Documentary, Features, Interviews, Photojournalism

Dominic Bracco, the Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award winner: “I saw people I love do horrific things”

A campesino in Bajo Aguan, where local farm workers are waging a war against big African Palm companies. All images © Dominic Bracco

This year's winner of the prestigious Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award gives us an insight into the moral dilemmas he faced in the six years he spent documenting the the daily tragedies in Mexico's most dangerous cities.

“I’m just a straight up, ‘shit-kicker’ kid from Texas,” says Dominic Bracco. “I wore cowboy boots every day of my life until I was 20. I was that kid.”

Bracco, 29, a photojournalist now based in Mexico City, knew that he wanted to pursue photography from a young age. He grew up in Chapman Ranch, near to the Mexican border. As he neared adulthood, he became acutely aware of the deep-rooted issues of migration, drugs and cultural divides of the region. His mother was a children’s social worker; his great uncle, a human trafficker.

When he was still a teenager, he was inspired by  photography series that documented the lives of two lovers addicted to drugs. Yet, even then, Bracco was already tapping into a humanistic perception of documentary photography that would come to define his style and approach.

Honduran military engage gunmen who were hiding out inside a residence in San Pedro Sula.

Honduran military engage gunmen who were hiding out inside a residence in San Pedro Sula.

“What resonated with me was that it wasn’t just about them being heroin addicts,” says Bracco of the lovers. “It was about them and how much they loved each other. Drugs have a very charged feel next to the border. It was nice to see something that broke from that stereotype.”

After attending the University of Texas in Arlington to study Spanish Literature, and a handful of journalism jobs, including an internship with the Washington Post, Bracco began to feel restrained and restless. One day, he packed up his things and drove to Mexico for a couple of months. That was six years ago.

“Mexico was always a place I was enchanted with,” says Bracco. “In a way, my own identity was tied into it. As a kid who grew up on the border. It was where I felt safe, which was crazy because it was, and is, totally fucked up.”

Manny and Alejandro jump across the newly lit section Camino Real which overlooks the city on their way back to their neighborhood. The highway has been a popular place to dump bodies in the past decade.

Manny and Alejandro jump across the newly lit section Camino Real which overlooks the city on their way back to their neighborhood. The highway has been a popular place to dump bodies in the past decade.

Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous and unstable cities in the world at the time, was where the photographer began the first of the three chapters that make up his project, ‘The Backs of Men’. He immersed himself within the Mexican community, spending time with families, getting to know local gangs, forming intimate family-like bonds with erratic young men.

Not something you might expect of a 22-year-old, white American who describes himself as “a timid introvert.”

The scene of a murdered couple. The woman was far into her pregnancy. The couple’s heads touched in a last embrace. A single bullet entered the man’s skull and took all three lives. It is difficult to say who these victims were. The back of their truck was filled with glass and tools. It is possible that they were workers killed for not paying an extortion to the cartels. It is also possible that they were somehow involved in organized crime. At the time it was to dangerous to investigate their deaths. In 2010 alone there were 3,100 reported murders in the city. There are projections that 2011 will yield 5,000 deaths.

The scene of a murdered couple. The woman was far into her pregnancy. The couple’s heads touched in a last embrace. A single bullet entered the man’s skull and took all three lives. It is difficult to say who these victims were. The back of their truck was filled with glass and tools. It is possible that they were workers killed for not paying an extortion to the cartels. It is also possible that they were somehow involved in organized crime. At the time it was to dangerous to investigate their deaths. In 2010 alone there were 3,100 reported murders in the city. There are projections that 2011 will yield 5,000 deaths.