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The keen eye of a documentary photographer

October 11, 2011

Few Mexicans ever find themselves invited to ride along with the U.S. border patrol, rounding up desperate migrants as the American Dream collapses before their eyes.

But Jose Hernandez Claire is no ordinary Mexican. A renowned photojournalist from Guadalajara, he has documented the weary plight of migrant workers throughout his career of almost 30 years.

“I had the chance to photograph the U.S. side of the border last year with the help of the American Consulate in Guadalajara,” explains Hernandez. “I rode in the boats in the Rio Bravo and the U.S. border patrol cars.”

When the authorities caught migrants, Hernandez says he “felt sorry” for his paisanos. “Many of these people don’t have any money. They borrow maybe 3,000 dollars or sell their homes or cattle or whatever they have to pay the ‘coyotes’ to take them over the border.”

The situation for migrants today has worsened considerably from when Hernandez first started out as a photographer in 1982. Every time he visits the border he says “it’s like a new era. I hear different stories from people of dramatic new situations, of fatalities, kidnappings, extortion.”

Now, he says, the migrants have greater problems than ever: “They get kidnapped by bands of narcos, so they don’t make it to the United States. These guys call the victim’s contact number or family members in the United States and ask for a ransom.”

A former architect, Hernandez attended the Universidad de Guadalajara (UdeG) before moving to New York in 1978. Studying photography alongside a masters in urban design at the Pratt Institute, he fell in love with the art of taking photos.

The vibrant metropolitan setting played no small part in his decision to follow a career in photojournalism instead of architecture.

“I lived for five years in New York as a designer,” says Hernandez. “I was often assigned to Spanish Harlem, so I had a chance to take photos all over the city. I walked the streets of New York with my camera and that’s why I got very interested in photographing people. Although I had a background in architecture I surprised myself in that I was not really as interested in photographing buildings. The energy of the city was in the people.”

Hernandez says he was primarily influenced by his teachers in New York and also took inspiration from photographers Manuel Alvarez Bravo of Mexico, Henri Cartier Bresson of France and Hungarian Andrea Kertesz.

Returning to Mexico, Hernandez began taking photos of blind people, street children and rural life. “The fact that I had been out of Guadalajara and out of Mexico gave me another perspective of the situation of my country and the needs of my city,” he says. “It was a new way not only to see the people of my city but also myself, it was a mirror of myself.”

Hernandez gives great credit to the National Fund for Culture and the Arts (FONCA), a Mexican institution that supports artists and has helped him throughout his career.

He has also received some high-profile awards. In 1988, Hernandez won a prize and grant from the World Health Organization to mark its 40th anniversary at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland.

Then in 1992, King Juan Carlos of Spain presented Hernandez with the Royal Prize for International Journalism, in recognition of the photographs he took that year documenting perhaps the darkest day in Guadalajara’s history.

On April 22, a series of gasoline explosions in the city’s sewer system left 252 dead, nearly 500 injured and 15,000 homeless. From that moment onwards, “the city and the society changed,” says Hernandez, who was working at the time as photo editor for “Siglo 21,” a new newspaper in Guadalajara.

With a strong emphasis on investigative journalism, the paper made its name through its coverage of the story. “The great work that the whole team did in that situation was very important,” says Hernandez. The paper had a “different approach and a new way of looking at reporting that probably made the difference.”

No small part of this was “the way photography was displayed in the newspaper.” Before Siglo 21 appeared, local newspapers gave little thought for “the space for the pictures and the respect for the full-frame photo or the credit for the photographer,” Hernandez recalls.

Having established himself as a respected photojournalist, in 1997 Hernandez released a book entitled “De Sol a Sol,” published by the UdeG with the aid of FONCA and Leica, the German camera manufacturer.

Four years later he won a Guggenheim grant, which helped fund his long-term project of photographing migrants on their voyage through Mexico. “I have traveled all the way from Guatemala to the U.S. border documenting the journey of the migrants,” says Hernandez. His goal is to one day publish a complete work of his many trips dedicated to this topic.

Among other publications, Hernandez’s photographs have been published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Spain’s El Pais, France’s Le Monde and Mexico’s La Jornada, as well as Siglo 21, Publico, Milenio, El Occidental and El Informador in Guadalajara.

His works have been displayed in individual and collective exhibitions as far afield as Europe, India, China, South America, Cuba and the United States. Most recently, he has held exhibitions of his migrant photos in Spain, French Guyana and Austin, Texas.

Asked if he has a favorite photo from his collection, Hernandez replies with a smile, “the way I always feel about photography is that my favorite picture will be the next one. I feel attached to my subjects. I’m always taking photos, all the time on the street. I never go outside without a camera.”

Although he almost always works alone, Hernandez credits his family for helping with his work. “I have great support from my wife and two children. My wife is my main editor, she has been a great help in my work. She used to be an audiovisual editor in the UdeG so she has a good eye for looking at photos. I always like to hear her feedback before a photo goes out.”

When it comes to editing, Hernandez favors a more traditional approach. “I love looking at prints on a table or on the wall and choosing a sequence. Computers don’t show the true quality of a picture and I hate that. I must admit that I’m not a big fan of new technology for photo editing.”

To find out more about Hernandez and his work, visit his website

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