While Karla Hernandez Mares studied the art of photography as a teenager, she later found the camera could be a powerful tool for raising awareness and international support in the fight against human suffering.
As a documentary photographer based in Mexico City, Hernandez Mares has used her lens to investigate human rights violations and reflect the reality of conditions face d by people living in devastating poverty. She has worked with Amnesty International, the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense, Fundacion para la Justicia y el Estado Democratico de Derecho, and the Community Police Monitoring Project (MOCIPOL) based at the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Tlapa, Guerrero.
She also coordinated outreach, training and documentation for the migrant rights component of the Mexican chapter of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international organization that uses International human rights law and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations to investigate crimes against humanity around the world.
Hernandez Mares began working with Amnesty International in 2009. She said the organization – with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries – has been an important partner in helping to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in Mexico.
“Amnesty international is special because they have so much international attention so every time we work with Amnesty it really helps,” she said.
In line with Amnesty International’s mission to bring stories of individuals at risk to the attention of international media, government officials and policy makers, Hernandez-Mares works directly with indigenous communities to document their needs.
“The first thing you need to do is simply listen to them,” Hernandez-Mares said. “We listen to their needs and try to help them.”
She photographed members of the communities she visited over a five year period and compiled the images into a two part exhibit titled, “Those Who Stay/Those Who Leave.”
The exhibit was on display at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM, earlier this year at the 11th annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium, which focused this year on “Justice for Migrant Children and Youth.”
The first part of the exhibit depicts indigenous agricultural workers from the Highlands region of the municipality of Cochoapa el Grande in the Mexican state of Guerrero, which has been ranked by the UN Development Program (UNDP) as the poorest community in Mexico and in all of Latin America.
The second part of the exhibit depicts a migrant family from Central America making the dangerous climb aboard the train known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), headed north towards the U.S. border in Mexico from Tabasco.
“It’s impossible for me to believe that a father takes that kind of risk with a child holding onto his back,” she said.
Hernandez-Mares first saw the family she would be photographing about one hour before they would climb aboard “La Bestia” as they waited in an “albergue,” or hostel. However, she was unable to interview them, as most migrants are afraid to talk with journalists or anybody who is documenting their travels for fear of getting caught by authorities.
“I was so involved on the topic of immigration but suddenly when I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t move,” Hernandez-Mares said. “I just took like 10 photos and I stopped because I couldn’t move. I just started crying.”
In 2012, Amnesty International urged Mexican authorities to address discrimination and implement measures to ensure migrants and indigenous peoples access to basic human rights. (Ahead of an appearance in front of an anti-racial discrimination UN body. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination)
“Discrimination is still widespread and pervasive in Mexico,” said Rupert Knox, Mexico Researcher at Amnesty International. “For Indigenous Peoples, discrimination means living in extreme poverty and marginalization, with little access to basic services and justice and facing attacks when they are trying to defend their rights. For migrants crossing Mexico, it’s being subjected to extortion, ill-treatment, abduction, rape, murder and forced recruitment into criminal gangs.”
Hernandez-Mares said that although the tendency has been for men to migrate and for women to stay home to receive the remittances sent and care for the household, this is changing as poverty and violence intensifies: now it is whole families that leave.
Hernandez-Mares has co-authored a book with Camilo Perez Bustillo titled, Human Rights, Hegemony and Utopia in Latin America: Poverty, Forced Migration and Resistance in Mexico and Colombia, to be released/published by Brill in 2016.
Many people talk about immigration without taking into consideration what the reasons are that force people in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to leave their homes. Hernandez-Mares uses her lens to show the conditions faced by people living extreme poverty without access to adequate food and housing as well as other key opportunities and capacities necessary for survival
“These are the faces of the women of Cochoapa el Grande. These are the faces of the Central American migrant families- mothers, fathers, children, grandparents- who risk their lives each day on ‘The Beast’,” she said. “It is all these faces together which I hope will remain in the minds of those who are willing to stop and think about the conditions that other people are suffering and feel appreciative of the things that they do have, like having their families around them and the opportunity to go to school,”