While working on a photography project on burger joints throughout Texas last week, I walked into this burger place in Bellaire, Texas, a small district inside Houston.
As I introduced myself to the owner I turned around to see a very familiar face. One I didn’t expect, “Alex…!?!” I said… in complete shock as he returned my expression.
“Whoa…! No way…!” he replied. Stunned.
I worked on a project for Texas Monthly on Latino gangs on the south-side of Houston a few years back and spent the better part of a week with writer Skip Hollingsworth trying to get access to a members of Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, one of the most dangerous and notorious gangs in Latin America and the entire US.
When I met Alex he was 20. He was one of the few people that gave us access into his world for a brief period of time. The few days I spent with him were interesting… to say the least. They were filled with a mixture of anxiety and just being ready for anything. Always looking behind my back and thinking the entire time about how to create a photograph of this person that told HIS story.
Alex was deep in MS13. Letting us into his world was a serious offense one that could cost him a lot, for himself and his family. I didn’t take this lightly, making his portrait for the magazine would put him directly in the spotlight. We talked a long time about potential backlash and ramifications before he agreed.
I wasn’t willing to do it unless he was sure he could deal with the consequences and I still had my reservations up to the moment I made his picture.
The stories he told about his life were ones that I honestly wish I’d never heard. Hard stuff, things that make you grow up very fast and live even harder.
Seeing him this week was a first for me, I’ve never run into someone after I have made their picture, never. I know it might sound crazy but it’s just never happened. Someone like Alex isn’t someone I’d necessarily want to “accidentally” run into on the streets, either.
This crazy chance meeting was fate though.
He told me about how his life had changed after the article published. He did get some heat for allowing himself to be photographed. His family was threatened. He was threatened. Over time he watched every one of his friends disappear. Finally, he said forget it. He quit cold turkey and got a job at this burger place that I was photographing. He’s been there a month. In a few weeks he’s getting his tattoos removed.
“I changed my life, after my last friend went to prison, I said that’s it…I can’t do this anymore.”
It’s crazy how life puts us in places for certain reasons. Me seeing Alex was such a sign for me…
Realizing that in a very indirect way my image of him may have helped him truly see himself, maybe it hurt so much that it helped him get out.
Whatever it was, I was moved to see him. Touched, actually.
I asked if I could photograph him again, in his uniform. He smiled big and said yeah….