Art has a way of redefining public spaces, particularly those marked by hardship or violence. That's what drew photographer Stefan Falke to the U.S. - Mexico border. He's capturing the work of bi-national artists in a project he calls La Frontera. Fronteras reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe shadowed him for a day.
When Stefan Falke picks up a camera he's struck with a bolt of invincibility. To get the perfect shot, he plants his tall, broad-shouldered frame mere inches from the wheels of oncoming traffic. We're in the commercial heart of Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border city across from El Paso, Texas.
On this cold January morning his subject is a fellow photographer who smiles behind red lipstick and soft, wavy hair. Her name is Monica Lozano and she poses before black and white images of faces glued to the concrete supports of a city overpass. The collection of photos is her own work. Lozano says, "this is urban art. This is street art. And the intention is for people to interact with it."
The happy faces in the photos are scribbled with mustaches, teardrops and blacked-out teeth. Lozano attempts to showcase this gritty city in a rosy light, something not everyone agrees with. The last four years unleashed a horror show of drug-related violence in Juarez. One morning residents awoke to find a murdered corpse hanging from this very overpass. Lozano says it's a time locals won't forget. "I could see the people around me and how they were changing. How there was this...wall going in front of their eyes. It was difficult to see the people that you love being taken by the fear."
We're now driving to downtown Juarez to shoot more pictures. On a wide boulevard we pass a Walmart, a Starbucks and large shopping centers. Coming from his home in Brooklyn, this wasn't exactly the kind of border city Stefan Falke expected. He says, " many people have no idea whatsoever of these cities. They think there's nothing here. There's dirt roads and donkeys and tequila and shooting. They have no idea that they are modern cities with modern institutions, art museums."
Falke has photographed dozens of artists from Tijuana to Matamoros. He's photographed drama teachers, sculptures, poets and even passionate pinata makers. They are his window into the border, a region that has always fascinated Falke. He grew up in post-World War II Germany just 60 miles from the Berlin Wall. Now, he's come face to face with a different wall - the one that divides the U.S. from Mexico. He says, "I asked an artist in El Paso, I said, 'So, where are you from?' He says, 'From La Frontera.' People see this as their own country. And it really is. It's at times not Mexico, not America...it's a mix of everything."
In the bustling historic center of Juarez we meet Falke's next subject: A muralist known by locals as 'Melo'. He's a lanky, good-natured 28-year-old who drives an old turquoise mini van. We climb inside and take off again. Melo tells us, "here is my hood. There's some letters. You're now in my territory."
Up ahead, a gaudy mural spelling Melo's name is graffitied across a long wall. It marks the beginning of his neighborhood, a triangular city block south of downtown. Life's been rough here. Melo can count off 20 friends and neighbors murdered since 2007. He paints over the pain in strokes of vivid blue, zesty orange and radiant green. He says, "I'm trying to paint all the block. I have permission of neighbors because they know my work. They love colors, too."
Border artists like Melo are reclaiming spaces once lost to violence. In a way, they are also historians - telling stories of their communities as they've lived them. With his project, photographer Stefan Falke is helping those stories reach an audience far beyond the border.