Photos of the People, Buildings, and Found Objects We Barely Notice in Cities

Dalston Lane, Hackney. London 2014

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

It all started with a hand-drawn map. Photographer Carlos Alba, now 31, had just moved to east London from Madrid in March of 2013, and his landlady handed him a rough sketch of the neighborhood to help him get around. "On it, she'd marked the usual places—bus and Tube stops, shops, the bank, a gym—so I used it to go out and get to know the area," he says. "During these walks I found a lot of objects on the street such as photographs, love letters, sketches. I started to collect them, at first randomly, then more methodically. When I had a good amount of interesting objects I researched the meaning of them and their owners. They were like a signal to follow for taking pictures."

And so he did, picking up his camera and documenting not only the found objects but the residents of the area to whose contours he was still tracing in his mind. In September, the project Carlos has called The Observation of Trifles started in earnest, and has since turned into a photo book that will be out this autumn. It's been quite the journey from working as a fashion and magazine photographer in Spain to starting afresh in a city Carlos deems "one of the most competitive in the world" but open-minded and multicultural.

As you'd expect, approaching strangers in the street required a bit of tact. "I used to bring the objects and a notebook with sketches and photographs with me," Carlos says. "They helped me to explain my project to the locals. I'd spend around 15 to 30 minutes talking with the people and if I found a particular person interesting, I'd finish the conversation by asking: 'Can I take your picture?' If so, I pulled the camera out from my backpack and I shot the photograph."

Three years later, there are still chats and objects that stick out in his mind. He remembers speaking to local man Robert Adams (pictured below), who was born "within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, and worked as a switchboard operator connecting callers to Spanish-speaking countries. His interest in Spain began after his grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades." Most importantly, for Carlos, Robert said he was "very proud to be in a poetic photo book of his neighborhood. For me, that's the best review that I've received about this photographic work."

He won't soon forget the strip of negative film he found lying on the pavement—possibly his funniest little treasure—"in which you can see a naked dwarf," or the note that just reads "Please don't leave extra milk. We have too much stock. They all going out of date. Thank you." With everything from playing cards to single personal photos that may have slipped out of a jacket pocket or been intentionally cast aside, Carlos built a picture of his own understanding of the Hackney and Tower Hamlets areas.

Ultimately, the whole project came down to chance—there wasn't a master plan at any stage. "I researched about east London's local history, art galleries the kind of people living there, and I found it interesting and appealing. Also, it was the cheapest area in Zone 2."

Follow Tshepo on Twitter and Carlos on Instagram.

The Observation of Trifles is available now, via The Photographers' Gallery and La Fábrica. See more photos from the book below.

How Two American Teens Became Assassins for a Mexican Cartel

Teenage hitman Gabriel Cardona's eyelid tattoos. All images courtesy of Dan Slater/Simon and Schuster

When the state of Texas sentenced Gabriel Cardona and Rosalio "Bart" Reta—aka the Wolf Boys—to what would equate to life in prison, the American teenagers were simply labeled serial killers in the vein of John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Damher. It was true they had killed at least 50 people combined while still minors. But, unlike Damher or Gacy, the Laredo, Texas-born convicts weren't killing for sport. Rather, they were teenage assassins and child soldiers employed by the Zetas, one of Mexico's most notoriously violent cartels, whose blood money they wanted in order to stock up on nice cars and fresh kicks.

Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel is a new book by reporter Dan Slater that examines cartel culture and the war on drugs from the nuanced perspective of its youngest constituents. The author spent four years researching the drug trade, during which he exchanged hundreds of letters with Cardona, learning how a bunch of American-born kids got involved with one of the most brutal crime syndicates across the border. A twisting and chaotic tale that switches perspectives between the young hitmen and the homicide detective who ultimately caught them, the true crime story details the reality that "under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer."

In the text, we get a vantage into why cartel leaders recruit underaged kids, American or not, and how they train them into becoming executioners. The more we get to know the Wolf Boys, the less they feel like deranged killers and the more complicated their situation feels on a moral level. Were they victims of intimidation, capitalism, and their destitute hometowns, and does that excuse their violent behavior? And what action, if any, can the US government take to not only prevent the recruitment of child soldiers, but also help rehabilitate them? We talked with Slater, whose book is already slated to be adapted into a full-length film, about the Wolf Boys's evolution from underprivileged kids trying to make some money to full-on assassins.

VICE: Many stories about drug dealers and cartels glamorize the kingpins at the top of these organizations, but Wolf Boys focuses on the foot soldiers at the bottom run. What interested you about child soldiers?
Dan Slater: I went to Mexico and visited a cemetery in the State of Sinaloa that was known, unofficially, as the "Cartel Cemetery." When you go to there, you see a lot of these big, gaudy mausoleums around the outside of the cemetery that were built by the families of guys who were higher up in the cartels. But in the middle of the cemetery were plain headstones for men who were extremely young when they died. I averaged out the dates on maybe 30 headstones and came up with an average age of death at about 18 or 19, though it wasn't uncommon to see headstones for people who died at 13 or 14. It was amazing for me to actually see that up-close.

I thought back to Gabriel , who I'd read about in the New York Times a few months earlier. I was finally able to put them into context, and they seemed to belong to a huge world of young men who really were the people fighting this war, the people who were dying at the greatest rate. That's when I became determined to tell their story and to see what was behind the headlines. Where did they come from, what was their neighborhood like, what were their family lives like, what sort of male role models did they have, if any? That was where the urge to humanize them originated from. I think it's important to humanize these particular kinds of boys and young men because they comprise such a huge segment of the drug wars.

What was it like visiting Cardona and Reta in prison, and what did you discuss in the hundreds of letters you exchanged?
I visited in prison and we spoke for eight hours. He told me stories and was thoughtful, inquisitive, and manipulative. We wrote each other for three months. My experience with Gabriel was different. After I visited him in prison, he told me he didn't mind sharing his story, but that some media people approached him with lies. Over two and a half years, I wrote to him and we covered every phase of his life from childhood through incarceration. We persevered through misunderstandings, spats, and reconciliations. The letters became the basis for much of the book. The final chapter, 33, describes the reporting process, including my relationship to the boys and how it developed over time.

What circumstances led these young Mexican-American teenagers into the life of crime that the cartels offered?
Laredo is a very impoverished city, and the neighborhoods within Laredo that the Wolf Boys were from are particularly poor, so economics have a lot to do with it. Often times, will be raised by single mothers, or there'll be a lot of elder men within families who set poor examples for the boys. It comes down to a lack of guidance, a lack of parenting, a lack of discipline, and a culture in which, frankly, families are immersed in the drug trade. It's not uncommon for family members to be involved with various aspects of smuggling and subsequently get their kids into it at a very young age.

Not everyone from these neighborhoods becomes a cartel member. There are many kids who go to college. But for the most part, it's very hard to get out of these places. In my research for Wolf Boys, I saw families dealing with losing a son or with having a kid get sent away for life in prison, and how normal that was there.

A photo of detective Robert Garcia (left)

The narrative alternates between the teenage assassins and Robert Garcia, the cop who was chasing them. Were you also interested in Garcia before working on the book?
I wouldn't have been writing about Robert Garcia had it not been for the Wolf Boys. They were what originally drew me to the story and it was their lives that I originally set out to investigate and explore. I stumbled on Garcia a little bit later. I knew he was a crucial part in the investigation of the boys, sort of their nemesis or their foil, but it wasn't until later in the project that I saw how the book could be structured as a thriller that alternated between the good and the bad. I realized suspense could be derived from the feeling of Oh my God, when are they going to meet and what will happen?

Do you think NAFTA and the War on Drugs have actually helped turn the cartels into major conglomerates and wide-reaching organizations?
So much of American law enforcement is employed because of this war, but one of the reasons I avoid tying the origins or causes of the drug trade and drug war to any one thing is because I really don't see the world that way. I don't think we can say it was one thing or one policy. Certainly there have been many policies that have exacerbated the fallout of the war on drugs. NAFTA was an interesting version of that because it was an economic policy that was intended to enrich a lot of people, and it did at the expense of others—and that was sort of foreseen. What was unforeseen about NAFTA was the effect it would have on the drug trade—it essentially made the drug trade a lot smoother, and smuggling easier. So in that sense, NAFTA inflated the market and probably drew more people into the underworld as a result.

The media has labeled these teenage assassins as monsters. Yes, they did terrible things, but do you think they deserve these labels?
Do they deserve the labels? Well, they did what they did. The legal system in the state of Texas, for instance, doesn't think of them as cartel assassins or members of the Zetas. The state of Texas just sees them as serial killers. I think a lot of Americans would be surprised to see that label attached to them because when we say serial murderers we think of Jeffrey Dahmer, but these kids were, for all intents and purposes, doing the same thing. They were killing a lot of people. They were just doing it for money.

I think when you reduce it to that, they deserve whatever label people want to apply to what they were doing. I think it's the nature of people for their mind to go to very dark places when they don't see the whole picture. I certainly did that. When I first learned about these kids, I only had minimal information about them and the things I did know about the world they came from were its most brutal aspects. But the closer you get to something, the more human you're likely to see it. I think that helps change the perspective, but, of course, getting to know them better doesn't change what they did. I hope and I think every reader of Wolf Boys will come away with a slightly different perspective on them and what exactly they merit in terms of labels. I think some people will be empathetic to them and some won't. It will be interesting to see.

'Wolf Boys' is out now via Simon & Schuster. Buy it here.

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Designers Are Trying to Make Fashion Week Great Again


Audience enjoying a runway show. Photo by Camilla via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, Ralph Lauren's spring/summer 2017 runway show for New York Fashion Week tried something it had never done before in its more than 50 years as a brand. Immediately after the label presented it's latest runway show in a towering glass tent across the street from its flagship store on Madison Avenue, its new collection featuring Western-style fringe jackets and ponchos was made available for purchase. Although several designers have been experimenting with "see now, buy now" over the past few years, Ralph Lauren's the largest American brand to try out the runway-meets-retail tactic, which is one of many trends signifying a desire among designers to reform fashion week.

"Showing clothes, then delivering them six months later... it's over," Ralph told Vogue before the show. "With the internet, social media... you have to change."

Change is exactly what the doctor ordered. In March, the Council of Fashion Designers of America released results from a study about the current state of New York Fashion Week. It polled 50 industry insiders, including everyone from designers to bloggers. The consensus was that the system of showing clothes in a runway presentation and selling them in stores months later was outdated and ineffective. They also framed the breakneck pace of the fashion cycle as a problem that leaves designers burnt out and doesn't help gain new customers.

The reality is that fashion week hasn't evolved that much since it was started back in 1943. The semi-annual series of presentations and runway shows that showcases the latest designer collections to a crowd of international buyers, press, celebrities, and fans hasn't kept pace with our advances in technology, industry, or globalization.


Kelly Cutrone before a fashion week runway show. Photo by Flickr user Savanna Smiles

Ralph Lauren's move to offer its collection immediately after the models made their way down the runway, however, is one way to break out of the doldrums of NYFW. Tom Ford, Alexander Wang, and Burberry have also been experimenting with the "see now, buy now" model, and it makes sense.

In an age when the audience snaps pictures and posts them online before 15-minute runway presentations are even over, offering the new clothing to the public immediately after debuting it on the runway cuts down on the risk of fast-fashion knockoffs, and could even help designers capitalize on hype. After all, if you're going to drop anywhere from $40,000 and up to create a spectacle-like runway production, why wait to make that money back?

"All these young and emerging designers who are coming up with these great looks are spending all of their money clothes come out."

Putting together a fashion show involves conceptualizing a collection, creating samples, and finding a venue, in addition to the finer details like arranging lighting set-ups, music, and PR. According to Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, designing the clothes for a fashion week show takes about four months, which means there's only two extra months between spring/summer and autumn/winter to work on everything else that comprises a fashion business.

This proposition is especially problematic when the shows can actually lose you business. In the past few seasons, Pyer Moss has put on some of the most hotly debated runway shows. For spring/summer 2016, Jean-Raymond turned his show into a platform promote the Black Lives Matter movement. Jean-Raymond's powerful message was lauded by critics, but it cost his company over $120,000 in business from buyers too chickenshit to take a stand up against oppression.


Kerby Jean-Raymond. Photo by Nick Sethi

Although some major designers are trying out new ways to make fashion shows more lucrative, for younger brands like Pyer Moss, who are on the rise but still lack the resources and revenue of storied brands like Ralph Lauren or Burberry, these new tactics can be tough to implement.

"It is really hard. I think it should be 'see now, buy soon,'" said Cutrone. "You can do 'see now, buy now' in limited quantities, but how do you do a production run if you are an emerging designer? For someone like Ralph Lauren, you know you are going to make 10,000 polo shirts so it is no big deal. For a smaller brand, how do you know how many to make? You don't because it has to be based on your orders."

Some brands like Public School, Gucci, and Vetements are combining their men's and women's collections, to help cut down the workload. "Designers are human beings who need to have some spare time to get rest and gather strength. Instead, designers are put under enormous pressure and insane schedules," Vetements CEO Guram Gvaslia told Vogue about showing men's and women's separately. "The industrial machine sucks out their creativity, chews them up, and spits them out. Once a genius, the designer is left behind incapable of being creative."

Other designers are balking at the system of fashion week by simply rejecting the official Council of Fashion Designers of America calendar and showing their presentations "everywhere from churches to clubs, and on everyone from agency-signed models to their own friends," writes W Magazine's Steph Eckardt.

For more on fashion, watch our VICELAND show States of Undress:

The influx of reality stars and social media personalities replacing editors and buyers at shows is another runway presentation risk that designers are learning to adjust to. The presence of famous faces in the front rows has turned the industry event into a social event that can ultimately overshadow the actual collections, especially in the media.

"The biggest con is that shows have become more beneficial for celebrities than they are for the designers," says Pyer Moss's Jean-Raymond. "It can suck after forking over $50,000 for a short event and then having your front row cannibalize your much-needed press."

He adds, "The return on investment on shows isn't there anymore, either. Most stores are finding brands on Instagram now, not on the runway like before."

Cutrone, however, has an idea for improving the return on investment of runway shows. "To me we should be selling tickets to fashion shows like a rock concert, where we comp 20 to 100 seats for people who are legitimate reviewers. Why? Because we are creating free content."

WATCH: Old at Fashion Week

The need for change has some people questioning whether the runway show is on the way out entirely. But the reality is that as annoying as fashion week can be for designers, the presentations offer a priceless opportunity for them to present their vision to the right people, which is something they can't do when the collection is simply shipped off to stores or worn by a celebrity without context.

It's this power of unfiltered expression that has kept and will undoubtedly keep attracting creative designers back to fashion week. And hopefully, with these new trends of change, they can catch the stodgy semi-annual event up with the 21st century.

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