It was the start of an international debate. Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca was trying to smuggle people across the border near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico when he was shot by a U.S. Border Control agent. He was killed. He was 15-years-old.
If photojournalist Dominic Bracco hadn’t been there to capture the nightmare, no one would know the young boy’s story.
“It sort of solidified my process and my hypothesis that the center of this story was Mexico’s youth, and the products of this generation,” Bracco said. “Really, what is a 15-year-old kid doing smuggling already?”
He still doesn’t have answers. Bracco has been photographing Los Ninis, the lost generation of Mexican youth, for three years. He still questions the world he lives in, but believes his work with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting can help people understand.
“I was the only American covering the story,” he said. “There wouldn’t have been any press coverage from the U.S. side if I had not been there. That was the encouragement I needed to continue working forward, and when I saw that result of my work, I saw what I was doing was powerful and I had a voice and a meaning.”
This result, he said, is awareness. The photos he took after Guereca was shot were picked up by the Wall Street Journal, and a conversation in the United States and abroad began. Bracco said he hopes the dialogue is followed by an understanding of what’s happening in Mexico.
“I felt like people in the U.S. didn’t really understand the connections that we all have with what’s happening there,” Bracco said. “For one, we’re a huge employer of people on the border. And if you look at what’s happening in middle class America, in Illinois, the closing factories and moving those jobs to Mexico, these are not creating jobs in middle class Mexico.”
With this poverty in Mexico comes a dependence on drug cartels and violence for Los Ninis — those that don’t work or study. The story of these men and women, more like boys and girls, is what Bracco wanted to capture. But it wasn’t easy to do.
“I wanted to do a story on youth, but you can’t just come roll up to the kids on the corner and say ‘hey guys, I want to take pictures of you guys,’” he said. “They’d kick my ass.”
So he took another route. He worked with a non-governmental organization, which introduced him to a young Mexican teen called Pollo. This relationship flourished, and Bracco had found a subject.
More than a year later, he wanted to photograph another group of Los Ninis, who refused for months. They finally came around while playing soccer one afternoon, when they realized Bracco could provide them with something they had never had.
“None of them had pictures of themselves, so they were so exited about it, they kept inviting me back,” he said. “Then they were like ‘OK, you’re really not a bad guy.’”
And he wasn’t. Bracco worked to protect the Mexican youth he photographed. He said he recognizes these young adults are at risk. They could be kidnapped. They could be killed. But there is a story that needs to be told, and he is there to tell it.
“You have this powerful tool that you’re wielding, and you have to treat it with respect,” he said. “I really think at the end of the day, you can be honest and tell a story without putting people at risk.”