Capturing Calamity in Mexico City

Enrique Metinides' vivid photos document a half century of life and death in the Mexican megalopolis.
Picturing the Disaster

William S. Burroughs once described Mexico City as "sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream." In fact, the sprawling megalopolis, home to 20 million people, is insistently literal—at once intensely alive and decaying, filled with bodies and odors and clangor.

For the last 50 years, photographer Enrique Metinides has cataloged Mexico City's human calamities: murders, suicides, plane crashes, car wrecks, derailed trains, collapsed buildings, gas fires. His photographs—most of them published by the tabloids La Prensa and Alarma!—are Mexico's answer to Weegee's New York City crime scenes. Like Weegee, Metinides has an eye for cinematic detail and a kind of point-blank lyricism. His photos have a beginning, a middle, and an end; to look at one is to experience anew a tragedy that is eternally in media res.

Metinides began taking pictures at age 10 with a box Brownie camera his father gave him. By age 12 he was a prolific street photographer, documenting the city's traffic accidents. He was such a fixture at these smash-ups that local police dubbed him El Niño ("the boy"), a nickname that has stuck over the years.

He launched his professional career with Mexico City tabloids in 1947. Taking cues from a shortwave radio, Metinides raced hell-for-leather to the latest scene of murder or suicide, one of many such press photographers vying for the most sensational shot. The images were meant to sell newspapers, but in Metinides' case they also offered a statement about death in a modern city. In many of his most compelling photos, it's the gaggle of spectators—variously shell-shocked or stoic or bemused—that stokes our curiosity. The crush of onlookers is a casebook of human types, and the beginning of an interaction—witnessing, looking, seeing—that erupts beyond the frame to implicate its viewers.

Like Boris Mikhailov, Luc Delahaye, Jacob Holdt, Diane Arbus, and other purveyors of "shocking" imagery, Metinides exploits the primal thrill of encountering a stranger's catastrophe. This ethical conundrum is synonymous with his artistic agenda and is a statement about our common bond as witnesses. Why are we drawn to incidents of calamity and violence? Why is the "fascination of the abomination," to quote Conrad, always so persuasive?

In the words of curator and filmmaker Trisha Ziff: "In describing the events and their participants, [Metinides'] commentaries are straightforward and without any hint of cynicism. He remembers in detail the names, characters, and narratives behind the photographs. It is this obsession with remembering that gives his images their humanity, and ensures that the sufferings of those who appear in them do not merely end up as statistics or yesterday's news."

The photographs and accompanying captions are excerpted from 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, a retrospective newly published by Aperture.