In December 2009 while I was shooting my film, El Velador, at a narco cemetery in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Beltran Leyva, known as “El Jefe de Jefes” (the boss of bosses), was assassinated. A decapitated head was left on his tomb. Initially I thought it was a threat; later it was explained to me that it was an offering, indicated by the red gerbera daisy placed behind the left ear of the bloodied head. In the photograph that inevitably circulated in the tabloids and on the web, this floral detail stood out brilliantly against the white marble of the tomb. Perhaps the person who left the head on the tomb was not the one who pressed the shutter release on the camera, but when he placed the gerbera behind the left ear, he most certainly knew a photograph would be taken—and knew, moreover, that the more shocking the sight, the more likely it would be to circulate far and wide.
What are we to make of this image? Is it like the Abu Ghraib photographs, meant to mock, torture, and instill fear? Are they trophies of war, like the photographs of lynched African Americans in the southern United States or the photographs of the religious hung along train tracks in Mexico’s war against the Catholic Church? What is the role of the photographers who made these images? Were they depicting the truth, simply observing, or were they accomplices in the mechanics of war?
It is impossible to look at this image, or any image, at face value. All we can gather from that approach is a description of the image, but no understanding, no meaning. Images must be seen and interpreted, which means that they must be made with intention. They form another language, with its own grammar composed of light, color, composition, and, in the case of cinema, movement. For a maker of images, understanding this is a source of great responsibility and freedom.
The challenge of making El Velador was to create a film about violence without participating in the proliferation of images of violence. The film is often described as an observational documentary. I believe this is a misnomer, for it presumes that the observation is somehow objective and passive. It denies the agency of the observer (the filmmaker), who is constantly making choices about how to represent that which is before the lens in order to convey a certain meaning. There was nothing passive about the making of El Velador. Each shot was considered, both when it was made and during the editing process. More importantly, the decisions were made by me, a woman who is half Mexican and half American, who grew up between Sinaloa and the United States, with a certain privilege, education, and point of view.
Susan Sontag wrote, “Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. They were a record of the real—incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial, could be—since a machine was doing the recording. And they bore witness to the real—since a person had been there to take them. Photographs, [Virginia] Woolf claims, ‘are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.’ The truth is they are not ‘simply’ anything, and certainly not regarded just as facts, by Woolf or anyone else.”
Perhaps Woolf’s understanding of photography seems naive to us today. Does she not consider the photographer framing the image? Does she not ask, for example, what was just to the left of the frame or even why the photograph was taken at all? Of course she is describing photographs before the invention of Photoshop and definitely before selfies. And yet, when I taught a class this past winter, my undergraduate students would describe certain handheld, long-shot video footage (what they called “raw”) as more truthful, more objective. Somehow even this generation of individuals who fabricate their identities on social media is able to suspend disbelief, refuse all criticality, and accept an image as the truth.
But why? What is the value or the function of believing that photographs can hold the truth and that there is an objective truth to be held? Who benefits from this belief?
To the uncritical consumer of images, photographs and films are the last vestiges of an uncomplicated world that one could rely on, that one could pretend to understand, to know, even to possess. To accept that all images are subjective is to dive into turbulent waters with no life vest. An uncritical consumer gives a producer of images all the power, as any image will be unquestioned. As an image producer, I am the holder of the truth. My finger—Roland Barthes said that photography’s organ was the finger, not the eye—is god. What power!
On the bulletin board in my studio, I have placed two note cards next to each other: one says constructed documentary and the other, documented fiction. In many ways, all of my films have straddled the line between fiction and documentary. It is precisely the tension of the border between the two genres—one that inherently questions the nature of objective truth versus subjective perception—that interests me. For me, a documentary is an improvisation with reality, not a depiction of it, and fiction is a documentation of a constructed reality. The distinction between the two is more about process than concept. In both genres, I am trying to make sense of the world for myself through a lens and to share that interpretation with others.