Bracco visits Elon, gives life to Mexico’s war through photography

By Stephanie Butzer

Dominic Bracco walked on unstable ground in order to document the struggles of modern innocence for Mexican children living on the border.

Photo credit: Stephanie Butzer

Dominic Bracco listens to student questions in an Elon Reporting class. Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Bracco is a member of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and specializes in documenting the effects of Mexican and North American policies on the border. He has zeroed in on the younger generation and how years of neglect has hurt the youth of Mexico.

“What was important about covering the border was bringing that to the American audience because I felt like people in the United States didn’t really understand the connection that we all have with what’s happening there,” Bracco said.

Bracco grew up in a Texan town only an hour away from the border. He went to the University of Texas at Arlington, against his father’s wishes, to study journalism and Spanish literature. At the school, he worked on several personal projects at school.

After graduation, Bracco freelanced and traveled overseas to Russia and Kazakhstan. However, he realized many other photojournalists already covered these countries while nobody was investigating the drug war in Mexico. He jumped on the opportunity.

Bracco focused in on Juarez, Mexico. The city was big enough so he could do what he set out to accomplish, but it was still a dangerous place to be, especially for an American.

Drug cartel members and criminals were not the only people injured or murdered in the war. Bracco decided to focus on the innocent people who were also victims in the scuffles, especially the children.

After photographing the murder victims of a gunman – a man, woman and her unborn child – Bracco realized his purpose in Juarez.

“This was precisely the reason I that had set out to be a photographer and the reason I had set out for Mexico to work on the border,” Bracco said. “I wanted to make sure the pictures were showing what was happening to innocent people.”

The Mexican children were a generally overlooked generation. Bracco was young himself, so it was easy to talk to groups of young kids. After many conversations, he realized many young people were dying because they were being fed to the war. The gangs of kids and teenagers he met with were called Los Ninis from the Spanish saying “ni estudian, ni trabajan,” meaning those who neither work nor study.

“They are, to me, the story of the border,” Bracco said. “They are basically the product of 20 years of social neglect after the passing free-trade agreements.”

After six months of working alone in Mexico, Bracco felt himself burning out. It was 2010, the height of the war, and nobody was publishing his pictures. He started second-guessing what he was doing there.

But, when he witnessed a 15-year-old boy get shot helping people cross the border, things changed.

“It sort of solidified my process and my hypothesis that the center of this war was Mexico’s youth,” Bracco said.

Bracco’s photographs of the boy ran in The Wall Street Journal and sparked a national debate about America’s presence and use of force on the border. Bracco was the only American there at the time and without him, there would not have been press coverage from the United States.

“That was the encouragement I needed to continue working for it and when I saw the results of my work I felt like what I was doing was powerful and I did have a voice,” Bracco said.

But the battle was not over. It was difficult to coax the children to trust Bracco and the camera. He had to build sturdy relationships for them to trust him. Even after a full year, the group he wanted to work with did not allow him to photograph them.

One day, it clicked. Bracco went out to the soccer field many kids played at and they allowed him to take pictures. He immediately went home, developed the photographs and he brought them back to the fields the next day. The children were so excited about having an actual picture of them that they eagerly invited him back.

Bracco struggled to stay ethical, especially since his focus was on young people. He does not believe journalists talk about ethics enough or examine the results of their work. Media has become accessible for almost anybody to the point where it usually affects the people in their communities to one degree or another.

“You have this powerful tool that you’re wielding and you have to treat it with respect, ” Bracco said.

Bracco uses the kids’ first names or nicknames I order to protect them from being targets. He had to tell their story without putting specific people at risk. He views access to conversations as a privilege and always treats it as such.

Photo credit: Stephanie Butzer

Dominic Bracco photographed children in Juarez, Mexico, and the affect the drug made on them. Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Bracco has worked in countries all over the world and interacted with all sorts of cultures. However, now he just wants to focus on Mexico. The people are still plagued by war and Bracco hopes to bring the brutality, but also simple daily life, to the people of North America.

“People are people,” Bracco said. “At the end of the day, we’re all kind of familiar.”


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2 thoughts on “Bracco visits Elon, gives life to Mexico’s war through photography

  1. February 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm Reply

    I actually found this specific post , “Bracco visits Elon,
    gives life to Mexico’s war through photography Stephanie Butzer”, really interesting and
    the post was indeed a superb read. Regards-Melodee

    • Stephanie Butzer February 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm Reply

      Thank you! I am glad you found it engaging.

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