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We Love Our Employees — An Interview with Alejandro Cartagena

Book Store Interview We Love Our Employees Book concept by Alejandro Cartagena Interview by Forrest Soper This week Forrest Soper sits down with Alejandro Cartagena to discuss his new publication, We Love Our Employees. At the beginning of the 20th century, one of Mexico's biggest beer companies was worried about the newly offered constitutional rights of workers to unionize. The company was worried about strikes and other labor troubles. In order to spot trouble makers, for years they secretly planted spies at workers' parties to listen to their conversations. This book contains the pictures of many of those parties.
We Love Our Employees. By Alejandro Cartagena.
We Love Our Employees
Book concept by Alejandro Cartagena

Gato Negro Ediciones, Mexico City, 2019. 112 pp., 6¾x9¼".

The following interview took place at 5:00 PM EDT on April 29th, 2020 during a video call between Alejandro Cartagena and Forrest Soper. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Forrest Soper: Today I’m speaking with Alejandro Cartagena whose recent photobook, We Love Our Employees, was published by Gato Negro Ediciones in 2019. The book gathers a series of photographs taken by Alberto Flores Varela depicting the employees of the Cervecería Cuauhtémoc at company-sponsored work parties. Fearing worker strikes, the brewery hired informants, known as “Los Zopilotes”, to attend these events and report any suspicious individuals or conversations back to the company.

The first thing I wanted to ask was about the photographer himself. How did you first learn about Alberto Flores Varela’s work, specifically the images published in this book?

Alejandro Cartagena: We have to go back to how I got started in photography. I was a digitizer for five years in a state archive. Alberto Flores Varela’s whole archive is stored there. He had one of the most prolific portrait studios in Monterrey at the beginning of the 20th century. There’s a book where they talk about how maybe a third of the city passed through that studio, so its a massive commercial studio archive.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

In the first few years, I scanned one or two images of Alberto’s. Most of his work is portraiture. Two or three years into working at the archive, I had the original 5” x 7” negatives in my hands. I started scanning them, and I was fascinated. They were so well photographed. They were, of course, made with a large-format camera; he used two flashes to illuminate, as most were taken either at night or indoors; and the depth of field was pretty good. As a photographer, I was fascinated with the images — the compositions, the rhythm, the faces, and their expressions. I was like: “This is gold! This is photographic gold!”

That was my first introduction to Alberto Flores Varela and his work. He was a favorite of the companies here in Monterrey, and was assigned a lot of portrait work for Cuahtémoc y Famosa, the company [portrayed in this book.] He also worked for Vidriera, a company that makes the bottles for Coca-Cola and various beers; and a steel foundry called Fundidora, which was one of the biggest industries here in Monterrey at the beginning of the 20th century. He has images from all these companies, but [the party images] were the most consistent and repetitive of all the images I got to scan during my five years at the archive.

FS: And when you say “consistent and repetitive” is that in terms of aesthetics?

AC: Yeah, aesthetics and theme. It was the number of images that stuck with me. I saw these images for the first time in 2006 or 2007 and I couldn’t let go of them. Ten years later I was going through a situation with my family and didn’t want to travel that much. So, I went back to the archive and said: “Hey, can I look at all the images I had scanned?” The first group that stood out were the worker parties.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

FS: You talked briefly about Cuahtémoc y Famosa, an institution created by this brewery. The brewery was founded in 1890 and exists today as a subsidiary of Heineken. It’s my understanding that this brewery was very influential in the development of the city of Monterrey — the city you now live and work in. Can you talk about the history of the brewery in relation to the city?

AC: Monterrey has always been… maybe a myth? Maybe reality? But it’s an industrial city. The main industry has always been steel. One type of steel was invented here around the turning point of the 19th to the 20th century. Beer and Tobacco were other big industries and now we have the automotive industry. The plant that creates all of the Kia cars for the rest of Latin America is based out of Monterrey. We’re close to the US, just an hour and a half south of the border. The city has a very strategic location for commerce, as they’re able to supply things to the rest of Mexico and the US.

That created a situation for companies to grow, and grow fast. Cuahtémoc y Famosa was one of the mother companies that created models which other companies in Monterrey mimicked. One thing that Cuahtémoc y Famosa understood from the beginning — and this is something I’ve learned with the researcher Ximena Peredo, who wrote the intro for the book — was the idea of industrial paternalism. They were trying to find a way to get workers to be loyal. And loyalty comes through love.

So, how does [a company] show love to their workers? Let’s give them parties, let’s give them a house, let’s give them healthcare, let’s give them places for their kids to go to school.

They created a city within the company, that provided everything for their employees. They created a sense of loyalty from their employees, who were willing to do whatever it took for the company to profit and survive.

They made it through the Mexican Revolution, the great depression, the First and Second World Wars. They survived these situations with employees who remained loyal to their parent company. That model was duplicated, and that’s what it feels like in Monterey.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

In Mexico, we call [these employees] “Godinez.” I’ll send you a link so you kind of get an idea. The Godinez are a kind of worker who are willing to give up their lives, go to work 9 to 5, and not complain about their company. For me, as well as Ximena, it all comes from Cuahtémoc y Famosa’s strategies on how to control employees through industrial paternalism.

One thing that scared Cuahtémoc y Famosa, were new laws in the Mexican constitution which allowed people to unionize. In response, they invented what is now a common practice — “White Unions.” White unions are unions from within the company, created with a board run by the company. You are unionized — because it’s your legal right — but you can’t really complain about anything. You can’t strike. You can tell them “oh you know… this is happening, or that is happening”, but there is no fighting between the union and the company — they are one. They exist only to fill the gap of legality.

FS: When I was reading about these white unions or “Sindicato Blancos,” I read that in Mexico, they were primarily regional within the city of Monterrey and didn’t really expand throughout the rest of the country. Was that just because Monterrey was such a large industrial center?

AC: The Cuahtémoc y Famosa model permeated throughout the city. In Monterrey, people are faithful to their company. It’s very strange. I’m not an expert on this topic, but when you talk to people who live here they praise their companies… it’s weird. It’s a strange breed of people. There’s a lot of work, so people want to come to Monterrey for work. The stereotype is that people from Monterrey are hard workers — that’s the theme of the city. Is this true? Is it not? I don’t know. But it is the stereotype. There is a huge industry here and it’s always thriving — even in the midst of this pandemic, Monterrey is still holding up.

FS: Although I did hear that the brewery stopped operations because of the pandemic. Is that true?

AC: Yeah! They stopped operations. There is no beer in Monterrey. I drink a lot of beer and my ex-wife drinks a lot of beer… But a week and a half ago, there was no more beer. So, now we’ve been hitting the Mezcal hard.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

FS: *Laughs* Back to the book… The company founded its white union in 1931, and most of the images in the book were taken in the 1940s. From the essay, I learned that they were originally published in a magazine called Trabajo y Ahorro or Work and Savings. Were you ever able to see the original publication? What can you tell me about that?

AC: I haven’t seen the publication. It was Ximena who found that. She, and the researcher she was working with, have the copies of the magazine. But these were internal magazines. It was propaganda for their paternalistic strategy. It was the beginning of their “Employee of the Month” strategy. People who were doing a good job were published in stories about how they got their house, new babies, etc. It was like: “Hey, Look! We care for our people. Here they are. Here’s an example of how we’re taking care of you.” It was pure industrial propaganda for the company.

FS: That’s one of the things that drew me into this work. The company sponsored, paid for, and promoted these images. But now the same photographs appear disconcerting. Rather than portraying a utopian ideal, the images seem dystopian. The people are tense and have a sense of unease. No one is smiling. The fact that the meaning we get from photographs can change throughout time is something I felt this book demonstrated better than most publications.

AC: That is what is fascinating about this work! This book is going to be part of a six-book series called Love and Politics. Because of the coronavirus (etc.), we’re spacing them out a little bit more [than we had originally planned], but we’ll hopefully have one more by the end of this year. It starts with the idea of the archive:

Who deems what needs to be archived and not? Why were these images thought important to be archived? What do they really mean? What do they really show?

These images are being archived because they belong to a photographer who is an emblem of the city. But once you read into them, it’s not as nice as history puts it. There is this underlying meaning of what the images really mean — or meant. That’s the fascination I have with archives. They’re like a double-edged sword — they can hit you by being amazingly beautiful, but then, they can tell you horrible stories underneath that beauty. Archives have that power.

There’s one image that started my whole fascination with archives. It led to me accept the idea that I could be an author, not only through image-making, but through editing, sequencing, and re-thinking images. It’s an image taken by Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo’s father. He was an amazing photographer from the 20th century. He was one of the photographers favored by the dictator Porfirio Díaz before the revolution. Porfirio Díaz commissioned him and Eugenio Espino Barros, another photographer from Monterrey to travel all over Mexico and photograph Mexico’s progress. They created this beautiful book 100 Years of Independence from Spain.

Excursionistas de la Reunión Panamericana en el Puente de MetlacGuillermo Kahlo

One of the images from the book (Excursionistas de la Reunión Panamericana en el Puente de Metlac) is of a group of people. It’s almost like an Ansel Adams photo of a canyon. In the middle of this canyon, there is a railroad on a bridge. It’s maybe 80 meters high? It looks like a marvel of engineering from the beginning of the 20th century. In the middle of the picture, there’s a train parked on the tracks and every single passenger of the train is standing out on the train tracks. These people are risking their lives because the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, wanted a photograph.

That image sparked the whole idea of how archives can be re-read. This image is supposedly showing how Mexico is progressing into the 20th century, but, in reality, it’s an image of power — of despotic power over people. People are risking their lives because one person thought it was a good idea. Photographs ask us not to be naïve, but photography has gotten beneath our skin. We don’t ask questions, even when they are shouting: “Ask me! Ask me what am I about!”

That’s my new flavor for authorship — looking at images and finding ideas that are there but, that we haven’t paid attention to in the past.

FS: In publishing works of vernacular photographs though the six-part series that you mentioned, I was wondering if you could talk about what it was like working with Gato Negro Ediciones? I know you did another book with them called Enrique which also featured vernacular photographs. I don’t want you to reveal too much information about the series before it’s ready... But what can people look forward to?

AC: Gato Negro is one of the most fun publishers out there. Fun in the sense that they want something that hits hard, is political, and has a new social understanding of the world we live in. They’re very critical, but in a way that feels light. You want to see the work. You want to read what they’re publishing.

I had been talking with León Muñoz Santini, the owner and editor in chief, about publishing together for around three years. We first did Enrique: A Presidential Guide to Selfies, which is about our ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto. We Love Our Employees had been in the works and we were like: “OK, maybe it’s time for the six books -- maybe not.” And then he was like: “OK, let’s do it!”

We Love Our Employees is now nearly sold out. We’re going to do a second edition with all new images.

The rest of the series is all about what is [deserving of being] archived. What has value, questioning that value, and making a critical assessment of why those images exist and what they really mean. I’ll tell you the titles. Music for the Masses, Our Leader, Our Parks, and Rituals of Love. These books all relate to politicians — how to be a politician, what politicians do, and questioning what images of politicians are doing in a photography archive. The other book is called The Supervisors.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

FS: I was hoping we could talk about the design. The book came enclosed in this bright pink dust jacket, or wrapping. It shows a picture by Alberto Flores Varela from which you’ve cut out all the individuals. I know you’ve been using that motif, cutting figures out of photographs, recently in your work. Could you talk a little bit about that, and also the design choice with the bright pink.

AC: The cover (or dust jacket, or wrapping) is a work of mine. I’ve been buying archives. After working in the archives, I wanted my own images. I started buying old photographs from dumpsters and flea markets in Mexico City. One of these images was made by Alberto and was from these parties. I cut it out for a series of images called Groups. The book wasn’t even published when I started that work, but I later remembered the image and decided to photocopy it on a bright pink paper that mimics the same pink within the book.

The bright pink is Risography. The Riso-printer does these funky colors. León is a master of combing colors and design, so he was the one that proposed it. I was like: “Yes! Of course!” That’s the fun of working with people whose publications you really like.

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

FS: I’ve been reading and re-reading this book often, now that we are in lockdown, and It’s become particularly poignant now that workers across the globe are experiencing new tensions with their employers and governments. I wanted to ask, how have you been spending your time during quarantine?

AC: You mentioned how these images have suddenly become so poignant. This is part of our world — this is an anticipation of what is happening right now. It’s art talking about how we need to think, or re-think, our world.

I just read a piece in the New York Times about liability issues. How companies are screaming: “Are we going to have liabilities? Are our employees going to be suing us If they get sick at work?” The lobbyists are trying to create a loophole where people can’t sue if they get sick. And the unions are saying: “No you can’t do that because that’s going to open up a whole can of worms, and make for really bad work environments.” Employers, employees, the government, unions are all clashing together. That’s all in this book.

It’s questioning “how we can make everybody win?”… But especially “how can we make the companies win?” In the end, they’re the mothership. They need to come out on top. It’s very interesting how the book kind of talks about that while referencing our current situation.


Quarantine has been very strange for me. As a photographer and an artist, I spend a lot of time in my studio and at home, so it’s very similar to my normal life. I think what has affected me the most is the lack of a sense of urgency.

I might have a solo exhibition coming up in August... But I don’t know yet. I’m working on a book with The Velvet Cell that was supposed to be published a month ago and then, be presented at Arles, which is now canceled. So, those sensations of “If I do it, or I don’t, it doesn’t matter.” That is, I think, the most difficult thing as an artist. I don’t have a boss, so I’m my own boss and my own demon.

But when I find my flow, I get into it. I’ve been in my flow for the past four days and I work until 1, 2, or 3 in the morning. I’m almost done with the book for Velvet Cell. I finished the third part of the trilogy with Skinnerboox, the Santa Barbara books, that will hopefully come out this year. I’m also working on the other five books for this series of Love and Politics. So, I have a lot of work that has me sitting in a chair — working on books, looking at my archive, and looking at my photographs.

Next year, if things pick up, there are already three or four books aligned for work that I did six, seven, or eight years ago that has matured. I’m seeing them with new eyes. I’m like: “That has to be a book.” So, that’s what I’ve been doing, but at the same time, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years. Trying to be the most that I can in the studio, looking at work, re-thinking it, and finding a way to make a book or an exhibition. It’s exciting and it’s not at the same time. Who knows?

We Love Our EmployeesBy Alejandro Cartagena.

FS: I think we’re almost out of time, but before we go, I wanted to ask: Is there anything else you wanted to let the readers know about? Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

AC: Stay at home if you can. Be Safe. I don’t know, that’s a really difficult question. That’s the most difficult question of all.

Stay excited. Find things that excite you. I just subscribed to this subscription site by Jeffrey Ladd. He has access to an archive of art books from an amazing collection, and he’s posting these rare art and photography books on his website. I have found the most amazing things there lately. I’m reading that.

I try to not force things. Sometimes I’m here in my studio, and I’m staring at InDesign and I just can’t do anything with a book. So I watched a video of how to story-tell, how to screen write, and now I’ve become fascinated with screenwriting.

Instead of feeling frustrated with not being able to do something, I just do something easy and enjoy it. Quarantine has been really hard for a lot of people. It’s not an easy situation. Try to enjoy it and try to be calm.

Order We Love Our Employees here

Alejandro Cartagena is an editor and a self-publisher. His books examine social, urban, and environmental issues in the Americas. Alejandro lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico.

Forrest Soper is an artist and photographer currently based out of Rochester, New York. A graduate student at the George Eastman Museum and The University of Rochester, Forrest has worked as the editor of photo-eye Blog and as a photochemical lab technician at Bostick & Sullivan.