In his project “Of Lost Causes”, Keith Dannemiller – an American photographer living in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City – shows us a curious syncretistic feast that takes place at the 17th-century Church of San Hipólito on the 28th of every month. Here, he writes, distinct smells and odors clash as riotously as do beliefs. The aromas associated with traditional Catholic places of worship—burning candles, incense, wooden pews—permeate the air. At the same time, the atmosphere is acrid with the stench of industrial solvents and cheap inhalants—dangerous and volatile, “like the souls of the recently converted true believers in this, the cult of Saint Jude Thaddeus.”
Most Mexicans believe in some form of fate but many also have an unswerving confidence in a pantheon of saints, who are supposed to successfully rectify the injustices of their individual destinies. For those who feel that fate has dealt them a bad hand, petitioning your special saint for health, a job, or help in personal affairs—legal or illegal, moral or immoral—is as Mexican as drug cartels and tacos al pastor.
The followers of Jude Thaddeus are young and old but they don’t come from all walks of life. Keith explains: “They arrive here each month on foot or in public transportation from the inner-city barrios and marginalized neighborhoods that ring the city—breeding grounds for the desperation that feeds the growing cult. Here, the syncretism floats in the thin air like a dark and ominous cloud of hopelessness. Is this the future of Catholicism and the last chance of millions of Mexico’s disaffected youth, who, spurned by ineffectual institutions, gather with little dogma and a surplus of expectations for the Saint of Lost Causes?
“Young seekers, whose families and even other saints have seemingly shut out, are welcomed with open arms by the Claretian missionaries. Those with no where else to turn and little in their pockets will always find solace and refuge in the end-of-the-month congregation of Jude Thaddeus at San Hipólito. Membership only requires the very basic of the acoutrements of the growing cult—a scapular or statue of Saint Jude and a small yellow bottle containing PVC cleaner. One, tightly embraced as an icon of hope; the other inhaled to stave off, if only temporarily, the reality firmly embedded in lives with little or no promise.”
The psychological impact of this energetic public act of devotion and veneration on the believer is undeniable. In the imagery Keith provides, we see raw and intense emotions of despair and worry being alleviated, the helpless and hopeless being empowered, if just for a moment. People find something (and someone) solid to hold onto when opportunities and the possibility of progress seem to slip away. Around the beloved saint, the weak and needy members of the Mexican community coalesce with the strong sense of culture and fraternity.
The photographer writes on his background, his relationship with the religion of his childhood and the character of his current personal spirituality: “I am not a practicing Catholic although I was raised in a very religious household. But there are those who say ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’, which may in fact be true. I faded away from the Church when I became able to think for myself and broke the strictures of dogmas and creeds. That structure failed to help me understand the world when I began to encounter doubts and existential questions as any teenager will.
“So you may ask, ‘Why this interest now, at this point of your life, in Saint Jude Thaddeus, the Saint of Lost Causes?’ I have asked myself the same question during the last seven years of photographing the rituals and customs associated with the worship of this popular saint. While I am not a person of the Church, I do firmly believe in the power of faith. I am attracted to the strength of the beliefs of the people I meet almost monthly at the San Hipólito Church.
“Those who have overcome illnesses, lack of a job, personal relationship problems, extreme anxiety and the numerous other difficulties of the modern world appeal to my nominal spiritualness and to my visual curiosity. I am able to explore with my camera, and in doing so, continue to attempt to answer some of those profound questions that still need answers. I don’t get down on my knees during the masses that are held on the 28th of every month, but I have taken to lighting candles in my house when things get a bit overwhelming. Maybe I am becoming a true believer.”
Born in Akron, Ohio in 1949, Keith Dannemiller was educated at Catholic elementary and high schools. He attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee for a BA in Organic Chemistry. In 1976, after four years in San Francisco, he moved to Austin, Texas where he worked for The Texas Observer, Third Coast and Texas Monthly. While living there, he began the first of many photographic trips to the north of Mexico, in the area around Espinazo, Nuevo Leon, where he documented the festival of the Niño Fidencio, a folk saint renowned in Mexico during the 1920s. In 1987, he decided to live and work in Mexico. A relationship that began with the Mexican photo agency Imagenlatina in May, 1987, resulted in two trips to the Middle East (1988 and 1989) to cover the Palestinian Intifada.
While currently independent, during the past 27 years, Keith was associated at different times with two US photo agencies: Black Star and Saba. In Latin America, he has covered a wide variety of situations, ranging from Nicaraguan recontras to street children in Mexico City to life on the US-Mexico border. A recurring theme in his personal work is the effect on the country’s rich traditions when Mexican society is constantly reshaping itself.
In addition to the project on Saint Jude, Keith has documented the following subjects: a fundamentalist sect that uses exorcism to deal with social problems; portraits from the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, Danzón in public parks, the struggles of Central American migrants in Mexico enroute to the United States and the effects of drug violence on the internally displaced persons of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. His most recent book, Callegrafía, is a look at the intimate strangers who move through the streets of the Centro Histórico of Mexico City each day. In December 2017, the photographer will be Artist-in-Residence in North Carolina for the Eyes on Main Street Photo Festival.
Keith shares his favourite creative people – Music: Thelonius Monk, Juan Gabriel, Los Lobos, Tom Waits; Authors/Thinkers: Flannery O’Connor; Sandra Cisneros; Toni Morrison; William Faulkner; Jane Jacobs; Joan Fontcuberta, John Berger, Arundhati Roy, Ariella Azoulay, Jim Harrison, Seamus Heaney; Photographers: Hiroh Kikai, Sergio Larraín, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, Louis Faurer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Nacho López.
Links: Website (www.keithdannemiller.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/keith.dannemiller) | Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/mxcitystreetphoto) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/keithdannemiller)
Images used with permission.