A Launch Party for “Narco Estado”

Tuen Voeten goes where angels fear to tred. Few willingly plunge into African war zones or the Mexican drug chaos except souls equipped with a camera and very steady nerves. Voeten, a Dutch photojournalist, follows the action and returns with portfolios that give witness to the terror and humanity found far from his European home.

I met Voeten at a launch event for his latest book, Narco Estado, held at Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel in New York. Published by Lannoo Publishers in Belgium, the book contains Voeten’s photos taken during 2009-2011, when drug killings rocketed in Ciudad Juarez, the site of many of the photos, along with the cities of Culiacan and Monterrey. I read daily about the situation in Mexico at Borderland Beat and Frontera List (where I learned of the launch event), and Voeten gives visual shape to the horrific stories. Bodies lie sprawled in cars, on streets, in fields, in buildings, neighbors silently watch the police on the scene, a man with a vision cares for the insane in a desert compound, prostitutes wait for customers on dark and empty streets. With a journalist’s care for documentation, Voeten provides details on the time, location and context of each photo. His website describes the book this way:

From 2009 till 2011, Voeten focused on the drug related violence that is destabilizing Mexico. He visited the epicenter of the violence, Ciudad Juarez, as well as other hot spots such as Culiacan and Michoacan. With introductory essays by El Paso based anthropologist Howard Campbell as well as Culiacan based writer Javier Valdez Cardenas, this hard hitting photobook tries to explains why the drug violence in Mexico can no longer be ignored as a fringe criminal problem, since it is eroding the very fundaments of our human civilization.

Narco Estado is the latest result of a career spent on the edges of civilization. Other projects include. What’s next, I asked him? For now, he’s finishing up his dissertation on Mexican drug violence at a university in Belgium.

The location for the launch party also added to the atmosphere. Over the decades I’ve visited many New York hotels, from the massive Marriott Marquis and Waldorf=Astoria to smaller, sleeker hotels like the W. But I’ve never set foot in a raffish place like the Carlton Arms. Indeed, I never knew it existed until I attended the Voeten event.

Located at non-trendy 160 E. 25th Street, the Carlton is easy to miss from street level; you ring an bell and ascend a flight of stairs to reach it. And then  . . . the place feels like the setting for a Graham Greene novel, or a throwback to New York in the 1930s. Art decorates the lobby and rooms, overstuffed chairs encourage lounging, the rumpled and effective staff completes the atmosphere. The place has art openings and other events and I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for whatever comes up next. It felt like my kind of place in the city of polished megaliths, the scampering marsupial among the mastodons of lodging.

 

Ritual and Violation Through the Ages

Here’s something new at Times of Israel, touching on issues of ritual and Jewish practice covered in the book. It starts,

The new 9-ll attack in Libya and its aftermath sickened me with images of the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and reports of the violation of his body, dragged through the streets of Benghazi. Seeing the bloody handprints of Americans on a pillar reminded me of the photo from the 2000 lynching of two IDF reservists in Ramallah, as Aziz Salha waved his blood-drenched hands in triumph after the killings, which also involved the reservists’s bodies being dragged through the streets.

Separated by almost 12 years but united by the barbarism of the perpetrators, these two acts coincide with thoughts I’ve had lately on death, the rituals of mourning and the deep anguish caused when those rituals are violated.

With Yom Kippur passed, with its reflections on life and death, I’m struggling to find a narrative thread connecting horrific media images. They contrast violently with my traditional sense of treating the dead.