I Am A Camera

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

"I love stereotypes," Tavera says, tapping a photo he took of a gang member who has "Surenos" tattooed above an image on his stomach of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. "I just love them. I work with them, and against them. All stereotypes come from somewhere. And some have some truth behind them. How did they get to be?"

One of Tavera's more recent images is of a gray-haired mustachioed man who emigrated from Honduras a few years ago. The black-and-white photograph is a still from a video that Tavera created for a display at the Soap Factory, along with editor Eduardo Bernal, a Colombian immigrant. The video plays inside a house made of fruit boxes. Tavera designed the structure then commissioned two of the video's subjects—local immigrants—to construct it.

The Honduran man in the photo used to cut granite at the company where Tavera works. In the winter, he'd ask Tavera nearly every day why the earth was covered in ice and snow.

"He was a very, very kind man," Tavera recalls. "He wasn't very educated, and he lived on the coast his entire life. He'd never seen snow before. He'd ask, 'Xavier, how did all this ice get here? How is it that there are clouds on the ground?'"

Tavera would explain it to him. How moisture forms in the air. How it freezes. How it falls to the ground. And again the next day he'd ask, Xavier, Tell me again how clouds get on the ground? Tavera has since lost touch with the man, but he tells his story as if it's an ancient and beautiful piece of folklore.

Tavera's blown-up images urge viewers to look closely at a person who often goes unnoticed or unexamined. It allows them to study, without fear or awkwardness, the tattoos on the face of a gang member, or inspect the deep crevices worn into a man's face, like cracks in an untended sidewalk, by years of hard labor. As he relays the stories that correspond with the photos, Tavera's dog, a compact and sweet-tempered black mutt named Lupe, who looks not unlike a loaf of bread with four legs, barks at an imaginary squirrel outside. "Tranquilo," Tavera whispers to her through a smile.

Since receiving the McKnight fellowship, Tavera has also received Jerome Fellowships for his work, including the recent Jerome Emerging Printmakers' Residency. Yet Tavera rarely sells any work. And he makes virtually no money as an artist, which is why he works full-time at another granite company doing design and drafting. Recently, the Weisman Museum purchased a photograph, but Tavera barely pocketed $100 from the deal.

The piece was a diptych: two photographs that were each about the size of a doorway. One image was of a white man in a ski mask, the color of his skin peeking out through the eyeholes. The other image was of a black man in the identical mask and pose.

"They only wanted one photograph," Tavera says. "But it didn't make sense that way. So I made another print and just gave it to them."

Back on Lake Street on a spa-like day in late June, Tavera wheels his camera gear through Taquiera la Hacienda. Tavera has a story about this place, too. He knew the owner back when it was a Guatemalan grocery store. Tavera had taken pictures of the guy's father, a wrestler, police officer, army sergeant, and ventriloquist back in Guatemala. When Tavera picked him up for a photo shoot, the old man limped to the curb and had difficulty maneuvering his body into Tavera's gray Jeep Cherokee. But when they got to the site of the shoot, a gym at 14th and Lake, the man leapt from a stool, flew over Tavera's head with his arms extended in a perfect victory V, and somersaulted into the ring. "Some things you never forget," the man told him.

Tavera has arranged to do a photo shoot inside Chihuahua Western Wear and Boots. Originally, he wanted to shoot a belt buckle that sports a dead scorpion encapsulated in plastic. But the belt is sold out, so he's settled today for an orange baby-alligator purse that includes the alligator's tiny, palm-sized head and webbed feet that crisscross the purse's opening. The bag goes for more than 900 bucks. Tavera's goal is to rent various pieces from store owners—belt buckles, shoes, purses—and present them in a photo essay at Artsourcing about all of the things that have crossed the border, like animal-skin items that flaunt their status as the real article.

"I love kitsch," Tavera says, smiling at the idea of it. "It's so extreme. And I love how people use it." He points at his watch on his left wrist. "I only wear this. And I'm not sure why it's the only thing I wear. People go to dance at El Nuevo Rodeo or wherever, and they spend thousands of dollars on hats, shirts, boots. I'm curious how people think about themselves, how they use this to express it."

There's already a young woman inside the shop doing a photo shoot for the ad circular Rincón Hispano. She's wearing a fuschia cowboy hat and a sleeveless coral-pink top that drapes in sheer waves to just above her belly button. The photographer instructs her to put her hands on her knees and lean forward, forcing the napkin-sized pink shirt to form a tunnel to her cleavage. The photographer has even made a printout of sexy poses to show to the girl, who is not a professional model. Each forced, hypersexual picture looks like something out of a 1980s muscle-car magazine.

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