Photographer Vladimir Antaki and a friend were wandering along a crowded street in Mexico City a few years ago when they stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall sculptor’s studio that, except for a dusty radio, wouldn’t have looked out of place in Renaissance Italy. Packed to the ceiling with religious statuary in various states of completion, the atelier was owned by a 72-year-old man named Mario Antonio who, at first, was less than thrilled about Antaki’s interest.
“He was not friendly,” recalled the Montreal-based photographer. “He was acting annoyed, and then he started ranting. And he ranted for about 45 minutes.”
With Antaki’s Spanish-speaking friend translating, Antonio managed to convey that his family had been making religious figurines in Mexico for 12 generations but that, since he had no apprentice, the tradition would die with him. Furthermore, the Catholic Church was increasingly buying cheaper statues from China rather than from local craftsmen like himself. No one appreciated his skills, Antonio lamented—not his family, not the Catholic Church, and certainly not gawking tourists like Antaki who ducked inside to take a photo and then disappeared without making a purchase.
Antaki assured Antonio that he was no ordinary tourist—he was a professional photographer currently engaged in an epic, multi-year project to photograph small shopkeepers all over the world. “I told him that’s why I was doing this series, to honor people like him,” Antaki said. “And he said, ‘OK, you can take a photo.'” In the photograph, Antonio stands at the center of his studio in a paint-splattered frock, surrounded by his creations, including a statue of Christ that looms over his left shoulder, appearing to bless the sculptor.
Antonio is just one of the more than 250 shopkeepers Antaki has photographed over the past seven years in his travels around the world: a Paris shoeshine man, a New York record seller, a Beirut mechanic, a Montreal haberdasher, an Istanbul gramophone repairman. Antaki sees these shops as bulwarks of individuality and diversity in a world increasingly dominated by international retail chains. “The reality of the world today is that we’re scared,” he says. “When you go to a new city, you want to feel safe so you go to McDonald’s or Starbucks. It’s a way of homogenizing the world so people don’t have to leave their comfort zone.”
Antaki calls the bodegas, boutiques, and workshops captured in his photographs “urban temples.” “These are the places where people literally spend their lives,” he explains. “Some have been around for 50 years, 60 years. So I believe there’s something sacred about these places.” The name of the photography series, The Guardians, reflects this sacral aura.
After photographing Antonio, Antaki promised he would return the next day with a print. When he did, the embittered sculptor simply accepted the photograph without thanking Antaki. But after leaving the studio, Antaki took up a position where he could watch Antonio unobserved. “He looked at the photo, and he smiled,” Antaki recalled. “That was a great moment.”