The road to Guadalupe Valley is winding. Federal Highway 2 leaves Tijuana from Otay, snakes east past Tecate and twists through La Rumorosa Mountains toward Mexicali and beyond. Louie Navarro, Victor Viera, Pedro Muñoz and Felipe Soltero are crammed into the small cab of a maroon Nissan pickup truck, their camping gear strapped down in back. The crew is headed toward the valley not to soak in its steaming mineral baths, but to hike up the surrounding mountains to photograph what's left of the peninsular bighorns, an endangered population of desert bighorn sheep. The group is jittery and excited.
“The sheep see us before we see them,” Victor says, gripping the wheel, the collar of his black North Face jacket upturned to cover the nape of his neck. “They have good vision.”
“Bighorns are quick,” Louie adds, “all I have right now are pictures of white tails.” He laughs and fiddles with the camera in his lap.
Louie is compact with big brown eyes and deep dimples on each side of his round face. Eleven years ago, he and a few of his friends in Rosarito and Tijuana started Clickaphoto, a collective dedicated to the art of photography. The group took pictures for fun, but the motivation eventually fizzled until two years ago when Louie decided to resurrect the collective. He enrolled the help of Jose Jimenez Jr., Fausto Vargas, Omar Pimienta, Marisol Mancilla, Manuel Carrillo, Felipe and Victor, and reunited the group through projects like this one, which Louie simply calls the “Bighorn Project.”
Once or twice a month, Clickaphoto-or parts of Clickaphoto, depending on who can get time off from day jobs-drives down Baja California to the San Pedro Mártir mountain chains, or closer home to Guadalupe Valley, armed with cameras and ready to snap pictures of the elusive and beautiful beasts. The Clicka collective has yet to get good shots of the sheep, but they have a few thousand dollars from a Baja California state grant, a lot of energy and enough confidence to keep trying.
Sharp blasts of the uncommonly cold arctic air that recently engulfed Tijuana and California sneak through the cracks of the pickup truck as the Clicka crew speeds along the increasingly dark highway. The first bighorn sighting comes in the shape of an oversized statue at the base of the mountain pass. Louie whips out his camera, an expensive-looking digital Canon and, laughing, leans out the window to snap a few quick shots.
“I'm setting my alarm for 4 a.m.,” he says, pulling down his wool hat against the wind. “The good thing about the cold is that we won't see snakes out there tonight.”
In La Rumorosa, a small mountain town huddled beside Highway 2, the crew spots another bighorn. This one's not real-it's an image on the town's sole gas station's sign. “It's a sign,” says Victor with a wink. The cold adds color to the tiny mole on the tip of his nose.
The crew stocks up on supplies from La Panaderia de las Montañas and Mercado Super Mario, then gets back on the road. They speed through the curviest and steepest part of the pass yet. The elevation eventually drops and the pavement levels out. The glow of Mexicali can be seen in the distance, but before anyone gets too comfortable, Victor spins the steering wheel and heads off-road toward a sign that reads Laguna Salada. The truck glides easily over the dried salt-lake bed. It's been used as a road for decades, so when the boys stop and get out of the truck to snag a look at the stars, their feet hit the ground with a thud. The packed dirt is as hard as cement.
The scene is surreal. It's flat and dark-the headlights disappear into blackness five feet in front of the truck-and the road seems to end and start again with no apparent rhyme or reason. A half-hour passes smoothly, then the road gets bumpy-really bumpy. Huge dips, ruts and sharp rocks jut up from the ground; the truck barely misses each one and the crew is tossed back and forth as Victor skillfully maneuvers his way around the obstacles. Chunks of rubber from the tires of trucks with drivers not quite as competent lay scattered about. There's a fenced-off olive farm to the right and nothing to the left. In front lay the dark outlines of Torre Blanco and Guadalupe Point. Like the North Star, they lead the way.
“I know we're going the right direction when those hills are directly in front,” Felipe says later. He and Victor have made this trek dozens of times. The two volunteer on emergency rescue teams when they're not out hiking and rock climbing for fun. Felipe just started experimenting with his old film camera during the trips, but mostly he and Victor are there to keep the rest of the crew from getting lost.
Clickaphoto's eight members are eclectic-some were born in the United States, others in Mexico-but they share one common bond, an obsession with taking pictures. A young, brainy bunch of shutterbugs, the collective appreciates photography's prettier side, but they are drawn even more to the medium's ability to capture important moments, places and times. To Clicka, documentary photography is serious stuff. All carry cameras-some digital, others film-wherever they go. They take pictures of moments that move them, moments they can never get back.
On the last trip to San Pedro, Clicka came close to getting shots of the bighorn. They hiked eight hours in and talked to two men stationed at a telescope center at the top of one of San Pedro Mountain's higher peaks. The men said they had seen the sheep a week before. They had left hay bales and salt blocks out on the snow to encourage a return visit.
Clicka camped near the station, but the sheep never showed. Instead, a California condor, a species that shares the sheep's endangered status, swooped in on the crew.
“He could have killed me,” said Jose Jimenez Jr., one of the more veteran photographers of the group. Jose's been shooting for 15 years and working at photography shops in San Diego for the last six. “It was unreal, really.”
“Condors are huge,” added Marisol Mancilla. “I thought they were small, but they aren't. It was kind of scary.” At 23, Marisol's the youngest Clicka member and the group's lone female. She's been at the photography thing only since she joined Clicka a little more than two years ago. Now she says she carries a camera at all times.
Louie is the most experienced photographer of the bunch. The 31-year-old cigar-shop owner takes beautiful pictures, applying light and shadow with his lens as though he were a painter armed with a fine-tipped brush. His independent series, “Lost and Found,” is a collection of stark black-and-white photos of trash he picks up from the beach near his home in Rosarito. In Louie's lens, broken flip-flops and worn plastic Coke-bottle rings never looked so good. In his “Fisherman Project,” Louie and a few other photographers and writers spent a year with the fishermen in the Mexican village Popotla. They documented the fishermen and beautifully captured a quickly fading way of life. Louie's work is aesthetically oriented, but he says its importance is in its message: “I like pictures that say something.”
The nothingness of the desert ends abruptly. Dry bushes tower three or four feet over the truck now. The road worsens and the truck slows to a crawl, barely clearing the boulders along the way. The landscape changes again, and, like the magical scene from Maurice Sendak's children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, the truck suddenly enters a lush grove of bushy green palm trees. Hand-painted signs point the way to the camp.
The crew settles in for the night, pitching tents and rolling out sleeping bags. Before too long, two gringos step into the light of the intimate camp. They explain their predicament: They'd ridden dirt bikes to Guadalupe Valley to meet up with friends who have all their camping gear and food. It's getting late and they haven't heard a thing. The men are afraid they'd freeze to death if they try roughing it.
Louie invites the gringos to join the camp. Over wine and cheese, the young photographer entertains the two with stories, like the one about his original Luke Skywalker action figure (still in its original packaging) sitting back at his cigar shop in Rosarito. The rest of the crew lingers in the private hot spring; there's a cement tub conveniently built into each campsite. Their English isn't as good as Louie's-who was born in Los Angles and spoke English long before he learned Spanish-and, frankly, they're much more interested in the hot water.
Louie shows the gringos his camera and explains the camping trip's true purpose.
“Mexicans don't really care about the environment,” he says. “We have to make them care.”
The men nod in agreement, noting the alarming amount of trash they'd seen piled along the roadway during their trip.
“You know,” Louie continues, “in the States in the '70s it was the same thing, but then they started fining people for polluting and people stopped throwing their trash everywhere. I think that's what they need to do here, start being stricter on pollution. Technically, littering is against the law in Mexico, but they don't enforce it. That's the problem.”
“Yeah, you know, I think you're right,” agrees one of the gringos.
The chatter continues, but midnight hits and the dry, frigid desert air crawls into shirt sleeves, sending chills up spines and making noses drip like faucets. Everyone crawls into the tents and calls it a night.
Louie's alarm sounds at 4 a.m. He drags himself out of his sleeping bag. Minutes later, Felipe follows. Louie snaps a few pictures of the tangerine sky and the two sneak off before the sun fully drags itself up over the eastern hills. By the time Victor and Pedro (a friend of Louie's along for the ride) make themselves an espresso with a portable machine, Felipe and Louie are far ahead, already halfway to the first of three waterfalls along the trail. The trail, really more a suggested route than an easily navigable, groomed path, leads to the bighorns' watering hole.
“See there,” Victor says, pointing at the sand as he heads up the mountain, “those are Felipe's shoeprints. We're tracking them, not the sheep!” he laughs.
Victor and Pedro spot Felipe first, standing proudly atop a ridge 20 feet above. As they climb the slick rocks-the rocks become steeper and slipperier the higher they climb-Victor lets out a little yelp of excitement. He calls Pedro over to the ledge where he's standing. Pedro approaches as quietly as he can. Is it a bighorn?
“It looks a little small,” Victor says, pointing not at a bighorn on the horizon, but, instead, at dark brown droppings lining a crack in a rock in front of him, “but I think it's from the sheep.”
The waiting game begins. Over a shared chocolate bar and warmed Cup o' Noodles, the crew waits on the ledge of a huge granite stone. The sound of the stream below lulls Victor to sleep. Louie's camera is perched on a higher ledge and he paces back and forth with anticipation.
“They can smell us,” he says. “They already know we're here.”
Felipe pulls out his old film camera and snaps a few pictures of the scenery. Louie kneels down next to his digital camera and takes the opportunity to give Felipe a few pointers.
Hours creep by and the air gets colder. The steep ridges to the right and left show no signs of sheep.
“We need more time,” Louie says. “Next time, we're going to build a little shack up there,” he says, pointing to the top of the ridge. “We'll camp out for three or four days. They have to come down to get water at some point.”
Hours later, with zero pictures of the sheep and the temperature dipping closer and closer to zero degrees, they make their way back down the mountain.
In between bighorn outings, the members of Clicka aren't just sitting around waiting for another chance to sneak away. They have other projects, and each time they get together, they improve their photography skills.
“We learn from each other,” said Jose, seated behind the counter of the photography shop where he works in Seaport Village. “We vibe off each other.”
“Louie knows the most,” added Marisol later, over a Mexican coffee in a Rosarito bar. “He's our leader, but he shares; he doesn't keep any secrets to himself.”
Secrets aren't the only thing Clicka shares. Every member purposely uses a Canon so they can swap lenses, batteries and memory sticks. They share tips on Photoshop and, when someone is lucky enough to get a new camera or lens, they pass old equipment down to the member most in need.
Individually, each Clicka photographer works on solo projects. Collectively, they work together on the Bighorn Project and the Colonia Libertad Project, a unique photographic series that treats Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood in Tijuana where four of the eight Clicka members live, as a “microcosm of what the border geography and imagery represent for us”-in the words of Omar Pimienta, the Clicka member the others rely on when a project requires writing.
Each photographer is taking a different angle of the Libertad project. Fausto Vargas, for example, is taking pictures of houses, documenting the lives of people whose homes are within just a few feet of the border fence. Manuel Carrillo, the guy other members rely on when it comes to graphic design, is snapping shots of the people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day.
Another photo series in the works, one that's worth mentioning because of its sheer madness, is the “Tijuana River Project.” In the not-so-distant future, Clicka plans to ride a canoe down the Tijuana River beginning to end, photographing the trash and sludge along the way.
“It's more of a protest,” explains Louie. “We want to document the pollution. We'll start from where the water is clean, then show the transition.”
Documenting and showing: that's what Clicka is all about. They point their cameras at the things most people miss, even if it means taking their cameras to freezing cold mountaintops or dangerously polluted riverbeds. Clicka puts hard-to-reach moments into pictures, mounts them in pretty frames and gets those images into art shows, making sure they reach as many eyeballs as possible. Louie quoted fellow photographer Tom Newton when describing Clicka's philosophy: “Look, I'm not an intellectual. I just take pictures.”
“We register,” explained Louie. “We document in order to show people what's going on, what we live and what people around us live and the problems with our society right now. We document. We don't intend to change the world; we just show you how it is.”
Back at camp, the hot spring warms things up. The crew doesn't seem bothered by the failure.
“I like the trip.” says Felipe. “I like the places, nature, the sun, and when you hike up the mountain there's silence... special silence.”
Louie looks up from his book, Susan Sontag on Photography, and takes a bite of his carne asada taco.
“It's beautiful,” he says between bites. “When you're up there, it's just peaceful-hawks, bobcats, coyotes, no people.”
The boys switch to Spanish. At one point, the rapid-fire flow slows with the awkward sounding English word “groupie” popping in and out. Clicka, Pedro explains, has a bit of a rock-star reputation in Tijuana and Rosarito.
“They're into the photography thing,” says Louie. “They're chicks who think photography is cool.”
Most of the members of Clicka are married or have serious significant others (Felipe's wife has a black belt in karate, so he doesn't dare mess around). You could say some of the Clicka members like the nature aspect of the Bighorn Project almost as much as they like photography, but it definitely isn't the girls or the fame dragging them back time and time again to the cold mountain air. It's the sheep.
“We'll get the picture of the bighorn,” says Louie as he breaks down the tent and starts packing the truck for the return trip home. “I'm hooked. I'm not stopping 'til we do.”
A collection of Louie Navarro's photos and projections of Clickaphoto's work will be on view in an exhibition opening at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, at the Instituto de Cultura in Tijuana, No. 10151 Zona Rio, next to Tijuana City Hall. 011-52-664-684-86-09. Visit http://clickaphoto.blogspot.com and click on the links of the individual blogs of each Clicka member. Coming soon; www.clickaphoto.org.