The recent, horrific events at the Cielo Vista Walmart have thrust the city of El Paso, Texas front and center before the American people. The media coverage has been intense – it has filled not only columns of print, but also the ravenous appetite of the 24 hour television news cycle – and it has presented a particular picture of the city, one of grief and protest, outraged elected officials, and subdued law enforcement. Such is the regrettably familiar imagery of America post-mass-shooting. But what of the El Paso of prior?
This past March, as part of Interstate Magazine’s coverage of Trans Pecos Texas (see parts one and two), I photographed the people and place that is – or was – El Paso, Texas. Needless to say, the El Paso I encountered was devoid of displays of civic activism concerning gun control. Absent were makeshift memorials to shooting victims in Walmart parking lots. There were no camera crews, press, or live-from-the-scene reporters.
Instead of this frenzy, I found a quiet, every-day, steady-state El Paso. It was an El Paso of ordinary people going about their quotidian life. On one street in the El Segundo Barrio neighborhood, I met a middle aged city worker on a visit to his aging mother. We chatted at length about the city council’s efforts to fund a new minor league baseball stadium and the various views expressed around town. In the Sunset Heights neighborhood, I came across a young lady, earbuds in and lost in thought, waiting on a city bus. In yet another part of town I walked among the shop workers setting out their displays in preparation for a day of shoppers. And in still another, I sat with an elderly homeless woman who insisted I photograph her sparkle-encrusted fingernails. All scenes as wonderful as they were mundane.
Alas, the El Paso I encountered in March was the El Paso of then-not-now, and, some might argue, an El Paso gone for good. The city that awoke early in the morning of August 3 was much the city I photographed in March, but the city that saw the sunset on August 3 was not. A city cannot emerge from a horror like the Cielo Vista Walmart mass shooting without being transformed. So how could Interstate Magazine publish the March photographs so soon after that earlier version of the city had been dispatched forever? It seemed a question difficult to answer.
Ultimately, the answer emerged – quite clearly – from rumination on the dynamic nature of cities versus the static nature of photographs.
No city stands still. Every city transmutes and transfigures on a daily basis. They are living organisms, endlessly shedding skins and changing stripes, so that no one would confuse, say, the Chicago of 1850 with the Chicago of 1950, or even the Brooklyn of 2009 with the Brooklyn of today. Yet while these changes may be sufficiently gradual to escape notice from day to day, month to month, year to year, they cannot hide from the camera. Photographs, depicting a frozen moment in time, reveal them in ways both subtle and profound.
Unlike ordinary, barely perceptible city evolution, events like the Cielo Vista Walmart shooting jarringly alter a city, as if the entire population were involved in a high speed car crash. Still, as with all photos from any ordinary day in the life of the city, even photographs taken on August 3 can only capture, if imperfectly, a slice-in-time of the city as it existed not just on that day, but at the moment the shutter was fired, be it before the events at the Cielo Vista Walmart or after.
The pre-Walmart shooting photographs are therefore as valid as any taken after, despite the tectonic change wrought by the events of August 3. They each capture a moment of the life of the city, as it existed then and there. What is more, it is this version of El Paso upon which the events of August 3 descended. With this in mind, the decision was fairly obvious. The El Paso of today undoubtedly feels different from the El Paso I photographed this past March, but it is nonetheless the same, ever evolving El Paso. You can find the photographs in the El Paso Photographic Journal.