2012 — student winner
Katie Orlinsky is a photojournalist from New York City. She regularly works for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and various non-profit organizations around the world. Her work has been published in Life, Newsweek, Le Monde, Stern, Time, Paris Match, Adbusters and the International Herald Tribune among others. Katie graduated from the Colorado College with a BA in Political Science and Latin American Studies. She is currently a part-time student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is a contributor with Corbis Images.
In 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. His intention was to stop the violence, corruption and narcotics trafficking that had been increasing since 2000. Seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico had ended and shifted the balance of power amongst drug cartels and corrupt officials. But Calderon’s war on drugs only made the situation worse.
The total death toll of Mexico’s drug war has now reached over 40,000 people since 2006. Every murder leaves behind a family struggling with loss and financial survival. Mexico’s pernicious violence is more than an armed conflict. It is a humanitarian crisis that has changed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.
The feminization of the drug war is an important facet of this emergency. Women are left widowed at alarming rates, left to fend for themselves in a shattered economy. They are easily lured into criminal activity such as drug trafficking and kidnapping, often the only financial options available to support their children and aged parents. The past three years have seen a 400 percent increase in the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico.
In addition to women, there are countless children forever scarred by a childhood engulfed with violence, death and insecurity. In Mexico’s most dangerous city Ciudad Juarez, plagued by violence, poverty and unemployment, over 10,000 children have been orphaned since 2008. Soon these children will be teenagers, lacking the education, family structure, and economic security necessary to protect them from recruitment by gangs and cartels.
Behind the well-known narrative of fighting between cartels and the authorities lies a less covered story: the innocents trapped in violence, misery and crime.
When I started photographing the drug war in 2010, I spent months following ambulances, going to crime scenes, and visiting morgues, funeral halls and hospitals. These are places where the drug war is often illustrated. But they are also the places where the story ends. I want to photograph where the story begins.
Innocence Assassinated is a project that focuses on the living victims of Mexico’s drug war: orphans in Ciudad Juarez, women in the Juarez prison, “narco-refugees” in border towns, and young people growing up in neighborhoods inundated by drug gang violence. The project documents the women who have been left behind, and a generation of children who have known nothing but the drug war. This project seeks to go beyond external "narco" indicators like clothing and tattoos, and document “narco-culture” by exploring the very culture of violence, misogyny and systemic poverty that has entrenched the drug war into the fabric of Mexican society.
A deeper contextual understanding of the conditions that have allowed this war to thrive is crucial. With the support of the Alexia Foundation, I will have the time to not only explore the culture and environment surrounding the drug war, but to develop the relationships and trust necessary to work intimately with the most vulnerable members of Mexican society.
The story of the drug war is often simplified in the U.S., despite the two countries’ geographic proximity. Six years of gruesome tabloid photo spreads, frightening gossip and six-digit death statistics have numbed the public. This project aims to show a human, intimate and relatable view of the survivors to foster both empathy and action.
While the focus of the project is victims, stories of resilience, beauty and hope will also be featured. In Ciudad Juarez, teenagers dressed as angels visit crime scenes in order to bring something positive to the horror. In the Costa Chica, men work without pay as volunteer policemen in order to protect their own communities. And across Mexico, hundred-person caravans for peace travel to the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods in solidarity in order to raise awareness. With such scenes, I hope to share not only the tragedy but also the dignity of the people of Mexico.
Through still photography and multimedia I will paint a nuanced picture of life in Mexico that even foreigners can relate to. Returning to Mexico to conduct video interviews with family members of the disappeared and killed will be a particularly important addition to the project, made possible with the support of the Alexia Foundation. Over 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, and there are countless survivors waiting to tell their story.