For his series Carpoolers, Alejandro Cartagena photographed construction workers riding in the back of pickup trucks from their homes near Monterrey to their jobs in San Pedro, Mexico. Looking down from an overpass, Cartagena photographed vehicles as they drove past, picturing these men as they sat or slept amid their equipment. The workers, who lived in new suburban developments far from public transportation, relied on these daily carpools. Cartagena saw in these men a willingness “to do whatever it takes to own a house but still go to the city, where there is work.”
Hear Alejandro Cartagena share insights about six photographs from the Carpoolers series in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Carpoolers 12 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
You see the trunk of tools, and it has the Zavala name on it. This is kind of what we call a squad or el equipo. And a lot of these workers, they get together in corners, and then they get picked up by a leader. And most likely the Zavala is the leader of them.
They just basically jump in the back of the truck and they're taken to the construction site. Zavala must be like the owner of the truck and of the tools. And he marks his territory by putting his name on the tool box.
Carpoolers 47 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Here's this visual interconnection between two ways of life, the suburban life, blue collar working class, and the southern suburbs where there's a lot of economic power. And here in the middle are these citizens that are also workers.
Carpoolers 4 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
It's sometimes about aesthetics. Look at these images and think of the blues, the blues of the jeans, the blues of the—como se llama la carretilla? The wheelbarrow. Oh my god, I think I’ve never said that word in English!
The interconnections between the images, the colors. It's the idea of the reds, the blues, the yellows, the greens. These are things that when you see a group of them, it's almost like they fall into each other.
Carpoolers 12, 47, 4, 20, 50, and 23 (2011-2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Carpoolers 20 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Another thing that I think is impactful is how the objects and the people combine. It's almost like a Tetris game. They mold their bodies to the tools. It's almost like they were perfectly placed into that little rectangle by a hand that constructed that space.
Carpoolers 23 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
One of the rules that I put to myself was that I was only gonna take one or two pictures max. This was my first project that I did with a digital camera. You can have digital diarrhea and just go and go and go. But I said no. I'm going to emulate the film practice with digital.
Carpoolers 50 (2012) by Alejandro CartagenaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
These pictures are open doors. Anybody can come in. You can come in because of the aesthetics. You can come in because of the humor. You can come in because of you don't understand how that image was captured.
For me, this project is about asking questions. What is this? How is this happening? Why are people risking their lives? Why don't they take the bus? And that for me is perfect. That is the mission for me for photography in the 21st century.
Cartagena embraces photography’s capacity for bridging politics, art, and history, believing such interconnections help define "a new poetic language for documentary photography” in the 21st century. Carpoolers relates to several other bodies of work by Cartagena that have focused on the political and socio-economic aspects of home ownership, transportation, and suburbanization in and around Monterrey, Mexico.
Taking pictures for Carpoolers inspired many questions: why did suburban housing developments spring up around Monterrey, and what are the environmental and economic consequences of those houses? What effects does this rapid construction have on urban transportation, development, ecology, waterways, and infrastructure? Explore these connections in Cartagena’s Suburbia Mexicana (2011), Landscape as Bureaucracy (2010-2013) and A Small Guide to Home Ownership (2020), among others, which are accessible through his website. https://alejandrocartagena.com/
The audio in this story comes from an interview with Alejandro Cartagena, conducted by Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow Jetzel Chavira, and recorded over Zoom in July 2022.