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Behind the Scenes: 

Making The Power of Faces in Mexico

EDITOR’S NOTE: The purpose of this Behind-The-Scenes view of The Power of Faces is to provide insight (and hopefully encouragement) for others interested in doing similar work to support displaced people around the world. In no way is this BTS perspective intended to romanticize or glamorize the on-the-ground crisis facing millions of vulnerable men, women and children. There are numerous logistical and technical issues we have addressed that practitioners may find of interest.

     – Thank you, Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders

In December 2018 we documented displaced individuals located in the Barretal refugee camp in Tijuana, Mexico. These men, women and children were previously located near the US/Mexico border. Just days earlier, thousands of migrants were relocated to Barretal, which was previously a dance hall and concert venue. When we arrived, there were minimal services, infrastructure, security, medical care, hygiene facilities or food. The Tijuana authorities were not adequately equipped to service, feed or care for the thousands of people halted at the border.

Women, children and families were placed inside the crowded dance hall. Men were primarily located outside the building in hundreds of small tents. People are able to enter the building freely.

We were provided access to the camp through our contacts at Tijuana’s Municipal Institute Against Addictions.

Given the severe lack of services or infrastructure and the massive overcrowding, we were instructed to wear N95 surgical masks and gloves.

We were informed there were early indications of typhoid, tuberculosis and influenza due to overcrowding and lack of sanitation.

People were seeking refuge in every available space in the three-level dance hall. The cavernous room is continually noisy, there is no respite. Being so exposed, people are highly vulnerable to harm.

For the portrait project, we were able to use a wall near the entrance to the building. We hung our backdrop and set up a makeshift portable studio to print hundreds of photos. Finding electricity is often a challenge in camps, we brought our own extension cords and were able to find a working outlet.

The bright backdrop quickly caught the attention of people and we explained our intentions: to give people beautiful portraits of them, their family and friends. We also explained that we seek to raise awareness of the situation and many people gave us written permission to share their portraits publicly.

The portraits in The Power of Faces are only minimally edited or Photoshopped, perhaps to remove minor elements that are extraneous to the core image (such as wrinkles in the backdrop). We intentionally leave the individuals realistic and untouched, to show the true face of the people we meet. We believe it would be a disservice to "sugar coat" or dilute the on-the-ground situation. There are many moments of joy and happiness in our interactions with the individuals in the photos, but there is also the reality of the challenges and hardships these individuals face ever day.

With previous efforts in refugee camps in Greece, “The Power of Faces” teams ranged from 8 to 12 people to serve the hundreds of people each day. Due to the immediacy of the humanitarian crisis in Tijuana, however, our Mexico team was lean – 4 people. Theresa Menders and Alexander Huang were responsible for explaining to project to people, guiding the individuals from start to finish, obtaining releases and moving the process efficiently so people did not have to wait very long and had a pleasant experience. Celeste Huang made the portraits, often taking multiple poses of the individuals so we could give them a number of prints of family and friends. Daniel Farber Huang ran the high-volume printing and production on site.

To ensure an orderly process, we printed our own numbered cards for each person. This helped people understand their place in the queue, and also helps us match an individual to their signed photo release if they granted one.

One of the great indignities of being a “refugee” is having to wait in line endlessly for everything – using the bathroom, waiting to eat, medical services (if they are available), and all other services. Given that “The Power of Faces” may service hundreds of people each day we are in a camp, it is extremely important to us to minimize the amount of time people may have to wait to take their picture and then receive their printed photos. We had multiple cameras and six portable printers capable of printing over 300 photos each hour in total.

Our production process is lean but still requires significant materials (photo paper, toner, cardboard folio frames) and equipment to produce hundreds of prints each day.

Our equipment in Tijuana included:

  • Printers: 6 Canon SELPHY CP1200 printers connected in parallel

  • Cameras: Nikon DSLRs – D7100 and D5100; Sony Alpha A5100 Mirrorless

  • Tripods: Sirui T-005X Aluminum Tripods with C-10S Ball Head

  • Camera accessories and security: OP/TECH USA straps and accessories. OP/TECH USA has been a generous sponsor of our work for years.

  • Computer: Lenovo Yoga 9100

  • Software: Adobe Lightroom

  • Camera connections was via a TetherTool cable

  • Printer parallel connections were via an Anker USB 3.0 SuperSpeed 10-Port Hub

  • Folio frames: TAP Packaging Solutions Photo Folders allowed us to give the prints in elegant protective covers. TAP Packaging Solutions generously donated Photo Folders when we first conceived “The Power of Faces” and we continue to distribute them with our prints.

 

We were able to navigate the shifting environment and obtain permissions with the guidance and insight of numerous people. Special thanks to:

  • Martha Alvarez Romero - Director, Municipal Institute Against Addictions

  • Hugh Wright - Director, Sunset Bay Academy

  • Christian Romero - Researcher, Municipal Institute Against Addictions

  • Caroline Villel

  • Jose Alberto Garcia

  • Nina Garcia Wright

  • Quincy Huang

  • Christian Huang