbia Mexicana”, he documents the fast-paced structural and economic developments in northern Mexico. Poetically composed, the images reveal the marks left on the previously intact landscape, ultimately to satisfy a longing for a largely unachievable western style and standard of life: Small white houses are lined up incongruously along the foot of a majestic mountain like pearls on a string. To Mexican families, owning one of these new homes seemed to embody the tantalising dream of suburban life as advertised in the U.S. in the 1960s. But that was not how things looked in reality for most people, including members of Cartagena’s family. The new owners had to battle with bureaucratic hurdles, excessive debts, poor building fabric and environmental damage.
The challenges faced by the local population due to this rapid urban sprawl are also the central theme in Cartagena’s “Carpoolers” series. The photographs deal with the living conditions of the many labourers who had to come here to build the houses and settlements that shot out of the ground like mushrooms. Cartagena photographs them from a pedestrian bridge over Highway 85 towards Monterrey. His pictures show countless dented pickup trucks on their way into the city and – presumably – to the various building sites. From his vantage point, he looks down on the cargo beds that hold not only building materials, but above all men in workwear. Some have made themselves as comfortable as they can or have fallen asleep, while others are sitting in groups of six or more on the loading area, penned in between ladders and buckets. Most seem to feel unobserved despite their exposed position and are not aware of Cartagena watching them through his lens. The repetition in the perspective of the photos allows the viewer to focus on the small details, on the workers or their clothing.
“Carpoolers” shows the impact of this unbridled growth: Some people work so that others can live in comfort. The labourers travel on the back of pickups, unsheltered from the wind and weather, because they cannot afford their own car or public transport. Alejandro Cartagena’s images tell of the daily life of these men on the truck beds. It is that of a working class in precarious circumstances, who contribute to others’ prosperity without participating in it.
born in the Dominican Republic
is shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021
lives in Monterrey, Mexico