Alejandro Cartagena, artist profile
In the summer of 2011, photographer Alejandro Cartagena spent three mornings a week – any more and his wife would have kicked him out – hunched over the railing of a pedestrian footbridge crossing one of Monterrey, Mexico’s busiest highways. His assistant stood guard as Alejandro photographed the cars below.
The project started as a gig for a research institute that needed two aerials of the highway’s traffic.
But as Alejandro watched the pickup trucks pass through his lens, their beds full of laborers, ladders and lawn mowers, he saw a natural extension of the documentaries he started five years before.
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“It was for me an opportunity to continue the dialogue of my previous projects that deal with suburban sprawl, and how that sprawl affected people’s lives,” said Alejandro, 36.
Around him, Monterrey’s construction was booming as the government subsidized mass subdivision projects on the outskirts of town. The effect of this construction interested Alejandro.
In a series called Lost Rivers, Alejandro photographed the dried beds of rivers that were redirected to provide water to the new housing developments. In Urban Holes, he chronicled the growing number of abandoned lots that popped up downtown as attention was redirected to the new subdivisions.
The workers reading the newspaper and sleeping in the pickup trucks below were those subdivisions’ proud new homeowners. Without cars or access to public transportation, they hitched rides in the beds of their colleagues’ pickup trucks to jobs on the other side of town. This is illegal in Mexico.
“These are people who are psychologically excited about the idea of owning a house, but they’re also mad because the developers told them there would be public transit,” Alejandro said. “They’re risking their lives, and they’re risking getting caught by the transit police. But they have to do it.”
The Car Poolers series landed Alejandro in the international spotlight. His work has appeared in galleries from Toronto to Mexico City and out to Los Angeles. He’s been featured in Slate, the New York Times and the Guardian.
Not bad for someone who didn’t pick up a camera until he was in his mid-20s.
Unfulfilled by his career as a hospitality manager, Alejandro started studying photography in 2004. He worried he was too late. He wasn’t. The first time he submitted his work to a portfolio review he came out in the top 10.
Alejandro is humbled by the popularity of Car Poolers. He credits its success to the images’ relatability. Everyone knows what it’s like to hop into the bed of a pickup truck. Alejandro just changed the perspective. It doesn’t hurt that he also included a few images of burly construction workers cuddled up with their colleagues.
“Humor always softens a social or political statement,” Alejandro said.