"The whole force of it probably started back in late 2015 when I first borrowed a friend's camera," photographer Frank Blazquez tells SFR of his series, Barrios de Nuevo Mexico: Southwest Stories of Vindication, which opens at El Zaguán on Friday Jan. 11."I used to use a lot of painkillers, opiates, and hang around the bad parts of Albuquerque, and I saw a lot of interesting subjects and characters. So one of the things I told myself was that some of the faces there are so interesting, I'd like to capture them on film one day."

Vindication encapsulates a long-running documentation of these people as well as the places and iconography found within Albuquerque's colloquially named War Zone neighborhood (near Central Avenue and Louisiana Boulevard) and its outlying areas. Think shots of Hispano couples, young men with face tattoos; guns and packets of Suboxone, the drug used to wean addicts off opiates; or black-and-gray tattoo work bleeding seamlessly into recurring themes of state pride and gang-reminiscent imagery.

Blazquez seems to have a preternatural understanding of what makes a good portrait—the subject, lighting and composition all feel like he's captured a natural, candid moment in the lives of couples at home, tough-as-nails women living their lives or addicts failed by a broken system, just trying to get by. Blazquez attributes his inspiration to his own struggles with addiction, but also to his uncle, the author Luis J Rodriguez.

Now 31, Blazquez, a Chicago native who has called Albuquerque home for 10 years, readily admits to coming to photography later than most, but says that time he spent working as an optician provided him an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of a camera's lenses.

"I didn't get the traditional and formal training," he says, "but I think admiring photography or observing it for many years is almost as good as going to studio classes."

“Bunny” from photogrpaher Frank Blazquez’ stirring Albuquerque-based series.
“Bunny” from photogrpaher Frank Blazquez’ stirring Albuquerque-based series. | Frank Blazquez

In the early stages of the project, Blazquez began with friends and contemporaries he met while getting clean. This spiraled outward to friends of friends or people he'd meet while out shooting. He likens the process to "not much more than me walking around." Though some potential subjects declined his invitations, most who took part are still in his life, and it's important to him it stays that way. Still, he'd like to widen his parameters to include other parts of New Mexico and other subcultures found here. Blazquez also envisions a photography book at some point, though he estimates he won't be prepared to call the project quits for another couple years.

"Around 2021, probably," he says. "Around that time I'd like to close out the project; I'd say I'm about 60 to 70 percent done."

Additionally, Blazquez recently partnered with Albuquerque filmmaker John Acosta, with whom he attended the University of New Mexico, for Duke City
Diaries
, a collection of documentary shorts that tell similar stories to his
photographs. The two even caught the eye of the creator and executive producer of Netflix's Fightworld documentary,
Colin Moniz. The three formed an association in late December, and Blazquez says they'd like to shop the series around to networks and/or streaming services.

"We're going to see if we can pitch this and get it in front of a larger audience, and it's definitely going to stay in documentary form. We're still doing the micro-doc structure; we … envision it something kind of like Flint Town," Blazquez tells SFR. "I'm a big fan of documentary because it's as real as it can get—it's gaining an understanding that people are going through the same struggles and hardships. It's a cathartic thing."

For now, though, the photography comes first. Vindication does what all good photography does: A single shot launches a thousand impressions and captures that seemingly unimportant but nearly
perfect moment. This has been a lifesaver for Blazquez.

"It's definitely helped with my sobriety," he muses. "I was able to transfer my addiction and obsession with substance to the camera, to this project. I've been clean 25 months."

Barrios de Nuevo Mexico: Southwest Stories of Vindication
5 pm Friday Jan 11. Free.
Through Feb. 1. El Zaguán,
545 Canyon Road,
982-0016