The only thing that happened
By Jenni Quilter
These are commercially printed tarpaulins, canvases for industry, the kind typically used for trucks, greenhouse enclosures, gym floor coverings, ice rink liners, awnings and advertising. Here they are posters for the dead, erected above graves in Los Jardines del Humaya, a cemetery in Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. On each poster there is a photograph of the deceased, their name, birth and death dates, as well as a message to or from the dead.
Here is a boy, no more than twenty, with one eyebrow carefully notched, hair closely cropped, flawless skin. His name is Javier Enrique. There are two different pictures of him on the poster, each taken from a different angle. In one, he gives a cheerful, slightly forced grin, baring his teeth, and in the other, an alert frown. He is extremely handsome. The background of this poster, though it’s difficult to see at first, is a watermark image of Christ’s crucifixion, his face between the two Javiers. We see Christ’s thorns, his paleness, aquiline brow, the shadow of his eye socket. He looks dead, but Javier does not; he is stunningly pink.
God gave us the gift of knowing you, enjoying you and loving you.
And it was God who decided to take you.
The photos on these tarpaulins are not professional photographs; they were not taken for a wedding or graduation, to consciously mark a milestone. They were taken quickly, as afterthoughts, at parties, in driveways, at home. They were likely taken on cell phones…
These photos were never meant to be blown up, to take the weight of remembrance. They buckle under their enlargement. Quite often, the pixilation is so pronounced the colors separate; skin becomes green and red and white and blue and yellow. Details are smeared, and this blurring reveals a certain consistency. We relearn what a young man’s face looks like, the rules of proportion: the mouth a blush, the nose a blur of distinction, the dark holes of eyes, the dip of hair in front of the ear. We relearn the ratio of beauty for youth. We notice, all over again, how the upper lip dips to meet the groove running from mouth to nose. We notice how the eyes cannot be understood without the eyebrows. We understand how the skin is lit by the blood beneath, how unlined it can be. In many, the cheekbones are still cloaked in puppy fat.
Most of these faces have been excerpted from larger photos, and so they give the impression of having slipped away, like balloons, from their lives. The obvious cropping makes us feel the tug of their days back on the ground. We sense those who were also sitting on the sofa when the photo was taken, their breath, the accidental press of skin, the squeak of leather when they stood up. A wife’s hand has been covered by the edge of another photo. A man’s arm around another’s neck has been covered with digital spray paint, transformed into a scarf of black smoke.
Jesús Alberto. He tilts his chin up, smiling slightly. The Virgin is holding him to her breast, and her hand belongs to a medieval portrait — a doll’s hand, yellowed, too small for her face. She is smiling so gracefully. The awkward pictorial clarity of her world against his is like salt water meeting fresh water: a sudden blur, a new scheme. He is turning her into a photo. She is turning him into a painting.
Life goes on, we will not be far apart, you will always be in our mind and hearts.
We will always feel your warmth and love.
What is allowed to accompany these men into these photos is their work. They are placed in front of their cars, trucks and SUVs. One is holding his accordion. In these images, scale is frequently distorted; their livelihood dominates their faces. In one, a man’s face is superimposed on top of a baseball that — in proportion to his face — looks to be the size of a washing machine. Flames dart out of the ball’s sides, and all of this hovers — ball, man, flames — over a sea at sunset. Everything is glittering, all is illuminated. The red stitches on the ball are big enough to look painful…
It’s hard to believe that the people on these posters are buried beneath, slowly disintegrating. It’s hard to imagine bone and flesh and scraps of fabric. In the face of this much care, it seems possible, for brief moments, to imagine that they could still be alive, in exile somewhere, drinking beer in the late afternoon. Here is a man riding a motorcycle, wearing a white helmet, dressed in blue. “Policia” is printed on the bike’s windshield. He has a large black handlebar moustache. There’s a bright white light shining over his right shoulder, guiding him onwards. The Virgin of Guadalupe is floating behind, riding pillion, rippling like a flag, like exhaust. Julio César is written in cursive script, outlined, blue and yellow, the dates of his life beneath. 2 Feb 1977–18 August 2009. A man and his motorcycle. A hero. A prodigal son. It looks like a movie poster. It has all the necessary elements: a hero prominently figured, the running dates, a title and a brief précis…
He calls you because you were needed.
In most of these posters the background is blue, a particular tint and tone that we automatically associate with the sky, but this sky is always richer, deeper than the pale blue of the Culiacán sky beyond. The clouds on these posters are also thicker, whiter, fluffier. This blue tells us immediately, without us having to think too carefully about it, that these men are in heaven.
Do not be sad.
A good son, a good brother, a good friend.
Keep in mind that I will be with you forever.
Always and at every moment we will remember you
your parents, brothers and friends,
because of who you were, a good son.
May the light of God accompany you and may he walk with you always.
I want to know what these men were actually like. I want to know their petty grievances, their loves, their enthusiasms, their hatreds. I want to know whether they loved their mothers too much or too little. I want to know their fears, their habits of bravery. I am not confident, no matter how candid these photos appear to be, that what I am seeing is in any way the essence of these men. Photographs have such a hard time capturing us in the first place: We grimace, pout, stiffen, lift ourselves into a shape we’d like to present. And in that moment, when we imagine how we look through the lens of the camera, there is a reduction, a contraction, a holding in that is itself a tiny death. We are aware of ourselves being transformed into an object. Our mortality becomes apparent…
What thrives in this silence — what grows like a vine &mdashl is death as a business. And because business is good, it is implied that everything will still be all right, even if the worst has come to pass.