david rochkind – heavy hand, sunken spirit

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David Rochkind

Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: The Costs and Consequences of Mexico’s Drug War

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In the three and a half years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon escalated the battle against the country’s drug cartels, more than 20,000 people have been killed and kidnappings have skyrocketed. The cartels in Mexico are ruthless, meting out an awesome brutality where heads are rolled into crowded discos and dismembered bodies are abandoned on busy streets. Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit is a project about the societal costs and consequences of Mexico’s violent drug war. It frames the violence as a symptom, as opposed to the problem, and one of a variety of symptoms that will haunt the country for generations. This country is in the midst of a “conflict” in every sense of the word, and when documenting this conflict it is important not to reduce what is happening to a series of nearly anonymous images of carnage that could be happening anywhere.

I am not creating a story about violence that happens to be set in Mexico, but rather a story about Mexico’s present situation, offering a snapshot of a time that will be referred to for decades as people look for answers to make sense of Mexican society. I want each image to convey a sense of Mexico, her color, and her culture. The wounds of this war bleed into every corner of the country, staining the very fabric of Mexican life with violence, death and fear. The psychology of the country is also changing, as people become accustomed to horror and distrust, weakening an already fragile democracy. I am most fascinated by the space between what Mexico has always been and what this carnage is creating.

The heat of the conflict is melting two worlds together, making a singular Mexico defined as much by violence and tension, as by history and culture. I chose to work on this project because it represents how a grand, intense struggle can be transformed into quiet, daily dramas that are woven seamlessly into the lives of those involved. I am drawn to extreme crises that become internalized, even routine, to the communities that they touch. Many in Mexico are forced to make sense of a situation that is, simply, irrational. Their faith in democratic institutions is being tested and their sense of normalcy is being assaulted; what appears to an outsider to be a horrific campaign of violence and intimidation is simply a routine part of life for many Mexicans.

This project is meant to expose the evolution of deep changes that this conflict has brought about, as well as the scars that will remain long after the violence subsides.



David Rochkind (b.1980) graduated from the University of Michigan in 2002. Shortly after graduating he moved to Caracas, Venezuela to begin working as a freelance photographer. He was based in Caracas for 6 years and recently relocated to Mexico City, Mexico. Mr. Rochkind’s work has been published in a variety of media, including: The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Stern, Le Monde Magazine, Glamour, Rolling Stone and others. In addition he has worked for several development organizations, including: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA), CARE and The Carter Center. His work has been recognized by : the Center Project Competition (Santa Fe), the Anthropographia Human Rights and Photography Award, the National Press Photographer’s Association, Photo District News, the Magenta Foundation and others. In addition to his project on Mexico, Mr. Rochkind is in the process of creating an education program about Tuberculosis based on his photographs.


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David Rochkind



71 Responses to “david rochkind – heavy hand, sunken spirit”

  • I have been waiting for an essay on the carnage in Mexico to be published here on Burn and I have not been disappointed. This is essay is top caliber and shows the courage and conviction to go somewhere and document where by all rights one would be wise to stay well clear. Congratulations David, you are a master of your craft. Again I sense DAH’s hand in the publication echoing the recent Nat Geo essay “Troubled Spirits” photographed by Shaul Schwarz documenting the rise of the veneration of La Santa Muerte in Mexico. I am sure I saw this or a similar edit published on the net I can’t recall where exactly, Lens Blog possibly. Congrats David and keep up the excellent work.

    All the best,


  • I am utterly amazed by how close you got to these people. This is probably one of the most dangerous photo essays that I’ve seen in a while. We often see war photos where the photographer was “imbedded” or social reportages that take place after the chaos has calmed down. Here you are literally in the line of fire and have successfully portrayed the issue from various angles. Regarding the style….it’s classical photojournalism that we often see in the U.S., but this is not a bad thing, especially when telling a story like this one.


  • Nice photos, but I worry that this is more a piece of propaganda than any kind of valid journalism. Apparently, these photos were taken with help from the police. If that’s true, then it’s safe to assume that we are seeing what the authorities want us to see, which I suspect is a fiction that the police are actually working against drug cartels. The facts are otherwise. There is no war on drugs in Mexico. There is a war for drugs and the police, army, government, and cartels are all players in the game to control and profit from the trade. There are no sides that can be identified by how one dresses. Your kidnapper or murderer is as likely to be wearing a uniform as not. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the work of Charles Bowden is essential reading if you want to get any understanding of what’s happening. His latest, Murder City, is an incredible accomplishment.

    I do, however, believe it’s valid to ask if it’s worth participating in this kind of propaganda exercise (if it is that. If, unlikely as it appears, it is not — then sorry) in order to publicize the horror. Or to compartmentalize it and show just how it affects the non-participants (if there are any), which btw, I don’t think this essay achieves. I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is not easy so I am inclined to respect the photographer’s personal judgment.

  • The photography is superb.

    But there in lies a conundrum. Is the photogrspher showing his pictures, what he can do to gain place in a super competitive environment of phot/docu/journalism, as much as showing as the subject they cover?

    I sure do not learn anything looking at them, than I know, or guess, already about the drug wars (violent, death easy, pain psychological and physical inflicted on people, etc…), which I really do not consider like a subject no one talks/knows about.

    So, I would expect to learn something, which I am not sure, a photo essay in the zone can do, to be honest.

    Then, if not that, we might want to appalud a personal vision, a personal approach.

    But what is personal in that essay, is not really a personal vision, but more about how you mastered so many aspects of taking pictures and doing photography, getting close, real good diversity of images, and a superb use/recognition of color. Like I said: superb as images go.

    At this minute, I am kind of stuck, looking at your pictures, with that ever-lingering debate about how “pretty” (to sum up) a picture can get to actually muddle the subject (which is not just within PJ viewing afficionados, but from many people outside of that media),

    It’s been a while I wrote that, bear with me :-): the text is too long and I believe, having not much to do with the pictures, which are basically a reportage.

    Why do so many photographers nowadays, feel the need to explain and over-explain what this is they’re doing and that we are seeing…..

  • afterthought: maybe substitute “gorgeous” with “pretty”, something like that.

  • I think this series is excellent — as photography, as reportage. I don’t share Michael’s discomfort that it approaches propaganda. These photos are certainly not from the police’s perspective, even if they show police actions and we assume David had police permission to be there.

    The drug war in Mexico is messy and complex, and no single journalist is going to be able to provide a complete perspective. I like David’s window on it and hope to see more.

  • Carnage indeed. What about the killing in Kingston, Jamaica over the last few days? Perhaps a serious rethink on “the drugs war” is now needed.

    Anyway, David’s piece is rock solid and ultimately depressing.

  • Powerful essay. I agree with Preston, I don’t see this as police propaganda. From what I understand from some friends in Mexico, you do see police in action (whether they are effective is a different question, and there’s no doubt that large parts of the police force are very corrupt and often even involved in the drug trade). Point being, these images seem like a realistic glimpse into a very complex subject; these are scenes you could expect to be exposed to in several parts of Mexico. I don’t see any particular bias here.

  • David; I felt like I was being sucked through a vortex into their world. Amazing work, thank you.

  • Wonderful work, seems to be screaming out for multimedia. To have users, dealers and police talking over this would give it a real shine.

  • Congratulations for being here David.

    The opening statement was impressive, too impressive to be honest and although visually this essay was stunning it left me wanting more. I do not blame the photos or the edit, it has to be the statement again. I do agree with Herve on this one and the truth is that Michael Webster has a good point too.

    The so-called “drug wars” whether in Mexico, Colombia or now Jamaica (even Afghanistan really) are anything but wars on drug trafficking in my opinion. There is compelling evidence to the opposite and net result except from endless suffering, death and destruction is just a reshuffling of the cards. The issue is very complex and serious but I believe it is high time for a completely new approach.

    Anyway, the photography here is absolutely top class, the access you had is astonishing (cannot imagine anything like this without permission and probably following/covering by the police). The variation in settings, light and treatment is excellent too. Very professional indeed. But at the end this is classic photojournalism, does have a lot of violence (nothing wrong per-se, just that the statement promises otherwise) and I do not get anything about the long lasting effects on an already fragile society. It is really life-like but the “the scars that will remain long after the violence subsides” I feel remain mostly untouched.

    Congratulations again, I have to dive into your website now, need to see a lot more. All the best.

  • Great Essay – captions would help .

  • This is scary stuff. It seems the world is full of scary stuff and needs to be shown. I was disturbed at the photo of the young girl and the two men but know this is life there. And lots of places. I don’t agree that it is police propaganda. It looks like the real reporting to me. Glad you have the balls to do this kind of shooting but glad I am not the one seeing all this first hand. Be careful.

  • I’m struggling how to say what I have to say about this. A large part of it is summed up very well by John Pitsakis. The photography is great. The access impressive. I want to celebrate that, not in any way denigrate it. And beyond the photography, I am impressed with the statement. Unlike so many, I don’t get the sense that it is a mishmash of artsy mumbo jumbo, but a sincere intellectual effort to understand a complex situation and communicate its importance to a wider audience in a uniquely insightful manner. In short, I think it’s a fantastic fucking effort on multiple levels.

    Yet as someone close to those issues, someone who has probably walked many of those same streets, read extensively, and even written. about related issues in the same place (the Sonoran border area, apparently), I am bothered by quite a bit of what I feel the essay communicates, and even more by things I feel it fails to communicate, things which the artist statement promises but fails to deliver. For example, we see nothing, nothing whatsoever of the “quiet, daily dramas that are woven seamlessly into the lives of those involved.” And it’s arguable, I know, as everything to do with the ongoing Mexican holocaust is arguable, but I think it’s those quiet daily dramas that best explain the root cause of the violence. Have you noticed the red and blue barrels in front of every shack in the colonias surrounding Nogales? Understanding their provenance and purpose is, I think, a prereq for understanding anything else. And you must be familiar with Bowden? If not, you’re in for clockwork orange type eye opening. Don’t read him to your favorite music, whatever you do.

    So in short, I worry the essay is hampered by an inherent political naivete that shows itself in both the propagandistic nature of the collaboration with the police and the lack of insight the essay provides into the more encompassing social issues alluded to in the artist statement. But on the positive side, again, I recognize it as a fantastic fucking effort on multiple levels. What the photographer is attempting is just about as not easy as not easy gets. Sincere praise and congratulations are in order. And based on the artist statement, I think you know you can do better. Based on these results, I trust you will.

    Though on a totally different note, what’s up with the prostitute photos? What does that have to do with anything? Is it now de rigeur to have prostitute photos in a photo essay? It’s not like they tell us anything particularly enlightening about a place. Where in the world can you go and not find prostitutes? Antarctica maybe?

  • Hello everyone, it’s my first time here on ‘comments’.

    I kind of agreed with John Pitsaks and Michael Webster: the title says about “the costs and consequences…”and honestly, I don’t see much of this. I mean, part of the photos are more “journalist”, like 13, another part is more ‘free’ or personal (the last one). I don’t have problems with both, nor altogether. I just see a distance between the text and the photos.

  • Where in the world can you go and not find prostitutes?…..in my bedroom!

  • On the essay ……. well human suffering gets top billing once again. Even in all this chaos some must enjoy whether it be being ……. off ones face, the sense of power/control or just the adrenalin rush. Maybe these aspects should be portrayed ……… the most honest essay about life on the edge posted here is Jukka’s “a kind of error”

    ……no bright colours, not a spectacle just pretty damn honest

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    This essay begs to be loved – strong, compelling, topical imagery and brilliantly produced (overproduced?) color and contrast. So why does it feel like the contemporary photojournalist’s checklist of must-haves – ironic t-shirt leading off the list, the ‘authority’, the vehicles, the rain and blood soaked street [whose graphicness borders on obscenity], the ‘victims’ [whose lack of identity and ‘otherness’ assures my own security], the children, the women, the prostitute [I assume that is what she is or ‘represents’], people riding on top of trains.

    Other than your statement – which I find incomplete and troubling – I want to know, really and truly, what your relationship to this work and these people is. It could, if I were a really cynical person, be seen as a complete parody of itself.

    I feel like you need to explain a lot of what you have put up here; if not to us, certainly to yourself. Captions are only the beginning. I find the title of your essay more than slightly ironic.

  • Hi David:

    Your title, “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit…The Costs and Consequences of Mexico’s Drug War”..i think this is a bunch of crap to tell you the truth. What is not crap is your more matter-of-fact statement that this is a story about Mexico’s present situation. As you say, this is a snapshot as happenstance would have it, of a city in Mexico. If you deleted all mention of location and drugs from your description the viewer sees what happens in some of the seamier sides of Anywhere, Latin America: Police activity, prostitution, gangs, crime, drug use, guys standing around a truck socializing and drinking beer, a village from afar, some guy walking along a road in good light, migration..etc.etc. The true costs and consequences of the drug war in Mexico lies in the traumatized collective psyche of the country. You can shoot a different dead guy on the street every night, a different prostitute, a different arrest, and none of it is going to tell the story you want to tell if you aren’t getting it from the people. As Harry said, this story begs for a multi-media approach. It needs the words and voices of the people.

    The viewer of these particular photos cannot possibly surmise the cost and consequences of the drug war in Mexico. Not without context and perspective. As you say yourself, “I am most fascinated by the space between what Mexico has always been and what this carnage is creating.” You are not showing us this contrast. For all i know this is exactly the way Mexico has always been. Certainly, drug-running is not new in this part of the world. What has changed? I know. But i’m not seeing it here. If you know and if you have seen the contrast then you need to show us that contrast. Or else you need the voices and stories of the people involved. Hanging out with the cops on the beat is safe but it’s not access. And if access is too damned dangerous, which i know it is, then perhaps you need photos like this coupled with text by an accomplished writer, hopefully Mexican, who can help you to generate the context we need to really, truly feel and understand the collateral damage this war has caused.


  • Maybe it is all pretty simple the human race has a special relationship with narcotics and it is worth dying for …………. I never could figure that part out

  • Its obvious how much effort you have put in to this essay, this body of work David. Congradulations on the work you have done. Its worthy and I personally feel important. So I hope you keep it up as it is very difficult particularly if your not receiving finance. So good luck with that.
    I checked out your web site and can see you have a political bent towards the complexity of globalization and the economic forces it may unleash on society.
    Very interesting for me to realize through your images. Thanks for keeping up the effort.


  • I like the essay and the comments are interesting. With regard to those who think that riding with the police is a sellout: without such collaboration many of the photographs would not have been taken. Sometimes you have to dance with the devil.

    Consider DAH’s recent work in the Favellas of Rio; he had to seek permission to photograph from the controlling gangs. Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson rode with the Caracas police in Venezuela when photographing for his book, Capitlio (at first he was welcomed: during his last visit he had a gun put to his head). Kathleen Fonseca says “Hanging out with the cops on the beat is safe but it’s not access”, sometimes it’s not safe and it’s all the access that you are going to get.

    Some, including me at first, had a problem with the high level of photographic skill shown by David. It’s strange that we somehow associate photojournalism with loose, grainy, not-quite in-focus photographs. The work shown here is of such high quality that we question its validity. Strange. When I look at the essay I keep thinking Nat Geo. I can see how they would cover the story with this essay. DAH may say “Straight PJ but good straight PJ”.

    Harry is correct, it would make a great multi-media presentation and the voiceovers could be used as text to accompany the photographs in printed form.

    I presume that this is work in progress and that many more photographs will be taken to give an even greater insight to the viewer. Expecting anyone to make sense of what is taking place in some parts of Mexico and in other drug-involved parts of the world is a tall order but David has great skill and courage and is telling the story admirably. Congratulations David!


  • Both loose, grainy, not-quite in-focus photographs and slick digital colour neither are a reality just a way of interpreting events. Mike maybe you see photojournalism as being a grainy affair I am not sure if you can really speak for all of your so called “we”, most PJs have use the best tools available at any given time in past present and also into the future. No one here has questioned the validity due to technique

  • Imants, the “we” that I mentioned is the people who have commented here. Don’t know about you but I sometimes find myself thinking wow, nice photograph and then realise that it contains some rather not-nice content. It produces mixed emotions. In opposite to this response I find myself more easy with looking at e.g. black & white pj photos because, well, it’s serious if it’s in b&w. I find this strange. Not speaking for others, just me.



  • I hate to belabor the issue, but I never said that using the access afforded by the police was a “sellout.” My problem with the photos isn’t that the access was used, it’s that they seem to depict the army and police in a very positive light, as dedicated professionals doing a difficult job under trying circumstances. They look little different than pictures of police in the U.S. Even in the extremely unlikely event that that’s the case with these particular police, the essay aspires to speak for “Mexico” and seen in that light, the view we get of the army and police is pure fantasy, and coincidentally, the very fantasy they would wish to project to an international audience.

  • Not so nice content is allowed to be aesthetically pleasing like blood slowly curling from one’s mouth into a field of green yellow vomit as the piercing blue eyes curl back in a sea of ivory white skin ………

  • loved the colors..
    8 & 9 (D’Agata style) my favorites..
    and i wanna say bravo (im impressed) for 20…

    and of course regarding police here is my take:

  • The fallout left behind from the collision of the brutality of greed and the brutality of addiction. Sounds mythic. Maybe too much for the camera at this stage. I do see what you are attempting to do here.

  • Kathleen, I’ve missed your feisty voice! Welcome back.

    Kathleen, I think you are expecting a lot of 25 photographs. I agree that I would love to see these photographs in a multi-media piece, or accompanying a long well researched magazine article.

    As they are, these photographs are far and away the best I’ve ever seen on the subject. It gives me a vivid snapshot of the situation. You are a braver guy than I David. Be careful out there.

    With regard to the police co-operation, good Lord, you’ve either the co-operation of the police or the gangsters to make any photos at all. In either case you get to see only what they want you to see. I’m amazed at what you got to see. I can just smell the danger, it makes my skin crawl.

    Congratulations David

  • great color!!
    I hear Kathleen’s frustration…
    but this is only David’s story,
    thru his lens…
    what he saw….
    it begs deeper exploration….
    but it is strong imagery…
    I don’t like the blood photo…

  • jenny lynn walker

    This essay is about as far from the way I see the world as you can get, but still I like it! The photographs speak out loud and clear. I like the colour and am blown way by the sequencing! The text is beautifully written but overstated and at times dramatic, given the brilliance of the choice photographs and their content which speak the story clearly for themselves. I really like the choice of that first image to start the sequence. Excellent!

    The big down side for me relates to context. You have approached the story in a classical journalistic way that is immensely popular but given the nature of the problem, it does cry out for the need to incorporate the voices of the people – and not only those directly involved but those that can give various perspectives of Mexican attitudes to it. This would help make the piece less damaging to Mexico and Mexicans if it is aired internationally and I think that as it is highly unlikely that everyone in the country is directly involved, that is necessary particularly given that you are not native of Mexico.

  • Hi, everyone!
    David R.: Great pictures. I know that’s not easy at all to shoot in that kind of environment… scary, afraid and nervous (maybe). But, no guts, no glory…
    I’m agree with the first comment here, from Franck Haik. DAH is doing a duality with Nat Geo essay this month. :-)
    By the way, there is a french photog, that had also made a story like this one, but in Ciudad Juarez. He’s from L’oeil public collectif.

    A+ Patricio

  • Gordon, Wendy, Mike R

    First, hi, hi to all!

    i recognize that the kind of access i would love to see would absolutely imperil this photographer. See this article written way back in the good ole days of 2008 by William Booth for the Washington Post:


    In it he says,

    ¨Since 2000, 28 journalists have been slain and eight others have disappeared and are assumed dead, according to Ricardo González of the group Article 19, which works to protect freedom of expression in Mexico, now the most dangerous country in Latin America in which to be a journalist. González said, “Journalists are now included among the casualties of this war.” ….Editors at many newspapers and television stations now say they no longer deeply investigate the cartels or attempt to plot the intersecting lines of corruption and cash between the drug traffickers and their partners in government, business and law enforcement.¨

    I totally agree with Michael Webster. He says ¨I am bothered by quite a bit of what I feel the essay communicates, and even more by things I feel it fails to communicate, things which the artist statement promises but fails to deliver. For example, we see nothing, nothing whatsoever of the “quiet, daily dramas that are woven seamlessly into the lives of those involved.” And it’s arguable, I know, as everything to do with the ongoing Mexican holocaust is arguable, but I think it’s those quiet daily dramas that best explain the root cause of the violence.¨

    What David is trying to do is virtually impossible to actually shoot. The access required would get him killed. But neither is he honest about that lack of accessibility when he promises to illustrate the cost and consequences of this war. The lack of coverage, as Gordon alludes to when he says he has never seen anything better than this is precisely because journalists can no longer ¨go there¨. The Mexican Pj´s can´t invesitgate the narcos and they know that embedding with the cops will tell a very biased story since law enforcement and government are so entangled with the cartels. You pick your poison and get killed in the process so why the hell bother? The journalistic silence is deafening if you listen hard enough. And David is smart enough to recognize that he can no more fill the vacuum created by this silence than anyone else.

    As Michael also says, the only way David could tell this story is through the quiet daily dramas but i´m afraid the quiet dramas he is depicting do little to illustrate the uniquely Mexican cause and effect of the problem. All i see is what i see on the Costa Rican news channels every night of the week (sans the more exually graphic of course) I think it is possible for David to approach his goal without necessarily putting himself in harm´s way. He clearly has the sensitivity and intelligence to do so. He can continue to get access any way he possibly can (i.e. following the cops around) and then allow the common person to speak of their experiences in audio or he can engage a highly accomplished and sympathetic Mexican author to try to articulate the quiet tragedy occurring within the culture and society from the Mexican point of view. If he were to use even one other layer of communication with these same photos it could/would inform the viwer´s experience 100% by giving the victim a voice and also by illustrating the complexity of the situation, i.e. that law enforcement and government officials are as much a part of the problem as the solution.

    Best to you all


  • Kathleen, a very persuasive argument; I agree with you, and Michael Webster, that the police ride-alongs can only produce limited results – and probably so does David. As Harry wrote earlier, multimedia does seem like a good idea.

    Imants, “Not so nice content is allowed to be aesthetically pleasing like blood slowly curling from one’s mouth into a field of green yellow vomit as the piercing blue eyes curl back in a sea of ivory white skin ………” – not sure what you are saying here. The debate as to wether b&w or colour should be used for photojournalism is an old one, and has been debated here previously. I, personally, have no preference. My point in mentioning the excellent colour technique shown by David was that serious subjects can, initially, become secondary to the initial recognition by the viewer (at least if the viewer is a photographer) of excellent technique. Photographs 2, 16, 20 would fall into this category for me.

    Playing Devil’s Advocate I’d say that much of Sebastiao Salgado’s b&w work in Ethiopia is in the same category.

    One can feel a little uneasy looking at immaculately photographed and printed photographs of famine. The photographer in you says “nice light”, the Human Being in you rails at the injustice of the reality presented.


  • Just great solid impressive work all around. I’m really surprised at the tone of some comments given the obvious challenges in creating this vignette. Perhaps this would be stronger without 4, 17, 22, 23, 24. I do think it is important to put this into more specific geographic context, i.e. is this everywhere in Mexico or just border towns or spreading or … where? If you have future historical context in mind then this becomes even more crucial. Hmm, I could have simply reiterated, “captions would help.” Minor nits on great work.

  • Maybe it is all pretty simple the human race has a special relationship with narcotics and it is worth dying for
    I suppose, since we have a very special and tenuous relationship with death to begin for! :-)

    POV of cops. Not sure that in itself would disqualify all that he’s done, but from a very different angle, thinking of this essay, and the esthetics in it, for me it does have relents of reading a roman-photos, or “roman noir” (crime novel) from a very apt writer (Dashiel Hammett?) in describing moods and thoughts behind the action, and the action itself. With a possible voice-over by the detective (Bogart/Marlowe?).

  • That was not a put down, David btw.

  • As to the broader implications of classic photojournalism, its role, perception, and reception in the increasingly visually assaulted and desensitized cultural psyche and the circular conundrums of ethics, access, motives and value, I’ll leave that to other folks, as perhaps should you David. I think it is enough to simply say this is what I saw and how I saw it, this is where I stood and when as I tripped the shutter. Here. Right or wrong, I have come to view photojournalism more for its historical significance than for its immediacy to affect change, with the latter still a possibility as an added bonus, albeit a fleeting one, and the former conversely often gaining importance upon the reflection afforded by the passage of time. I appreciate your allusions to historical context if I am reading your introduction correctly. Rock on dude.

  • I should add that I am not belittling intent. Intent is so key, when coupled with successful execution. In this your work stands well.

  • I appreciate the time that people have taken to look at, think about and comment on this work; this applies as much to the positive comments as to the criticisms. Many good, valid points have been raised and I wanted to explain a bit about the project and some of the choices I have made in terms of content and style. My goal here is not to argue away the critiques, as they do raise interesting points. My goal is simply to answer some of the questions that have been posed and better explain my point of view.

    I believe that different people respond to, and decide to engage with, different kinds of photographs. I choose to shoot color and, in this project, use a certain color palette because it most accurately reflects my point of view. I also feel that it gives added context to the story and offers the viewer more points of entry into each picture and theme. In a general sense, I don’t think it is necessarily a better approach than anything else, but it does best reflect my point of view. I think it is good that there are many different photographers using many different styles. I believe that it allows us, as a community, to engage the widest breadth of audience. I respect that some people do not respond to the kind of color photography that I produce. I also think the discussion about how “beautiful” pictures of tragedy or violence should be is a good one to have. Ultimately I do not have a problem with using “beautiful” composition or color when showing tragic situations. I think that it can help draw people into a picture and into a story.

    The edit shown on burn is the same edit that was submitted to the Anthropographia Award for Human Rights and Photography. This edit represents a fraction of the entire project. This specific edit does perhaps gravitate too strongly towards gore to accurately represent some of the other elements I discuss in the project statement. I do think the statement is an accurate representation of the story I am telling as a whole, and agree that captions and more pictures would go a long way to fulfilling what I promise in the statement. I agree that this presentation does not tell the complete story; captions, multimedia or essay are certainly needed to accurately represent what is happening in Mexico. The selection here is not intended to reflect my entire project. The overall project does contain many of the elements that people have suggested be included (captions, writing, interviews).

    Eight of the photographs in this selection where taken while on a ride along with the police in Nogales and Ciudad Juarez. This represents one third of the portfolio shown. Several other images were taken with the implicit permission of the police, who did not force me to leave when I arrived at certain situations on my own. I think that ridealongs can be an important (necessary) tool in covering many stories. I also understand the implications that arise if the entire story is shot as part of a ride along, and I have tried not to depend too heavily on that type of access. I have not done a count of the entire project, but am quite certain that the proportion of images acquired via ridealongs would drop to, at most, a fifth of the entire project. I am comfortable with that proportion.

    Thanks again for spending time looking at, and commenting on, this work. I hope you will continue to follow the project as it evolves.

  • Some interesting discussions going on. Clearly, I understand why those who know more about the situation in Mexico and have their own take on what is going on there may feel that David’s essay may come a bit short by not relating the full story. I can see how David may have focused a bit on some of the “cliches” as opposed to go beyond these and penetrate deeper into the real insights of this complex problem, show the real impact that the violence has on the lives of these Mexican families… For sure, what David is showing us comes short of what he decribes in his statement… For me however who is not close to the issue and did not read the satement initially, I just saw powerful imagery, an excellent mastery of the color, great composition in conditions that have to be difficult so I thought this was very well done.


  • Artist’s statements on BURN seem to lead to all kinds of trouble…

    I have to echo what Tom Hyde and a few others have said… I don’t quite get where some of the criticism is coming from, but I can’t deny it seems to be strongly felt by the critics… which I find ironic. This is an extremely difficult and risky topic to cover as a photographer… and yet the criticism seems to hold this essay to a much higher standard of both ‘truth’ and ‘depth’ than is typical here on BURN… is that because of the artist’s statement, or is that because there is something about this topic in particular that really strikes deeply into a raw nerve with some commentators here? The pictures are very good, the access is incredible… It may not be the ultimate comprehensive portrayal of life on the border, but it still packs a wallop and represents a significant contribution.

    I almost never read the artist’s statements before looking at the essays, and often I don’t read them at all.

  • For some here it is time to go beyond the so called traditional PJ way and start embracing contemporary photographic practice with all its bells and whistles.
    Viewing images and essays at face value only leads to misconceptions and audience frustration. Post modern principles and practices are firmly entrenched within the photographic world and along with this comes a new way of reading and understanding. Analysis of the structural/subjective elements employed by a photographer is essential so one can understand what he/she trying to be communicated and to what audience. Then there is the impact of browbeating commercialism as a visual competitor……….
    Think beyond the rectangles you see on the screen

  • The biggest danger is bringing ones excess baggage to the images……….

  • The biggest danger is bringing ones excess baggage to the images……….

    Dunno, perhaps. Bringing it to the shooting can be a good thing though. Probably what separates the greats…

    In an effort to bring these grand topics together, I present you with the voice of my baggage.

  • I was refderring to the audience in all this not the maker

  • I was referring to the latter, then the former.

  • “I try to construct a theory of how a moral person should live in these circumstances, and how such a person should love.” -charles bowden

    “The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness. The knowledge that the same equation applied to everything, more or less…. No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”-— Roberto Bolaño, 2666

    5000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juarez…..that is a war, a war that is a spit’s breath across the river’s dandied and the deserted swept from the US and still most have no idea…most even those living in Texas and ARizona and N.Mexico and California have not a single clue……

    how does one begin to detail this…..how does one possibly hope to drum up the dandruff of the dead and the lazy blindness of the living….the endless body bags of suffering that have kept alive in all those families, the families of all the slaughter women and girls and over the last 3 years all those also associated with the drug trade…..

    for me, the question is larger, larger and more ominous and more existentially pulverizing….my own relationship to that madness and heart-horror comes from 2 former students who live in Juarez…one of whom lost an uncle….one of whom was friends with a sister of a young teenage girl who was executed and left like raft and drift along the train tracks….

    I agree with Michael that Bowden IS ESSENTIAL reading…for anyone interested in the killings in Juarez, but for any person interested in the life and loss and failures (failures of the wealth) of the entire SW of that corner of the world, American and Mexican…not only one of the finest writers crackling against the dark presently but a well of moral outrage and countenance…..so too my beloved Bolano’s whose 2666 deals both directly and indirectly with Ciudad Juarez….

    a number of people have asked, responsibly, how does one deal in the story telling of such of story, of any story….for me, and only for me, i think one needs to understand and to know both Bowden and Bolano, for both begin and end at with the same moral compass though the journey they choose, as writers, are very different….each necessitate the other…..not one without the other, for me….

    How to judge the essay……

    the photography is strong and for me, i also read things with a simple self-imposed caviat: each story is simply a small stone, an addition to the bedrock, the accumulation of stories that need to be told in order to better understand something, another or ourselves….i’ve never, once, asked another photographer or another essay (or book) to be THE entrance and exit into the reality of a story, of a truth, let alone a life and reality as complex and time-bullet-history riddled as this one….how does one begin to tell THE story of Juarez…..it takes a life time and a library of books and films and stories….and it also can take the form of a single person’s story of the day they last remembered their uncle leaving the house, amid commotion and commodity of night, only to be the one to polish the left-behind boots that would mark the ending of the coffin box measured out…….

    in a sense, ALL PHOTOGRAPHY has become a cliche, especially if we ask it to explain to us, to measure out for us the winds and wallaces of the mean events of life, because we expect that in that moment of glare and game something will arrest and attest to that which we really want to know, that which we hope will solve the dried river raunch of our thirsting hope to know….and to allay our fears…..

    the photography is strong and i grant the work it’s ground….for me the fault isn’t with this essay at all (though it does look like most of the work i see down on this subject) as it is that we are not given, or havent had the opportunity to see the what drives the drug trade, what allows the killing to continue, what defines that….and that is something that cannot, most often, be photogrpahed as an outsider because only the person whose life is invested in that moment and that truth can stake that part of the story that will round it out….

    the stories i want to see are the ones done by the children of the slain, of the partners of the slain, of the dealers and users and cops and governmental officials and slave traffikers and priests and clerks and all the people who are there and who have all been affected…..

    that city in the dessert is aflame….and most people have no idea …….

    I am thankful that David’s has opened more information to those who have no idea and thankful for his dedication in committing to this story and the people of mexico….

    I too was not as troubled by the essay, per se, as i see it as one part of the story, one perspective that is defined by the circumstances of the fact of his presences, rather than as a part of the envirnoment….an example, to me, of the major and inherent limitations of this kind of work….necessary for sure, but Juarez needs more…….

    and yes, sometimes photographers are killed who are close and dedicate their lives to telling stories outside of the obvious tropes…..

    Christian Poveda: whose film La Vida Loca should be mandatory viewing….and who was kwas shot to death in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador on September 2, 2009. He was 54 years old.


    Thanks David for sharing your story with us.

  • I figured you wouldn’t get it…………..

  • I agree with Bob here.. I feel that an image, at its best, is like a Hyku; summing something very particular up in a sort of poet nuance. Obviously in an essay they need to relate to each other in whatever way the imagination may construct them.

  • David, I missed your response to us earlier. I think what you tell us in that response, as regards what is and is not in the essay, should have been in the text/intro.

  • David, thanks for the reply.


  • David R, very good response. I know it’s gotta suck to do such great work and then get this kind of criticism. Hopefully, you’ll find something in it that makes you stronger.

    BTW, I meant to mention the color palette earlier. On that score, I think you did an excellent job of using color and capturing a true feel of the region. It really brought back memories.

    And honestly, I’m not his agent and get no commission, but I really want to know if you’ve read Bowden, particularly Murder City (I doubt it was published when you did the work, but much of what’s in it he has written about in other works (see this article in Harper’s (subscription required))).

    I’d understand if you wanted to avoid him in order to see the situation first with your own eyes, and there’s also a danger of Bowden’s work introducing an element of fear, which can make a very dangerous situation much more so, but at some point you simply must read him. And if you’re going to continue pursuing this, you might consider speaking with him as well. I’m sure he’d find your work interesting.

    Unfortunately, your essay caught me about two thirds through Murder City and by the time you are two thirds through Murder City, any positive depiction of the Mexican army or police may well make you scream. Not that there aren’t heroic policeman in Mexico, it’s just that most of them are dead or in hiding, in Ciudad Juarez anyway.

  • Stunning!
    Wordeful reportage: crude facts full of Pathos… well done


    your response to the critiques above shows us all that you are indeed a class act…able to take criticism for what it is and move on…and all can see that you are a talented photojournalist as well…

    but, i must say David in all honesty that i was confused when you said:

    “The edit shown on burn is the same edit that was submitted to the Anthropographia Award for Human Rights and Photography. This edit represents a fraction of the entire project. This specific edit does perhaps gravitate too strongly towards gore to accurately represent some of the other elements I discuss in the project statement. I do think the statement is an accurate representation of the story I am telling as a whole, and agree that captions and more pictures would go a long way to fulfilling what I promise in the statement. I agree that this presentation does not tell the complete story; captions, multimedia or essay are certainly needed to accurately represent what is happening in Mexico. The selection here is not intended to reflect my entire project. The overall project does contain many of the elements that people have suggested be included (captions, writing, interviews).”

    so David, i am very curious about when and where you would indeed decide to reveal the “whole story” that you said you have already shot that would, as you claim, flesh out the visuals to more closely match your headline…since you have indeed done all of this, and must have more pictures outside the immediate “police box”, and agree that captions are needed, where in the world are you planning to share all of this material that you have risked your life to gather?

    since we do reach out to an international audience and many mainstream editors are going to see this here, as well as every Magnum, VII, and all other agency photographers, i would imagine you just might consider this the right time to tell your “whole story” and put your 100% best foot forward…..if this is not the right time, when is the right time? maybe i should have played super private detective and asked if you had even more, but the assumption from those of us who screen submissions for Burn have to assume a few things…most particularly that the photographer has included everything that he/she has done that is relevant to the very journalistic story he/she is trying to tell/represent…i did ask Germana (one of our picture editors), who i know you worked with on this,”did David give us captions?”…she said “no”…at this point i have to assume that no is no…and yet you acknowledge that captions would have made the story more complete…pretty basic journalism 101….right? ok, i think you get my point…

    a photographer with your talent needs to be very very careful with your work and your words…you must manage your pictures/stories with great care…if you think or know you are going to be published somewhere, you had better make damn well sure that there are no leaks in the boat…

    if you are not sure about something, all you have to do is either call or write….everyone knows i can be accessed by photographers easily and if you do not know this , then you have not done your homework….

    the internet is not a testing ground anymore…it is THE ground…and with Burn and other internet sites getting ready to finance projects and pay for publication, then i think it is time to consider this the real thing…

    i am very impressed with your work…if i was not, i would not have published it, nor would i have written this hopefully constructive missive….

    please visit me when you are next in new york…

    cheers, david

  • There is a discrepancy between my statement and the work. I should have been more careful about that. I also should have stated that this is an ongoing and evolving project. I would like to draw people’s attention to the following images: 1, 4 , 5 , 6 , 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. These are all photos that fall outside of the “police box”, and represent a little less than half of the essay. One of the things I find interesting about this story is that the emotion of many scenes are similar; a picture of migration may make you feel the same as a picture of a prisoner. I believe that this helps get the point across, albeit not in a didactic way, that the issues Mexico is facing permeate the entire culture. Without captions it is difficult (impossible) to differentiate between scenes or know precisely what is happening in the image. In a story of this complexity, especially given my intent to blur the lines, it is imperative to be able to differentiate and know. Ultimately, I am the one responsible for how my work is presented, making it my fault that there are no captions. I hope to work with the burn staff to get them up there.

    The internet , indeed, is not a testing ground. It is the primary outlet for reaching a vast audience. It offers us access to an unprecedented audience, and offers viewers access to an unprecedented amount of work. As I said, ultimately, we all must take responsibility for our work and how it is presented. I should have taken more care in the presentation of my work, the relationship between the statement and essay, and the publication of captions with the photos.

    While I may not agree with all of the criticisms, I have found them helpful. And I have appreciated the tone as well, as it has never been personal and has always been about the work. I want to again thank people for taking the time to consider the work.

    I do think that the major issues here are one of presentation, and not content. I hope people will remain interested in the project. In the future you can expect more care in how it is presented which will result in a piece that not only matches my intent, but also better shows the Mexican conflict in all of its complexity.

  • David,

    I can’t help but draw comparisons between this work and Brian Frank’s (not me, the very talented L.A.-based photographer) work for WSJ. It could have been a retread, but it actually holds up nicely in comparison. Love the color and respect the effort of getting embedded in such a difficult situation. Can’t wait to see more. Be safe.

  • Jamie:
    “ironic t-shirt leading off the list” What is ironic about the t-shirt? Could you explain?
    Keith Dannemiller

  • David R.

    Thank you for your response, both in tone and content. You are correct that my objections lie not in the content but in the generic viewpoint that they imply (i.e. that really the same photos could be identitifed with anywhere in, at the very least, Central America) and that they resound with the costs and consequences of a drug war not in powerful emotional and psychological terms but general and cliché. A photo of a prostitute could be: 1)just a photo of a prostitute, 2)a suggestion that money sent from the USA provides Mexican residents with more disposable income for ¨extras¨, 3) that lots of drug money in the economy means lots of work for prostitutes, 4)that society and values are compromised as the result of the drug trade, 4) a machista culture demeans women, 5) boys just want to have fun, 5) the photographer got to go to a bordello. So what did you mean? i don´t see any more about this girl. I don´t know her story. I don´t know why she´s a prostitute. Or if these guys are narcos. Her story begins and ends with that photograph. I am uncomfortable drawing my own conclusions because the photo is a graphic representation of prostitution. It´s not conceptual, it´s not suggestive, it´s definitive. But beyond that, what are YOU trying to say with this photo in regard to the drug war?

    People in the USA/Europe might take your photos at face value based on the title of your essay because they have absolutely zero idea what goes on at night on the streets of Mexico City. They see the bloodshed, the prostitutes, the police activity and they say, ¨Yup, this is what a drug war in Mexico looks like¨. And maybe it is. But while these same scenes play out nightly in much of Latin America and have played out on the streets of Mexico as well for generations and while much of the crime involved is the direct result of drug use it is not necessarily the result of a drug war. There IS a difference and your essay must get to the heart of that difference either strictly through your photographs or in some other way. Personally i would really love it if your story could be told using only photos, especially without captions, because it would mean they were that good, that definitive, that powerful, that heartbreaking. It would mean that, (as suggested by Imants) that your message could be gleaned by most of us through the visuals alone. And i don´t mean using traditional PJ techniques necessarily. If you have not seen the movie, ¨Ciudades Oscuras¨, then i recommend it. The visuals drag us straight through the gutters of Mexico at night. Nothing needed to be specifically spelled out because the rot and decay and dysfunction could practically be smelled by the viewer. (i advise you to check it out, Imants). Not for nothing, just for inspiration.




    Good luck David, please be safe, or if you can´t be safe then know when to cut and run. I hope to hell you submit a version of this essay that tells the story more completely. I personally look very much forward to seeing it.


  • Hi DAH.

    Your point with David is so important for all of us. I get very confused with editorial questions. Just deciding between two similar images let alone honing the body of work down to an essay. I feel I get seduced by my own work seeing relevance in an image purely because I was there, an emotional pull not wanting to let go, intruding on editorial decisions.
    Got a lot out of what you just wrote. Thanks.


  • this discussion as it has ran has made me come out of my hole but has left me scratching my head.

    so… in order to tell a story, and accurately that is, the most perfect way would be for the story to be your own. so you can flesh it out and present it the way it has been. the way you lived it.

    but if you stuck out like a sore thumb, it might gain you a pass to a force field of some protection. and a certain viewpoint or another perspective of the truth right before you. but what if you dont (stick out like a sore thumb), do you get more access? will you be maimed, mistaken for a local, or someone deeply involved? does the camera or a badge protect you?

    so comes right back to responsibility in reportage as has been argued here before… but how can you report it all (or accurately – by whoever’s definition of accurate) if your eyes have a filmy gauze over it or your heart has no emotional investment? or you see too much it affects you or if you are too involved?

    all rhetorical questions, all not needing answers… thanks, i have learned a lot from your pictures since im no photographer.

    all i can say is ‘know when to cut and run’ but doesnt it get better when you get right at the end?

  • Congratulations David! this an inspiring piece of work,, to DAH obviously this makes so clear why I didnt get mine publish!! .. compelling keep them coming please

  • Much has been said above. At the end of the day it’s a great series. Congratulations.

  • This has been a great discussion, and after four months of being too busy to keep up to date with Burn, it is a great reminder of the importance of this community.
    These images are very strong and do justice to an important part of this story. I don’t believe, like others who have posted, that the photographs you took depict the police as the good guys.. or even that the photos create a dichotomy between the arrested and arrester.. I don’t feel that by gaining access with the police you had some inherent bias towards them.. but I also don’t feel like you photographed them as they ought to be photographed in an essay about a drug war in Mexico. I’m left wanting a couple photographs dedicated to the police, something that tells a backstory through the tone of the photo, something subtle with the feeling that it gives the viewer, more than the shoot it as it is brutality of the situations you’ve witnessed.. I’m looking for photos depicting the ways the average Mexican community is effected.. not at the scene of the violence, not at night on the streets or in bars with prostitutes. In such a devoutly Catholic society, how does spirituality play into his violence, what happens at church? do the rich hire body guards? are the poor locking themselves in at night?
    I want captions. Is image 19 one of police officers off-duty? normal guys having a beer? gang members? Too much is left unsaid.
    This is an amazing start to a much needed essay, and if you can get these shots, I think you can get the other half of the story.
    Congrats on the publication.

  • Dear David,

    I was instantly engaged by such a spirited discussion concerning your work. This is actually my first time commenting on a burn photo essay, although I have followed many of the essays and discussions since the page’s inception, albeit as a semi-lurker. So, you have brought me out of the woodwork, you could say. I teach Spanish and Latin American culture and literature, but have had a passion for photography since high school. I have also lived in the Borderlands (San Diego/Tijuana) for almost thirty years. I am always intrigued at how people can quickly mention “must reads” and “must sees” for those engaging in artistically expressive activities. Such is the case with Bowden’s “Murder City.” I do agree that this book is a definite eye-opener about the realities in Ciudad Juárez, and could help you gain perspective about the current context of that city, but I think spending time at the border and experiencing it for yourself could be even more productive. The other book mentioned, Bolaño’s “2666,” is much less accessible, since it’s around a thousand pages long. You might check out Luis Alberto Urrea…he has many books about the Borderlands that would help with gaining perspective, such as “The Devil’s Highway,” “Across the Wire,” and even “By the Lake of Sleeping Children.” John Annerino’s “Dead in their Tracks” gives a photojournalist’s take on the border crossing experience. I was surprised that nobody mentioned the work of LA Times PJ Don Bartletti, who has documented the Borderlands for over 25 years. The LA Times has a special section titled “Mexico Under Siege: The Drug War at our Doorstep” in which Bartletti has more than a few moving photo essays of the same subject:


    I was lucky to meet Bartletti and have him come to my university to do a talk about his photos and Pulitzer-prize winning work for “Enrique’s Journey”…another great read for anyone interested in border/immigration issues. What makes Bartletti great is that he doesn’t just “parachute in” and get out…he knows the borderlands and has committed his life to documenting the area.

    To be honest, the fact that you know Spanish and have lived in Latin America for an extended period of time…and that you had the connections to get a ride-along with the police…show that your tenacity can pay off. I was impressed by the closeness and in-your-face feel of such shots as 3, 4, 7, 11, 12, and yes, even 13, blood and all. I did read your response to the criticism concerning your artist statement (i.e. lack of captions, of being a bit all-encompassing etc.) I tend to agree with Kathleen Fonseca about the shots of the prostitutes…and for me, possibly the pigeons flying…but you have some technically wonderful shots that capture some heart-wrenching subject matter…and you had the guts to go out and get them…so kudos to you! Keep up the good work…get those captions going…and just be careful!

  • I wanted to let those who are interested know that captions have been posted. I expect that critiques will remain, but I hope that the captions help to better explain my point of view and the shape of the project. Thank you again to everyone who has taken the time to look at and comment on the series, and to those who have offered their points of view and words of encouragement. I am happy that there has been a dialogue not only about the pictures, but also about the current situation in Mexico. Again, I hope you will continue to follow the project.

  • Here I am, still delayed at Fairbanks International and so finally I had the time to view your excellent essay and to read the captions. It absolutely needs the captions. Viewing this without this background information would be a most frustrating experience for me.

    It takes me back to the fall of 1969, when I was 19 and wound up in the Juarez prison for a couple of days with a returned Mormon missionary who had served in Boliva and a 35-year old gambler-grifter who had come to our apartment at BYU to get him so that he could serve as an interpreter on the trip, which was intended to end up in Mexico City. I weaseled my way along, just for the adventure. The Mexican authorities had captured two tons of marijuana from a truck that had gotten stuck in the Rio Grande and they needed some Americans to arrest and the three of us were handy.

    It was horrid in that prison. We spent part of our time in a tiny room with about 20 juveniles, many under the age of 10, and a middle-aged man said to have murdered his brother-in-law the day before. There was one toilet for all of us and it did not flush.

    The food was inedible, but they did allow street vendors to come in and sell us burritos and I ate one that left me stoned for about two hours. They put us on the TV and the front pages of all the newspapers and we were very famnous throughout the city after we got out. Everybody wondered how much we bribed the officials to get out, but it was a tough-talking American Consulate from Texas who twisted the arms of the Mexican to let go three Americans who everybody knew had nothing to do with any of it.

    Anyway, to me, it was always a great adventure, especially after I got out. It gave me a good story to tell and I have told it many times.

    It is sobering to look at your pictures and see the hell that this ever-deteriorating situation has evolved into for so many.

    I hope to see more of your work in the future.

  • I hadn’t had a chance to view this work, and then I stumbled on David and his work at Review Santa Fe, at a public viewing this evening. I came back to register my comments here. These prints really stood out in my mind as I drove home. I can’t recall how many photos I saw that aren’t shown here, but the police photos were only a subset. Besides the quality of the work itself, what caught my attention were the human images and how close the photographer got to the subjects. Although the total picture is grim and violent, this work (at least what I saw) was multi-faceted. I can’t imagine how much time and labor has gone into the project. It’s an important body of work, and it’s probably getting better. I’d probably second those wanting to see some other dimensions of life “behind the lines.” People must dance and play… I hope, David, you’re encouraged by all the postive reactions and DAH’s generous praise and prodding.

  • good work, this is photojournalism

  • David Rochkind – I this at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago just yesterday – Nice edit and you’re among other really nice photo essays there. Congratulations, Jason

  • I saw this yesterday – missed my typo

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