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Spotlight: Alfredo Esparza Examines Lands Once "Conquered" by Humans

By David Schonauer   Wednesday February 20, 2019


Alfredo Esparza’s photography career is tied to pecan trees.

Esparza, who is based in Torreon, Mexico, studied international business in college. After graduating, though, he decided to pursue photography, which he’d taken up as a youth when he received a Voigtländer Vitoret LR camera as a present from his grandfather. Today he is a teacher and curator, as well as a photographer. But, he notes, the one job that gives him “economic tranquility” is pruning pecan trees for ranches across northern Mexico.

“It is a family business built by my father,” says Esparza. “In 2015 he invited me to work with him. Throughout my childhood and adolescence I had worked with him, so adapting from one environment to another was not so difficult. The pruning takes place only in winter, when the trees are dormant. So from December until March I dedicate myself almost full time to this activity.”

He didn’t know when he started pruning pecan trees that his wintertime job would lead to longterm photographic project. “The pecan tree is endemic to the north of Mexico and the south of the United States, so during the pruning season, we move through vast territories of my country, and that has allowed me to travel among the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, Zacatecas and Nuevo León,” Esparza says.

During his travels, he began paying attention to areas once “conquered” by humans — used and then abandoned due to overexploitation of resources. The result is his series “Terra Nullius,” a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 7 competition.

“Adobes”

“Fallen Water Tank”

“My father and I started having a lot of conversations regarding the circumstances that lead these sites being abandoned,” says Esparza. “My father told me that between the 1960s and 2000s, soil was used as a disposable good. If 500 hectares stopped being productive because the owners ran out of water, it was irrelevant. More land was bought. The effect of managing the land this way is devastating: While driving along a highway or dirt road you can see former ranches, abandoned villages and dismantled factories.”

“La Muerte”


“Mezquite”

Esparza began photographing the landscapes he traveled through and later began using Google Maps and Google Earth to locate other areas that had been used and abandoned. “I copy the coordinates, I draw a route and I go towards them,” he says. “Since the ecosystem of all these places are desert and semi-desert, I prefer to shoot around midday — that is why the light in my images is so harsh. It is important for me to attempt to share with the viewer the conditions that I experience in the open land.”

“Quemazon”


“Tormenta”

When he travels to the rough landscapes, Esparza usually takes his dog along for company. While exploring one location — an abandoned train station — the dog darted into nearby adobe buildings while he was setting up his Nikon DSLR on a tripod.

“She came back with a bone in her muzzle. It wasn’t so surprising for me, because it is common to find cattle bones in the open land. But when I paid more attention, I realized that what she got was a human jaw. I froze for a moment and then took a more careful look at the place, and I found bullet casings for machine guns, clothes tangled in the bushes and bullets embedded in the walls of houses.”

“Fuego”


“Caballo”

Back home, Esparza researched the location and learned that is had once been used as a meeting point for the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. After that, Esparza began searching for other clandestine graves. “Once you can’t be more aggressive with the environment because there is nothing left to hurt, what comes next is to be violent against human lives,” he notes.

“The more I shoot, the more I realize how little I know of my subject,” says Esparza. “The processes in the environment are so slow — unless humans intervene directly — that to work just for two or three years on this and then draw conclusions seems a bit risky. I hope to continue working on the subject for at least another five years. Still, it would be like a blink for the Earth, but for me it would be around 10 years of my life. In my tiny human temporal parameters, it's a lot of time dedicated to this project.”
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At top: “Este Camino No Es”

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Dispatches from Latin America