dominic bracco II – life and death in the northern pass

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Dominic Bracco II

Life and Death in the Northern Pass

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“There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear.” – Daniel Gonzalez, 26, a resident of Ciudad Juarez who later moved to El Paso, Texas.

May 4, 2010 1:51 am – EMT workers Adrian and Jorge hardly stop to lower the Delilah Radio Show blaring over their two-way radios from El Paso. “What – what did they say?” Jorge responds, “Two dead by firearm.” Later Adrian and Jorge find a couple murdered minutes earlier idling in their small white pickup.  The woman was far into her pregnancy. Adrian declares them dead. The couple’s heads touched in a last embrace. A single bullet entered the man’s skull and took all three lives (opening picture above)

Sprawled across the tail end of the Rocky Mountains where the starved Rio Bravo pushes mud through a barren desert valley sits Ciudad Juarez, one of most violent cities in the world ­– historically known as El Paso del Norte or The Northern Pass. Over the past three years over 5,000 people have lost their lives in a struggle for power thats roots reach deep into Mexico’s history. Here Mexicans are still fighting the same class war that led them into a revolution in 1911, as droves of unemployed and disillusioned youth turn to crime to move up in a society that’s class lines are firmly drawn.

Mexico’s past is filled with class-based conflicts and violence.  Mexican Independence from Spain in 1810, The Caste War of the Yucatan, The Reform War, The Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista uprising, The Actael Massacre, the Tlatelolco Massacre, and finally the current conflict between cartels and the Mexican government have all been rooted, in sorts, in the frustrations of an underrepresented and impoverished underclass that lacks economic mobility and genuine political voice.  Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city that has seen the greatest amount of violence, serves as a microcosm for what is happening across the entire country. Despite a robust economy and relatively large middle and upper classes, the city has seen the drug war demolish its infrastructure (material and human) as Juarez continues falling deeper into a recessive pattern of violence, economic hardship, and social injustice. A statistic released five months ago stated that every three hours someone in Ciudad Juarez is executed. Since 2007 more than 5,000 individuals have lost their lives. The violence in Juarez is sporadic and faceless, making it difficult to pinpoint; this is the epicenter of a type of violence that is spreading across Mexico like a plague.

Without law and order the residents of the city have no faith in their government. Thousands of businesses have closed due to high extortion rates and a depressed market with aftershock from the international financial crisis. The combination of poverty, frustration, and unemployment continue; with less jobs, residents turn to crime. As a result of the violence, many individuals, families, and businesses see no future in Juarez, and flee to the United Stated or other parts of Mexico, leaving fewer opportunities for those that stay and struggle to live in the city.

In Juarez the war goes beyond the cartels and Mexican authorities, it is a conflict that involves citizens as well. It is impossible to live in the city without being effected. I make photographs of the peripherals of violence while focusing on what is happening to the average citizen of Ciudad Juarez. I spend time with factory workers, the unemployed youth and the average citizen hoping to somehow humanize the situation. I hope that my work will show a human side of a tragedy that is often ignored.



Dominic Bracco II (b. 1986, Texas USA) specializes in documenting the effects of Mexican and North American policies on the border region where he was raised. He has degrees in journalism and Spanish literature from The University of Texas at Arlington. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, where he was selected for a six-month internship in 2008, and The Wall Street Journal. He is currently based in Mexico.


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25 Responses to “dominic bracco II – life and death in the northern pass”

  • This is EXCELLENT. Nothing much else to say. Love it.

  • Very impressive Dominic. Well done.

    BTW… Legalize NOW.

  • Opening image. Wow.

    It is (hopefully) a shot of a lifetime perhaps never to be repeated.

    Well done.

  • Grim. As Michael says a very good case for legalisation.

  • excellent juxtaposition of “normal” daily life and the most horrific acts of violence, which seem to be happening on a daily basis as well now… very saddening.

  • Dominic, have watched it now a few times. I understand what you are documenting and I get that you are showing every day life amongst the drama and killing of the drug lords. However, I found it disconcerting the jumping from scenes of violence to the girl in her room for instance. Plus, I do not like looking at images of dead people. Crime scenes are one thing but actual people lying dead is not necessary to tell the story. Wondering how you took the photo of the drug dudes in the car with the police and his hidden face without exposing yourself to real danger at that time and in the future.

  • And just now I remembered calling for an essay “Murder in the Streets” while DAH was with his class in Mexico. Guess thinking I want to see it and actually seeing it are two different animals.

  • “Every third thought shall be my grave.”-prospero, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

    “Do you want me to tell you something? All names are ordinary, they’re all vulgar. Whether your name is Kelly or Juz Maria, it makes no difference in the end. All names disappear. Children should be taught that in elementary shcool. But we’re afraid to teach them…..And one morning or night my friend vanishes into thin air…”–the part about the crims, ‘2666’, Bolano

    it is a bruising story told of a place that has not only been bruised over the last 17 years, but has been massacred….as has it’s people and their lives….

    I’ve read that more than 7,000 (some estimate maybe 10,000) people have been killed in Ciudad Juarez over the last 5 years and those deaths and their often brutal and grotesque articulation (including dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelling, etc) and for the most part the nation to the north and the city across the sun-stolen river barely registered a twitch…..a genocidal horror that, until recently, seemed to have barely been more than a blip on our collective awareness’ radar…..words fail to convey the depth, breadth and impact on the lives of the children and the women, the women especially, that this living abattoir has become…

    But the audience would be mistaken and remiss if they thought that the slaughtering is simply about the drug trade and that legalizing marijuana (which i’m for, absolutely) would curtail this….Please remember that Ciudad is also the home to Los Feminicidios (“the killing of women): las muertas de Juárez…more than 600+ women killed mysterious and some estimate the death toll of the women killed in this city to be in the 1,000’s….the recent drug violence and extraordinary death toll, just the most recent horror to descend upon that city….

    I first heard about Feminicidios a few years ago when a friend, an artist/filmmaker from Mexico city, told us the story and showed us some of the work she’d done with ‘surivors’ and young girls….later, I read Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (remarkable) which devotes an entire book (nearly 300 pages) to the death of all these women in excruciating and numbing detail…and then upon the recommendation of MW here at Burn, I read Charles Bowden’s book ‘murder city’ (mandatory reading)…all of which break the heart…

    this journalistic essay works powerfully, because of both the explicit images of death and their juxtaposition with the everyday, particularly the photographs of the girls. Lee: girls and women have been systematically brutalized and killed over the last decade there and Dominic’s decision to juxtapose this is a key key important part of both the story and the message. Knowing full well that not only is it possible that some of these girls will be directly affected by the violence themselves but most likely will encounter the violence related to the drug war going on…there is no way to live there without the knowledge of death and the horror that that entails….

    the pictures work well, and convey both the ‘joy’ that is still possible and the terrible terrible toll that is being exacted there….this juxtaposition is the reality there and i would have said that it was not real to have not detailed this in a journalistic essay, such as this…

    my only heart-break reservation is that the first image is so searing that i myself feel terrible, guilty and frustrated looking at it…because i see them as a dead mother-to-be and a partner and then i see them as corpses and then i see them as a picture….and i dont want that….i dont want to see these 2 as parts of a photograph, an essay, ….and I don’t know what to do about this….they become, in a photograph, effigies instead of the real people they once were….and that is what, at my age and life as experience, just hate about the photographic medium…i struggle profoundly with the purpose of that…is it to bring awareness….is it to shed light…is it to harness truth….i don’t know… a reporter, it is important…and for this essay, it is important…..but, in the end, i always worry….how much continual showing reveals….as Bolano did, part of me wants to see an essay with 35 pictures of the murdered, nothing but that, not blood, not carstains, but the bodies….to be driven into horror and numbness….to be broken….as Bolano did in 2666….

    other parts of me wishes never to see another photograph reporting the news ever again, ’cause i sometimes feel rather than enlightening, it numbs, it becomes like visual fodder for those who do not really give a damn or will be moved enough to make a difference….but, then again, we cannot expect that of work….

    What i value, a lot, about Dominic’s essay is that, even with the focus on the deaths, the heart of this essay is about the families…about the parents and the children….it isn’t war photography, it’s heart-break photography…..and he has made this essay with not only a sharp awareness but for the ache of the families and that city…..

    let us please not forget also about the girls and the women….

    strong work dominic…strong and committed work!

  • Thank you all for your comments.

    My work in Ciudad Juarez is not complete, but hopefully when I am finished it will say as much about the people that live there as the complexity of the situation in which they are living. I think it is very important for people to realize that what is happening is effecting all citizens, honest and criminal, and at all levels of society. Innocent people die every day. It is no longer “a war between them” as the situation was once described to me by a local friend. Now, whether a person is affiliated with organized crime or is an upstanding citizen, they stand a chance of losing everything. By photographing daily life and juxtaposing it with images of violence I hope that this becomes clear to viewers. For this reason it is important to show violent photographs. While I agree that images of dead people should not just be shown for the sake of showing dead people, it is important that certain images be selected in a story like this so that people understand what is happening. I want this story to be disconcerting and those pictures should bother you. In many cases I have not used photographs from the “executions” as they are called because they are either too horrific or simply have no other point. The image of the couple for example I selected because it was the most heartbreaking scene I have ever witnessed in my life. The image of the bloody interior of the car, I selected for the details – the beer cans ect….and used that rather than the image of the dead police men. Also – the image of the doorstep, I chose because it is the doorstep to someones home.

    Regarding the image of the hit men in the car: Journalists working in the city are always in contact with each other, for safety reasons and to get news out. It is not a very competitive situation because we are all friends and all want the story to get out in as many outlets as possible. During this particular instance a friend of mine called to let me know that the Federal Police were trying to arrest some “sicarios” or hit men. We all went to the scene as fast as we could and I made that image after the shooting had stopped and they got the guys in the car. It was very unnerving to come face to face with them.

    Thank you all again. Dominic

  • Having been born and lived in Caracas (one of the most violent cities in the world too), I’m somehow familiar with this type of violence. Still watching this exercise was quite disturbing. The situation in Ciudad Juarez is much more brutal and gratuitous, which makes it even more difficult to understand.

    From a photographic point of view, I love and admire how you have treated the topic. Juxtaposing images of violence with those of daily life is a very powerful combination in this case, as it emphasizes the statement that opens the essay “There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear.”

    Pictures like #11 with the “quinceañera” (one of the most established traditions in certain parts of central and south america) add so much to the work, as they are a perfect example of how this society has assimilated the violence and life goes on.

    I can only say BRAVO Dominic, and be very careful completing this essay.

  • BOB…

    i know what you mean..part of me does not ever want to see any news pictures again either….i want photography to be something else……and the lead picture here is too painful and yet has that same quality as Luc Delahaye’s dead Afghan soldier…oddly beautiful in its tragedy….only by reading the caption do we realize we are looking at death and not some romantic sleep or repose…death as art is nothing new…painters have been doing it for centuries…war paintings are way more horrific than war photography….and this is definitely war….


  • 2 stories,
    within one….
    great storytelling….
    strong images!
    be safe!!!


    INDEED…and please know that this was not a criticism at all…it is a heart-breaking, gutting photograph…and i think necessary….my musing was more personal…i struggle, deeply with this…yea, i thought of Delahaye’s pics…all the pics from Nam and Balkans and on and on….critical pictures….just hurts the heart to not only look at it, but to think about it and to think about my own reaction….

    but a powerful and very important essay


  • Bob – I did not take your comments as criticism…I completely understand what you are saying. It is comforting to know that image is as difficult for others to look as it is for me. D

  • I agree with all the good things that have said about this. Impressive work. I very much like the idea of focusing on how the violence affects the middle class rather than on the violence itself. Some great shots to support that theme. I’ll also agree that the first picture tells an incredible story. Whether it’s truly great in historic terms or a near miss, I think, depends on how much detail was captured in the shadows. On my monitors, it looks like not quite enough, but I am aware of what that’s worth, saving down to jpegs and all. Hopefully it’s there.


    I’ve read an awful lot about Jaurez starting back when the first American journalist began writing about the murders of women and girls who worked in the maquiladoras and all through the escalating drug related violence and the rise of the sicarios. Also. I spent eight years or so kicking around the border area, albeit in Sonora rather than Chihuahua. I don’t mean to present myself as any kind of expert, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m a fairly well educated layman on these subjects. I just don’t see how it’s possible to communicate more than a small part of what’s going on through photography. Something akin to the Holocaust museum in D.C. would be required to do much more than scratch the surface of the catastrophe. I gather you more or less realize this and have tried to narrow your scope accordingly, still, I’m pretty sure that you realize that there’s a lot of room to do better. It is, as you say, an ongoing project. I trust you spend plenty of time asking yourself how to accomplish that.

    Me? I don’t know and am in no position to tell you, but perhaps we can kick around a few ideas. Back when I was thinking about how Mexican and American policies affected the Border region, it was all about NAFTA. Today, I know, the big issue is murder. I realize that Nafta and the current murder spree are not similar, though I’d guess they are related, but nevertheless, the idea of “NAFTA” and “Murder” or “Drug War” are both abstractions and it’s possible that similar strategies for humanizing them may work. For example, I got a lot of mileage out of following the water. Water issues didn’t seriously threaten too many powerful violent types and there were plenty of regular people happy to show me around. I spent a lot of time tramping around looking at shit flowing directly into streams and rivers, highly carcinogenic chemical dumps feeding directly into the ground water, and the omnipresent red and blue water barrels in the colonias. Had I been a serious photographer with a digital camera sent back in time from the future, I’d have a killer book now. I spent significant time in a lot of regular people’s houses. The point is, you might consider focusing on a relatively non-threatening issue that will bring you into contact with the people you want to photograph. It’s likely that would get you far better access than mentioning anything whatsoever to do with the violence.

    And here I want to break out of the photo critic mode and speak as someone with a great love for the region. I know it’s wrong for a photo critic to speak of such things as missing shots or what he or she would like to see. But I’m no longer a photo critic so I think it’s okay. I’d really like to see a wider view. I’d like to see the barren hills, the dried up or horribly polluted rivers and streams, the long vistas of shacks, the streets lined with bars and/or other small businesses, the rebar, the cemeteries and then when we actually get inside, the kitchens, the bathrooms, the living rooms and bedrooms. The environment in which all this horrible shit takes place. Although some may derogatorily refer to those kind of pics as “establishing shots,” I see them as integral parts of the story. Or I want to anyway.

    So anyway, great work so far. I look forward to seeing how you take it further.

  • Photos of dead bodies are ubiquitous to the point of being almost trite. This isn’t a dead body image. It’s poetic, which makes it that much more disturbing. The photo of the dog in the courtyard is one of my favorites, regardless of my dog bias. Dogs that figure in photographs such as these give us a window to our humanity or lack of. This work echoes Charles Bowden’s Laboratorio del Futuro: the rattle and hum of industry without infrastructure, something malignant coalescing and metastaticizing until it consumes itself. Bob, I wonder what a Bolaño-like essay or book would look like – page after page of clinical, forensic-like images of mutilated bodies in washed-out flash-on-camera light – the visual equivalent of The Part About the Murders.

  • Dominic :))…I’m happy that my own personal struggle with the image, and the medium itself as a tool to convey the literal departing of those departed as an aesthetic vehicle: effigies and construct more than the totality of a life, wasn’t interpreted as a criticism…it was a very difficult call for you, but an important and, most importantly, credible one….nothing but heart-break from that photograph which lends its gravitas to the other images, especially of the young girls…..

    MW: very good ideas….and i too wish for other images, abstract images, images of the land, the surrounding…the river, the hills, the city across, the weight of the sun….what i loved about Michelle’s work, all those elements are part of the story….and remember, you’re the one that turned me on to Bowden’s book of Juarez, though i’d read his earlier stuff….the environment is critical too…

    Michelle! :))…I am absolutely with you on the Dog image…both the menace and the fear in the dog…the white wall, the the beautiful, fleshy blue sky and that reptilian arch to his back….that is one terrifying picture, the chain of the dinosaur…even if that dog maybe not be menacing, the visual and emotional implication is, for me….and yes, that is what, at times, i wish we had when it comes to a story such as this….just like ‘the part about the crimes’ the endless, clinical multiplication of the deaths and the descriptions, the detail and the dispassionate evocation until, page after page after page until you cannot countenance another death (i almost lost it after the hanging of the young girls) until you realize that the repetition breaks the numbness that had replaced the shock until the deaths become weight and loss inside your own body and then when, in part 5, the descriptions of the hungarian madman whose blood lust becomes fairy-tale’ish/carnivalesque: and then you realize that no artifice can truly match the truth of the dying and and yet it burns without surcease….i do want that story….i think of CaseHistory, page after page after page of heart-breaking graphic images, and the body grows weak and the head disheartened….or even think of Nachtwey’s ‘sacrifice’ (picture after picture after picture until the repetition adds up to accumulation….i think that washed-out flash on, forensic mountain…..otherwise we continually run the risk of turning the death into theatre…which it is to begin with….we aestheticiZe….our way around the grave, for millennia…it is an important and necessary act and one for healing too….a chant of sorts….even this essay seems to have silenced many, and i wonder is that for fear of feeling words cannot be spoken after the first image…..or it’s hard to comment/speak about the power and horror of the reality….but speak we must….its the one thing given to us to stave off disappearance and to breach the gaping dark…..why i admire so profound 2666 as a work of artifice….and bowden’s as a work of journalism…..

  • Bob, I just read 2666 in Mexico, mostly during the interminable waiting: waiting for the train to show up, waiting for the migrants I had met down south to materialize in Veracruz, waiting at various bus stations between Chiapas and Mexico City. I only brought one small Lowenpro camera backpack with me that had to fit clothes, film, and Bronica, but I schlepped that epic tome and brought it back swollen with rainwater from the train ride. Some people’s lives turn into a an endless pursuit of Archimboldi

  • Michelle :))…..maybe all our lives…..and then there’s the Neopolitan ice cream ;)…..!!!!

  • #01 was engraved in my mind …


    i have not read 2666 yet…i have read so much about it however, i almost feel like i know it..also i have not been in the right mood for 2666 , but i am not exactly sure what that mood will be…


    i am sure that in his book Dominic will have more of the local environment as per your wishes…however, one of the things i liked about this essay was that it was about 50% normal everyday life and taking place in the very living rooms you suggest…this is its power …to show a man shaving or young lovers or a girl preparing for her 15th juxtaposed next to a bloodstained doorstep was why i was interested in the first place…pictures of dead bodies and violence , as Michelle suggests, are these days gratuitous and in abundance albeit dangerous for photographers to make…when i see these few pictures presented here i felt i was seeing the pulled back view you suggest…streets, shacks, and mountain environment are all here….i suppose you are just suggesting more..fair enough…

    i do not know Dominic, but i am sure a quick view of his archive and we would find the additional landscapes..if not, those are the easiest works to make in the scheme of things..Dominic has done the really hard part any way you want to slice it…

    however, i hope there has never been a reference to the so called “must haves” as derogatory…everyone always wants a “scene setter” and when on assignment i know i need those to make the story palatable for the mass audience….and i do not knock the mass audience…i am part of that mass audience most of the time and like you i have knocked around a Mexican town or two……perhaps you have the impression from me that i am down on the scenes because that is mostly what photographers do have…the overall…few get “inside”…so i am pushing for most to get the nut of it….so in the process of building an essay i might temporarily negate the “overalls” in favor of the up close and personal, but in the final play we will definitely want those more explanatory pictures….

  • yes – much respect for the all too fleeting balance, which elevates the piece above spot news and illustrative editorial.
    tucking into the story and still having a mind to represent the social context is really important, both in createing a stark contrast between the, perhaps deeply desired, ¨normality¨ and war, and also in presenting a fair representation.. balance is an important word.

    the opening photo is heartbreaking for me to look at.. one of my oldest friends died with his heavily pregnant wife several years ago.
    while death in photographs has become so commonplace as to dull our sences.. even more so in certain circumstances.. famine.. war.. so on.. for those of us, (all of us eventually), who have lost people it is occassionally possible to feel how we felt when we lost our loved ones.

    for that reason this photo smacks me around a bit more than most and i’m glad that it does.
    i hope others find photographs which relate to their own experience and strip away the banality of a strangers death.. as rare as it might be..

  • Very hard to digest that first photograph…

  • I love the final photo, such a strong image and a perfect finish for the essay

  • I wanted to leave a comment that is not in response to any of the previous comments, but simply a response to Dominic’s work; specifically the “daily life” pictures. There is a reason that not many (if any) other photographers are making these kinds of pictures. They are very difficult and dangerous to make and are a true testament to the dedication that Dominic has as well as his ability to create strong relationships with his subjects. Ciudad Juarez is a place where the danger is most often shadowy and ambiguous, and you never know if it is dangerous to be talking to, let alone taking pictures of, a subject or friend.

    I met Dominic last month when we were both in Ciudad Juarez. During that time there was a massacre at a birthday party where 15 teenagers were killed and 15 more were wounded. The party should have been a benign event; a simple birthday party. But, because the gunmen believed their target was at the party, they had no problem mowing down 30 people, including women and children, in their effort to kill the person they were looking for. In Juarez there is always a danger of being near someone who is a target and becoming an innocent victim of the conflict. This danger is compounded when you are a foreigner with a camera.

    The kinds of daily situations Dominic is able to get access to puts him at this same kind of risk on a daily basis. There isn’t much of a difference between the birthday party where there was a massacre and the events, such as the Quincenera, that Dominic has been covering; the real difference is Dominic’s ability to make strong connections with the community that give him access, and allow him to make the best determination of which events, and which families, are more safe to cover. It is comparatively much easier to get access to crime scenes and dead bodies, and much safer as well. Dominic’s work is a triumph not just because of the quality of the pictures, but also because of the simple fact that he was able to make them. To me, the work acts as a rare historical document that represents the life and emotion of Ciudad Juarez amidst this awful conflict.

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