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Interview with Javier Manzano


Editor’s note: This post contains graphic photos that some readers may find disturbing.

Javier Manzano is a freelance photographer currently based in Afghanistan — no stranger to documenting conflict. He received a 2011 World Press Photo award for an image from his 2010 work in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The border city has been embroiled in a drug war since 2008 when the Sinaloa cartel moved to take over Juárez — located just over three miles from El Paso, Texas. Violence broke out between warring cartels, gangs and police. In 2010, Juarez recorded over 3000 homicides.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Javier Manzano: I was born and raised in Mexico and moved to the United States at the age of eighteen. Soon after graduating from college I landed a job at an advertising agency where I worked in for several years. The events that unraveled early on the morning of September 11, 2001 would change our lives forever. For me, it meant quitting my job and returning to school for what I believed was my calling in life – journalism. After completing several newspaper photography internships y became employed at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, CO. The paper folded in 2009 and over 200 people were laid off. Since then, I’ve worked as a freelance photographer producing a wide range of material, from editorial and commercial photography, to news and documentary films.

PP: How did you first get into photography? What was your first camera?

JM: My first camera was a 1964 Nickormat SLR. Simple to use, 100% mechanical (no batteries needed) along with two prime lenses – A 20mm, 2.8 and a 35mm 2.8. I still have it to this day. It was my father’s camera.  Since I was a child I used to draw and paint. Later on my family enrolled me in painting lessons. While in high school, I always seemed to have the time to create something out of a blank piece of paper (especially during calculus and math lectures). In short, I learned early on in life that I was more of a right-brained kid.  I took my first photography course in 2002 and was immediately hooked.

Residents of Ciudad Juarez survey the scene of a multiple-homicide that ocurred moments earlier. Scenes like these have become common place in a city which recorded over 3,000 homicides in 2010 alone.

PP: What do you shoot with nowadays?

JM: Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 7D. Panasonic AG-HV Video camera.

PP: Can you tell me about how you started your Juárez coverage? Why did you end up covering the place? 

JM: In 2004 I traveled to Ciudad Juárez for the first time. I had visited many other places in the State of Chihuahua but this was my first time to this border city. What I found back in 2004 was a bustling town that enjoyed a growing economy fueled by one of Mexico’s busiest commercial entry ports into the United States. Back in 2004, Ciudad Juárez made frequent headlines because of its reputation as a city where women would go missing. “The dead women of Juárez” was the title most often attached to the name of this border city.Even though crimes against women were very prevalent at the time (and remain extremely high today), this city was considered safe enough for hundreds of young American tourists to travel to during the weekends and consume large quantities of alcohol (a phenomenon which began during the prohibition era and became the norm over the decades for Americans seeking cheap access to alcohol and other substances). In short, life was normal for this border city. The quality of life for most citizens in Ciudad Juarez was above the average of most states in Mexico.In fact, it was so good that thousands of immigrants from other regions of Mexico traveled there to seek employment at the Maquiladora Industry (commonly known as “sweat shops” which hire cheap and unskilled labor to assemble car parts, washers and driers and other goods for American companies), a business sector that exploded under NAFTA. My experience there (like most others in Mexico), was blessed by true “norteño” hospitality.

A federal police officer calls for help as they check for survivors after arriving at the scene where a convoy of federal and municipal police were ambushed on Friday, April 23, 2010.

The second time I went to Ciudad Juárez was in 2010. This time I traveled there to cover the drug war that has engulfed this city since 2008. What I found was heartbreaking. At night, the time when a few years back the streets filled with people from all walks of life, had now become abandoned. The only vehicles on the road at night are now those of military Humvees, Federal Police units, journalists, EMT’s and the people who keep them all busy – organized crime.

Four Federal Police officers, one female Municipal Police and one civilian were killed outside a gasoline station on the corner of Santiago Troncoso and Durango Ave. in Ciudad Juarez on the afternoon of April 23, 2010.

The violence has forced many of the businesses in downtown Juárez to close. Many companies have scaled down their operations or completely pulled out of Mexico. The cycle of violence feeding off itself and taking down the city in its wake. In the case of Juarez, the violence began when one of the oldest and most powerful cartels in Mexico moved into Ciudad Juarez – the Sinaloa Cartel. Motivated to take over one of the most lucrative trade routes into the United States, the Sinaloa Cartel has attempted to topple de Juarez Cartel by launching an open war. Thousands of young lives have been lost in the streets of Juarez, most of them between the ages of 16 to 25 (which make up most of the foot soldiers employed by these criminal groups).

Middle School students pour dirt to cover the blood of a victim who was shot and killed in front of their school in downtown Ciudad Juarez.

Whoever controls this supply line into the U.S. will have full access to the multi-million dollar drug market that is the United States. By the time you get to the end of this text, another Mexican will be killed by a bullet made in the U.S. while at the same time a hipster in New York will snort a line of cocaine imported through Mexico. The dark side of a free market economy will show it’s ugly face once again.  I was in Juárez for almost five months over the course of three trips.

Family and friends pray over the body of 14-year-old Roberto Jacobo Vital who was one of the 14 young men and women brutally murdered on Friday October 22, 2010 in Ciudad Juarez.

PP: Did your view of the town change from the time you got there to the time you left? Did Juárez change?

JM: No. From my visit back in 2004, to my recent experiences in 2010, I still regard the people of Juárez as some of the most hospitable people in Mexico. They will always have a very special place in my heart.  At this time Mexico is taking all of the punches. Unless the United States becomes more involved and shares some of the burden of fighting this war (i.e. effectively sealing the border to weapons and ammunition trafficking to Mexico) the situation in Mexico will remain the same.  Goods and services will always flow through national borders regardless of how many walls are built to stop them. Everyone knows what the answer is to minimizing the contributing factors to this violence. Some people in the United States might say that Mexico has been hijacked by organized crime. Along these same lines, most people in Mexico believe that the United States government has been hijacked by special interests groups who prevent it from enacting the laws that would help lower the violence in Mexico.

Family and friends of the 14 young men and women who were brutally murdered on Friday October 22, 2010 in Ciudad Juarez embrace as they say their final goodbye at a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

PP: What’s the story behind the scene in the image for which you won a World Press Photographer award?  

JM: On a Wednesday evening in June of 2010, I was traveling with a friend and colleague who was working the evening shift for one of the local newspapers. We received a tip that there had been an attack on a family who was traveling on the Casas Grandes Highway (the interstate highway that connects the state of Chihuahua to the West coast of Mexico). Military personnel had arrived minutes earlier by the time we pulled up. An old Ford Cougar was haphazardly parked on the right side of the highway. When we approached the vehicle we noticed that both of the rear side windows had been shot in. Inside the car, a little girl who was holding the hand of her fatally wounded mother. The girl’s brother, blemished by the blood of his parents stood outside the vehicle, looking on towards the highway.

A young boy stares off into the highway as soldiers stand guard next to the vehicle where the boy and his family were driving a few minutes earlier.

A few minutes earlier, this family had been driving back from a short trip to the coastal state of Sinaloa when they were approached by an SUV. They were signaled to stop as they were fired upon. Their assailants then took the children’s father (who had also been wounded by gunfire) and drove west on the highway. The mother of the 4-year old girl and the 5 year-old boy waited inside the vehicle as her father-in-law (who was driving the vehicle at the time of the attack) gave her water while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. The emergency responders arrived an hour after the incident (it is not uncommon for ambulances to arrive late at a scene due to the fact that they have been the target of attacks for trying to save the wounded).

As the mother was being loaded to the emergency vehicle, her children looked on as the ambulance took the last image of their mother. She died en route to the hospital.  Soon after, the decapitated body of the children’s father was found 20 kilometers down the road.  The photo that won WPP was part of the sequence of photographs that attempted to chronicle the horrible chain of events that forever changed the lives of these children that day.

The head of 32-year-old Mario Alberto Iglesias, the father to the two young children and husband of Maria de Jesus was located on the 70km marker of the same highway in which the initial attack was reported. Manzano won a 2011 World Press Photo award for this image.

PP: What was it like to work at a scene like that?  

JM: In a word? Horrible.

The most emotionally crippling situation any photographer can find himself/herself in, is to make eye contact with the person you are photographing and realize that there is absolutely nothing you can do to help. I had water to give. I told her to stay awake, that the ambulance was coming soon. I tried to let her know that I was sorry. None of that mattered. What she really wanted was to stay alive. What she really needed was a surgeon. What she didn’t need was a photographer at the scene.

This haunts me to this day.

Would I do it again? Yes. It is my job.

PP: Did you feel uncomfortable taking the photo?           

JM: Yes. I would be a cyborg if I didn’t.

PP: How did people react to the image?

JM: The same way I did – with disgust.

PP: Is there a certain mentality that you need to have in order to work in a place like Juárez?

JM: Expect anything, rely on your friends and colleagues, and make peace with yourself. Don’t forget that whom you are photographing is a human being. Many journalists come to this city as if it was some kind of morbid circus. This city has suffered enough. Honor them by being fair and balanced. Want to help?  Then pressure the United States government to reinstate the Assault weapons ban.

The Vazquez Ledezma family embrace as they stare at the remains of their two bedroom home. Mrs. Vazquez went to protest the detention of her 24-year-old son, who she alleges was wrongfully accused of murder and was being held at the municipal prison. When she returned home, she saw two young men run out of the back of the house as the flames began to engulf her home.

PP: How did you get access to crime scenes? Families?  

JM: I traveled with local journalists for the dailies. When I scheduled an interview I typically traveled alone at a point when I was already familiar with the city. People in Juárez are surprisingly open to talk if approached with respect. However it is very tricky to speak on the record (or on camera) about specifics since they fear the real possibility of being targeted for doing so.

Police officers detain a man accused of murdering a man 5 years ago during a fist fight at a party. He was detained during a routine traffic stop and taken into custody.

PP: What was it like as a photographer there? We hear a lot of news about journalists being targeted — were you ever in fear of your life?

JM: In my opinion, (which I believe is shared by most of my colleagues in Juárez) it is best to work out in the open and in plain sight. This might seem odd given the situation there but the fact is that you are always being watched. Be it by the police (who constantly take photos of you and other members of the media), or by members of organized crime. All sides are continuously gathering intelligence on the streets.  Organized crime has eyes and ears on every street corner via vendors, taxi drivers, or corrupt policemen. The same is true for the “good guys”. In this sense, it is safer to work out in the open, the reason being that it is easier to explain yourself if approached by any of these groups. This would give you a better chance to talk your way out of a tricky situation.  Conducting investigative pieces in Mexico has always been tricky. This is not to say that this type of work is not being done there. Examples abound of many great reporters, both foreign and local, that have done amazing work in this country. The difference between the local reporters and their foreign counterparts is that Mexican journalists have to go home to the same house at night. Foreigners typically go back to their safe countries and do not have to worry too much about retaliation against them and their families. Dozens of journalists in Mexico have been killed during the past four years. The most aggressive reporters and investigative journalists typically return home each day to the pleasure of reading yet another death threat (if they did not receive one on their personal cell phones that day). For this reason, there is a lot of self-censorship in the media (on both sides of the border). We must remember that once the drugs cross the border into the U.S., they still have to travel thousands of miles across the country to reach their clients along the way.


An empty room is all that is left at one of the city halls in the City of Guadalupe, a small farming community located about an hour's drive East of the city of Juarez. This community has no acting Chief of Police and counts with only two police officers who patrol this town during daylight hours. At night, this town, along with many others located in the notorious Valle de Juarez (Juarez Valley) become virtual ghost-towns.
A ceremony to salute the fallen municipal police officer, 22-year-old Ada Agustina Nevárez Soto who was killed in an ambush. The perimeter of the cemetery was secured by several municipal and federal police officers as they stood guard in case of a possible attack during these final moments.

PP: Is there a theme to your work? Are you drawn to certain types of characters or topics?  

JM: I do not consider myself a fine-art photographer. To me, documentary photography has one main goal: to provide the visual evidence that an event or phenomenon took place. Once a photograph has achieved this primary purpose, then the photographer can concentrate on working the light, composition and other aesthetic components to a photograph. In other words, first secure the evidence (get the shot) and then work on making a great photo.  For obvious reasons, I have concentrated most of my work on Mexico. I have enormous emotional and spiritual ties to the country. Immigration was a topic which I began covering early on in my career, while I was still in school. I don’t think there is a theme to my work. I like to work on stories that challenge both the audience, as well as myself. I am not as naïve to think that a photo can change the world. No one can do this alone. Change only comes when civil society unites and demands it. The media can only offer a voice to the voiceless (to cite an old cliché). A single voice is faint and vulnerable – it can only become the forceful demand of the people when joined by thousands of others. The media can and does provide this platform.

Images credits: Javier Manzano. You can see some of his recent documentary work in Afghanistan here.