Santa Marta

Nothing momentous happened to me during my two weeks in Santa Marta, Colombia.  I wasn’t mugged.  I wasn’t befriended.  I didn’t have any adventures or epiphanies.  But I did wander through the colonial section of town*, around the commercial district, into the red-light area, and along the Malecón to the docks where cargo ships constantly load and unload endless stacks of containers (the port accounts for a significant portion of the town’s economic activity).  During these walks, I began to understand the spirit of the place, its layered history and heterogenous population.  I made an attempt to capture some portions of Santa Marta’s complex identity through my photographs.  Here’s one.  

*Santa Marta is the oldest continually inhabited city in Colombia.

A Cup Of Coffee

My encounter with this man is one of my best travel experiences.  With the early morning sun just emerging from behind the decaying downtown buildings in Cali, I saw him pushing a dolly that towered with stacked cardboard, two dogs in tow.  Unlike some of his counterparts who looked menacing and openly carried dangerous-looking objects — boards with protruding nails or gnarled metal bars — he appeared thoughtful as he tenderly lifted one of his dogs onto a bench before sitting down beside it.  I cautiously approached and asked if I might take some photographs of the relationship he had with his dogs.  Assenting, he coaxed the dogs closer.  


As I moved around, looking for the right light and angle, he began to talk about the meaning of photography.  He observed that photographs capture a moment in time but don’t show what came before or will come after.  That they, however, immortalize a particular instant before the world changes, never to be precisely the same again.  He went on to reflect upon his life and how it led up to what I was witnessing.  He had once been a country person, a farmer, but alcohol had taken a toll and, to avoid the criticisms of his neighbors, he had opted for the anonymity of the city. A constant, in both environments, had been his ongoing love for and ownership of dogs.  He also spoke of what his day would look like after this short break:  that he had enough cardboard to make a trip to a sales point, and that he intended to use the proceeds of his haul for a meal and then continue to search for more material to sell.  Before parting ways, moved by his openness and story, I asked if we could meet the following morning so that I might bring prints of the images I had taken of him and his dogs.


The next morning I found him waiting in the same small plaza with his dogs.  We sat together looking at the photographs I gave him as morning commuters rushed by and roaring busses emitted black exhaust.  He was very pleased with the gift, and I was pleased with his response.  I proposed that, if he had the time, I purchase coffees from a nearby vendor and we continue our conversation of the previous day.  Before I could object, he walked over to the vendor, ordered, and reaching into a hidden pouch around his neck produced a small roll of bills and paid.  The vendor looked at him, then looked at me and muttered, “Now I’ve seen it all.”


We sat together sipping our coffees and talked of city versus country life, New York vs. Cali, breeds of dogs, the relationship between people and dogs, the environmental crisis created by human overconsumption, the level of waste in the United States, recycling, and how his work of scavenging fit into the larger picture.  For a brief interval, it didn’t feel like anything but the precise moment we were sharing in that specific location held any importance in the world.  I felt a sense of timelessness.  After perhaps an hour, the commuters thinned and he roused his dogs, who were lazily settled in a small patch of dirt at the base of a tree.  We parted ways, each continuing his path into the future.

Madness

I can’t imagine wanting to spend much time taking pictures of landscapes or still lives.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise” or Edward Weston’s “Pepper No.30”, but I prefer to be in the thick of humanity, observing the humor, sadness, hope, generosity, activity and occasional stillness.  I find the street life of Latin America particularly enthralling.  Familiar, yet worlds apart from my orderly existence in New York City, the sounds, smells and chaotic vitality allow me to connect with memories of childhood trips to Mexico and a life which, although only tasted fleetingly, I nonetheless remain nostalgic for.

This scene from Bogotá captures the ambiance I am attracted to.  The lives of the working class couple on bikes are juxtaposed with one of the symbols of bourgeoisie “family” life by the presence of the dog in their cart.  On a second story balcony we can see a sign that reads “Beatles,” marking a music store completely barred off from the street; apparently you don’t just need “love” - you also need a good defense!  And “Opticas Gammaluz," displays an image of a blond model that seems incongruous with the worn buildings and people (including the man in black to the far left who I believe was stalking me).  There’s something mad about the entire scene, something that feels post-apocalyptic yet very “real” in an immediate, unfiltered way.  It’s everything that Times Square is not — although Times Square was once like this and as the world unravels may well be again.

Crocodiles

I was submerged up to my chest in a tributary to the Amazon when I took this picture.  After a hot day in the jungle, it was a wonderful feeling to be in the cool water as evening settled.  Children’s voices pierced through the muggy air.  The slapping of an older man washing his clothes in the river echoed rhythmically.  After a while, I packed up my camera, leaving it on the shore so that I could swim unencumbered.  I felt unified with everything around me.  The experience felt timeless — like something generations of people before me had enjoyed in exactly the same way.  While that may be so, I did later remember stories from my guide about how his parents had frequently been unable even to canoe along the river for fear of human-eating crocodiles: crocodiles that have since been hunted out of existence for miles.

Past, Present and Future

This is one of my favorite images from my recent trip down the Amazon.  The back-breaking strength of the man shouldering the four bags of charcoal recalls images from the rubber boom period, when forced labor and brutality were connected with similar work, while the presence of children points to the possible continuation of the same patterns into the future.  Yet there is hopefulness: the boats contain an abundance of charcoal and tubers for local consumption;  motors allow ease of movement; electrical wires are visible in the background; the houses look stable and the people are decently clothed.  My intention is that this photograph be an invitation to consider the past, present and future of a group of people who have been largely marginalized and generally unnoticed outside of their own communities.

Games

On numerous occasions games have given me refuge from dicey situations by providing a context to integrate with those around me.  The photograph of the elder in the Bingo hall came about when I deemed the street to be too risky and ducked into the building where he was playing.  The card game image was taken in a somewhat notorious market,  and the players ultimately advised me as to the safest way to make it back to my hotel.  In another instance (not shown here),  on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I felt nervous about my surroundings,  so I approached a group of young men playing soccer.  After some time photographing their competition and later chatting as they rested, I asked them if there was anywhere I should avoid if I didn’t want to be robbed.  One of them laughed and said that I would now be fine throughout the neighborhood since they were the ones that would have robbed me!

Day of the Dead

Mexico has been one of the hardest places for me to take pictures.  Perhaps fearing crime, influences of traditional indigenous beliefs, a distrust of outsiders, or simply a cultural inclination, I’ve found my paisanos to be reticent and suspicious of the camera.  As a result, most of the photographs I have taken there were during a college semester abroad (20 years ago) when I had an opportunity to build relationships over a period of months.  More recently, I visited Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead.  While I was in the region for close to two weeks, I don’t think I even got ten images worth sharing.  But I really like this one.

Fragility

Every evening at dusk in the jungle city of Leticia on the banks of the Colombian Amazon, thousands of martins and parrots descend upon the tree-filled plaza in a cacophonous throng, the raucous ritual one of myriad ways the rainforest infiltrates the modern city of 50,000.  Whenever possible, as the sun went down I would position myself on a bench to observe the whirling of life, smoking a cigar while the birds landed in the trees for the night - occasionally defecating on me as they passed.  


One evening, two birds collided mid-air, plummeting to the cement pathway in front of me.  Alive but dazed and unable to fly, they flopped about until each managed to find its way to the park’s grassy gardens.  Saddened, I couldn’t bring myself to join the handful of people that briefly encircled the injured creatures before leaving them to their fate.  The humming energy of the countless birds still flying no longer felt the same as I considered the fleeting nature of life and the pain that existed alongside the freedom of the birds’ flight.  Ash fell from my cigar and the ember of tobacco burned lower as I drifted into a melancholy state.  


Finally, I walked over to where the birds had been.  The garden was deserted now, park lamps casting harsh shadows in the grass.  For perhaps fifteen minutes I searched for the birds' small bodies until I came to the realization that they were gone.  Apparently, at some point they had regained their senses and flown away.  While I didn’t feel that any of the metaphors I had discerned in the collision were untrue, the birds’ recovery made my heart light once again.  I placed my cigar stub where a mendicant might find it and headed off into the night.


Gaby

Here’s a photograph of my friend Gaby (from the Yagüita) as a young girl.  She’s now in her 20’s and has two children and another one on the way.  She’s very strong, and I’ve been told she can even hold her own with men if it comes to a tussle.

Out of work for quite some time, she has resisted pressures and suggestions to make her way to the beach and service tourists.  According to Gaby, her best opportunity would be to secure work at a local Timberland factory, but so far her applications have not been successful and she remains unemployed.  

Having known Gabby since she was a toddler,  I trust her without reservation.  She is someone I would turn to if I had a problem.  I wish I knew how to help her with hers.

Moroccan Boxing Edit

Generally, I take many pictures of a given person or scene.  It allows those around me to get used to my presence and also provides more opportunity to capture the essence of a particular moment.  Sometimes, as a result, I end up with a surplus of usable photographs and have to pick the one I think is best.  

This is a photograph from Jemaa el-Fna, the public square of Marrakech, that I did not use in my Morocco portfolio, instead opting for one of children engaged in a sparring match.  It was a hard choice as I really like the intimacy of seeing the young man seeming to reflect before a fight but ultimately I opted for drama.

Solitude

A writer friend of mine once told me that his creative process required him to be alone for extended periods, but that he was actually quite social.  For me, it’s been the opposite; I came upon photography while searching for something meaningful to fill my inexplicable yet apparently congenital sense of separateness.  

When I look at this photograph, I remember feeling primed for adventure, excited at having just arrived in a new town where I didn’t know a soul.  I felt a sense of purpose, rejoiced in the focus my aloneness allowed, and turned my eye toward the movements of people on the street and the decaying grandeur around me.  I was there and I was alone for a reason: to take photographs like the one shown here.

Yancarlo

This triptych is of Yancarlo, a young man I have watched grow up in a barrio of the Dominican Republic.  Since the last photograph shown here, he has had two children, lost a brother to violence, performed tremendous amounts of physical labor in construction, and is currently wishing he had a more plentiful stream of income.  

Many of the mantras I’ve been exposed to over the years make little sense for someone like Yancarlo.  “Don’t have children at a young age.”  (What’s the difference, if your access to resources will be the same at 30 as when you’re 15?)  “Study will lead to prosperity.”  (I have been told that in some schools one is as likely to see teachers abusing or extorting children as following a meaningful curriculum.)  And “Money should be saved.”  (But if you’re dead or the money is devalued, it won’t do you much good tomorrow.) 

Yancarlo will move forward with his life, perhaps never completely understanding me nor I him.  However, I do hope we continue to have portions of our lives intertwined and that I have the opportunity to see him raise his children and find joy.  I’m not sure exactly how he thinks of me but I know that I will always wish him the best.

Who Cares

Some years ago, a family member told me that the problem with my photographs was that she didn’t know who the people shown were and that she didn’t care… and she didn’t think many other people would either.  Two decades later, I’m not only still taking pictures of the same types of people but even of the same individuals!  

This is Edward.  He appeared in my book of photographs “Glimpses of La Yagüita” together with a text where he described his desire that people imagine him to be wealthy when viewing his image.  We have continued our friendship as well as photographic collaboration as he passed through adolescence, became a man, took a job in the capital, had two children, returned to his mother’s home to replace the decaying wood walls and leaking roof with cinder blocks and zinc, separated from his wife, and fell into hard times during a period of unemployment.  As a child, he had a vivid imagination and sense of adventure.  Hardship and struggle are squeezing the glimmer from his eye, but he seems to have resisted the temptation of joining those around him in criminal enterprise.

It may be that my family member was right, that no one cares who the people I photograph are - but I don’t think so.  And I care.

Religious Devotee

I’ve previously written about my wonderful experience with young monks in Ethiopia.  This picture is of an adult devotee walking in a rock-hewn church illuminated by the early morning sun.  Like the centuries-old church he is aged and weathered, but moves with purpose and has a defined function in his religion.  It must be particularly comforting to have a role and place in the world as one reaches the twilight of life.  Surely, he has worked and struggled over the years to occupy it.

A Beautiful Family

The young man shown here had been raised from an early age by the elders on either side of him and was introduced to me as their son.  He was fluent in the Emberá language and, as was apparent from the attention lavished on him by adult members of the indigenous group and the swarms of their children who surrounded him wherever he went, was much admired and beloved by the community as a whole.  I had previously encountered Indigenous and Black communities along the Pacific coasts of Panama and Colombia living in close proximity, but while they generally mingled harmoniously, this was the first time I met an integrated family.  Being part of a multi-racial, adoptive family myself, I found their deep affection for one another to be particularly beautiful.

An Unusual Man in an Unusual House

I’ve avoided tourist destinations consistently during my travels.  There’s something about things feeling too familiar, too packaged that runs counter to the experiences I seek.  It’s not pyramids or well-known landmarks that have beckoned me from my life in New York, but rather the quiet intimacy of meeting a stranger in a town plaza or being invited into a home for a cup of coffee.  

One afternoon in my early 20’s I randomly jumped onto a bus heading out of a small town in Veracruz, Mexico, where I happened to be spending a couple of nights.  After an hour or so of looking out the window as we drove along a dusty road, I noticed a man sitting in front of a humble, cylindrically-shaped, one-room home.  It had an opening only 4 feet in hight for a door, a thatched roof, rough-hewn wooden slabs for walls, and, as I remember, split coconut shells hanging from strings in the windows for privacy.  I had never seen anything quite like it, and to this day am uncertain if it was traditional to the region or simply a whimsical creation.  

Intrigued, I jumped off the bus and retraced the empty road until I was in front of the dwelling.  The man, perhaps 60 and clothed in a worn shirt and jeans, cowboy hat and huarache sandals, laughed upon seeing my interest in his home and invited me inside where his wife stood on the dirt floor making tortillas by hand and cooking them over a fire.  After 20 minutes or so of standard conversation (Where are you from? What foods do you like? How many siblings do you have? etc. ), he looked up at me with a warm smile and said, “I know why you’re here.  You’re wondering about my life, the way people in this area spend time, what our experience on earth is like.  You want to know what we’re thinking, feeling…  Well, we’re thinking and feeling the same things as you.  We’re wondering why we’re here, what we should be doing, and what will happen once we cross over.”  I responded with a nod, and a comfortable quiet filled the room. 

Not wanting to dilute the experience of our shared sense of humanity, I don’t think I even took my camera out of its bag.  So here are three images of other places that represent the sort of environments I’ve been drawn to for my photographs.  One is in Argentina, the next Ethiopia and finally Guyana.  I liked all three places very much, but connections like the one in Veracruz are few and far between.

Portrait of an Electrician

I’m not claiming to be of similar calibre to the great master Vincent van Gogh, but his work did inspire me to take this picture, and when I look at it I think of his Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. Mine is of an electrician.

Birthday Soap

I was staying in a small mountain town in Jalisco, México, during my fifth birthday.  Accustomed to games, cake and piles of presents, I remember feeling apprehensive as the neighborhood kids, invited or not, began arriving empty-handed and clearly more interested in the food Mom had laid out on a fold-up table than in paying their respects to the birthday boy.  

Most of the party has been lost in the fog of time, but one event remains vivid close to four decades later: the breaking of the piñata.  I wish that I could say that blindfolded I had hit the piñata myself and account for my ensuing failure by an inability to see… but that was not the case.  Rather, I was on the sideline when with a tremendous whack an older boy split open the papier-mâché donkey, sending candy showering to the ground.  Diving for the bounty, I suddenly found myself at the bottom of a mound of struggling children.  I felt myself being crushed, suffocated, and began to cry.  What felt like an eternity later, the mass shifted and I felt an older boy I knew pulling me off the ground before he dove back into the fray.  

It seemed like even the smallest children had managed to emerge with their hands full of candy, but there I was, teary-eyed, without a single piece.  This experience, as well as countless others since, have left me with an indelible admiration for the strength, tenacity and fortitude of the hardscrabble children of Latin America.  Below, I have shared a few images of some of the types of children I am describing.

But how did my birthday end?  Unfortunately for me, from among the dozens of children only two gifts were produced - both of which upon being unwrapped turned out to be soap.