Yael Martinez, La Casa Que Sangra

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by KWY Ediciones (here). Hardcover, 170×225 mm, 128 pages with 5 double foldout spreads, with 72 color reproductions. Includes poems by Hubert Malina (in Spanish only). In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Vera Lucía Jiménez. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we read about the brutal violence that has plagued a variety of Mexican states, particularly in the past decade or so, the scale of the numbers tends to make the problem feel abstract and difficult to comprehend. The violence stems from the ongoing war between Mexico’s powerful drug cartels and the Mexican government, and since 2006, more than 250000 people have died, and another 37000 have gone missing, presumed dead.

The southwestern state of Guerrero has been hit hard, the pervasive power of organized crime making it both the most violent, and the second poorest, state in the country. For the photographer Yael Martinez, who lives in Guerrero, the impact on his own family has been tragically immediate – his wife’s brother was killed, and two other relatives are still “disappeared”. His recent photobook La Casa Que Sangra (or The House That Bleeds in English) poignantly and expressively documents the situation that families in the region (including his own) are facing, with loved ones being killed or in danger, and daily life constantly on edge.

Martinez’ photobook is dark and often symbolic, offering an intimately personal response to the situation around him. The book begins with a series of mysterious images of fire, set against enveloping black backgrounds. Red-tinted faces flicker in and out of view, embers burn, and fires are kindled in caves and rocky enclosed areas, the sparks and cinders blasting up into the night skies. We can read these fires as memorials, vigils, or a more metaphorical comment on the Earth cracking open in flames, but the effect is the same – Martinez sets an ominous tone from the outset.

The people that inhabit Martinez’ photographs are never explicitly named or introduced, but even without a map of relationships, we can see that he’s shown us a range of parents, spouses, siblings and children, and their anonymity increases our sense of the universality of their experience. We see them generally at home or huddled indoors, in the darker shadows of night or underneath clouded skies that mute Martinez’ color palette into a range of dirty blacks, browns, and greys. While Martinez approaches each person with tenderness and care, the emotions that he finds are often just short of brimming over. There are dead blank stares, ambient fears, downcast exhaustion, hand wringing disbelief, and tears that seem to come from nowhere but then release themselves in the quiet of a shower or the stillness of an afternoon. The photographs are filled with emptiness and pain, each person dealing with the trauma in different ways. Sometimes it just seems better to hide, underneath a towel or a tumble of mosquito netting, or behind locks of dark falling hair.

He brings the same mood to photographs of objects, with an even heavier dose of resonant symbolism. Many images of broken glass, bullet holes, cave walls, and tangled netting dissolve into near abstraction, or at least beyond simple documentation toward something more evocative and mysterious. The burning motif returns with charred classrooms, burned out fires, smoking wreckage, and most grimly, burnt skin. Martinez then dives deeper into overtly death-themed imagery, with open graves, bones hanging from the ceiling, piles of skulls and animal horns, and the violence of a chicken being beheaded. Even the usually inviting ocean waves nearby feel unfriendly and oppressive.

In trying to capture the sense of absence that comes with the death and disappearance of family members, Martinez isn’t afraid of wandering into more surreal aesthetic territory. In the simplest sense, this means allowing empty rooms to feel inhabited by invisible presences, either dark shadows or fleeting silhouettes that pass through like ghosts or echoes. Faces appear behind curtains, or dissolve into blurred multiple exposure, like spirits or memories that come and go. Expressive drawings on fold outs hide stanzas of poetry underneath, and a similar sense of primal wildness inhabits the waving arms of now-dead plants against a chain link fence. Memory is then made more explicit in photographs that gather together dozens of images of lost loved ones that have been pasted on walls or strewn in loose piles, the faces seeming to multiply out indefinitely with bleak persistence.

Martinez brings all of this emotional power together in a well-constructed photobook package. La Casa Que Sangra mixes black pages and full bleed photographs that either fill an entire spread or get paired up across the gutter. There is an intimacy that comes from this presentation, the dark colors drawing us into this closed world. In some cases, the images are rotated to fit the available space, adding a momentary sense of disorientation, and the fold outs are used thoughtfully, with images split across the two sides in ways that make them even more obscure. As an integrated object, La Casa Que Sangra is quietly striking, the embedded violence of environment never far from the surface.

The success of this photobook lies in its empathetic examination of what happens to families, and really the entire social fabric of communities, when violence and loss become overwhelming. Martinez documents the very edge of breakdown, where the suffering is raw and forgetting is impossible. While at some points La Casa Que Sangra feels almost like the wisps of a dark nightmare, in many ways, that might be what it actually is. In offering us a layered psychological portrait of the backstory to the Mexican drug war, Martinez’ powerful photobook reminds us that the drugs, guns, and ongoing battles that capture the headlines mask deeper emotional traumas and scars that will linger for lifetimes.

Collector’s POV: Yael Martinez is represented by Myl Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (here). His work may also be available from Magnum Photos (linked in the sidebar).

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