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Book Review: Mexico between Life and Death by Harvey Stein

Two Men Wearing Sombreros, Atotonilco, 1997

When thinking of Mexico, Yona, who hails from Havana, comes to mind for Mexico was the land of her dreams. That was before she set foot on Mexican soil, for the Mexico on her Cuban television screen and the real Mexico were not even remotely comparable. Mexicans, as far as she was concerned, were tall, wearing moustaches, sported gel in their hair, and were gentlemen; the real Mexicans however were constantly whistling after her so that she felt she couldn’t cross a street without being bothered. By the way, she loved being whistled after (she missed it in Switzerland) but in Mexico (this was in Oaxaca) it was simply too much.

What I also relate to Mexico is Malcolm Lowry’s novel “Under the Volcano” (the story of an alcoholic British consul in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead in the late 1930s) and quite often pictures of that movie appear in my mind when looking at Harvey Stein’s photographs.

Man and Long Shadow from Above, Taxco, 2009

And then, there’s Octavio Paz’s “Labyrinth of Solitude”: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it: it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”

Photographer Harvey Stein cites another writer, Michael Dirda: “Many cultures believe that on a certain day – Halloween, the Irish Samhain Eve, Mexico’s ‘Dia de los Muertos’ – the veil between this world and the next is especially thin.” And, he quotes from Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”: “Strictly speaking, there is never any understanding in a photograph, but only an invitation to fantasy and speculation.” Looking at his pictures, I constantly come back to this quote – and find it always a liberating experience.

Between 1993 and 2010, Stein made fourteen trips to Mexico, wandered around, reacted to what he saw and photographed intuitively. “Especially captivating is to photograph at night, when the shroud of darkness enhances the mystery and ambiguity of lives lived. I have photographed primarily in small towns and villages and mostly during festivals (Day of the Dead, Semana Santa, Independence Day) that highlight the country’s unique relationship to death, myth, ritual and religion.”

Young Woman Holding Umbrella, Querètaro, 1999

Harvey Stein is showing me a Mexico that I haven’t seen myself despite having visited quite some places in this book – which is why I’m fond of photo books for they show me what otherwise I would have missed. Many of his photographs make me think of scenes from Fellini-movies. “These photographs provide an illusion rather than a representation”, he writes and this captures it nicely.

The photographs in this tome are all in black and white and show mostly individuals of all ages. Especially fascinating I thought the ones where shadows play a prominent part. There are also pics showing hooded people with crosses, a man with a bag over his head, a white hooded child. Am I looking at pics of members of the Ku Klux Klan? Sadly, informative captions are lacking. However, in a text entitled “A Long Ago Memory” that Harvey Stein penned in April 16 and 17, 2003, he describes a procession of young men called “penitentes” wearing heavy black hoods and flowing black robes from the waist down who whip themselves “with a soft looking, white rope with glass and thorns embedded in its fibres” but, unfortunately, does not really inquire what this is all about. “I watch and photograph with a mixture of disgust and fascination, wondering why anyone would subject himself to such pain. This all seems very strange, harsh, outlandish, but undoubtedly it is quite moving and even haunting.”

Mexico between Life and Death
by Harvey Stein
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg Berlin 2018

Also published on Medium.

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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