Sometimes you have to look down to see what’s right in front of you.
Alejandro Cartagena did just that while working on a commission from a research institute about how people use the streets in Monterrey, Mexico.
“Construction workers were buying houses an hour or more away from where they worked and there is no public transportation for them, so I started documenting how people used their cars,” explained Cartagena about the project, “how they drive to work or drive home, how they personalize their cars based on the neighborhoods in which they lived, and I started looking down from buildings and bridges to see how cars looked. It’s not uncommon to see the carpoolers, but I had never seen them from that perspective.”
Cartagena’s vision from above started a yearlong project in the summer of 2011 that became “Car Poolers.” The series will be shown at the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles from Feb. 23 through April 6.
Since he started showing “Car Poolers” last year, Cartagena has been overwhelmed by the reaction. After being recognized at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2012, Cartagena said everything blew up.
“To be honest I thought it would be just another thing from Latin America,” he said.
“I guess people responded favorably because there are so many things represented in the pictures. … People think the men are crossing the border illegally or there are dead bodies in the trucks.”
Getting material for the project was a very slow process.
Cartagena spent a day or two a week documenting the cars, some days getting only one image, other days capturing five.
“Typically Thursday and Friday were the best because it’s payday so you get a lot of people going to work,” noted Cartagena with a laugh. More of a traditionalist—Cartagena likes to shoot film with a 4-by-5 plate camera and a medium format camera—he was forced to shoot the project with a digital camera due to finances and logistics.
“Normally I like the slower process and I don’t have ‘digital diarrhea,’ where I like to just shoot and shoot, but it can cost between $5 and $10 with film per shot, and with all of the various speeds of the cars and the camera shutter speed (to capture the images), it would have been difficult to do it with film,” said Cartagena.
He struggled with the uniformity of images because they forced him to create a series of identical shapes. “It took me a while to accept that the variety of the series was in the different subjects found in the images.”
But he soon began to see their variety and depth: “I think there are so many interpretations because the images are so simple. There is no condemnation of what’s happening, no closed interpretations: There are people in the backs of trucks! There is a bit of humor to a social issue, a lightness where you can also wonder what is really happening. It’s also an intimate space: They’re reading papers, sleeping, chatting with friends. It’s kind of a living room on the back of a truck—things are happening in a living room, but it’s also in a public space.”