Defiant Spirits : Fernando Brito’s Sinaloa Exposition

Organisateur : Didier Aubert

Fordham University, Yale University, Brown University

Born and raised in Sinaloa, a state most people associate mostly with its eponymous cartel, Fernando Brito (1975) began his career as a photographer for local newspapers La I and El Debate. Documenting daily occurrences of gruesome violence around the capital city of Culiacán, he developed a distinctive style that allowed him to distance himself from the worst excesses of Mexico’s century-old tradition of nota roja (“red news”). His grimly poetic series entitled Tus pasos se perdieron con el paisaje earned him various national and international prizes and was exhibited around the world, from Switzerland (Geneva’s Center of Photography) in 2012 to the Bronx Documentary Center in 2014.
Yet Brito’s ambition is not simply to be catalogued as a modern-day Wegee (US, 1899-1968) or Enrique Metinides (Mexico, b. 1934)—the most influential crime photographers in the history of the medium. Defiant Spirits : Fernando Brito’s Sinaloa showcases a lesser-known aspect of his work, and of Sinaloa’s multi-faceted reality. From the streets of Culiacán to the northern hills of Choix, local populations find a sense of identity in their own histories and traditions, turning away from discredited political institutions.

Since the 16th century, Yoremes (“those who respect traditions”) have adapted Jesuit missionaries’ teachings to their own spiritual heritage, creating unique forms of rituals and community. Over the last century or so, their culture has endured and evolved, helping them to weather successive assaults by ranching interests, federal troops, hydroelectric projects, and most recently drug cartels. Around Lent, eerie Matachine dancers converge toward Culiacán, familiar figures wandering the streets and bearing witness to the lasting power of their faith.

From the heart of Sinaloa’s capital city all the way to California, Jesús Malverde (1870 ?-1909) answers his devotees’ pleas for protection, love and success. A Robin Hood figure celebrated as a protector of the downtrodden, he is remembered for his bravado against representatives of porfiriato and foreign mining companies. Over the last few decades, Malverde’s spectacular appropriation by narcoculture has strengthened his aura of defiance against all forms of official authority.

Brito’s approach owns its power and relevance to his long-term commitment and familiarity with the culture and conflicts that have shaped present-day Sinaloa. His work is deeply rooted in place, and draws its strength from continuity. Being there. Staying there. Going back. His original training in photojournalism was hands-on and informal. It has gradually evolved into an adaptive documentary approach which is shaped to a large extent by his subjects. His work on Malverde’s followers mostly borrows from the classic photo essay format. In contrast, his collaboration with Héctor Parra on Yoreme rituals is largely ethnographic in nature. Still, striking portraits of grotesque judíos allow their subjects to carry on carefully crafted performances for the camera : individuality shows through the mask of social and religious ritual.
Thus Brito’s work is anchored in specific moments and spaces, looking for actualities rather than essence. These pictures are not about the “soul” of Mexico, as if such a thing could be found anywhere. They do, however, tell us something about the way women, children and men create community and meaning in the world they’re making for themselves.

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