Mira Merks: More Than an Anthropologist with a Camera

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Mira Merks has had a lifelong fascination for photography, but didn’t pursue it with her present passion until quite recently. Merks moved to Panama City soon after graduating from high school in 2008 where she worked with undernourished children and studied psychology. In late 2009 she began studying anthropology in Hamburg and Guadalajara, Mexico, and in 2012, worked closely with people photographer Stephan Pick in Cologne for three months, learning her craft, and also how to interact with people effectively as a photographer. She also had the opportunity to work with Leica at photokina 2012. Mira Merks is currently finishing her anthropology studies in Mexico and honing her abilities as an emerging photographer. Here, in her own heartfelt words is the story of her amazing project documenting the horror and hope of desperate immigrants on their way to what they hope will be a better live in the United States.

Q: What can you tell us about your project in Guadalajara?

A: Hoping to find a better future in the U.S. thousands of Latin Americans cross Mexico each year without papers. They are often viewed as criminals. Their perilous journey on the top of trains they call “la bestia” (the beast) has been gaining notoriety as one of the most dangerous migrations in the world. Not infrequently these desperate travelers suffer from systematic violation of their human rights, and far too many die in the attempt to reach a land of greater opportunity. During the trip, that can take anywhere from weeks to months, the majority are out of contact their families or relatives that remain suspense about their disposition and condition.

The idea behind my portrait project was to learn more about these travelers, to gain an insight into their motivations and to find out what gives them the power and courage to persist in the face of such incredible risks and adversity. When they arrive in Guadalajara, they are nearly halfway to their goal of reaching the U.S.A. from the Central American countries.

Q: Why did you chose Guadalajara to document?

A:I picked Guadalajara because it is situated on one of the three possible routes to the U.S.A. At this location I took portraits of the travelers and sent them to their relatives and families if they wanted me to, adding personal letters to let them know how they were doing. I felt that was the least I could do.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use?

A: I used the Leica X2. Sometimes, depending on the light conditions, I use the EVF 2 digital viewfinder. I chose the X2 because its intuitive handling enables me to react quickly and catch the special moments I want. Its amazing image quality and color reproduction in low contrast and dark lighting conditions, combined with its timeless and discreet design were also why I opted for this model.

Q: Are you a full-time professional photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: I would say I am not a full-time photographer, but I do spend a great deal of time thinking about photography, how to execute my ideas visually, and devising new projects. Maybe serious enthusiast fits better.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: When I was about 17 my father gave me his old SLR from the 1970s. It was the first camera I could really call my own. For a long time it was the only camera I used, and as a result I learned a lot about the mechanics of photography. Later I started using digital cameras, but I’m thankful that I could learn the basics with an analog camera. When I finished high school I thought about becoming an “art photographer,” but I decided to study anthropology instead. But then in 2012 I felt the need to focus more on photography, so I interrupted my university studies and interned with a people photographer.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography? And was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Most of the time I’ve experimented on my own. As I mentioned, last year I did have a “teacher” while I was learning and working with a people photographer in Cologne. This was really helpful to me. In terms of inspiration, some of my big icons are Werner Bischof, Sally Mann, Steve McCurry, and Sebastião Salgado. I admire the sensitivity and beauty of their work, and I particularly appreciate their combination of aestheticism, respect, love, and real interest for humanity.

Q: In what photographic genre would you place your images?

A: I consider the Guadalajara photos to be portraits. My intention was to learn more about the individual destiny of these migrants and their motivations for taking such a dangerous trip to the U.S.A. The current worldwide reputation of migrants is quite bad and a lot of prejudices exist about them, although migration has always been part of human history. That is why I wanted to learn more about these people and get my own impressions. I wanted to hear, see, and document the story of each of them. My intention was to show, that although they are in a very difficult situation they still maintain their honor and dignity. Taking their portraits seemed to be the best fit for this. I think my main interest is in revealing the human condition: how people feel, how they live, etc. This interest probably resulted from my studies in anthropology. I think that this kind of focus can fit into any genre.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Leica is an icon and an institution. When you’re interested in photography you know Leica. In my case I learned more about Leica while living in Wetzlar for 2 years. In 2012 I got the chance to work for Leica at photokina. That was a great experience.

Q: Your portraits of Latin Americans in Guadalajara, in effect a way station in their journey the U.S. as undocumented workers, are very straightforward but emotionally revealing. What was your goal in creating these images?

A: At the beginning I just felt badly informed by the media, and information and opinions about migrants were extremely negative. I really had no concrete idea what to expect. I just wanted to know more about these individuals, without judging them. I met a lot of tough people and heard a lot of horrific stories. During their journey a lot of them see and experience terrible situations. Some told me they had known and heard about these things before, but they had so much determination they just went forward. I saw much positivism to go on, love for their families, hope and trust in a better future for them and their families, even though the trip puts their lives in real danger. A lot of people die or become invalids catching or jumping off trains. Different groups like gangs and drug cartels or even governmental organizations represent great threats to their physical and emotional integrity. I was impressed by this and wanted to reflect these feeling, facts, and impressions in the portraits.

Q: Of the 23 images in your Guadalajara portfolio there are a few that aren’t portraits at all. Obviously these images provide a context for the harrowing journey that awaits your portrait subjects, but can you say something more about these images and what they mean to you?

A: Right, it was important for me to put the portraits in context. Without these contextual images these people could be anyone. I think these photos are necessary to imagine and understand what they’re passing through. So in some photos I tried to illustrate stories the travelers told me about how dangerous the trains are and catching them at the right moment when the train moving down the tracks at about 40kmh. In Guadalajara the train leaves at 8PM when it’s already dark outside. I tried to represent the travelers’ feelings when they catch the trains, and this is why the train photos were taken at night. The other photos represent places where the travelers are passing their time arriving at Guadalajara. These areas aren’t the best places in town. They’re places that most people avoid. So I tried to reflect the mood I felt during and after taking portraits at these desolate places.

Q: Why did you choose to present all the pictures in your portfolio in black-and-white? What are its advantages? Do you also work in color?

A: Originally I took these pictures in color, but later I opted to output them in black-and-white. I think the aspects I am focusing on are easier to capture and convey to the viewer without the distraction of color. It’s all about focusing on the essentials and the expressions on their faces. But normally I work in color.

Q: Some of the Guadalajara portraits seem to imply a back-story. There is the picture of the man shaving his mustache and the picture of the man with his bandaged right arm in a sling. Can you tell us something more about these images and how they function in your documentary?

A: I always asked these travelers about what motivates them to make their perilous journey and what gives them the power to go on. The main responses were always the same: their families and faith in God give them the power to go on. So the objects you can see in some photos are personal things that remind them of family and home, and motivate them to keep up the struggle. For example, a man will carry a snapshot photo of his wife or an earring his sister gave him. In other words these photos sometimes show objects that represent an emotional tie that supports them during the journey.

The man shaving his mustache off in the train way was for me a spontaneous shot. I later realized how difficult the sanitary conditions must be during the journey. They have to pass days without water. The other man wearing a bandage broke his arm jumping off a train. He told me how afraid he was when he imagined not being able to find a job as a house painter. In retrospect, these pictures all show the difficulties and danger of that precarious journey on the top of the trains.

Q: When did you use the EVF-2 accessory finder on your X2 and how did that change or enhance your shooting experience?

A: The EVF was a completely new experience for me. I wasn’t used to shooting with an electronic viewfinder, and at first it felt a bit strange. Once I got used to it, I was really thankful to have it, especially in situations with strong light where the LCD is harder to see.

Q: How do you think your study of cultural anthropology influenced your approach to your subjects? Do you believe photojournalism has an anthropological element? Do you see your images as advocacy for social change?

A: For me cultural anthropology is the attempt to understand and explain human behavior and conditions in its cultural context. I think this is kind of close to what I tried to do with the Guadalajara portfolio. And certainly photojournalism has this kind of anthropological element. It was also important for me to share my experiences of these people and their lives. Through these images I am also offering my point of view about these things. If this contributes to changing the negative perception some people have about migration and migrants, then the effort will have been worth it.

Q: Do you plan to tell the story of any other groups of migrants in the world? It would seem to be a worthwhile mission, but if you have other ideas on revealing aspects of the human condition, please share them with us?

A: In the beginning I didn’t have any intention of documenting other migrating groups, but now I think it could be interesting to learn more about other groups. It could be like a comparison of the similarities and the differences between the groups and their conditions. It could be interesting but at I have no concrete plans. For the moment I’m working on two other portfolios: one on religious practices in Mexico and another called “Mexico by Night”.

Q: Since you’re a black-and-white fan, have you ever considered acquiring or borrowing a Leica Monochrom? The 36mm-equivalent focal length of the 24mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH lens in the X2 is generally considered ideal for photojournalism and street photography, but have you ever considered using something wider or longer as an alternative?

A: I’m really interested in trying the Monochrom and I’m sure it would be a great experience. The 36mm-equivalent focal length of the 24mm f/2.8 Elmarait ASPH lens in the X2 is great. I love its angle and its aperture. A wider angle could be interesting for different effects, depending on what you want to show.

Q: Aside from your website and this Leica blog, do you have any plans of publishing your work as a book or in magazine articles and perhaps becoming a full-time professional photographer?

A: I have an exhibition in Guadalajara at the Ex-Convento del Carmen. I’ll be fascinated to see viewers’ reactions to these pictures directly. I’d also like to explore the possibility of publishing the pictures to illustrate magazine articles. This could be a step in direction of my becoming a full time professional photographer and it would be a great opportunity.

Q: What are some of the things you learned from working with “people photographer” Stephan Pick in Cologne that helped you in creating your Guadalajara portfolio? And how have your “big icons” influenced your style, content and working methods?

A: I think the main thing I learned with Stephan Pick is how to interact with your subjects, how to make them feel comfortable enough to express the emotions they feel without being afraid of the camera. I think that my “big icons” influenced me in the selection of theme and content. Maybe I also try to adapt certain aspects of their photography to my own style, but at this early point in my development as a photographer it’s kind of difficult for me to reflect on that.

Q: How have your subjects responded when you shared your images with them? Do you plan to stay in contact with any of them?

A: The majority felt good about their portraits. In a few cases they didn’t like them, noting that they looked bad, and asked me not to send the picture to their families because they would worry about them. In such cases I took new photos that could be sent to their families. I’d like to stay in contact with some of these people, and maybe I’ll search them in a few years to find out how they’re doing.

In the beginning many people didn’t want to talk to me because they said they’d had bad experiences with journalists. So I explained my intentions and they appreciated it, were willing to tell me about their stories, and seemed to feel comfortable doing so. The key is respect.

 Thank you for your time, Mira!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information on Mira visit her website. For information on her exhibition that started on February 23rd, visit the gallery’s website.