CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- Art has a way of redefining public spaces, particularly those marked by hardship or violence. This is what drew photographer Stefan Falke to the U.S.-Mexico border. Falke is capturing the work of binational artists for a project he calls La Frontera.
When he picks up a camera, Falke is struck with a bolt of invincibility. On a cold January morning, he planted his tall, broad-shouldered frame mere inches from the wheels of oncoming traffic. He aimed for the perfect shot of his subject, fellow photographer Mónica Lozano. She smiled behind red lipstick and soft wavy hair as she stood underneath an overpass in the commercial heart of Ciudad Juárez.
Lozano posed in front her own work, a collection of black and white photographs of people's faces.
"This is urban art," she said. "The intention is for people to interact with it."
The happy faces in the photos were scribbled with mustaches, teardrops, and blacked-out teeth. Lozano attempts to showcase this gritty city in a rosy light, something not everyone agrees with. The last four years unleashed a horror show of drug-related violence in Juárez. One morning residents awoke to find a murdered corpse hanging from this very overpass. It's a time locals like Lozano won't easily forget.
"I could see the people around me and how they were changing," Lozano said. "There was this wall going in front of their eyes. It was difficult to see the people that you love … being taken by the fear."
The next stop was downtown Juárez. Along the drive there Falke passed a Walmart, a Starbucks and large shopping centers. Coming from his home in Brooklyn, it wasn't exactly the kind of border city Falke expected.
"Many people … have no idea whatsoever of these cities," he said. "They think there's nothing here. There's dirt roads and donkeys and tequila and shootings. They have no idea that they are modern cities with modern institutions, art museums."
Falke has photographed dozens of artists from Tijuana to Matamoros. He's photographed drama teachers, sculptures, poets and even passionate piñata makers. They are his window into the border, a region that has always fascinated Falke.
He grew up in post-World War II Germany, just 60 miles from the Berlin Wall. Now he's face-to-face with a different wall -- the one that divides the U.S. from Mexico.
"People see (the border) as their own country," Falke said. "And it really is, it's at times not Mexico, not America, it's a mix of everything."
In the bustling historic center of Juárez, Falke met his next subject, a muralist known by locals as "Melo."
Melo is a lanky, good-natured 28-year-old who drives an old turquoise minivan. He and Falke climbed inside and took off again.
Melo lives in a triangular city block south of downtown. A gaudy mural spelling Melo’s name is graffitied across a long wall next door to his house. Life's been rough. Melo can count off 20 friends and neighbors murdered since 2007. He paints over the pain in strokes of vivid blue, zesty orange and radiant green.
"I'm trying to paint all the block," Melo said. "I have permission of neighbors 'cuz they know my work, they love colors too."
Border artists like Melo are reclaiming spaces once lost to violence. In a way they are also historians -- telling the stories of their communities as they've lived them. With his project, photographer Falke is helping those stories reach an audience far beyond the border.