When you think of the Southwest, what immediately comes to mind?
Sure there are churros, sunny skies and culture throughout the area, but what about along the roadside?
In her new book “Mortal Highway,” New Mexico-based photojournalist Judith Hidden Lanius investigates the culture of roadside memorials put up by the Hispanic community in northern New Mexico.
Lanius offers a unique and highly personal perspective of descanso culture through her images connected with prose and lyrical verse motivated by her conversations with the families of the victims.
The images show how descansos add objects of religious significance and personal mementos from the life of the dead. This public mourning ritual turns road shoulders into sacred areas that possess memories and cautionary tales for those driving by.
“The creative process is challenging, exciting and has ups and downs and many pleasures, so there were certain aspects that were challenging,” Lanius said. “I think talking to the families who had lost sons primarily was certainly challenging.”
Lanius started her long-term project 10 years ago and stated in a press release that, “Through the years of solitary driving and stopping, my connections deepened to the lost men, women, and children remembered in the sacred descanso space. Families and individuals generously and courageously welcomed a stranger along the side of the road or into the homes and shared memories.”
“It was a very important wave to me, it was very important to communicate with the people and they were very kind sharing their stories,” Lanius said.
In the beginning, Lanius had not intended on publishing a book.
“I lived in Medanales at one point and I had started to notice them and I felt a connection with the women there,” Lanius said. “Every time I was there, I felt compelled to photograph them, though I did not initially think about a book or as a project, really, I thought of it as something that I had to do.”
After that, the gears began turning for a book.
“I lived in Washington, D.C. at that point, and I would come out here periodically for 10 days or two weeks and photograph and drive the roads of northern New Mexico,” Lanius said. “Looking for them and finding ones that drove me, and then at a certain point, I realized it could and should be a book and that changed the whole aspect of it.”
Once she decided on a book, Lanius knew she had a task and an important message to share.
“I think this book for the first time really brings them into the close-up and it allows people to stop their car by opening the book because it is dangerous on the roads,” Lanius said. “This is such an instrumental part of the Hispanic culture and that’s why I think it is important to document and remember the people.”
For Lanius, the landscape was one of the most compelling parts of her journey.
“I think probably the most moving and interesting part of the landscape is how much the memorials define the landscape,” Lanius said. “Another very noteworthy thing is that people’s families feel compelled to memorialize their family members in this fashion.”
The back of the book features a text describing the makeup of a descanso, along with a map of the region detailing the location of each crash site, along with the victim’s name.
This book can be purchased at Barnes and Noble or Amazon for $45.
Outside of photojournalism, Lanius lives in Santa Fe, and has a background as an art historian and jewelry designer.