The Wrong Side Photographs by Jérôme Sessini Published by Contrasto, 2013.
"Ciudad Juarez, which is our malediction and our mirror, the blurred mirror of our frustrations and our despicable interpretation of freedom and of our desires." Robert Bolaño July 2003
Chilean writer Robert Bolaño's stirring description of Ciudad Juarez concludes Jerome Sessini's diverse visual documentary of one of the world's most violent cities. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, 10,000 people have been killed there in the last four years, an average of four people every day. Until 2011 it was consistently ranked the most dangerous city in the world outside of war zones. In 2012, 90 percent of the murders remained unsolved.
Sessini had covered war zones such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya and photographed Ciudad Juarez from November 2008 through December 2011; during his first stay in Ciudad Jurez there were 70 killings in one week. Discussing the long-term project in a 2012 interview with Vogue Italia Sessini explained, "It is very easy to make photographs of violence, of the dead. That's relatively easy. But I wanted to create a deeper project about the social consequences of the violence and so I needed a lot of time to build up trust in people [being photographed]." That intense sense of purpose and unusual access to the people and places he photographed is felt throughout The Wrong Side.
The frontispiece and several photographs that serve as a visual preface to the book's central photographs establish the desolate and desperate environment into which the viewers are venturing. The photograph of small shanty-town shacks in Ciudad Juarez lining an empty dirt road is printed on the inside covers of the book; in an opening image, the viewer is looking out at the road from the interior of a car driving to Juarez; a lone man in silhouette walks along the road with a wide looming sky in the background. Another shows a billboard of wanted drug cartel criminals against a swirling sky overlooking Juarez. We have fully arrived on "the wrong side" with the last photograph preceding Sessini's evocative and diverse collection: a ravaged courtyard strewn with ripped up mattresses, discarded furniture and rubble. A black spray painted figure of a nude woman covers to entire length of one of the stucco colored walls.
A loosely cohesive narrative ties together photographs of police drug searches, heroin addicts, bloody crime scenes, dank nightclubs, bleak strip clubs, executions, a funeral, gang prisoners, and female prostitutes. A few photographs of daily life in Ciudad Juarez, haunting portraits of children and wide shots of the borderlands emphasizing their desolate expansiveness expresses Ciudad Juarez's desperation more quietly but no less poignantly.
Sessini's photographs alternate between physically ravaged, barren and bloody exteriors and desperate, lonely and abandoned interiors. One of the book's opening photographs is of a single light bulb emanating light weakly from a mold encrusted ceiling; another shows a cramped, run-down brothel room with an empty chip bag gracing the bed's headboard; exteriors exhibit an abandoned armchair eerily illuminated between two trees, a rain-soaked, deserted street lined with graffiti sprayed and perhaps partially abandoned houses; a lone park bench amongst empty streets.
Many of his photographs of people in interiors reveal physical or psychic wounds or a combination of both: one of the rare named subjects of Sessini's photographs, Yasmine, 31, sits alone with her eyes closed in an empty room, injecting herself with heroin; we see her ravaged, track scarred arms in another photograph. In another image (entitled simply Six Months with Methadone), a woman stares intently yet blankly into the distance in a cramped room with a television's unearthly glow in the corner. Sessini's emphasis on jarring juxtaposition within a single image is perhaps most dramatically displayed in his photograph of the reflection of a man injecting himself in the groin with heroin while a chicken stands on his bed.
"I wanted to photograph the fear, the silence, the sadness of the people [on the Mexican border]," Sessini told Vogue in 2012. "One cannot make an icon out of that." There are perhaps no icons in The Wrong Side (though the Diane Arbus influenced cover photograph of a masked child perhaps comes close) but there are several photographs that demonstrate both the great extent to which Sessini penetrated the worlds and lives the people he photographed and also reveal a powerful intimacy between the viewer and the image. In one, we glimpse the trepidation on the face of a female prostitute as she awakens; in one of the most expressive photographs in the book, a young boy with his eyes downcast affectionately holds his pet dog.
In the same interview, Sessini said, "I look for the equilibrium between aesthetics and information." The book concludes with several entries from the photographer's journal and provides a visually and emotionally descriptive and informative complement to his photographs. His sparsely captioned photographs and highly revealing written chronicle create the very equilibrium that he is seeking.
Sessini's documentary visual narrative powerfully urges the viewer to confront and be disrupted by the existence of a "right side" that allows a "wrong side" to flourish. "Mexico, so near, and yet so far," he writes in the afterward. "I sensed nothing there but despair, resignation and fear… Their life resembled a long expiatory Calvary, for having committed the sin of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time."