Member Exclusive: Don Bartletti shares some of his most memorable images from Mexico

Don Bartletti grew up in a rural part of San Diego County, and his interest in Mexico and migration dates back to his childhood, when he first took notice of the migrant farmworkers in his community.

For more three decades, he has chronicled the people of Mexico and Central America and the struggles they face.

His interest in photography was sparked during his service in Vietnam. Bartletti, an Army infantry officer, bought a Nikon F camera to photograph the war-torn country and its people.

"I'd taken one photography class in college," he said. "I was fascinated by the people and landscape of Vietnam. I shot more pictures than bullets."

When he returned to California, Bartletti began a distinguished career as a photojournalist. His first job was at his hometown paper, the Vista Press, in northern San Diego County.

Here, he shares some of his standout work from recent years, from the harrowing journey of child migrants to the street violence of Mexico’s drug war.

"Enrique's Journey"

These images earned Bartletti a Pulitzer Prize in feature photography in 2003. That six-part photo essay was about Honduran youths, some as young as 12, clinging to freight trains bounding north through Mexico toward the U.S. border. The Pulitzer jury commended Bartletti for his "memorable portrayal of how undocumented Central American youths, often facing deadly danger, travel north to the United States." The work was also honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for photojournalism and the George Polk Award.

"For three months I clung to the top, the side and the belly of 'The Beast' as it carried its vulnerable cargo of men and boys closer and closer to the U.S.-Mexico border. The end station came only to the brave and the lucky."






La Mesa Penitentiary, Tijuana

"The prison was very scary, very corrupt. While I was there, there were three deaths."


"Mexico Under Siege"

"When the cartel violence first blew up in Tijuana, I spent a week with photojournalists there who could help me find the hot spots without getting killed."



"This little boy was looking down on his dead brother, who had sold marijuana on the street."


"A combination of plastic, marijuana and prescription drugs, and syringes."


"The drug lords bury their families there. There are double-pane windows and air conditioning and little patios where they party at the mausoleums."


"I once hired a fixer to alert me to dangers, but he said: 'I don't want you to walk next to me; walk in front of me.' Because he was so afraid the cartel would finger him."


U.S.-Mexico Border

"Without the flashlight it was the darkest place you could imagine."


"I'm always interested in the evolution of the border. Activity along the fence line is high drama that defines a part of our relationship with Mexico. It’s like theater, with no intermission."


"This was an amazing two weeks, with Border Patrol trackers trying to catch these marijuana smugglers."


"This is one of the most lethal corridors in Texas, where the desert and the hot sand swallow up people trying to walk around a checkpoint."


"We were in a border town where institutionalized smuggling was the only industry. I counted, at one point, 120 people walking in single file through the southern Arizona desert."


"I was covering the wildfire on the border east of San Diego. The fire consumed all the vegetation, revealing a network of migrant trails. Firemen were bringing victims to the UC San Diego burn center by the truckloads."



"Without a Country"

"He spent 10 days walking in the desert with his girlfriend. It almost killed him, but he made it back."



"Product of Mexico"

Bartletti shot this photo at Campo Sacramento, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, while reporting on conditions on Mexican farms. He’d been invited into the camp by a family who shared their bare, 12-by-12-foot room with him. When he left the temporary home, a guard saw him, approached and told him to leave the camp.

"That was the moment I spotted a little boy playing with a kite made out of a plastic bag. I thought, how interesting. Here is something absolutely beautiful among these chicken coops of humanity."