DPP Home Profiles Don Bartletti: Movements of Sand

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Don Bartletti: Movements of Sand

As an L.A. Times photojournalist and a longtime resident of Southern California, Don Bartletti immerses himself in the lives and the stories of the U.S.-Mexico border

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Clinging to the top of a speeding freight train, 12-year-old Dennis Contrarez, right, ducks beneath tree branches that can tear his skin or swat him off the train. Central American stowaways bound for the U.S. border call the Mexican train, “The Beast,” for the merciless and life-threatening hazards it offers.

Don Bartletti has seen a world unimagined by most of us, but too real to thousands of migrants, border-dwellers and working-class people who have been the subjects of his photography. He has traveled seemingly everywhere to tell the story of people who inevitably will stumble through his backyard of San Diego, Calif. Since the earliest days of his career, Bartletti has been fascinated by migration, conflict and the people who are the story: the movement of culture on the backs of people desperate for hope.

Growing up in a border community, Bartletti couldn’t avoid the story so he sought to tell it better than anyone else. The issue of immigration and the turmoil of the border communities are never simple, but behind the camera, Bartletti is able to avoid the rhetorical traps and political agendas.

Vultures and children compete for scraps at a dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Juan Flores, 15, and a younger companion scavenge for anything to eat or sell. For many young people, the dump is their last hope before they escape poverty and stow away on northbound freight trains to the U.S. border.
“I’ve seen the whole dynamic of immigration change,” he says, “from when I was in high school in the ’60s, when there were four families with Latino names, to today where there are entire communities of Latino families.” Bartletti has been telling this story, of migration, in some way since he started his career in 1972.

“Migration is what creates cultures,” Bartletti shares when I meet him for the first time, a meeting initiated because of his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Enrique’s Journey.” The feature followed a young boy from Honduras along the perilous trip through Mexico in a desperate attempt to reunite with his mother who had found work in North Carolina. Bartletti is drawn to migration because “the blending of different languages, customs, desires, skin colors forms what we are today,” he says. “The change in Southern California has been unbelievable over the past 30 years.”

What if he was from Boston, removed by thousands of miles and dozens of states from the hot zone of San Diego? “Then I might have been 10 or 20 years behind, but I would come to this story,” he answers. “Migration is a worldwide fact of humanity.”

“Enrique’s Journey” was my first introduction to Bartletti’s work. While fulfilling his diverse daily duties as an L.A. Times staff photographer, the self-taught photojournalist has risen to the top of his field with a lens acutely focused on the U.S.-Mexican border. His Pulitzer work was just one small part of the story he has been documenting and telling since the ’80s. The research and relationships required to tell Enrique’s story alone took years of legwork without a camera. But when he set the lens on something—children scavenging in a dump with buzzards circling overhead, a boy lying in a hospital after a train stole his leg from him, or the rusted skeleton of boxcars creeping from the trees in the jungles of Mexico—the shot plays a critical role in laying out the trip that Enrique and thousands of other migrants endure to come to the United States.


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