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Bronia Stewart: Pepe (detail)

Work / Behind The Scenes

Bronia Stewart on her latest documentary series about Mexican gangs

Bronia Stewart first caught everyone’s attention back in 2013 with her project Babe Station. With this gritty series taken behind the scenes at an adult television channel the LCC graduate dove into salacious subject matter showing maturity, confidence and creativity beyond her tender years. Where could she and her camera possibly venture next?

Mexico.

Specifically, to Chalco, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City rife with robbery, violence and drug cartels. Bronia spent six weeks with a store owner and gang member, Pepe Torreblanco, and his family, shooting as before on film and documenting the fiestas and friendships, arguments and Americanisation of their daily life.

I caught up with the intrepid photographer to ask why, after a show at The Photographers’ Gallery and glowing media coverage, she didn’t simply take it easy for a while.

How many photos did you take whilst in Chalco? And how do you select the ones which make the final cut?

I shot a lot of rolls of film during the time I was in Chalco. I Fedexed them back in batches to my lab in London and they emailed me contact sheets so I could see my progress as I was shooting. The edit process was difficult and took quite a while. Some of the situations I shot didn’t make sense within the story so had to be edited out.

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

How comfortable did you feel with the family and in the community? Can you speak Spanish?

Pepe and his family made me feel very welcome but I never felt completely comfortable. I worked with a producer who is from Mexico City and he was always with me when I was shooting and translated for me with everyone. We had some difficult experiences using public transport so had to rent cars from the city and drove out to Chalco. We tried to be as safe as possible.

Were there any events which Pepe and his family wouldn’t let you photograph?

The risk element to the project had an effect on the pictures I could make. There were lots of missed opportunities and times I wanted to shoot but was told not to. There were also problems with rival gangs and this meant that during a period while I was there some of the gang members went into hiding and I couldn’t take photos with them. During this time I got to know Pepe better and spent time with his family.

Did you have your camera with you more or less all the time during the six weeks spent with Pepe?

Yes, but I find that it helps at the beginning to get to know people and every now and again turn up without a camera and just hang out.

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

Do you think Pepe is representative of life in this community? Are there any aspects you think have been missed in this series?

It’s difficult to represent a whole community through one person and I met many people in Chalco with differing stories and experiences. I would like to go back and shoot more. I really enjoyed the time I spent there; it was challenging and intense but ultimately that was what made it a meaningful experience.

I’ve spent about a year of my life in Latin America and I’m endlessly fascinated by the people’s obsession with the US. What did you make of it?

There was certainly an aspiration amongst Pepe and the gang to live in America and they were heavily influenced by Los Angeles gang style. Most of the people I met who talked about America felt that it offered a better life with more opportunities.

Which other communities are on your “To Photograph” list?

There are many but it’s always about trying to get access!

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe

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Bronia Stewart: Pepe