Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.

GQ Revisited.

Posted in Me Myself & I by Chris Floyd on October 22, 2010

The United States - Mexico Border. From the American side. Nogales, Arizona

The British GQ website  has posted this interview with me about the Republican-Mexican photo saga.  They have also added the original story that Sanjiv Bhattacharya wrote back in 2006, so you can read the whole thing as it was originally published. It really is a great piece by Sanj and well worth the read.

Interview with Andy Morris of British GQ

Sometimes photographs originally taken for GQ develop a life of their own after publication. But no-one could have predicted that when Chris Floyd and Sanjiv Bhattacharya travelled to Mexico in 2006 to document the tale of US vigilantes known as “Minutemen” that Floyd’s shot (above) of Mexican farmers would end up being used by two separate Republican candidates to illustrate the threat of “illegal aliens”. After two candiates (Sharron Angle and David Vitter) both used Floyd’s picture, contacted both Floyd and Bhattacharya to discuss their thoughts on the abuse of their photos. What do you remember about reporting the original story on the Minutemen?
Chris Floyd: We were using the Congress Hotel in Tucson, Arizona as our base, where John Dillinger, America’s Public Enemy No.1, engaged in a big shootout with the police in 1934. The distances you have to travel to see anyone in that part of the world are vast so, more than anything I remember spending a lot of time in the car with Sanjiv travelling to see all the various Minutemen, as well as to Nogales to join up with the Border Patrol. To be honest, as an outsider, I found it easy to empathise with both sides of the story. You have one of the very richest countries in the world immediately next to one of the poorest. The people on the poor side of the fence see what’s over there and are naturally drawn to it. On the other side, a lot of people who live right in the border region have had their property damaged by the incessant passage of migrants over their land. We met a cattle farmer. He had a huge water tank installed for the irrigation of his animals, cost him a lot of money to put in, and it had been wrecked by strangers passing in the night. One of the most active Minutemen, was south American by birth but had become an American citizen legally and served in the U.S. Marines.

On top of the actual human traffic, lots and lots of drugs are brought into America by the migrants who earn their passage by acting as mules. I have pictures of a room where the Border Patrol store recently seized stuff prior to destroying it. There were bales and bales of drugs in it. They’re cube shaped hessian backpacks, 60-80lbs, with homemade straps on them. So I understand why some Americans are angry and feel that the government does not do enough. But the problem is that it’s a 2000 mile long border that runs from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. How do you police that?

However, after visiting Altar, the town in Mexico where the offending photograph was taken, I also felt compassion for the people we met there. I can’t speak for all of them but when we stood in that square at 6am what we really saw was just a lot of very poor, depressed, tired, hungry-looking people. They were enduring it stoically. The people we did talk to all said the same thing. They just wanted to find some work. It was exactly the same story as what took place in The Grapes of Wrath but with darker skin.

The irony of all this is that until the late Forties there was an annual migration of Mexican workers travelling up to California, under a system called the Bracero Program, to do all the agricultural harvesting before journeying back down south. Much of California’s agricultural lushness can be credited to the work of the Mexican workers that built it up. That was brought to an end by a need to provide a lot of jobs for returning servicemen after World War 2.

When did you first become aware of the film being misued?
Sanjiv Bhattacharya: I saw the ad on CNN – they were talking about how both Sharron Angle and David Vitter were using the same photo, as if that was the real scandal. And I recognised it at once. Obviously I got very excited, because it was my story, but once that died down, this episode doesn’t surprise me really. This is one of hundreds of examples of just how degraded the right wing has become in America. Vitter has been exposed as a hypocrite – he appeals to values voters while using escorts in his private life. Angle wants to abolish the Department of Education and has advocated an armed insurrection. It doesn’t surprise me that characters like these might misrepresent imagery for propaganda. And it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t care. Watch this story blow over. Corrections are always buried in the small print – it’s the lie that people remember.

CF: What’s interesting though is the question of how two independent campaigns alighted on the same image. Is this stuff filtering down from Republican Central Command?

What was your initial reaction on seeing the video from Sharron Angle?

CF: I was angry that she had used a picture of 3 Mexican citizens taken in Mexico and slapped the words “ILLEGAL ALIENS” all over it. That is my picture. I own that and it was taken in the context of a wider story. Even the caption information states that. There’s no doubt about it. Does she have proof that these guys are Illegal? Does she have a release from them allowing  the use of their likeness. Maybe they are in the States now. I don’t know that because I met them and left them in Mexico.  She’s just found something that fits her needs and bent it’s meaning entirely out of shape in order to fit it in to her agenda.  I think that’s what they refer to as “fixing the facts around the policy.”

What actions have you taken since you found out about the photos?
CF: We are still trying to establish exactly how the two campaigns acquired the image, so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions yet, or start throwing around accusations of copyright violation. My beef at the moment is the misrepresentation of the men in the picture. However, we haven’t yet established the existence of a signed and paid for release allowing the image to be used in the way that it has by either campaign.

What has it taught you about political campaigns and American politics?
CF: It boils down to what Jon Stewart said. “Two groups of people shouting at each other in a wind tunnel.” Whoever shouts the loudest (spends the most) will probably win. It’s not constructive and it subsequently makes consensus more difficult than ever. I don’t imagine the Senate to be the clubbable place that it probably once was. And I speak as someone who is a great admirer of what can be achieved by the American method, both in politics and in society as a whole.

Why do you think both political groups were drawn to this particular image?
CF: Good question. I have no idea. I don’t think their faces look particularly intimidatiing at all. If anything, it’s the angle the picture is shot from and the way they are grouped that gives it the subliminal effect of a threatening imposingness. The camera is quite low down. I shot it on a Mamiya RZ, which is a camera with a waistlevel viewfinder.  So you hold the camera at waist or chest height and look down into the viewfinder. That way you get a picture that, when shot quite close to the subject, creates the impression that the viewer is being imposed upon. They are looming over you. So that’s one aspect; the unstoppable advance of the Latino hordes trying to swamp us. The other is the way they are physically grouped. The viewer views the image as a lone individual. In this picture there are three of them and they form a solid wall from which there is no real escape if you were inclined to feel threatened by them in the first place. That’s all cod psychological theory that occured to me as I contemplated your question but maybe someone in a Republican campaign office felt that as he trawled the internet.

What would you say to those three men?
CF: I would say sorry and I would urge them to vehemently assert their rights to their own likenesses.

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