JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Journal Photobooks (here). Hardcover, 295 x 160 mm, 106 pages, with 23 panoramic and 40 portrait black-and-white images. With an afterword (in English/Spanish/Swedish) by Sandra Rozental. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Over the past two decades, as the war on drugs in Mexico has escalated into an entrenched battle between the army, the police, the gangs, the cartels, and the politicians, the devastating story of the culture of violence, and the countless dead and disappeared that have been casualties of the situation, has been told from many angles. There have been notable films and television programs (both documentary and more sensationalized and entertainment-oriented), as well as a number of excellent photography projects and photobooks that have tried to compassionately document the harsh realities on the ground and the human impact on those affected.
Johan Sundgren’s recent photobook Justice Pursued | Justica Perseguida slips into this river of layered storytelling and takes a quietly unconventional approach to examining the state of affairs. In multiple visits over a three year period (from 2018 to 2021, so the pandemic is yet another facet of the narrative), Sundgren photographed the everyday goings on at the attorney general’s headquarters in the borough of Benito Juarez in Mexico City. His pictures are a snapshot of the criminal justice system in action, with all its accompanying bureaucracies, routines, paperwork, waiting, and slow deliberate work. Together, state officials and citizens participate in the mundane process of “law and order”, and Sundgren is there to capture its nuances with his camera.
Justice Pursued | Justica Perseguida is an unusually wide, narrow photobook, and after an introductory series of pictures that sets the mood (a bullet hole in a car window, taped up missing persons, a violently smashed wreck, and the holstered handgun of a police office), it becomes clear why such an unexpected format was chosen. The central body of work in this photobook consists of some two dozen panoramas, each painstakingly constructed from between 12 and 14 individual black-and-white frames. In each location at the facility, Sundgren made a 360 degree spin around his body while he took the pictures, and like linked assemblages of imagery from moon landers or some of David Hockney’s photographic collages, the resulting works are meticulously constructed sweeps of overlapped vision, often with the far left and far right of the panoramas capturing the same spot.
The panoramas are sequenced in such a way that we take a virtual journey through the building, beginning in the parking lot and ending once again outside on the sidewalk. Along the way, we visit various waiting rooms, offices, conference rooms, desks, and support areas with filing and copiers, and eventually we make our way down to the morgue, the holding cells, the interrogation rooms, and other nondescript spaces, before returning to yet more work areas, hallways, cubicles, and offices. And while many of the basement rooms were empty, most of the active work areas were filled with people, so Sundgren was able to capture the rhythms of the workday, and the flow of both employees and visitors through the building, with fly-on-the-wall immediacy.
What Sundgren shows us is the largely hidden infrastructure of criminal justice, and the many procedures, interviews, and processes that make up the turning of its wheels. Each panorama gathers multiple small stories and details into one extended frame, with the worn surfaces and scuffed walls nearby a constant reminder of justice being practiced on a limited budget. Routine jobs and more specialized activities intermingle with bland everyday regularity, the sweeping of the entry area and the mopping of the bathrooms matched by the answering of questions, the filing of papers, and the endless hours of phone calls and computer work.
Sundgren captures resonant details almost everywhere we look – the security guard with a cat for a companion, the padlocked cabinets, the towering stacks of paper, the coffee in styrofoam cups, the holes in the sofa, the desk chair with a missing arm, the metal tables of the morgue (with handy retractable spray nozzles), the indestructible metal toilet in the holding cell, the detective laying out confiscated currency, and the entrepreneurial women selling lunch from their minivan outside. And everywhere there is paper – in growing piles, on desks, in file folders, in boxes, in people’s hands, on chairs, in binders, in cabinets – the manual effort of writing, and reading, and stamping, and filing, and passing on to the next station becoming the flow that connects all these individual spaces into one fluorescent lit, tile floored system.
Interleaved between the panoramas, Sundgren has placed clusters of straightforward portraits of the people he met in the hallways. Each person is posed directly in front of the same Benito Juarez city map, and each holds the shutter release in his or her hand, having triggered the exposure when ready. No names, captions, or descriptive explanations are provided, leaving us to wonder who these people might be. Some are obviously police, or employees with their ID cards on lanyards, and a few (the guys selling coffee and snacks, the man in a white lab coat with a camera around his neck, the cleaning staff, the man toting two huge bundles of papers) have a clearer purpose, but most of the rest are less identifiable. Lawyers? Administrators? Victims? Families of defendants or missing persons? Which “side” might they be on? It’s impossible to know, which is what makes the pictures so powerfully simple – the guy in the skeleton t-shirt, or the family with an infant in a stroller, or the man in a wheelchair, or any number of other couples, parents, spouses, or relatives could be any of us, each a part of this larger system of justice.
The combination of these two photographic approaches (the detailed multi-image panorama and the anonymous portrait) makes Sundrgren’s Justice Pursued | Justica Perseguida an unexpectedly subtle study of this moment in Mexican history. The smart design and construction of the photobook amplify this layered tension, in some sense, leaving us with more questions than answers. But perhaps that deliberate ambiguity actually represents the reality of the situation better than we might have guessed – the violence continues, the papers pile up, and armies of people try their best to make sense of it all.
Collector’s POV: Johan Sundgren does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the photographer via his website (linked in the sidebar).