Juan y …
(the bus drivers of Acapulco)

By Colin Jarvie

Two years ago an overland trip from Mexico City to Guatemala saw me taking a side-trip to visit Acapulco - the granddaddy of glamorous, international beach resorts.

Acapulco is one of those places that everybody has heard of but hardly anybody knows much about. It's name conjures up a myriad of rather fuzzy images – Hollywood royalty vacationed there in the Fifties; Elvis made a movie there; it’s that place where those guys risk certain death diving from the cliffs. I think the yacht in the movie ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ with Orson Wells and Rita Heyworth called in there. The Love Boat certainly did.
What captivated me, however, was none of this mythology. Rather, I became fascinated by the rundown local buses that ply their trade along the coastal road (La Costera) that runs right along the glittering curve of Acapulco Bay. Despite their route through the heart of wealthy, tourist Acapulco, these buses are patronised almost exclusively by locals. As such, they offer an insight into local life that few tourists get to see.

What immediately caught my eye was, in contrast to the dilapidated vehicles themselves, the rather elaborate decoration of the driver’s area. There were a dazzling array of objects and symbols. I had seen similar in other countries, but these seemed unique in the complexity and clashing diversity of the displays – Homer Simpson next to an image of Jesus on the Cross, a near-naked woman sharing front-row space with Mexico’s patron saint, The Lady of Guadeloupe, cuddly toys, plastic figurines, even a vase of flowers. They were fascinating private/public displays.

Two years later I returned with a 5/4 camera. During short breaks in the drivers’ 12-18 hour days I captured 25 of these interiors on film. In each shot the basic composition was the same – important so that it didn't detract from the subject – with the camera replicating the passengers’ view: the driver looking back down the bus by way of his rear-view mirror. The very sameness that appears from bus to bus, and the common elements in all the displays – a fringed curtain covering part of the window, always some kind of religious ornament, and often a national emblem of some description (flag or plaque etc.) – is contrasted with the diversity of each interior up close.

These photographs are a document, an entertainment, a curiosity - much like the buses’ displays themselves. They straddle a traditional practice that has been around almost since the invention of photography when it was the domain of the gentleman adventurer and a contemporary vision striving for some sort of conceptual aesthetic and truth – what is now being described as ‘conceptual documentary’.

Some of the cabins are peacock displays, all colour and show, whilst others are more modest affairs with little private adornments, set out for the world to see without explanation and indeed without need of any. In my two-year absence what had been a widespread, though intensely personal activity, had transformed; privately owned buses airbrushed with homages to Hollywood movies and comic-book heroes ran alongside the run-down publicly owned buses I had first encountered. What had started as a personal display of religious belief, national pride and private loyalty had become a more formalised, competitive activity.

These photographs are loaded with symbolism. Not of the photographer’s making, but of the micro-culture they record. The end result is a series of bewildering tableaux as beautiful as they are fascinating, each one a colourful, multi-layered portrait. Viewed individually, they captivate; seen together they present an intriguing insight into a wider Mexican culture.

There 25 images in this series.
The final prints are 48”X60”

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