Pictures of the crisis

Recession in paradise

Montreal photographer Neal Rockwell documents the fickle financing of tourism and capitalism in a new exhibit


November 4, 2010

IT HAPPENED IN MONTERREY: Crossing the Rio Santa Catarina


Just before Christmas 2008, photographer Neal Rockwell was broke and eager to get out of the cold. On the Internet, he came across a remote part of Mexico where you could camp for free on the beach. On a whim, he and a friend packed up a tent, scraped together enough cash for bus tickets and set off on a low budget North American road trip. Riding Greyhound from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico in the months following the economic crisis turned out to be not just a frivolous adventure, but gave him insight into the arbitrariness of borders and the way communities were living the recession. The result is a show called Frontiers that features 30 photos and texts written by Rockwell documenting the Greyhound view of North America.

“When I looked at my photos and notes I started to see this narrative unfold. In a very simple way it seemed to say a lot about migration and borders and class in people’s lives,” says Rockwell, who studied photography at Emily Carr University in Vancouver.

The first shots document the coach journey through the US, past such exotic destinations as Consumer Square in Plattsburgh.

“It’s totally demoralizing to ride in Greyhound buses,” says Rockwell. “There’s a big Plexiglas barrier between you and the driver and they turn the lights on regularly. You feel like you’re not worth very much if you’re riding on their buses.”

His travelling companions included a group of teenage girls who bragged about the felony charges they were facing while doing Little Mermaid colouring books and, in Alabama, a woman who believed she was a prophet who spent the night performing healing rituals on a man with a chronic cough.

When they arrived in the tiny village of El Canal the first people they met fed them taquitos and offered to put them up for the duration of the trip.

“We felt bad that we weren’t paying for anything,” he says. “But people were proud about looking after people and being good hosts.”

It turned out that the region, about 350 kilometres south of the US border, had been slated for development for the tourist industry. A nearby bird sanctuary, an unpolluted river and an underused coastline seemed to offer the possibility of creating a new Cancun. To prepare the region for the transformation, an enormous freeway was under construction and developers had built a cinderblock wall around the town to keep it contained. 

“Nothing was really going on in that space, but it was basically a way to keep the town from developing into where the developers wanted to be.”

This was the second time the residents had had to accommodate tourism. Twenty years before, the government had moved the entire village from the beach two kilometres inland in an earlier, abortive attempt to develop tourism there. When the project was abandoned, it left an ominous graveyard of half-built beach huts in their wake that Rockwell’s photos capture beautifully. Rockwell says the residents have mixed feelings about what that might bring.

“A lot of those people rarely leave the town. Or else they migrate across the continent. But they certainly don’t go away on vacation, which is another irony or this place becoming a tourist area.”

Frontiers runs November 5-6 at Galerie Rye (1331A Ste-Catherine East). A vernisage featuring live music and DJs takes place November 5 at 6 p.m. The event is a fundraiser for the Immigrant WorkersCentre. See for details.

Neal Rockwell's website is here:

Montreal Mirror 4 November 2010 (this is the unedited text)


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