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.

Lately, Tavera has been intrigued by the things he finds on the street or in churches—icons that are often unintentionally theatrical or contradictory. Take Tavera's portrait of a church member from a south Minneapolis congregation. This bearded man in a homemade cream-colored frock has collapsed to the ground, landing on his right side in a twisted heap of anguish. He's playing a bloodied Jesus in a re-creation of the Pasión. The setting however, happens to be an asphalt parking lot, and Jesus is wearing black tennis shoes and a crown of rope.

This juxtaposition suits Tavera fine. He has been especially preoccupied recently with the transfer of religious imagery from Mexico to the States: gory images of Jesus and the hundreds of revered saints and virgins that appear on everything from car doors to soap bars. Which is how he wound up on Lake Street today in search of a tattoo of praying hands.

There's something of the flaneur in Tavera, the aimless pedestrian and urban observer, and there always has been. When Tavera was 10 years old, he snuck out of his Mexico City house during the afternoon of Mexican Independence Day. He pocketed his mom's cheap 110 film-format camera, and walked blocks away through busy city streets to an air show. That September 16th afternoon, he stood alone in the crowd, pulled out his mother's little camera, and pointed it toward the sunny sky. He snapped at least 10 pictures of planes that soared above the crowd in flock formation. Then Tavera headed home, quietly entered the house before anyone noticed he was gone, and returned his mom's camera to her dresser drawer.

Tavera wasn't an artist right away, though. He tried studying law in his native Mexico City with the hope of pursuing either civil or labor practice. He bailed, he says, when he realized that it was a path forked with corruption and payoffs, often instigated by shady police departments.

"Law as a theory is beautiful," Tavera says. "But once you get out there and work, it is horrendous."

So Tavera instead learned CAD (computer-aided design), and took a job doing drafting for a granite company, which brought him to the States a little more than a decade ago. After the company went bankrupt, he studied photography at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for two years, opting out before he went bankrupt himself.

Though Tavera has taken probably 5,000 pictures since the air show nearly 25 years ago, he can't let go of the photos from that day, which are printed on thick, square paper that fits into his palm. The blue sky is muted—veiled as if by diesel fumes or the slushy skein that collects on Minnesota curbs in early spring. And the planes, only slightly larger than the dust specks, are so grainy and far away they could be ink smears or wriggling bass fry.

When his mother had the pictures developed a few weeks after the air show, Tavera landed in deep trouble. "This is expensive!" she scolded him. "Why are you taking pictures of mosquitoes in the sky?" He told her he liked their movement.

"They think it's funny," Tavera says of his parents' reaction to his penchant for documentary-style photography. "They have seen and smelled and tasted everything that has come their way. But I don't think they understand what I do. I can hardly understand it."

In nearly every picture Tavera has of his dentist parents, the couple is laughing. Why is their own son asking them to stand in front of a crucifix or huddle near saints or plastic virgin dolls that are more at home wiggling on top of sun-cracked dashboards? And why is he asking them to don sequined wrestling masks?

While Tavera says the camera is a passport, for him it is also a shield and a telescope. While growing up in Mexico City, he was mugged five times. Knives were used on some occasions, fists and legs on others. He lost a pair of cheap sneakers from his feet, watches, a bicycle, a bottom tooth. No one in his family had ever experienced anything like it. Tavera began to wonder if bad luck trailed him. He didn't understand how or why he was a target for violence.

"If you are scared, then don't go outside," Tavera's mother told him. "But just remember: There are earthquakes in Mexico City, and the roof could fall on your head."

So Tavera ventured outdoors again, often with his camera around his neck or in tow, confronting people before they could confront him.

Xavier Tavera lives in a south Minneapolis Craftsman house that he shares with his girlfriend and her two kids. In their two-story stucco home that doubles as a studio, Tavera pulls out boxes of the faces he's photographed over the years, each series neatly arranged like an obsessive boy's baseball-card collection. There are separate boxes devoted to distinct subcultures: church members re-enacting the Pasión, Mexican wrestlers (luchas), extreme fighters in Edina, cholos (Latino gang members), transvestites, Mowhawked Latino punks.

Tavera carries large, framed images into the living room, which is painted in a pale, marbleized yellow and has the ambience of a European café when the honeysuckle is in full bloom. Amplifying the summery spirit is the fact that there's an overprotective sparrow outside Tavera's front window violating all civic noise ordinances. In 2003, Tavera received a grant from the McKnight Foundation to work on a series of dramatic, larger-than-life portraits, which were shown at the Nash Gallery in 2004. The five-by-five-foot color inkjet images of Mexican wrestlers and fathers in costumes are equal parts kitsch and camp.

"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.

Tavera, meanwhile, is preoccupied with fingering the goods in the store: the sky-blue alligator boots, the bumblebee yellow-and-black crocodile boots, the rows of matching smooth-as-a-baby belts that go with them.

The Rincon Hispano photographer snaps pictures of the amateur model on a bearskin rug and on a bale of hay. Also looking on is Anai Arteaga, an 18-year-old who started working at the shop only two days earlier. She complains that she feels ugly compared to the girl whose pink heels are now pointed at the ceiling. On Arteaga's first day, Tavera arranged to shoot images of her wearing the purse and matching orange ostrich-skin belt. Now that the other girl is here, Arteaga is suddenly nervous.

"I feel like I sound really dumb right now," she says, laughing and pulling her shoulders to her ears.

Arteaga has two diamonds on her left-hand. One, an engagement ring, is cubic zirconia, she says. The other is a birthday ring from her fiancé, and it's a genuine full-karat. Arteaga met her fiancé when she was 13 years old. At 16, they moved in together. Arteaga finished high school early at a charter school in north Minneapolis so she could go to work. At her new job, she'll put in six days a week and at least nine hours a day.

"That's totally how Mexican families are," Arteaga says, waving a hand that's manicured with red-tipped fingernails. "You're an adult at 15. And if the family approves of your boyfriend, you start a life together." Arteaga says it will be a long engagement, though. She doesn't want to be married till she's 24.

When the photographer has finished, Tavera sets up his backdrop, a blood-red tablecloth with tassels that he found at a thrift store. He brings over one of the store's orange ostrich-skin belts. They're dotted with tiny, uniform bumps that look like chigger bites. Tavera is intrigued by the belt buckle, which features a silver-and-gold etching of Jesus.

The girl in the pink blouse wants her picture taken, too, so Tavera, who is now animated and excited about finally getting the opportunity to shoot, snaps images of both girls. He tells Arteaga not to be nervous or intimidated, that this shoot won't be like the other one she witnessed. There will be no bale of hay for her to splay across, and no snapshots for her to study. She smiles, seemingly reassured that being fluent in the physical language of Maxim isn't a requirement. Still, she tells him in Spanish that she feels awkward and ugly.

"Noooo," Tavera tells her, his voice getting higher with each "o." He cranes his neck to scan the room, then tells her quietly that she's more of a natural than the girl in pink who came in to the store and swiped her self-confidence. Arteaga nods and flips her hair. But such prep work turns out to be futile. Tavera never moves his lens to the girls' faces. His camera is only focused on their hips, cocked and wrapped with the orange ostrich belt.

As he packs up to leave nearly two hours after arriving, Tavera is still charged by the events, his long arms moving like turnstiles as quickly as he speaks.

Tavera wasn't able to find a scorpion in a belt buckle today. But by happenstance, he found a tattoo of the praying hands he'd been seeking. As Tavera loads his gear into the back of his truck, he appears resolute, as if his purpose, at least for today, has just crystallized.

"That is why I do this," Tavera says. "You never know what you will find. Every day, it is always different. And the people are not always who you thought they were."

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