Alejandro Cartagena‘s A Small Guide to Home Ownership tickles my situationist nerves. Cartagena took a legitimate advertisements and guides, and modified them with archival advertising and images from a long-term photographic project on suburban sprawl in Juarez and Monterrey. It’s a sort of détournement that I really appreciate and, of course, as a scarce object (a first edition of 600) from a professional photographer with a few dozen books to his credit, it’s less a détournement than a recuperation, but still. It’s a nice book.

I remain thankful for the years I spent as a Charcoal Book Club subscriber. Without Charcoal, I might not be aware of this fun little book. A Small Guide… was Charcoal’s photobook of the month for January 2021, and I’m lucky to have a copy, as it seems to be out of stock everywhere. I hate to review books that nobody can buy, but oh well.

The first images in the book show pleasant landscapes with few signs of human interference. Soon enough, though, tract homes appear en masse, blocky and familiar. It’s so depressing how samey everything is these days, what with Globalization having already won. Everywhere: the same clothes, the same cars, the same phones, and even the same cheap, thoughtless housing sold for way too much money to people who really can’t (and shouldn’t) afford it. Here in 2022, with inflation rampant and interest rates rising for the first time in my adult life, there’s a hope that home prices will fall, and time will tell. The homes in Cartagena’s photographs were built during the last bubble; the current bubble is ongoing, and the houses are even worse now than they were then. smh.


Midway through, the Cartagena turns our attention to the process: home buyers and mortgage brokers, bank waiting rooms. Is it my imagination, or do the first images in this central section seem quite cheery (or at least neutral), while the later images have a more frantic, stressed and resigned tone? The merry go round starts great, but as the music winds down, well, everyone starts feeling a bit frantic. It doesn’t help that this entire central section appears in black & white…

The story comes to a close with pictures of the families and children that occupy the now-more-or-less-crumbling homes. We see their commutes; Monterrey and its glittering towers and overcrowded parking lots; the countryside returns—is this part of the commute, or some place they go to get away on the weekend?—and then it’s all over. A few half-finished homes rot at the end of the block, and everyone struggles to pay the rent or mortgage doing whatever they can.

All in all, it’s a fairly bleak vision of home ownership, and one that I share. Sure, I’m blessed to live in a large, rather well-built home, and with no mortgage. But if my darling wife didn’t already own it before we married, I would’t have ever bought a house like this: property ownership is theft. (I don’t really believe that, of course.) I remember 2008. And 2022 looks worse.


Insofar as A Small Guide to Home Ownership is sold out everywhere, I can’t really give it a rating or suggest you go hunting for it. It’s a good book, well-put together, and all. I’d call it thought-provoking, but for me it’s just preaching to the choir, and ymmv.

As far as I can tell, Cartagena’s website is a storefront. Still, you can check out some of his other projects. He has a fairly unified vision and technique, and is totally worth checking out.

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    1. It’s sort of an inside joke, and something I don’t really believe or ascribe to, and it’s an old Punk Rock saying that comes out of maybe communist theory or something. I don’t really know much more than that, and for me it’s more an oblique way of saying that property ownership is something of a racket, with too many layers of debt to start, and then ongoing taxation that, in my case, comes to more than I ever paid for rent, anywhere, plus I get to be responsible for, say, the air conditioner, the refrigerator. It’s a boondoggle. And after 2007-08, who in their right mind would ever want to own a home again?

      At the same time, I totally get it. The house is “mine” (it belongs to my wife) and we can pretty much do with it what we like (within HOA restrictions), and so it’s better than renting, I guess. And to look at this book just brings it all back.

      1. I get it, kind of. Certainly home ownership doesn’t make sense for everyone, especially if you’re trying to enter today’s insane (bubble?) market from scratch. Depends on individual finances, flexibility, age, etc. But I think a good case could be made for home equity as a general foundation for building long term wealth. Probably a better bet than photobooks, lol. I don’t know the situation in Monterrey well enough to comment, but it seems like same general principles might apply there. But who knows. Maybe I’ve just drunk the capitalist koolaid. I’m open to alternative economies, or at least more severe oversight of the current model.