Katie Orlinsky Interview: Recovering a Hidden Light from a City Ruined by Darkness

Katie Orlinsky

In 2010, at its highest peak of violence, Ciudad Juárez was averaging an unbelievable 8 murders per day. 3116 dead in one year. But that year wasn’t unique. Between 2007 and 2011, this border city — inches away from El Paso, Texas (one of America’s safest cities) — lost more than 9,000 lives. More people were killed in this city than the total American soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, it was during this time that Ciudad Juárez became known as the world’s deadliest city.

But photojournalist Katie Orlinsky didn’t go to Juárez for the sensational violence. She had spent her twenties in Mexico, had her first assignments there; Mexico meant more than its violence to Orlinsky. She was in Juárez because she truly cared about the innocents that lived there. The orphans, the widows, the young children forced to grow up, to survive. These were the people she wanted to document. She went to Juárez tell their stories.

Katie Orlinsky

It wasn’t easy, though. Besides finding living victims of the violence, Orlinsky also had to combat a newly entrenched narrative that those being murdered had done something wrong, that only “bad people” were being killed. Her documentary project, Innocence Assassinated, was made in part to show that the victims had nothing to hide. “People were so scared; understandably so,” Orlinsky says about feelings then. “They were [all] basically saying that innocent people weren’t the ones dying. This is a big fat lie and I wanted to show that.” Despite the difficulties, Orlinsky succeeded.

Many of Orlinsky’s images are heartbreaking, though true to her intent, they’re also empathetic, respectful, and involved. They are remarkable images that can only come from a photographer who’s open-hearted and brave. They successfully capture a city caught between its darkest shadows and the everyday living that must continue.

In this interview, Orlinsky talks about how she got her start in photojournalism and how Mexico became involved, explains her approach to documentary work, and reveals what it takes to become a great photojournalist.

Katie Orlinsky

I like your respectful and involved approach to photojournalism. How did you get your start in photography? How would you describe your work?

First off, that’s one of the nicest things you could say to me, respecting my subjects and stories is the most important thing to me so thank you. I studied political science and Latin American Studies as an undergrad. It wasn’t until I moved to Mexico after graduating college that I became a photographer. I taught myself as I went along, shooting for the local newspaper El Noticias de Oaxaca and hanging around the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, where I would sit in on workshops and look through their photo book library. When a conflict broke out in Oaxaca in late 2006, I was in the right place at the right time. It was the first big news story I ever shot. I had been living in Oaxaca for months before that, so I had a very good understanding of the situation, great access and I was fluent in Spanish. I found that I loved covering such a big news story; I felt like I had a knack for it. But the experience left me feeling frustrated because I was inexperienced and knew I could have done better. So after that I committed myself to pursuing a career in photojournalism, mostly because I wanted to make sure that the next time I had the opportunity to document an important story, I would be capable of doing it justice. I then started to work as a stringer for Reuters and AP in 2008, and then for the New York Times in 2009. After that I had the confidence to pursue longer-term documentary projects.

Katie Orlinsky

Currently, I concentrate mainly on conflict and social issues, working to create bodies of work that capture the intimate moments of daily life behind the chaos. I try to create images that can foster empathy, so that even someone who has no connection to the story or place can see the work and relate to it in some way. My work is always informed by journalism because I am generally drawn to stories and subjects that are relevant to current political and social issues. But I take a more documentary approach to photography where I like to have the time to just let a story unfold and follow my instinct. So while I started out as a very traditional photojournalist, I don’t think my photography conforms to that style, or any one style. Also I like to depart from the “heavy stuff” from time to time, most recently with my project on the Aqualillies. It’s still similar to my other work though because it’s also about something I personally find fascinating.

Katie Orlinsky

You have a remarkable ability to capture surprising, unaffected moments. The Third Gender #24 is a great example of this (above). When you’re planning a project, do you organize shot list of moments you would like to find? Or is it an improvised exploration of a subject? Does it all depend?

It all depends. In this case it was improvised, and I’d say if I have the luxury of working like this I’ll always choose to do so over having a shot list, or a pre-conceived idea of what I will photograph. I do have a shot list for some stories, mostly on shorter assignments, but I generally just like to do research and come up with a list of places, events, people, and then just be there and whatever happens happens. In this case I didn’t just show up to the party and make this photo, I had been working with the muxes for a long time. Even so this was actually a wonderfully rare moment. Generally muxes’ boyfriends are not “out.” Sometimes they are even married with kids. But these two were drunk and crazy about each other and happy for me to photograph them.

Katie Orlinsky

Why do you think photography best suits your documentary pursuits?

I’m a very curious person, and photography is such a wonderful medium for curious people. It always leaves more questions then answers, telling truth but never the whole truth, or stories but never the whole story. So I have a desire to create and tell stories, and so far documentary photography has been the best medium for me to do so. I think it’s something innate; I wish I was a better writer, but I just don’t have the ability for it like I do with photography. It’s something that feels innate. For example, I don’t have a very good memory, and I am easily distracted, but when I’m shooting I get hyper-focused, I really see my surroundings and become aware of time. It’s not really that I am quick, it’s more like when I’m shooting the world is in slow motion, so I’m faster than it, if that makes any sense.

Katie Orlinsky

Being from El Paso, Texas, I really liked Innocence Assassinated and Prison Portraits. What drew you to the issues and culture of the U.S.-Mexico borderland?

I spent a lot of time in Mexico during the very formative years of my early twenties. It’s a place that I love, and also a place that breaks my heart. I feel very comfortable working there. I started spending less time there in 2008-2009, but continued to pay a lot of attention to what was happening with escalation of the drug war. I wanted to cover the story, but focus on the parts I cared about and found most interesting. I feel like I managed to do that with “Innocence Assassinated” which I started in 2010. “Innocence Assassinated” focuses on the living victims of Mexico’s drug war: orphans, widows, and young people growing up in neighborhoods inundated by drug gang violence. Female criminals are also part of the story, but it wasn’t safe, or worth it, to seek out active female gang-members. So I found them in the prison, which is safer, but not fool proof. I could have been followed leaving prison, you never know. So the prison part of the project I worked on in short bursts, and would rarely spend two days in a row going to the prison.

Katie Orlinsky

Ciudad Juárez was a strategic choice at first. Juárez was big in the news at the time because it’s murder rate was the highest in the world. Yet although it was an incredibly dangerous place at the time of my first trip in 2010, and some local journalists had been killed, it was still one of the only drug war zones where journalists could work relatively safely. There was a sort of “acuerdo” or truce between the criminals and the local press and the press knew what they could and couldn’t do. The local Juárez press is also filled with some incredibly kind, brave, and wonderful people who I had heard from colleagues would take me under their wing. I also chose Juárez because I wanted the work I was doing to be paid attention to in the US, and I think it’s a place that is more accessible to relate to being that it’s on the border. It also makes it harder to ignore the fact that the demand and consumption of these drugs coming from the U.S. is at the root of the problem. Lastly, if things get hairy there, I can just cross the border and be back in the USA. It’s not fair that my Mexican colleagues can’t, but it’s a plus for me.

Katie Orlinsky

What did you learn about Ciudad Juárez while working for this project? Any personal epiphanies? Surprises?

I never intended to work in Juárez for years like I have, but it’s just one of those places that gets in your bones. The more time I spend there, the less I understand it. It’s a wild place where anything can happen. Not just news-wise, but surrealistically speaking as well; it’s wacky. In Juárez you will encounter people with the most beautiful souls and hearts in the world. On the flip side, you will hear about people so evil you can’t even imagine they breathe the same air as you and me. There is a haunting level of darkness and sadness in that city.

Katie Orlinsky

Recently though it’s become safer, so I am seeing some sides of Juárez I never knew before, since I just started going in 2010 when violence was so high. This past October I went to a Halloween party at a nightclub, and it blew my mind because the staircase was decorated like a crime scene with blood smeared walls and police tape. This is what Juárez really looked like a year ago, but here these kids were living it up in this fake murder scene. The real federal police came by a few hours later, and evacuated one of the nightclubs. I never found out why. I don’t know what to say. It’s a place where death and murder are part of the fabric of daily life, but people still live their lives. I guess you have to.

Katie Orlinsky

There are some powerful images in Innocence as well as some eye-opening, intimate moments like #15 (above). Could you explain how you were able to capture this moment?

Yes, this was a part of the project that was the hardest to make happen, but definitely the most rewarding. It was at the height of the violence in Juárez, when there were around 8 murders a day. I really didn’t want to just chase these crime scenes, I wanted to meet the victims. I felt that I had a unique perspective and could really contribute to this side of the story. And as a woman, and fluent in Spanish, I felt like I could really gain the trust and access needed to tell intimate stories of victims.

Katie Orlinsky

It was hard though. People were so scared; understandably so, imagine if your loved one was just murdered, who wouldn’t want to maintain a low profile? But then there was also the narrative that the Mexican government was touting to wash it’s hands of the war, which was that if you were killed in “la violencia” you must have done something wrong and deserved it; they were basically saying that innocent people weren’t the ones dying. This is a big fat lie and I wanted to show that. I first tried contacting relatives of the murdered a couple weeks after their death was in the newspaper. It was never successful. Then I started going to support groups for widows in churches and non-profits. I was allowed to come in at the beginning or end and briefly tell them what I was doing. I handed out my card with my number on it, allowing people to contact me as opposed to the other way around. I kept at this for a few weeks and eventually the woman in the photo’s sister called me up. Her brother had been killed at the funeral of a friend and I think allowing me to come photograph the family felt like a way of clearing her brother’s name. I would spend days at their house, and the thing that stuck me the most was how badly her son was doing. He had become a real troublemaker since his father died. It was hard to get him to eat dinner, that’s what this photo is about. But it also raises important questions, like what kind of adult will this boy grow up to be? Or even what kind of teenager? Will a gang recruit him and will he try to avenge his father’s death? How anyone could anyone possibly say there are no “innocent victims” of this war boggles my mind.

Katie Orlinsky

In order to capture moments like these, I would think that you and your camera must be trusted and respected by the people you’re photographing. How is a photojournalist able to build that trust?

In this case, it took time and honesty to gain their trust. But it also wasn’t a one-way street. I was giving something to them by providing an outlet for them to share their story, which I like to think is empowering. This family in particular wanted people to know they weren’t “bad people.” They wanted to show their neighbors they weren’t living in fear, and had nothing to hide. I think one of the best ways to gain access and trust is to have a reciprocal relationship with the people you are photographing. Sometimes you are sharing their story and raising awareness or contributing to a greater cause. Other times you are just giving someone you’re time and company and being a pleasant person to talk to. But you have to give something.

Katie Orlinsky

What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far in your career?

For photojournalism, a key thing I have learned is how important it is to be a good journalist. One needs to be able to look at a story or news event with nuance, insight, and understanding. Especially if it’s a story that “has already been done.” If you’re smart, you can do it differently. Also, good relationships and friendships within the industry are very important; finding the right mentors can be life changing for some photographers. Some of the lessons I am learning now are different then what I learned earlier in my career though. In the beginning, it was all about how to get the pictures I wanted, how to work with subjects and gain access and trust, how to tell a story, or find a story. How to know when you need to push yourself further, or take a step back and maybe even start over. I’m still working on all of the above. But what I’m learning most about right now is myself; what’s right for me, what’s the right way for me to work, and what really inspires me and gets me going. Because that changes, and I need to be mature and self-aware enough to recognize those changes and allow them to happen. I’m 30. I’m not some punk kid anymore, so I have to allow my photography to grow as I grow. It sounds cliché but I am learning that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. My natural inclination is always to sprint though, so this is my big challenge right now. It can also be easy to do what you know and stay on the same path. But that’s boring, and I definitely didn’t choose this profession because I wanted something boring. I’ve learned that I need to feel challenged in order to stay motivated and inspired. So another great lesson for me right now is to just keep making pictures, even if it’s just for fun, or I’m taking an assignment that isn’t my cup of tea. When I go too long without shooting, I don’t get rusty skill wise, but I do get rusty psychologically. I can start to psyche myself out and making pictures becomes too precious. So I’ve learned that for me, it’s crucial to start new stories and projects as much as possible.

Katie Orlinsky

Be sure to check out all of Katie’s work on her website!

  • W Blaine Pennington

    Excellent work and interview, thank you.