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The House that Bleeds: The collective trauma of Mexico’s missing

Driven by loss in his own family, Yael Martínez explores the pain and violence inflicted by organised crime on families in his home-state Guerrero

Organised crime is among the most urgent concerns currently facing Mexico. As drug cartels continue to splinter into smaller groups, crime rates are climbing across the country. Year on year, Mexico records its highest homicide rates in history, and 2020 is set to follow suit. Nowhere are these trends clearer, and the trail bloodier, than in Guerrero, a southern state where 40 splinter-groups compete for turf.

In 2013, Yael Martínez, one of Magnum’s new nominees of 2020, lost three of his brothers-in-law. Two of them disappeared in Iguala, a city in southwestern Guerrero, where 43 students were infamously abducted in 2014. His third brother died in jail while awaiting trial on drug charges. The police said it was suicide, but the family suspect otherwise.

At that moment, Martínez dropped all of his work to be with his family. He began photographing them, attempting to capture the emotional breakdown in the aftermath of loss. “I wanted to develop a project that was personal but also social,” says Martínez, who decided to reach out to other families in Guerroro who had also lost loved ones at the hands of crime and corruption. Titled The House that Bleeds, the ongoing project, seven years in the making, explores the connections between poverty, narcotraffic, and organised crime, and how this affects communities close to home.

Martínez’s personal approach to photography was kindled at the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, the art school founded by Fracisco Toledo, where he received a scholarship to study in 2010. There, he was mentored by photographers including Mary Ellen Mark and Antoine D’Agata. “I started to discover artists that not only worked in photography, but across mediums, and I realised that art could be personal,” he says.

Self-portrait of a staged crime scene.

The House that Bleeds is a psychological projection of grief and absence. Haunting shots of empty rooms are cast in a sharp and unwelcome light, with the pain of loss and the burden of memories depicted in distressing portraits. The work taps into the parallel emotional experiences of many people in the country. “The trauma of Mexico’s missing is an open wound in the nation’s psyche,” writes Martínez, in one of the captions to his images. “Families who can’t grieve for their loved ones spend the day alternating between doubt and despair, praying for, and dreading, the blessing of certainty.”

Working on a project that has such strong and direct ties to his own grief, and the grief of those he loved, was not easy. “When I started working with other families, it was like putting a mirror up to my own life,” says Martínez. “Sometimes I was not able to take photos. That’s part of the reason why the project has taken so long, it was hard to process.”

Alongside The House that Bleeds, Martínez has been working on a new series titled Firefly, in which he manipulates images by scraping and making holes. “It’s violent, but the end result is light,” he says. “A lot of people in Mexico have lived through some form of violence in their lives. I’m trying to explain how people are dealing with it and trying to make something better out of it. I’m trying to develop a narrative about how we deal with reality.”

The space between, from the series Firefly, 2020.

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