Russell Monk and his Riesgo

by Heather on May 10, 2011

Since we are talking about Risk this month on HMAb, I thought it fitting to share with you some deeply beautiful work from a photographer who made a risky decision to relocate from Toronto to Mexico 8 years ago. Though Russell Monk keeps a home in Toronto, travels for work constantly (off to Tibet and China in July) and is repped by Westside Studio, at least part of the year he can be found in his daylight studio in San Miguel de Allende.

Russell made this major decision after going through a big breakup, the death of a parent and after already completing several projects in Latin America. Perhaps it was more of a calculated Risk, un riesgo calculado, but a Risk nonetheless.

Recently he has started sharing work from his ongoing series of portraits of his neighbours. Through these portraits and some accompanying description, Russell shows us a rich community, held together by strong relational ties using classic cultural iconographic overtones.

There are many shots in this series and sadly, nowhere to see them all (yet). It was hard to choose which ones to show but I’ll start with one that features a favourite game in my house- the Mexican Lotteria. Below the pictures- Russell’s fantastic descriptions:

That is Claudia’s eye – I am pretty sure. It has been a while though – peering through a Mexican “lotteria” board (a traditional game of chance that is played here).

Mexico can sometimes be a pretty surreal place.

- – - – -

Braulio was was doing some kind of “artisan’ work on a small grinding machine when one of his family knocked on my door and said I should take a photo of him. His face was almost that black, His hands too. I asked him to rub some more on his face. And added the crown.

Braulio can make me sad. I think his story is too triste to tell here.

He is like a phantom in his own large family

- – - – -

Salvador lives across the street – with his daughter, his sons and his grandkids and one one Great grand daughter – who has Downs Syndrome. Now and then he can be found sprawled out front of his casa all but comatose. Empty Corona bottles by his side. Ditto one of his sons. And the household has been fraught with tragedy…. A couple of years ago – another of the grandchildren, twelve at the time, accused her father, another of Salvador’s sons – of sexually abusing her. She was proved right and the son was put in jail for a while. Only for a few months though. When he got out he came and took his family, including the daughter (who had been sent to live with an aunt in the meantime) off to live in an an even poorer Colonia – where they have no running water. A few weeks later he came back and took the metal roof of one of the rooms. He said it was his and he needed it. We are not sure why he got out so quickly – but rumor has it that he has a friend who is a well placed Cop.

And they rarely, if ever come back around the neighborhood.

Salvador recently got a white rabbit – that he has not named. From my roof I can see him on his roof chasing after the rabbit (where he is kept). Sometimes it takes his quite a while to catch him. Why he chases him around the roof is not quite clear? But, he seems very fond of the rabbit. That’s for sure.

I like the idea of keeping a rabbit on the roof – instead of dogs. They make far less noise. Although, word has it that there urine is quite noxious smelling. If you have spent any time in Mexican neighborhoods you will know about – have suffered the plight of the poor “Roof Dog”. Roof bunnies of SM unite!

- – - – -

The truth is that I can’t remember his name. It is written somewhere. He works at the local slaughterhouse. I asked him to make sure he came to my house in the clothes he worked in – covered in blood. When he arrived at my door he had a bucket of blood in his hand.

“Just in case you needed more”, he said.

They didn’t in fact have any Pig’s heads at the slaughterhouse that day. There had been a run on them.
So – I had to go and find my own somewhere else.

- – - – -

Paz is fourteen. Thirteen when this photo was taken. She lives next door. A couple of weeks ago a dozen roses arrived for her in a taxi. Her mother told me and laughed.

I saw Paz a few days later. “Lo pregunte – que los enviaron” (who sent them?). She giggled. Un Muchacho (some (young) dude).

- – - – -

Carlos is one of Isabelle’s (Nico’s Mum) grandkids. Isabelle is the matriarch next door. He is a gentle soul. A real sweetheart.

- – - – -


Senor Sanchez trots about the dusty streets on the back (and perched so far back you wonder how he stays afloat?) of a tired looking Burro. Strapped to each flank are battered old milk canisters. The “Senor” is a milkman, Some people here still get their milk this way.
I asked the “Senor” on numerous occasions to come by for his “portrait” session. He would grumble, throw a hand in the air dismissively, sort of agree – and then not show up.

However – one Saturday he did. We maneuvered the Burro through the front door and I positioned them both in front of the background. I took a few frames and then he started to leave. “Bastante” – he said (enough). “Y dame mi dinero” (let’s have my money) and did that dismissive wave of the hand thing. “Dude” I said, I am paying you ( and I pay everyone the same and more than fair model fee) for a half hour – remember. That wasn’t even two minutes!”

What followed for the next 15 minutes was a battle of wills. A few images taken and more dismissive hand jerks and half movements and whatever cajoling it took from me to get him to stay there. This photograph is one of the last I took. I suddenly noticed his hands and asked him to place them that way.

- – - – -

Sometimes when Martine is doing work that needs concrete mixing he brings an “ayudante”; more often or not a relative.
Rai is his young nephew. I asked him if he had quit school? “No,” he said, his school (Mexico has a two or even – in Rai’s case – a three shift system – “I start at 6pm.”

“You don’t get tired”, I asked?

A pretty shy and …soft spoken and shy type at the best of times – he just looked at me gave me a sheepish grin and half nodded his head. That was on a friday afternoon. On Monday when he showed up – he had cut all his hair off.


He just gave me another sheepish grin and went off to mix some concrete.

- – - – -

Dolores has a little stand that ten end of my street where she sells treats and snacks every evening.

During our ‘session” I had a bit of a local history lesson. We both live in the Colonia of Montes de Loretto. Dolres told me that her family were the first people to live here. There were no other houses. They bought their lot for about 160.00$ (Now they go for as much as 25,000$!). Nearly twenty years ago. Montes de Loretto was the man who owned all the land. He sold it to the Gov and they then sold it off to the public.

Doloroes has a husband who is older than her and can’t work anymore. Her four kids all live in California. The last time she saw them was nine years ago when she snuck across the border with some fake credentials.

When I offered Dolores the usual model fee, she declined. And wouldn’t back down. “Usted queira hacer mi foto es suficiente para mi”. You wanted to make a photo of me and that’s enough for me.

Isn’t she lovely.

- – - – -

Nico and his infant son, Deelan, live next door. Nico drives a bus and often brings it home and parks it right outside. He often fires it up before 6am and let’s it run for a good twenty minutes with “Ranchero” music blaring. I asked him once why he couldn’t park his bus a little further up the street? He told me that he was worried the stereo would get stolen. Personally I couldn’t see the problem with that.

A couple of years ago Nico had to be airlifted to a hospital in a bigger town. He had been partying with some friends and fell off a wall. He punctured a lung and was given a 50/50 chance of living. Fortunately the glass turned out half full. We drove most of the family, crammed into a VW bug to the hospital, a couple of hours away.

He just got two new tattoos – one on each arm. “Deelan” and “Alexi” – his little son’s other name.

- – - – -

SARAI {otro vez) – wrapped in a Mexican flag (with Virgin de Guadalupe overtones):

Shortly after having her photograph taken I jokingly offered her Mum some band aids which I had (from another photograph) lying around. She laughed and thought I meant they were for her mouth (Sarayi, despite her demure appearance is LOUD!). But, I had meant for cuts and bruises as she is a bit of a “hellcat”.

Not a half hour later I heard wailing and a loud commotion next door. When I arrived Sarai was standing there – her dress covered in blood. Her forehead had a nasty gash across it. Concha, her mum was besides herself. Carlos, her brother was crying and shaking. All the family were distraught.

Sarai was howling. Her body trembled.

Seems that the three year old from across the street had thrown a large rock at her head. Luckily it has just missed her eye.

“Pinche Cabron!” – said Isabelle (Concha’s mother) fighting back tears. She was referring to the little boy’s father, who she held responsible.

There is no love lost between the families – well between the adults, at least. As it turned out Sarayi was ok – but all the blood shook everyone up. The next afternoon when I saw her she had on her forehead one of the band aids I had jokingly given to her mum.

All photographs © Russell Monk

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

dattu May 13, 2011 at 12:15 pm

One of the people I truly admire. Russell has been on a long journey and the treasure he picks up on the way are priceless. I have always enjoyed and collected his work.

These images are on another level of discovery with a strong sense of emotion. Simple and poignant. He would not have been able to get this insight had he not been in Mexico, had he not been willing to move their for a different perspective not only on work but life.

Heather May 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

Well said Hasnain, thanks for the comment.

Brendan Meadows May 16, 2011 at 7:44 pm

A true visionary among us creating incredible work with such concise technical skill & beauty.

Jus sayin’.


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