I was ten years old when my father’s other life caught up to him. He walked out of a dive bar in Edinburg, Texas, and into a wall of 9mm rounds. He was dead before we arrived at the hospital, and I was the new man of the house before we got back to our tiny, two-bedroom trailer later that night.
I imagine losing a father this way is tough on any kid, but living in poverty made the pain worse. The first summer without my father was the worst. The initial shock of what happened to our family had worn off but the realization of how alone we truly were was sinking in. The blistering 100-degree days and humid nights only made our lives that much harder to bear.
“Why can’t we get an air conditioner?” I asked, standing in front of our freezer’s open door. I already knew the answer, but asking the question made me feel like I was doing something about the unbearable situation inside the trailer home. My mother, sitting at the kitchen table, rubbed her temples with her thumbs and processed what I was saying. We barely had enough to string together three meals of rice and beans, much less an A/C unit. The frequent cold showers we took only made her worry about the water bill, and she was having no luck finding a job.
My mother knew we couldn’t go on this way. Her only option was getting us as far away as possible from the South Texas hotbox we called home. But where could we go?
We soon discovered the agreeable climate of the public library. In my mother’s mind it was the perfect place to get away from the sweltering heat— not for the educational value, but because my sister and I couldn’t guilt her into buying us stuff when we went to the mall.
I didn’t mind. The brick building on the corner of Cano and Fifth Street became my home.
That summer I read anything I could get my hands on in the children’s section. Entire book shelves on dinosaurs, natural history and sports were devoured before I started the sixth grade in the fall. But by then, the library became more than an escape from the heat. I kept visiting after school and soon found myself wandering away from the “easy” books.
I’m not sure if my father’s murder became the gravitational force between me and darker subjects, but I became interested in war and its place in history. The lives laid down on both sides of civil wars, revolutions and invasions intrigued me. What made people want to kill each other in such a horrible way? Hours and hours were spent flipping through history books on the Civil War, WWII and Vietnam.
It wasn’t long before I started to notice the names behind the photos jumping off the pages at me: Eddie Adams, Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, Larry Burrows, and Eugene Smith. My curiosity shifted from the pain and suffering of the subjects to the willingness of the photographer to tell their story in the face of danger.
Two years after meeting my heroes on the pages of LIFE and TIME, I saved enough to buy my first camera from the E-Z Pawn on University Drive. It was a 35mm Pentax, and I had no idea how to use it. I ruined roll after roll of film before getting the hang of it. By the time I got to high school I already had a small album filled with photos of flowers, dogs and crushed Budweiser cans. It didn’t take long, however, to realize my real passion was photographing people.
My portfolio has changed since I bought my first camera, but the idea of what makes a good photo – informed by the work I inhaled at the Edinburg Public Library — hasn’t. I’ve made photos in Iraq, Mexico, Syria, and cities across the United States. Somehow, despite all the heartache in my life (or maybe because of it), I’ve found my calling. All I needed was a camera and some time.