An artist reveals what the Mexican capital looks like when the notorious crowds of people and cars clear out.
When photographer Melvin Lara moved to Mexico City from his hometown of Cuernavaca, he set out on excursions to photograph his new city. In order to avoid the notorious traffic in Mexico’s capital, he gradually stayed later and later in the neighborhood around his office before heading home. He would wander the streets, going to cafes and the movies to pass time. Sometimes he wouldn’t leave the area until 2 a.m. As he drove slowly down the emptied-out streets, Lara discovered a version of the city that most residents rarely ever see.
“In the early hours of the morning in these neighborhoods, which are usually chaotic and full of people and cars, everything ceased to exist,” Lara says. “The area was deserted, but very different aesthetically. Seeing these spaces composed and quiet at that hour created another type of beauty.”
He documented these aimless excursions through videos and photographs, and they’ve slowly evolved over time. He began in his car, then he started exploring by bike. Now he generally walks and takes public transit. He calls his trips and photographic project “wandering as a visual practice.”
“Basically, this means I wander without a planned route or a specified timeframe. Whatever piques my interest or catches my attention determines my route,” Lara says. “It allows me to see things in a different way, to move into another way of thinking. Through this I observe my surroundings more intimately, which allows me contemplate them instead of just passing by.”
Sometimes his trips are half-hour walks, and sometimes they are nearly 50-kilometer bike rides. The most recent phase of his project is his exploration of the Mexico City subway system, and he hopes to slowly cover scenes all throughout the system. (It currently measures 140 miles; for reference, New York’s is 259 miles long). “It's been interesting to see the differences in infrastructure between various lines,” Lara says. “Also the obvious differences between riding an underground line and and one at street level. These are the ones I most enjoy, for the romantic experience of watching things pass through the window.”
He says his process of walking has changed the way he sees the city. “Although it's not a pedestrian-friendly city, walking here is this incredible experience. It's a different way to see the city, a different way to think, to understand the things that happen at a societal level, that you don’t notice when you’re in a bubble in your car.” Through these trips by foot and on the subway, he takes pictures of the moments that one rarely sees in Mexico City—when the streets and stations are poised, tranquil, and empty. CityLab spoke with Lara about the process that leads to his images, and why we should stop seeing our time spent on public transit as “lost time.”
What do you look for in the city when you take photos?
More than seeking out things that interest me, in this project, I explore my process of adaptation to, and documentation of, one of the most chaotic cities in the world. Every part of the city is in constant transition, and I’m looking to capture the things that seize my attention in those brief moments when activity pauses. That’s when I’m able to capture the moments where everything appears to be meticulously organized.
Your process seems to be a meditative way of engaging with your surroundings. Do you feel like it allows you to better see the city?
Yes, totally. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking.” The act of walking refines your senses, makes them more acute, because you’re not merely aware of your surroundings, you’re actually feeling, step by step, the path. It’s the most human movement and yet it’s a very different way to move, not only the rhythm of thinking but also the rhythm of seeing.
How much of the metro system have you seen so far?
I don’t think much. I’m probably close to 50 percent. There are a lot of lines that interest me. For example, there are lines that are totally above ground, and though I’ve already ridden them, I keep taking them, just because of the simple pleasure I get from observing.
Do you have a favorite line?
Rather than a line, it’s a favorite station. On line 12, the newest line in the system, there is a station called Tláhuac. It’s the end of the line (or the beginning, depending on how you think about it). It’s all the way at the edge of the city, near the border between the city and the State of Mexico. It’s a huge terminal, with access to buses, bikes, and taxis. The top floor has these passageways where you can see the landscape through the windows. There aren’t buildings, squares, or McDonald's, you don’t see any of that. All you see are these small houses on the periphery of the city far from the station. It's very quiet and calming.
What are you hoping to convey to the viewer?
You can enjoy the process or path, giving time to your trips or commute, instead of viewing it as getting from point A to point B. Move, instead of passively allowing yourself to be moved. Challenge the system by valuing the time that is generally considered unproductive—stop seeing it as lost time and enjoy the generally unappreciated act of “doing nothing.”
This post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.