“I come with baggage. Prejudgments. We all do,” photographer Xavier Tavera says. “But talking to people, all those preconceptions get shattered.”
Though photography is Tavera’s chosen medium, a knack for honest conversation—the kind that allows him and his subjects to better understand one another—is what makes his vivid, intimate portraits possible.
“I’m an introvert, but photography really pushes me to approach a complete stranger in the street—in Arizona, in California, in Mexico, wherever I go—and start talking to them,” the Minneapolis artist says. “It’s a great excuse to ask people, ‘Tell me about your life? What do you do? What are you passionate about?’ The camera gives me access—people are open to questions and telling their story.”
Tavera has used those stories to add a further dimension to his art. When he donated prints from Veteranos-Veteranas, his longterm study of Latino military veterans, to the Minnesota History Center, he also provided his recorded interviews with the men and women for their archives.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Tavera moved to Minnesota in 1996 for an industrial photography gig that fizzled out. Undaunted by unemployment or the weather, he finished at MCAD and began his photography career, eventually completing an MFA at the U of M, where he now teaches.
But his most recent project has taken him far from Minnesota. Tavera has been traveling the length of the Mexico-United States border, photographing the landscape and talking to people on both sides.
“Every Latino in the United States is heavily marked by the concept of the border, regardless of how we got here,” he says. “So it was important for me to see it firsthand. I’m not attempting to understand what the border means. It is a very complex area with complex people who share land, who share culture, music, food. Everybody speaks English and Spanish. Everybody has family on both sides.”
Perhaps Tavera’s most instructive project came about after a friend asked him to travel to Wisconsin following a bigoted incident directed at a Latino-owned restaurant. Out of his element, those prejudgments Tavera talks about came to the fore.
“There was an 80-year-old Wisconsin farmer I was going to interview and photograph,” he says. “All the time, I’m wondering, ‘How is this going to go? Maybe it’s a Trump supporter. A white Wisconsin dairy farmer—how am I going to be treated?”
But the farmer turned out to be a kind man who told Tavera about his plan to pass ownership of his farm to his workers when he dies. Tavera was forced to reconsider his preconceptions, just as his photographs ask of the viewer.
“It’s not just putting something on the wall,” Tavera says. “It’s more, how can we creatively move toward this sort of communication, where we find out that somebody we believe doesn’t think like us, that their points are very valid?”
Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.