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


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Relatives grieve at the sight of a bullet-riddled pickup in which five undercover policemen were killed as they rode through central Culiacán, Mexico. The hit men probably were from the violent Sinaloa drug cartel, whose war to keep drug routes open has claimed thousands of Mexican citizens in the past three years.
With his camera, Bartletti has portrayed the immigration debate in the way few others can. He brings no bias of words to the story; his only perspective is the compelling shot. He focuses on both sides in an approach to illuminate the story and drop a reader right into the desert. Bartletti reasons, “The immigration debate isn’t nearly as simple as a million people coming across the border and sending a billion dollars back home. There are individual decisions made by the family members that leave, there are tragedies, there’s heartbreak, there are broken families. On this side of the border, certainly there’s exploitation.”

In reporting on immigration, Bartletti has been willing to take risks and go where no other American photojournalist has ventured, but he also has been smart. Taking the necessary precautions—documented support from the highest levels of the American and Mexican governments—is essential to maintain the momentum to tell the story. Bartletti cautions that “momentum” is one of the most important parts of photojournalism: “When I get in a groove, when I’m on the trains, I didn’t want to be thrown off by some stupid bureaucratic officials.”

Not all the hazards of the trip could be deterred by a letter from a government official. Bartletti witnessed the horrors of this journey: a young boy whose limbs were claimed by the train was left to lie among the trees along the tracks for several days, his wounds cauterized by the heat-laced wheels of the train, and was found by a local farmer and reunited with his family more than a week later.

Bartletti didn’t escape Mexico without a firsthand introduction to the misery and pain, either. In one shot from his exposé, migrant teens are laying prone on the top of boxcars, dodging the branches that envelop the train. I asked if these branches hurt when they hit your head. “Yes,” he started his story. “I heard this little sing-song coming from ahead. Rama, rama, rama. A branch—I was standing up—whapped me on my back and knocked me clean onto the freight car. Turns out rama is a warning, Spanish for ‘branch.’ That was an important lesson.”

“Enrique’s Journey” was unique and award-winning because it diverged from the standard meme of stories about fences with holes in them. Bartletti told me that he “wanted to show readers what happened before the fence, the other countries the migrant travels through, the myriad of other problems they encounter.”

The route Bartletti followed, which would end with a Pulitzer, was underreported despite being one of the most common paths for Central American migrants. Today, the story of the train through the mountains and jungles, among the hostile admonitions of Chiapas and the friendly smiles of Veracruz, has taken off internationally and been retold all over the world. And his route is still as viable today as it was when he began traveling it almost a decade ago.

“It’s still huge,” Bartletti says. “Traveling through Mexico is very difficult for Central Americans, especially in Chiapas. They’re victimized unmercifully. It makes the [United States] Border Patrol look like parish priests. It’s the conduit that Central Americans must use.”

Bartletti would know; he’s probably spent more time along the border with immigrants, smugglers, drug mules, the Border Patrol and the Minute Men and other anti-immigration activists than any other photographer. He spent a week in the desert with Border Patrol trackers, agents who use the same techniques employed by Native American hunters for centuries, to find routes and connect with smugglers. While standing beneath the pristine skies in an unforgiving desert, Bartletti focuses on the words of Fr. Daniel Groody, Ph.D., director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame: “dying to live.” This is no truer than in the war zone that has become Mexico’s border cities, the most recent focus of Bartletti’s work.


 

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