As a commercial photographer, Jon Bertelli is used to taking everyday subjects like cars or liquor bottles and making them look like shiny, sensuous objects of desire. The subjects of his show Memorias de Una Gran Jornada (“Memories of a Great Journey”), however, couldn’t be more different. Seamed and leathery and unapologetically old, the faces on view at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Tuesday (September 7) through September 21 are those of Mexican campesinos, none of whom ever had the chance to taste a $100 single malt or drive a state-of-the-art sports coupe. Bigger satisfactions were theirs, though, for they once fought for freedom and justice—and won.
Veterans of the Mexican Revolution, they served under peasant leader Emiliano Zapata. And it’s thanks to them that their country is today a democratic state, albeit a troubled one.
These weathered elders are dead now: when Bertelli photographed them, in 1996 and 1997, they’d already far outstripped the average span of years allotted to their fellow citizens. “The youngest, the kid of the bunch, was 99 years old,” says the Italian-born photographer, on the line from his Vancouver home. “And then from there on they were 100, 102, and even more than that.”
Memorias de Una Gran Jornada is being presented as part of México Fest, a multivenue, multimedia celebration of Mexican culture that runs through September 17. (The event is tied in to the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, which began in the fall of 1910 and ended with the adoption of democratic reforms in 1920.) Also appearing will be Guadalupe Rivera Marin, the daughter of famed muralist Diego Rivera and step daughter of the equally accomplished painter Frida Kahlo, who’ll present her autobiographical Diego, Frida, Fiestas and Revolution at the Roundhouse on Tuesday (September 7); the Folkloric Ballet of Sinaloa, as part of the free Fiesta Mexico Independencia 2010 at the Vancouver Convention Centre’s Thurlow Plaza on the afternoon of September 11; sculptor Sebastián, who’ll display his work at the VanDusen Botanical Garden on September 14; and classical saxophone quartet Clarinetemente Saxual, at the W2 Storyeum on September 15. (For a full lineup and schedule, visit the Mexico Fest Web site.)
Many of these artists undoubtedly draw their inspiration from the Mexican landscape, which ranges from harsh and unforgiving desert to lush and fertile jungle to the concrete barrios of the country’s capital. And you could say that Bertelli’s subjects themselves were born from the Mexican soil. When they took up arms under Zapata, their rallying cry was “tierra y libertad”, or “land and freedom”, and their chief aim was to abolish the near-feudal sharecropping system that then prevailed in the Mexican countryside.
This they did, and they were proud of their achievement—but getting to know these sometimes literally battle-scarred survivors was a slow process for Bertelli. It was only through the intervention of Mateo Zapata, Emiliano’s son, that the photographer made contact with the veterans, and only through the purity of his intentions that he won their trust.
“At first, they were just like any other little old guy or little old woman,” Bertelli recalls. “But when I started talking to them, their expression completely changed. You could even see it in their eyes: there was like a depth to it, as if they were going back in time. Some of them were hard; some of them became sad. And there was one woman who started to laugh—a lady who, as a little kid, used to roll cigars for Zapata.
“At first she didn’t want to have her picture taken,” he continues, “because she told me ”˜You want to take away my soul.’ So I took a Polaroid first and gave it to her and said ”˜Here, I’m giving you back your soul.’ So she started laughing and said ”˜That’s fine. Now you can take my picture.’ But she was the only one who had a sense of humour about her experiences. The others, if you didn’t talk about the war, they were fine—but as soon as you got into that chapter of their life, they completely changed.”
Meeting these aged revolutionaries has also changed their portraitist, although he has to think about just how.
“I guess what I could see in them was that they were people who’d had nothing to lose,” he says contemplatively. “Between dying or living as they were, there was not much difference. That’s what made them the fearsome fighters that they became—and after meeting them, I look at life in a different way, that’s for sure.
“I think this project is taking me away from advertising,” he adds. “I started off as an art director, and slowly got into photography; I’ve done car shoots and liquor and wines and all that kind of stuff. But I’ve lost a lot of my interest in that.”
In other words, the world of marketing may be losing a talented shutterbug, but photojournalism’s gained an artist.