I Am A Camera

Searching for backyard wrestlers, cholos, a scorpion belt, and the most blessed Virgin with Xavier Tavera

The man looks like a bulldog. Not that sweet, slobbering bulldog your grandma had when you were a kid, the cutie who'd lick the Popsicle goop from your sunburned forearms. No, this guy pressing through the doorway looks swollen with aggression.

His gargantuan head is mostly bald, save for the hours-old hair that has sprouted from the three-inch-thick skin rolls cascading down his neck. And though the man's girth causes him to waddle in his Adidas sandals, his fierce eyes say he has no time to waste. Still, he has something Xavier Tavera wants—a tattoo on his upper arm of praying hands. For weeks now, Tavera, a Minneapolis photographer, has been looking for just this image. So Tavera approaches the human bulldog as he exits Chihuahua Western Wear and Boots at Taquiera la Hacienda on Lake Street... and hopes for the best.

Today Tavera is at the Lake Street Mercado shooting photos for an upcoming book on religious iconography. He's also seeking out subjects for his latest photo and video exhibit, Artsourcing. The show features work made by the Latino artist collective Grupo Soap del Corazon (which includes Tavera and Douglas Padilla, among others) with the aid of immigrant labor, and will be on view at the Soap Factory through August 16.

When he first spots the man with the tattoo, Tavera, who otherwise is unflappable, widens his eyes and clears out of the man's path to the shirt section. "Did you see him?" Tavera whispers through his teeth. Even without the size factor, no one is likely to miss a guy wielding an imaginary bat of badass. "Did you see his tattoo?"

Next, Tavera asks the man, in Spanish, if he'll mosey around the back of the building, through the alley on Lake and Fourth, and pose for a picture. The man, who is named Miguel, smiles and humbly, even appreciatively, nods his head yes. It turns out that he possesses a timidity that belies his gigantic stature, like one of those tree frogs that can blow up to at least three times its own size if provoked.

Miguel chats easily with Tavera as he shuffles along the alley to an abandoned building on Lake and Clinton. It's plastered with bills for El Nuevo Rodeo and scrawled with Surenos gang tags. Tavera uses a clean spot of the faded wood-slat exterior as a backdrop for the portrait. Miguel turns to the side to reveal his tattooed arm bursting from his white tank top and stares into Tavera's medium-format Hasselblad camera. He tilts his head slightly downward, and his bushy black eyebrows turn from dancing caterpillars into thick, menacing batons.

By contrast, Tavera has a disarming presence aided by a set of teeth that glow like fireflies. As is his custom, Tavera learns intimate details and hard-luck stories about this man's life, all in the space of five minutes. He learns that Miguel is from a Mexico City neighborhood about 30 minutes away from where Tavera himself grew up. He learns that when Miguel was four, he moved to Anaheim, California, where he later wound up in a gang and in trouble with the law. And he learns that Miguel abandoned L.A. a few years ago to get away from it all, relocating to Minneapolis with his wife and kids.

The blue-inked tattoo of praying hands, Miguel says, is in homage to his mom, who returned to Mexico years ago. "She's far away," he says. "But I still think about her all of the time." As he speaks, Miguel's big eyes dart around, from behind Tavera, to the alley, to busy Lake Street where car horns blast, and back again.

Tavera, a tall and lean 35-year-old with close-cropped hair, and an equally thin goatee, has spent a good chunk of the last 10 years doing just this—waylaying people he's never met, shooting their photo, and carving out a tiny piece of their story in the time it takes to capture their image. "I think of the camera as a passport," says Tavera. "[Photography] starts a dialogue. You learn about their lives. It's not just the final paper thing. It's all the stuff that happens: the sounds, the smells, the dialogue."

Like anyone with an obsession or even a tic, Tavera has a hard time explaining his need to document people and things. "The people I photograph, sometimes I do not like them," he admits. "But I am still curious about them. It's the same thing for people that are into cars," he says. "Like, I want to understand how a carburetor works."

Tavera's project isn't about exoticism or exposing the Other; it's about uncovering binding similarities. His lens magnifies the odd personal expressions people often wear as costumes or proclamations. (Tavera himself expresses a fear of wearing pajamas, the flannel representing an emblem of domesticity.) In search of these portents and totems, Tavera traipses down Lake Street, through east St. Paul, into tiny and cluttered psychic shops in south Minneapolis, and alongside the soccer games in Powderhorn Park, always with a camera around his neck. Every day, he asks strangers to give themselves to him.

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