Ross Fraser McLean on new exhibition CEIBA

In the run-up to his major solo exhibition in Summerhall, Ross Fraser McLean talks death and danger in Mexico

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 06 Oct 2016

Ross Fraser Mclean turned 22 in the Gobi desert and since then has been going as a sometime photographer explorer for about 12 years. Most recently, he travelled across Mexico as part of a two-year project which will culminate in the exhibition CEIBA in Summerhall this month.

While there's an emphasis on the diversity of the huge country of Mexico, the Summerhall exhibition will broadly be organised around the idea of death and mortality. It's titled CEIBA-Casa de Todos Los Muertos, or Home of All the Dead. Ceiba is a tree sacred to indigenous Central American mythologies – the tree of life or world tree.

Death in conversation in Mexico is “like something we would share,” explains McLean. "They use that as a way of maybe to relate to people but also remind us we're all going out the same way. In Guerrero I had a conversation that started ‘Did you see the two decapitated bodies under the bridge?’

“There's also a huge span between the rich and poor. One thing that everyone shares is that mortality. In a way, Day of the Dead isn't the kind of carnival we might imagine – it's a way of trying to connect and a way of families coming together to remember those departed. In a lot of ways it's more open than the Christian approach of Christmas because no one pays for Day of the Dead. It's open for everyone.”

As part of his everyday practice of photography, McLean would document the cemeteries where he was travelling. One of the most eccentric cemeteries he encountered was in Sinaloa. It was also one of the worst places for a visiting photographer.

“I'd checked with a photographer on Twitter, and she told me just don't go alone.” As he was walking around, a local asked repeatedly that he stopped taking photos, and made clear that he was in danger.

Not knowing much Spanish, McLean phoned a friend to interpret. “They were having a really long conversation and I thought it's totally fine, it's sorted, it's all good. Then I get the phone back and was told 'Ross, get out of there now.’” This is after a three hour flight and ten hour bus from one end of Mexico to another. “So I take another photo or so then put my camera away.”

Later he came across a news article. “Two guys were there two weeks before, there doing the same thing and they were just shot dead. That was it. It was weird timing. I'd researched a lot into it before and it was fine, but there's usually two reasons for being there. You're either DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] or a journalist and they don't really want either of those guys.

“It's sort of romanticised in a lot of films that are out there. But the reality is there was a 19 year old girl that was blogging about activities in that area and they took her keyboard and put it on a roundabout next to her head.”

He witnessed first-hand again the dangers of drug trafficking when he was guided by a family he stayed with to a different kind of narco graveyard. “Away in the South in Guerrero, they took me to where the narcos dispose of their corpses (though there are different opinions on whether they're alive or dead at the time). They use rubber tyres to hold them in place and cover them in coconut casks.

"They took me to this site that had the charred embers of human beings and actual belt buckles, bits of clothing and human sized patches of ash, about 11 or so of them. As a press photographer I might have just taken the photo and sent it straight away. I've pondered over that here and questioned what's right to include. It's about that relationship between all the different moments. I've never been engaged with a project of such a scale or depth like this.”

As much as there is a documentarian bent to CEIBA, McLean is also open about the personal weight to the exhibit after losing his dad. “It was becoming a secret undercurrent strand. Say for example in Cuba [subject of a previous photographic series], a lot of the images I made were of workshops and cars [his dad worked with cars and was a car enthusiast]. I was doing that without necessarily admitting it openly.”

As part of the Mexican tradition of ofrenda, McLean put together an altar at different moments throughout his travels as a tribute to his father. The ofrenda often include personal effects, or food the person enjoyed, and he'll be including this in CEIBA.

Though in some ways a personal project, McLean was first visiting in the wake of 43 students being killed by the state. “The way it was described to me is that, in certain parts, there are no consequences if you've got enough money to get out of any situation. There's no reliance on the state. There's a lot more onus on family and a care for people. And that's to a point where it's commonplace for people to adopt kids from the streets. I was staying with families and someone would say this is my sister.

"Only after a bit of time you'd also find out they'd been brought in for some reason. It's almost like there's a matriarchal approach. The sad thing was everyone had a story of some sort of injustice that happened. And that's really what the protests of the 43 were about. Everyone was venting their frustration, and this need for justice that they weren't getting from the state. There's a real anger with the people in power.”

McLean wasn't at the mercy of any serious injustice, even if he ended up giving a kickback. “My friend was driving us on a state highway in a borrowed car without insurance or papers. We end up getting stopped and the guy was like, 'I wanna help you' and we had to slip a note under his clipboard. I was able to be corrupted in such a short time.”

Speaking of some of the challenges of representation in this project, he acknowledges: “It's such a disparate country. It's the same size as Europe” and it's only “from a distance that you can generalise.”

So he's going all out for CEIBA and bringing in as many hands as possible to help. Papier-mâché heads by other artists will be included of different Mexican archetypes, and he's also collaborated with designers to transfer parts of images to fabrics. Not to mention his plethora of trinkets. “There's been a real collaborative push with local artists to bring a bit of lightness and fun as well. Mexico taught me that, it doesn't need to be all doom and gloom. You need to keep things alive.”

CEIBA opens in Summerhall on 28 Oct, the first iteration of an ongoing project