December 10, 2004

On the edge of the line: The documental photography of Roberto Córdoba-Leyva

By Luis Alonso Pérez
Fotos by Roberto Cordoba-Leyva

“I guess you’re lucky, I don’t usually carry this around” said photographer Roberto Cordoba-Leyva during his interview. He reached into his backpack and took out a stack of books, in which he has published some of his work. The first one he looked through was a large book printed in Spain, then he pointed into a picture and started talking.

Just a few months ago he published a catalog of his recent exhibit “Al filo de la línea” (which means at the edge of the line) presented in the Regional Museum of the University of Baja California, in Mexicali, from February to June 2004. The little 70 page book contains all the photographs as well as images from the exhibit.

Exposicion Al filo de la linea en el Museo Regional de la UABC Mexicali

Mexicali is Roberto’s hometown, but he’s been living in Tijuana for almost 30 years now. His career took a big step in 1986, when he joined as a photo-documentalist in an immigration investigation project known as “Zapata Canyon” (point of crossing for 50% of all immigrants in those days) developed by the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF).

His canyon photographs allowed investigators to obtain a sample of the number of immigrant crossings in that area, by counting the number of people that appeared in his photos. In his spare time, he used to go down the canyon to look for more images. “I think I got pretty interesting images while I was there.”

The photographer remembers seeing a group of San Diego Police Agents dressed like Santa Claus, bringing toys to the children that lived near the Zapata canyon, and Father Rigonni, of “La Casa del Migrante,” officiating mass in the American side of the canyon, when there was no fence.

His work in COLEF, his good English level and constant collaboration with journalists from other states or other countries, led to an invitation to collaborate as a correspondent for the information and photography agency Imagen Latina. “When they invited me to collaborate I felt a great satisfaction, because I was always working, working, working and then suddenly I was there.”

Imagen Latina went out of business, but Cordoba-Leyva continued taking pictures, developing projects and publishing his work in national media like Proceso, La Jornada, Reforma, El Financiero, Zeta, to name a few, and collaborated with foreign agencies like Associated Press and Agence France Press, and in newspapers like the Huston Chronicle, San Diego Union Tribune and The New York Times, where he got the opportunity of working with three Pulitzer award wining reporters.

Another result of Cordoba-Leyva’s hard work have been the production of three Mexico-US journalistic and documentary photography congresses in Tijuana. Renown Mexican and foreign photographers and editors where invited to assist and present their work or host workshops.

Familia migrante

But the lack of interest and support from institutions made the event unsuccessful. On top of that, scarce attendance to the events from the local photographic community left Roberto and the rest of the organizing team very disappointed. The 2000 congress was the last one he participated in. Since then, there hasn’t been any other binational photography event in Baja California.

The photographer’s trajectory has passed through tough and successful moments, but his camera keeps shooting, his files keep growing and the projects keep coming out of his head so they can turn into future photographic series about Revolucion avenue, the consuming habits among kids, violence in the streets of Tijuana or simply about his favorite hideaway, a cozy little coffee shop in Playas de Tijuana.

In spite of his new plans and projects, Roberto considers that he has reached a moment in his life where he wants to channel his efforts in promoting his work. “I used to prepare an exhibit to present a finished project, and that was it”. Now he wants his work to travel, and he just received good news, because he’s been invited to take his complete exhibit to the museum of art in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

“I think that I finally feel satisfied with my work” added Roberto. “Because it’s reached a point where it speaks for itself, and it speaks very well”.

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