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

A pedestrian reads a card left at a roadside memorial at a park in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. The body of 21-year-old Sean Patrick Murphy was found in his bullet-riddled car that crashed into the guardrail. Police believe a rival drug gangster murdered him over competition to sell narcotics from Mexican cartels.
There are too many stories to tell, so his camera captures shot after shot, each narrative would fill several pages. Bartletti shows me a photo of a pick-up truck slammed up against the curb; a man with his 12-year-old daughter was ambushed, and both were killed. The next photo is of the coroner’s van picking up the two bodies. It’s full; 14 were killed that day. “The morgue in Tijuana is completely overloaded,” says Bartletti. “I tried to get in, but they were totally embarrassed.”

It’s a little better in Juárez; they have state-of-the-art facilities after the Mexican government spent millions this decade because of the more than 400 maquiladores murdered in the last 10 years.

Each photo is grimmer than the one before it. I ask Bartletti about the difference over five or 10 years, from his award-winning spread on the trains being chased by smiling children on horseback to the blood-splattered streets of the border cities, and what perspective the photographer can offer. He pauses and says, “Sometimes I think I’m in a Fellini movie or watching a twisted play.”

Whether riding the rails with Honduran migrants or scurrying to the scenes of a shootout with the smell of gunpowder still filling the air, Bartletti brings an unmatchable level of reality to his photos. By avoiding “parachuting in,” he’s able to earn the trust of his subjects and capture surreal moments in very real lives.

“The credibility helps a photojournalist avoid the trap of reality television,” he explains, “because no one is playing to my camera, but rather living their lives.”

When the photos come faster than the words, Bartletti benefits from being a photojournalist in the Internet age. The evolution, or the unstoppable explosion, of new media has changed the field of photojournalism as vast as the gap between the collodion process and Polaroid. New media is putting pressure on journalism, but it’s helping photojournalism develop to the status it should hold.

Bartletti isn’t a Luddite, but a conscientious adopter. “I was one of the last photographers [at the Times] to go digital. Kind of like an old dog, I don’t like changes. I was one of the last to grudgingly switch to color in the ’80s. It was probably a good delay because the quality wasn’t very good and the [digital] gear was heavy.”

The L.A. Times made the decision for him in 2001, putting digital Nikons in the hands of the photographers. The old darkrooms were dismantled and replaced with the “digital darkroom.” Bartletti might have been “dragged along,” but the benefits of digital photography quickly became clear for a photographer on the run. Near the end of “Enrique’s Journey,” he was robbed in Mexico. The thieves got nothing that couldn’t be replaced because Bartletti had sent all the digital files back to the office in Los Angeles along with copies of his notes.


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