From Toronto, but based in Mexico City, Brett Gundlock is a photographer and a founding member of the Boreal Collective. After three years as a staff photographer at Canada’s National Post, Gundlock struck out on his own and now divides his time between assignment work and personal photographic interests. Brett’s personal work lead him to Mexico in 2012 and he has been working there since. Future ambitions include creating his first book from his current project, Flowers for Zapata. Contrasting current social conflicts in Mexico with the history of Emiliano Zapata, Brett is exploring man’s lust for control. Today we take a more in-depth look at that project.
Three years ago a small Mexican town called Cherán saw its citizens band together to directly confront organized crime. As soon as I heard about this I left Mexico City on a bus and I arrived in the middle of the annual fiesta, the first fiesta since the town revolted. I began to photograph immediately. The pride of their collective accomplishments was infectious, there was an energy in the air that I knew had not been experienced for years. Confetti decorating a women’s hair was never more meaningful, as she laughed while hand pressing tamales for her family.
The community fought against seemingly impossible odds; winning back control of their ancestors’ land, winning back their cornfields and valuable forest, winning back lives.
The story of Cherán is not unique. Below the postcard sunsets of Mexico are families fighting with this soil. Taking a gamble with the hopes of winning enough to take care of their families for one more season. In the rare years a profit is achieved, it is usually lost to corruption. Life moves at a painfully slow pace, but amazingly, joy and celebration shine through.
These mountains are the backs of Mexican men. The two share a delicate relationship and in the end, they are infused as one. But one can not control the other.
Hey Brett! Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself & how you got your start as a photographer?
I started taking photos of my friends jumping our BMX bikes when I was 12. My mom was always into photography and always had cameras around. She wasn’t two excited about my taking her fancy SLR in my backpack to our jumps in a farmers field, but I eventually wore her down. Photography has been a constant in my life since those days. I am Canadian, from the west (Alberta- the Texas of Canada,) I lived in Toronto for many years and now I live in Mexico City.
What would you say most inspires your work?
People getting screwed. More or less. Right now my work is exploring people stuck in the middle of a huge conflict, without any control of the terms of the fighting, no influence on the outcome or any options really at all. Basically I want my work to confront bullies. Or at least draw light to some of the process in our life that we don’t even understand as exploitive. There are a lot of dicks out there today. I am also inspired by ideas a lot, new ways of thinking. The community of photographers and artists around me is also a constant inspiration. A huge motivation as well.
You’ve been working of “Flowers for Zapata” for three years now. What do you see as the future of this project?
Flowers for Zapata is going to be my first book. In some form. But I am not in a rush right now. Larry Towell worked on his book The Mennonites for over ten years. That book has aways been my bible and guide through this work. I am excited to see where the project goes.
You’re a founding member of the Boreal Collective. Can you elaborate on the idea behind the Collective & what being a member entails?
Boreal is really just an informal group of friends with similar goals and working in a similar place. We always have group initiatives, such as producing news prints, exhibitions and an annual mini festival The Boreal Bash. The idea is that as a force, we can accomplish some big things with a group effort.
A lot of Boreal business happens behind the scenes though, Boreal accounts for about 75% of my emails.
What initially drew you to begin making work in Mexico?
In Canada we have a very small view of what is happening in Mexico. For Canadians, Mexico is a largely unknown land full of an exotic food, cheap beer and an alien language and culture. Aside from the American style beach resorts of course.
This is really interesting to me. We share a content with Mexico, we are deeply linked economically, and we are so close to the country, both literally and theoretically. But I don’t remember learning about Mexico really in school. I wanted to explore what could cause such a troubled state to border and share so much with two of the most powerful countries in the world.
Being originally from Canada, what would you say has been the biggest challenge of making work in a foreign country?
The biggest challenge is funding. I think any artist will say probably say this. The work I am doing is really somewhere in between the journalism and art world, a sort of no-mans land of credit card bills.
But other then that, I would say a challenge is having the guts to get on the airplane and do it. It took me a while to finally say screw it – this is what I am going to do. It is still intimidating when I am back home in Canada and I am getting ready to leave for Mexico, even though I have an apartment and a cat here. The warning and stories my friends and family have fore me are pretty outrageous. Aside from that type of stuff, once you are there taking photos is the easy part.
You’re photographing these small towns in Mexico. What sort of specific elements are you looking for? What compels you to photograph a specific location or scene?
I really love these small towns. Life is so different, priorities are such a contrast to the city, life is just so much more authentic in these pueblos. There is so much for me to learn. Sometimes I zone out and I see what is happening around me as a movie. On my last trip I saw a guy accidentally light himself on fire when trying fill up his truck with a 4L coke bottle.
Haha- I mean shit- where else in the world am I going to see a scene like this.
Anytime I look for specific elements or preconceived ideas, my photos generally fail. I have given up on that. It is really just a process of realization and interpretation when I am photographing. But over the time of me working on this project, narratives have started to emerge and evolve. I started out with focusing on a vigilante movement that swept across Michoacán over the last few years. Those were some wild times, jumping in a caravan of pickup trucks of a small army of rag tag fighters, actively searching for cartel members.
But since then other stories have started to take me to surrounding areas, such as the students going missing last fall. In the end I think I will be be basically exploring the Sierra Madre, on Mexico’s West coast mountain range- the “Mother Mountains”. All areas have local problems which are significant, like for instance Acapulco, but the are all connected to the same struggle for control of this land.
And finally, what’s next for you? Any new series on the horizon?
I have recently started working on a new black and white project as a section of this big project. The first rolls of film haven’t even been developed, so I can’t really talk about it yet, as it isn’t anything yet- but I am pretty excited about it.
I have been working with a point and shoot camera all over Mexico as well, that has been quite fun. I am always posting stuff to my Instagram. Really I am just trying to spend as much time shooting in the field as I can right now. And how to continue to make donations to Visa.
To view more of Brett’s work, please visit his website.