From 1948 until his forced retirement in 1979, the Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides took thousands of images and followed hundreds of stories in and around Mexico City. And what images and stories they were: car wrecks and train derailments, a bi-plane crashed on to a roof, street stabbings and shootings in the park, apartments and petrol stations set alight, earthquakes, accidental explosions, suicides, manslaughters, murder. Metinides photographed his first corpse when he was 12. A year later, he became an unpaid assistant to the crime photographer of Mexican newspaper La Prensa, and his pictures appeared in La Nota Roja – the red note or, more colloquially, the Bloody News, the best-selling tabloid. Now almost 70, Metinides is about to hold his first European show. He has said that he based his photographic style on black-and-white action movies, on cops and gangster flicks. Some of his first boyhood photos were of what he saw on the cinema screen, while others were of the car crashes that were always happening outside his father’s restaurant. Always known as El Nino – the boy – Metinides got everywhere from the first, hanging around the police station, going to the morgue, not chasing the ambulance but travelling in it as a volunteer with the Red Cross. Although comparisons with the New York crime-scene photographer Weegee are inevitable, the context, content and style are quite different. In their way, Metinides’s photos are like scenes from unmade movies, using a wide-angle lens and daylight flash, the latter in emulation of news photographers he’d seen in the movies. “My first photograph was always the facade of the building where the crime has been committed,” he says in an interview in the exhibition’s catalogue, “then one of the entrance, the cartridge case, the blood, the overturned drawer, the corpse. That’s a film but in still photos.” These images aren’t cheap magazine “photoplays”. The deaths and disasters are real. Lingering on the blood, the faces of corpses, a murderer’s blood-spattered grin, a stabbing victim’s pained astonishment, Metinides made himself Mexico’s best-known newspaper photographer. Images of such unrelieved and awful intimacy, intensity and apparent salaciousness are difficult for a British audience, but commonplace in Central and South America. They occupy a cultural place we find hard to understand. Metinides doesn’t just show us the mutilated and the dead, the bodies and the blood. He shows us the gathering crowds, the bewildered and transfixed passers-by, the emergency teams as well as the rubber-neckers. In effect, he shows us the city and its people, not just the random and cataclysmic event, but also its effect. He shows us, too, the inexplicable. Which is not to say in any way that Metinides’s photographs are lacking in humanity. Quite the opposite. They are overflowing with humanity. In fact, that is the real trouble with them – they show us too much humanity. In Metinides’s images, we don’t just see the body dragged out of the water after the drowning, we see the drowned man underwater, the grey corpse hovering at the bottom of the swimming pool. Or a body being dragged to the bank of a river, like some awful bait trawled at the end of a rope, the spectators on the far bank an inverted frieze reflected in the muddy water. We see things we feel we shouldn’t be looking at, but it is hard to drag our eyes away. The dead woman, with her shiny red nails and blonde coiffure, draped over a mangled post after being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, her made-up face grim in death, just at the moment when the paramedic is about to cover her with a blanket. The suicide by hanging, dangling from “the tallest tree in Chapultepec Park, unable to bear the fact that her husband has taken their daughter to live with him and his lover”. Here, the beautiful tree fills most of the image. The hanged woman is almost a detail, in the soft dappled light at the foot of the tree. Metinides’s images are sometimes made more unsettling by their evident aestheticisation, or perhaps rather the way we place them among other kinds of images, as if to defuse them, render them more acceptable. The man being brought down from the tangle of power lines on the pole – where he fried as he tried to illegally tap into the national grid – looks like an image of Christ’s deposition. But aren’t paintings and sculptures of Christ on the cross “aestheticised” too? The sequence of shots showing two rescuers attempting to approach and grab a would-be suicide from a stadium gantry (saving him from his wish “to know what death is like”) is also a drama of silhouettes and criss-cross girders against the white sky as a human event. It is about the spectacle as much as a lurid, voyeuristic spectacle in itself. In a way, this sequence tells us why we are looking, as much as it is a record or rescue. The captions are as terse and direct as the images themselves. They give us the context, but also leave us baffled: we are, after all, foreigners here. A woman carries a small box under her arm, as she approaches some men in business suits on the street. We learn that she is a poor woman who has been “forced to leave the morgue in order to buy a coffin for her two-year-old daughter, whose autopsy has been been performed two hours previously”. Other images are deeply enigmatic in another way. In the background of one, we see the derailed train at the mouth of a tunnel. In the foreground, lain on white blankets among the undergrowth is a train worker. Kneeling at his head, amongst the grasses, a uniformed policeman takes notes. It is a surreal image. The blanket is like an opened shroud, and the victim might almost be dreaming. The image is, in fact, like a kind of dream. The cop could almost be drawing, rather than taking a statement. Everything is still, almost like a diorama model, and, inadvertantly, beautifully composed. So, too, is an incredible photo of a man lying in the street at night, electrocuted by a fallen power line. There he is, flat out in his suit, lit only by the luminous flare of the fizzing wire, which also lights up the curb and silent empty corner. How did Metinides get there, you ask? Why is there no one else on this otherwise dark and empty street? The man, we are told, survived. Perhaps the image that haunts me most shows a late 1940s sedan rolled on its side in the middle of the road on a bend. If it weren’t for the people, you might think it was a kid’s toy, knocked over in a game. A man stares at the now vertical underside of the car, as if he’d never seen such a thing before. The car casts a long shadow across the country highway. Two women cross the road in the low angle of late afternoon light. One wears a white dress that picks up the sunlight, as does the sleeve of the man’s shirt, the white bodywork and the grinning chrome grille of the car. You imagine the metal ticking as it cools down and the sound of crickets and rustling leaves. The women are walking into their own shadows. The photo has all these white accents: the white dress, the man’s shirt, the white car, the whitewashed roadside markers, the white clouds massing over distant mountains. Finally, the white unbroken line painted down the middle of the blacktop, a sweeping cartoon parabola. It all happened a long time ago, in 1951, somewhere in Puebla State, Mexico. As far as we can see, no one died. The image has the quality of one of those memories one is never quite sure was something one experienced oneself, or was a thing read about and elaborated in the imagination. These photographs seem to be more the beginning of something than a record of something past. This is what makes Metinides such a terrific photographer, even though his subjects are so unrelievedly grim. Since being ousted from La Prensa, Metinides has not taken a single photograph, though he hasn’t exactly retired. He stays in his Mexico City apartment, surrounded by TVs and radios, ceaselessly monitoring the bloody news on the local and satellite channels, videoing second-hand disasters now. His radios are tuned to the police frequencies, and his shelves are stacked with video recordings. He has a collection of thousands of toy ambulances, firetrucks and figures, some arranged in little scenes of rescue and disaster. He also – curiously – keeps a big collection of plastic frogs. Maybe he is trying to explain the world to himself. Which is what we do, too, when we look at these difficult images.The telephone rang. Another corpse had been found in an Oakland park and Harry Edwards was angry. The driving force behind America’s 1960s black power movement in sport put the receiver down and spat out his words: “What’s happening now mens the end of the great era of achievement for black sportsmen in this country.”This 60-year-old, physically imposing giant of a man was warming to a theme. “1968 was important, but the real story is now. A whole generation is being wasted, and in many cases incarcerated or dead. We talk about war in the Middle East but the real battle is here in our cities, and nothing is being done about it. Nobody is ready to take it on.”Edwards knows quite a bit about battles. He was an admirer of the 1960s Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X and he became a key figure in the American black power movement, one of whose most notable moments was the salute on the podium in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.Edwards is now a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is taking a sabbatical. He is in charge of the parks department in Oakland, a city half an hour’s drive across the water from San Francisco. Some sabbatical. Last year 113 people were murdered in Oakland, largely in drugs-related turf wars, and many of the bodies were found on Edwards’ park territory.
He thrusts forward an article which he wrote for the Civil Rights Journal. “This tells you the real problem facing America,” he says. Read it and the words sound a depressing drumbeat of the hopelessness Edwards believes is enveloping black America. He produces statistics to prove recruitment among black athletes in basketball, American football and baseball is declining, and he says it is a reflection of “spiralling deterioration in institutional viability in many black families – a deterioration encompassing the functionality of the family, education, the economy, the political infrastructure, and even the black church”.In this environment, Edwards says young blacks lose hope of gaining employment, and he writes: “Playgrounds, sand lots, parks and backyard recreational sites in many instances have been taken over by drug dealers, or they have become the battleground in gang disputes.” Put simply, they have become too dangerous to use.”In the face of such discouraging circumstances, many black youths have opted to go with the flow, exchanging team colours for gang colours or simply dropping out of everything to chill.”With drugs-related gun crime in Britain on the increase, the danger that could face inner cities on this side of the Atlantic is evident and Edwards’ warning for America will be heard only too clearly in areas of London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities where traditional outdoor recreation is threatened by mounting street violence.Edwards remains a passionate and charismatic advocate of racial equality and the part he believes sport can play in achieving that aim. He wears a heavy gold ring, presented to him by the San Francisco 49ers for work he undertook to alleviate their problems of racial integration. When he speaks, people tend to listen.Black involvement in sport, he says, cannot be allowed to wane. Investment in school sports programmes and in secure supervised play areas is vital if gangs and gun culture are to be resisted. One of his suggestions is that young people should be allowed 24-hour access to basketball, volleyball, tennis, bowling, badminton or swimming.Gloved fists It is a persuasive view, and he adds: “We cannot afford to wait passively for better times. We must understand the forces threatening black sports participation.”Edwards was instrumental in the moment that did most to change the black sporting experience. It is hard to imagine that there can have been many sporting photographs that have become so indelibly printed in the history of the 20th century as that capturing the moment when two young athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their gloved fists to the sky on the 200-metres victory podium at the 1968 Games, or that any single sporting moment can have had a more profound effect.The black power salute was beamed around the world. Its immediate effect was to provoke the United States Olympic Committee to expel Smith and Carlos from the team. Smith and his family were the target of numerous death threats, amid an avalanche of criticism.mith, whose grandfather had been a slave and whose father had spent his life as a farmhand, was anything but a violent man. Religion played an important part in his upbringing and, as a student of San Jose State University, he had been inspired by the teachings of a young lecturer and disciple of Malcolm X: Harry Edwards.Almost 35 years on, speaking in his office at Santa Monica College where he is the head coach, Smith still looks every inch an athlete. His tall, lean frame is betrayed only by his grey-flecked hair, and he smiles with pride as he looks at the print which hangs on the wall along with many others recalling a brief but brilliant running career.”You know, I was in Italy a few years ago with Muhammad Ali and he said: ‘What you did, nobody could have done it any better. You know, you’re a great man, you’re the greatest.’ That meant so much, knowing that I did something important to a man like Ali.”Edwards spent much of 1968 agitating for a boycott of the Olympics by black members of the American team. Although the group decision was to vote against a boycott, Smith was determined to make his protest and recalls: “My wife brought the black gloves from the United States to Mexico. Just before we went out to the victory ceremony, I told John Carlos [who had finished third] what I was going to do. He looked at me and said, ‘I want the other glove.’ And I remember saying: ‘This is it. God bless us all.’”People had been killed in America that year. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and students had been shot by the police in Mexico during demonstrations. I knew what I was going to do, but what would happen then? Man, I was scared.”Once the anthem started, I knew it was being played for Tommie Smith, the No1. I shut my eyes and raised my fist. It felt like there was a breeze blowing round it. It was a very eerie but dignified feeling. I was crying and praying, saying the Lord’s Prayer. I knew I must be right.”I did not go up there to demean anything, only to ask for help. My problem then, I thought, was how to get my carcass off that stand and off the track still breathing. And when I got out, I thought, man, it’s all over. I didn’t know how true that was because I never ran another competitive race.”Smith was effectively hounded out of the sport, and eventually found a teaching job after trying and failing as an American football player and a basketball coach. His fame may have been assured but he says he “neared rock bottom” in the ensuing years, even having to attend his classes by night because he feared for his safety.Mixed reaction Many admired the stance he had taken for his colour and his beliefs, but others were less forgiving, including his black team-mate Jim Hines, who broke the world record in winning the 100m, dipping inside the 10-second mark for the first time.Hines, educated at the University of Texas, was from a wealthier background than Smith and still resents the actions of his two team-mates, claiming it cost him endorsements which would have earned as much as $ 1.5m. He said: “There were 44 blacks on the US team. If they [Smith and Carlos] had sat down and discussed what they wanted to do we would have overruled them, but they decided to break rank.”There were hundreds of thousands of black men who had put in applications for jobs in America, but when this was done those applications were torn up and destroyed. When we got back to America they weren’t talking about all the gold medals and the world records, they just talked about Smith and Carlos.”What we did on the track would have sent a strong enough message to all the world and to all races about what blacks could achieve in America. What they did was wrong.”John Smith, coach to the current Olympic 100m champion Maurice Greene, was a brilliant 400m runner who made the US team for the Munich Olympics of 1972, and he says Tommie Smith (no relation) and Carlos brought a change of attitude and an awareness of racism in sport.”In the 60s we could run, dance and sing but we couldn’t eat in major hotels. We still have problems on buses. If I took my seat in the front, they looked at you like ‘Nigger, get in the back’.”Tommie went to school and got a education. He had watched his father cow to somebody who was white and basically he worked in the fields until he died without anything. When Tommie got on that stand, it was his emancipation from slavery.”What is more important, to have money in the bank or be remembered as somebody who changed things? Jim Hines never changed anything. He is a good man, but he’s wrong. By the time I got in the team there was a black coach. Today I look at Tommie and John and say: ‘They helped all of us’.”Edwards, the lecturer who befriended and taught Tommie Smith, stayed away from the 1968 Olympics after being tipped off that he might be murdered along with other black members of the American team if he travelled to Mexico. Instead he watched in Canada, where he had gone into hiding with friends.”My reaction when I saw Tommie and John on television leaving Mexico was ‘my God, they got out alive’,” says Edwards. “What they did was crucial. It showed that we were no longer satisfied to turn the other cheek, to act like we didn’t feel the racist humiliation when the coach told a nigger joke. The demonstration meant, from that point on, that the revolt of the black athlete was cemented into the culture of US society.”Every black athlete who has an endorsement and has an opportunity to move into the broadcast booth or coaching, and everyone with a chance to start a business or put his name to a clothing line . . . on one given day, they should get down on their knees and thank Tommie Smith and John Carlos.”Before I leave Edwards’ office, by the side of a picturesque lake in downtown Oakland, he pulls out a newspaper article. An 80-year-old jazz trombonist, Taswell Baird Jr, had just died three weeks after a mugging which left him with a broken pelvis. He had been knocked off his motorised wheelchair and savagely beaten by an 18-year-old black man. Baird had played with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong and was a friend of Edwards. The big man had tears in his eyes as he said: “Can you believe it? They could do this to an old man going shopping. It has got to stop. This is the war America should be fighting.”Race, presented by John Rawling: Monday, Radio 4, 8pm Just south of the main city, the canals of Xochimilco offer a festival of authentic Mexican family life. These waterways are filled with brightly colored boats carrying families, tourists, and vendors. The canals were created by the Aztecs hundreds of years ago. Passing through the sea of boats, travelers can purchase food from floating kitchens as well as have a photograph taken. Back on the mainland, the outskirts of this city of 22 million offer bars and restaurants as well as Aztec temples and colonial style buildings. Travelers can stroll along the Calle Francisco Sosa, a cobble-stoned street lined by 15-foot walls that is the oldest in Mexico. The San Angel’s Bazaar is a Saturday market featuring the wares of local artists and vendors. Mexico City has one of the largest squares in the world, the Zocalo. This 13-acre square houses the Metropolitan Cathedral as well as the National Palace, both of which have begun a slow demise, their foundations sinking into the ground. For an extensive insight into the Aztec and Mayan Civilizations, visit the National Anthropology Museum, considered one of the finest museums in the world. Mexico City is filled with the usual attractions of the big city — a cosmopolitan nightlife and the normal hustle and bustle of humanity. But for a more authentic feel of the culture the city offers, travelers should make their way to the city outskirts. Here a tourist will find the authentic culture and charm this city has maintained for hundreds of years.
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