Emotional toll of covering Mexico’s dead
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
By Jorge Luis Plata
I’ve been a photojournalist for the last 11 years. As a photographer from the Mexican provinces and working for a local newspaper, we do it all. We cover everything from political events to fashion, natural disasters, gun battles between police and narcos, executions to commercial ads.
Since 2006 I have increasingly been covering the dead; the players and the victims of the drug war. Sometimes one is not aware how badly this can affect you emotionally.
There was a moment when I realized I couldn’t sleep very well. Although I was tired I just couldn’t sleep. I remembered that as a small boy my grandmother would take me to visit these women who perform “limpias” (spiritual cleansings) to banish the bad spirits or the “malas vibras” (bad vibes) that had taken over a person’s body and mind.
It was time to pay Soco a visit, I trust her more than any doctor. When she saw my face she said determinately that I needed at least three cleansing sessions. She said that I looked stressed and very scared. I told her that I wasn’t scared but she insisted that I was.
“You are scared because of all the death you have seen. You are filled with the brutal endings of all these people you have photographed. These people can’t find eternal peace because someone else took their lives violently and their spirits have nowhere else to go but with someone else and they have gone with you.”
While she was talking to me, she brought eight white eggs from her kitchen. She sprayed the eggs with a lotion of aromatic oils and then started passing them over my arms, head and back.
The eight eggs broke when she passed them over my body while picking up the bad spirits. That day we couldn’t finish the process because Soco had run out of eggs. She asked me to come back and handed me a dark plastic bag containing the eight egg yolks, ordering me to throw them into a stream to get rid of the bad vibes. After two more visits with Soco and another ten eggs I was cured and could finally sleep again.
When I arrive at a crime scene I have to show respect for the dead, for the Great Spirit that is inside every person as my grandmother taught me. Even people who are killers, drug dealers, pimps, abusive and violent themselves have a Great Spirit and if their life is taken in a brutal way, their Great Spirit finds no peace and has nowhere else to go but into someone else’s living body.
My way of showing respect is to say a little prayer before taking pictures. I tell the dead that I’ve come in good faith and that I’m not there to harm or disturb them. Whenever I have a chance, I light a candle or take a bunch of flowers to a church afterwards in gratitude that I’ve been able to do those pictures without being harmed.
When Hurricane Carlotta battered the coast of Oaxaca last June, two young girls died in a small town. The girls were laid next to each other on mattresses on the floor and people had dressed them like little angels. Candles were lit at the foot of the mattresses. Mourners wept with grief as two little angels had died too early.
I smoked a cigar after taking these painful pictures because I wanted their spirits to stay where they belonged and not take them with me.
I have learned to perform my own, small cleansings now. When I take pictures of someone who has been executed, I spray an egg with Mescal and pass it over me. I need to be “clean” before hugging a loved one. Sometimes I smoke a cigar outside the door of my home so the Great Spirit who might have entered me stays outside.
Every story I cover is different and although I try to prepare myself mentally, I hear the screams, I see the tears and I have to keep it for myself.
I’m still a bit scared sometimes, but I know what to do and where to go, I see Soco with her eggs or I see my grandmother who cleans me with Chichicazle, a green herb full of spines and when she passes them all over my body, the spines pick up the bad vibes and my fears.