When photographer Diego Huerta read an article about the climbing death toll in Mexico's ongoing, relentless drug war, he was struck by the number of lives lost: about 31,000 from 2006 to 2010. He asked producer and fellow Monterrey native Daniela Gutiérrez to imagine their hometown soccer stadium filled with dead bodies instead of fans.

"That's when it hit me," Gutiérrez said. "We haven't been paying that much attention to how much that number really represents because we are getting used to it. We think of it as just a statistic."

But instead of focusing on the deaths of 31,000 people, Huerta and Gutiérrez embarked on an ambitious photo project that highlights the lives of 31,000 people across Mexico, as well as some in Austin, who hope for a more peaceful future. Huerta and Gutiérrez decided early on that in order to dedicate themselves to a photo project that big, they both had to leave their steady freelance jobs and forgo their income.

With no funding and only personal savings, they launched "31K Portraits for Peace." The pair set up a project bank account, where supporters of their dream could deposit money for expenses the project required: food, travel, printing, among others. And so they took a gamble and began a life-changing journey.

One year and thousands of photos later, "31K Portraits for Peace" has come to the Mexic-Arte Museum, featuring faces from across Mexican urban and rural landscapes. The exhibit, which runs through April 1, shows the breadth of lives lost but also captures a glimpse of the faith that many in Mexico still hold. Poignant video diaries from their travels and a timeline of their journey across about 80 cities add to the power of the selected images.

With a constant stream of negative news coming out of Mexico, Huerta and Gutiérrez feel their project helps counteract the stories of kidnappings, violent attacks and death that have gripped the psyche of many in Mexico.

"I believe in peace and believe that to have peace you don't have to wait for it or pray, you have to act and get it," Huerta said.

Gutiérrez adds that they realize their project is not a solution to end violence in Mexico. "I know that we are not Gandhi or Mother Teresa to change the world," she said. "But I do know that if these 31,000 people who have their portraits shot get involved and take actions for peace that it will make a change."

A person's portrait in the project is like a signature on a petition. Each person in the portraits holds a blue paper dove that Huerta and Gutiérrez call "La Huasteca" (pronounced Wahs-tey-ka). The simple paper dove (it's covered with blue painter's tape) is a small but profound symbol of participant's wishes for peace. Mexic-Arte visitors can make their own origami doves at the exhibit.

"It's not only that you are holding a dove in your hands and you are taking a picture," said Gutiérrez. "It's standing up and saying `I am a believer and I will make a change.'"

When the pair first hit the road, they booked hotel rooms and purchased many meals, but that soon changed as the money dwindled. Gutiérrez and Huerta relied on community support in many of the cities where they shot, from the mountains of Chiapas to the megalopolis of Mexico City. They often made connections through social media. People volunteered to help them during photo shoots. Others offered to be guides, and friends of friends lent their spare bedrooms or couches.

The pair often set up in public spaces and informed passersby about their project, inviting them to participate. Other times they connected with universities or businesses willing to open their doors. And while the reception at most places was welcoming, one of the most challenging experiences for them was listening to people who didn't want to be included in the project because they felt they couldn't make a change.

"It was like they had given up already," Gutiérrez said. "That was hard, but when others start joining you, it's less hard. You start learning that there are people that want to change and people who don't."

But simply taking portraits wasn't enough for Huerta and Gutiérrez, who wanted to spread their message of peace in some of the cities hardest hit by drug violence. Giant posters of their portraits with the slogan "Peace begins with believing" have gone up in places like Juárez, which has had the world's highest murder rate in recent years. Posters were also spread across San Fernando, Chihuahua, where the mass graves of 72 migrants killed by a drug gang were discovered in 2010. For security reasons, people in the posters are not featured in the same towns where they reside and the participants' names are not published.

The portraits have also hit Austin streets. Peace portraits pepper the city starting at Mexic-Arte and extend to the museum's exterior wall space along Fifth Street. Austinites sitting in traffic or riding the bus can also see portraits displayed in and outside of some Capital Metro buses across town.

From the Mexican countryside to the colonial nooks of cosmopolitan cities, Huerta and Gutiérrez shared stories, meals and hopes for the future with the subjects of their photographs. Their project gave others inspiration, and those who supported the project equally affected Huerta and Gutiérrez.

Once, after having wrapped up a photo shoot in a Saltillo park, the pair packed up their equipment and were ready to head out when a group approached Huerta. The family of four - with a baby on the way - had driven three hours just to get their portrait taken for the project after reading about it in the newspaper.

"I think it was destiny to meet them," Gutiérrez said. "It was great to feel that our efforts reached others. It makes you think you are not as alone as you think you are."

Since launching the project, Huerta says he's not the same person. "I am now more open to talk to people," he said. "I am used to starting conversations now. I listen. I take time to know people."

But most of all, he's learned that peace starts within. And if you make small and constant changes, he said, then you begin to feel the peace around you.

nflores@statesman.com; 912-2559