Love in the Amazon

Even in Amazonian towns that are accessible by boat alone, there can be substantial (local) tourism – which grows quite tiresome after the first half-dozen or so boat loads of selfie-snapping, garbage-tossing loudmouths. After a couple of nights in one such town, a local suggested I take an early morning boat 30 minutes up a tributary to an indigenous village unfrequented by tourists. I was told to ask for someone, upon arrival, whose name was pronounced “Hi-Kee,” to arrange lodging and meals.

The following morning, seated in a 15-foot boat with an outboard motor, a local entrepreneur (whose business consisted of shuttling people to places not on the “main” route) navigated me through a spectacular flooded forest. Wet season at its peak, the waterline was just below the trees’ branches and we wended our way slowly forward between tree trunks, periodically being brushed by hanging leaves or twigs. Fish jumped, birds fluttered, and I imagined the larger mammals - jaguar, deer, puma, giant otters - listening to the purr of our motor in the distance.

Upon arrival at the village, I disembarked and discovered a town of not more than two or three thousand inhabitants, living mostly in wooden structures scattered along dirt paths. The major landmarks were a couple of soccer fields (one concrete, the other a mixture of dirt and grass), and a wooden church. I set out walking in the direction indicated by the boatman as the place where I would find “Hi-Kee,” happy to be unencumbered by luggage (save the backpack on my back) on the uneven trail.  Not sure what I was looking for or if the location would be marked, in the course of the next few hundred feet I asked several more people where “Hi-Kee’s” establishment was.

I made my best guess as to which of the houses might be my destination and stepped timidly into the first floor living quarters of a well-kept lodging.  Hearing my footsteps, a young indigenous man opened his eyes and raised his head from a hammock strung in the corner.  In Spanish, I explained that I was looking for “Hi-Kee,” as I had been told that she could help me find room and board. “She is my wife,” the young man replied, and climbed a wooden staircase to find her.  As I prepared to meet an indigenous woman who most likely would have learned Spanish as a second language, a tall, young, blond, smiling European woman descended the stairs.

“Hi-Kee” was actually Heike, a Dutch woman who had arrived at the village to do a university project, met José (the young indigenous man), and fallen in love with him. Together they work for the betterment of the town and natural environment where they live (through a European foundation and lots of sweat equity by the villagers), focusing on management and protection of natural resources, mapping/ patrolling of ancestral land, and providing basic services for the town’s inhabitants.  By all accounts they have a beautiful, warm marriage. The lodging, customized tours, and overall experience I had in their company continue to be a high point of my 20+ years of travel. (Think canoe ride by moonlight accompanied by the recounting of legends and ancestral histories by one of José's relatives, not another human soul discernible for hours but the river and jungle alive with the pulsating sounds of nature.)

Here is a picture of José with traditional indigenous body paint. Heike was just outside of the frame… comfortably chatting with a half-dozen or more of her in-laws.

 

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Timelessness and Beginnings

I took this photograph twenty years ago.  It was early in the morning and the beach was empty, save for these children, their dog, and myself.  Since I had come out of my cabaña after they passed, I don’t think that they ever noticed me.  

I remember feeling the timelessness:  the salty scent of the ocean air; the rumble of the waves; the rustling of palm leaves in the wind.  I also remember recognizing how the time of day corresponded with the stage in life of the children walking in front of me.

I miss that period of my life - the feeling of freshness, and, like the pair in the photograph, having more before me than behind.  Yet I’m happy to still be here, alive and able to recreate the experience, after all these years, through writing and an image.

Sad News

I knew Delvis, the young boy shown here, for years both before and after this photograph was taken - from when he was a toddler until his late teens.  Some months ago, I received word that he was gunned down in his barrio.  With violence, crime and murder on the rise in his native Dominican Republic, his death saddened many but came as no surprise.

Dominoes

There’s something wonderful about an activity like dominoes that appeals to people of different ages and can be played throughout a lifetime.  Possessing only a vague understanding of strategy, I once substituted into a game and serendipitously helped my partner win two important rounds.  Not wanting to commit to any more time at the table while the amber light of late afternoon provided for photographic opportunities, I vacated my chair and was on my way.  I don’t remember if I succeeded in my efforts to find images that afternoon, but I do recall with pleasure the camaraderie of a winning streak! 

Responsibilities and Contributions

In one of my earlier posts I pointed out both the competency and hardship associated with the contributions made by many children in the developing world to the subsistence of their families.  These two images further illustrate their hard work and responsibilities.  

The girl on the left, Tongui, is now a full grown woman with a child of her own.  I recently asked her how she perceived the chores she was charged with as a young girl.  Her conclusion was that they had been an impediment to her development and ability to accomplish her educational and career goals: That they had consumed too much of her time.  Nonetheless, she did learn discipline somewhere, and she continues to strive to complete her university studies - a rarity for people from her childhood neighborhood.

Lambs

One of the most beautiful places I’ve visited is the Bolivian highlands.  But tragedy struck when the “colectivo” van - in which I was hurtling along the barren altiplano - smashed into a country person who had just exited the only other vehicle within miles.  Forgetting to look both ways before crossing the paved two-lane road, he stepped right in front of us.  I’ll never forget the look on his face just before his head was crushed and body mangled by the collision of human ingenuity with human tissue.  The expression was a combination of surprise, fear, but also what I perceived to be a trace of humor.  Imagine - miles and miles of open landscape, with perhaps a single farm house or two (apart from the road) as a reminder of human presence… and the one spot he ended up in was right in front of an oncoming vehicle. 

Of course, at the time, neither I nor any of the other passengers felt any inclination to comment on the irony.  Our vehicle had skidded off the road into the dirt.  Those in the front seats were picking glass from the broken windshield off themselves, and we were all shaken by the fact that we had just witnessed a death.  The driver turned the engine off to assess the situation.  After confirming the finality of the hapless individual’s condition and checking over our vehicle for damage, the driver paused.  Clouds blew over the serene landscape as a nearby shepherdess approached the car shouting in distressed wails.  Words were exchanged with the driver in an indigenous tongue I did not understand.  The tone of the woman’s voice shifted from agitated and panicked to distraught yet resigned.  I was told by a bilingual passenger that she was the deceased’s neighbor.

Voices tapering off, we sat in complete silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour.  Eventually, without a word, the driver got back into the van and turned on the ignition.  We drove another 45 minutes until we reached our destination, a tiny village, where we all disembarked.  

The next day, just outside of town, I met the person in this photograph; an orphan who spent her days carefully tending a flock of sheep - including the two recently born lambs shown here.

A Precarious Situation

One Sunday, walking along a dirt street on the outskirts of a Quilemane, Mozambique, I encountered a raucous gathering of men, women and children.  The women were taking turns rhythmically jumping over a rope as others clapped, sang and chanted.  With scant to no tourism in the city in general, I imagined that it had been weeks, months, maybe even years since a foreigner had strolled through the flood prone neighborhood where I was wandering.  If my travels had been a quest to break away from tourist circuits and all the local contortions that accompany them, I was there.  

As pleased as I was to encounter such an event, the participants seemed equally excited by my presence.  Urging me to take photographs, they spun and hopped with extra vigor - young girls and elderly women alike.  Marveling at the fortitude of the older participants, I finally noticed people periodically bringing worn plastic bottles and jugs to a nearby house with a wizened woman at the door who, in exchange for a few coins, filled the containers with moonshine ladled from a bucket.

With the lengthening of the shadows and mellowing of the tropical sun, I began to think of my walk home and the possibility of navigating some of the grittier streets downtown in the dark.  Ready to be on my way, I discreetly approached one of the resting dancers: pointed towards the bucket of alcohol, the dancers in general and then to myself.  A smile emerged on her face as she understood what I was trying to communicate and nodded.  

Hoping to be discreet in my contribution to the festivities, I was dismayed when the woman let out a whoop upon gaining control of the bill I had carefully folded to be as small as possible.  My heart sank as she unfolded the bill in full view of all present and, on perceiving its value, drew the attention of the entire group with another shout and danced around the circle holding the currency in both hands above her head.  Slightly concerned for my own safety, I hastily shook all of the outstretched hands and hurried on my way.

The next day I returned to the same area, but, this being a weekday, I found only quiet streets with small groups of children preparing for school, the elderly sweeping and cleaning, and women cooking.  A few people seemed to remember me and greeted me with waves and smiles but stayed in their homes.  As I prepared to continue on my way, I came across one young person who, shrouded in a piece of cloth, looked strikingly regal.  I was thrilled to be given permission to take the picture shown here.

Pixie Dust

Some of the photographs I took as a student remain my favorites to this day.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the pictures themselves or my memory of everything feeling fresh and exciting.  This photograph is of a man I met in Cuba in the ’90’s.  I remember printing it for the first time on warm tone fibre paper in the university darkroom and feeling the entire process to be magical.  Now the pixie dust has worn off and neither shooting nor printing holds the allure that it once did.  I still do love looking at good photographs, though, and would count this as one.

Streets and Locals

There are architectural treasures in various states of abandonment throughout Brazil; decaying cobblestone streets and colonial buildings inhabited by squatters, derelicts and the marginalized. 

On one such street I met a woman who appeared to have a slight mental disability when she motioned for me to stop as I walked by.  Her desire: that I join her in perusing the magazine she held in her hand.  The sex workers and toughs loitering in front of the decrepit doors which lined the street were amused when I sat down beside her to chat about the glossy images of cars, clothes, and vacation scenes.  Someone muttered that I was the more “doido” of the two for spending the time to talk to her.  The woman herself seemed surprised but happy at my decision to engage.  

The street was only a block from my hotel, so during the following days I continued to stop by and visit with my new acquaintance.  We enjoyed shared laughter and smiles as we leafed through magazine after magazine.  I met groups of the residents’ children (including my acquaintance’s son) and brought them a soccer ball.  Spent time with the working women who told me stories of their lives and shared photographs of their families.  Received at least a nod from a few of the men as I passed them in their doorways. 

One day, as a largish man was approaching, one of the women positioned herself in a doorway, out of view of the street, and, looking at me, pointed towards her eye - a signal to be alert.  Upon seeing me, the man did pause, but slowly moved on.  According to all present, he was a predator who had robbed various people and was known to avail himself of the women’s services without providing compensation.  Should he return and attempt to rob me, I was told to stand up for myself and fight, come what may - as a local would do.

One afternoon in the sitting room of my hotel, I was chatting with other travelers when an enormous blond woman whom I had spent some time with while she awaited customers passed by.  Spotting me inside, she mischievously smiled as she turned around and lifted her dress high above her head, exposing her naked buttocks.  My companions were shocked, but I laughed, waved, and told her I’d see her the next day.  Incredulous, the other travelers eyed one another, trying to determine if I actually knew her and what the relationship might be.

After a week or so getting to know the street’s community and savoring the personal connections which relieve the solitude of a lone traveler, I decided it was time to move on.  Still contemplating the lives of those I had met, I  journeyed from the coast inland, where I found myself on a similar street - the edge of which is shown in the accompanying photograph.  As I strolled along, a woman whispered that she could teach me to speak Portuguese “transando em na cama”.  Loath to attempt to replicate the relationships I had just concluded, I did not stop.

An Unsatisfactory Outcome

Not too long ago in La Yagüita, rumor reached me of a plot that was afoot.  A couple of known criminals were said to be planning to rob me of my camera and possessions.  One was about my size and perhaps twenty years old, while the other couldn’t have been more than fifteen, 5’4”, and must have weighed less than 120lbs.  Since I had spent a great deal of time in the area, I had regularly noticed that the diminutive delinquent consistently carried a pistol.  As much annoyed and angered as scared, I resented having to modify my wandering patterns to avoid the areas they frequented.  Months after returning to NY, I checked in with a friend who had told me that the neighborhood was reaching its limit with the violence and predations of the pair.  The update: one of the two had been murdered and the other was imprisoned.  

The Dock of a River

I met this man on the docks of a river.  He was indigenous, but had left his community in search of work and adventure.  I was waiting for a boat that was scheduled to head to the coast and then up another river to an even more remote area of Guyana.  We spent the afternoon strolling the banks of the river together and chatting in English.  While I kept expecting him to ask for money or gifts, he never did.  But in the end, giving no explanation as to purpose, he did ask me for one thing: to take his photograph.  Here it is.  

The World We Live In

This group of photographs is from four distinct places: the Chocó region of Colombia, the Puna de Atacama desert of Argentina, and the hills and coast of Morocco.  What unifies the images is that they are more about space, composition and design than many of my photographs, story and social commentary to some degree giving way to aesthetics.  Still, the portfolio is intended to provide a brief examination of how the natural world and the pervasive human influence on the landscape combine to form the visual backdrop of our existence.

A Missed Opportunity

The devoutly religious town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, where I encountered a group of young monks chanting, is indelibly etched into my psyche.  It is a place that echoes biblical times, with shawl-shrouded people kneeling to pray, and life precariously sustained through rudimentary farming.  Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and receiving a significant flow of tourism, Lalibela has retained its spiritual essence.

On Sundays, a multitude of devotees begin chanting at dawn; throngs of people (some having traveled for hours) overflowing from famous rock-hewn churches.  Market day is similarly impressive.  Country people spread out their agricultural products to sell and shepherd in herds of livestock.  With only the sparsely populated mountain ranges visible in all directions, it’s easy to imagine that little has changed in the course of the last few hundred years.

My natural inclination being to explore the countryside, I jumped at an invitation to accompany a vacationing UN employee on a day trip to a religious site a couple hours drive away by private 4x4.  The trip went well, with affable conversation throughout and an opportunity to visit a remote and beautiful church.  What struck me most, however, was passing villager after villager, some struggling to carry heavy loads across the empty landscape, in a Range Rover with perhaps five vacant seats.  Without a notion on the part of the dignitary to offer even the young or elderly a ride, we whizzed by all, leaving them nothing but a gust of dusty wind in the face.

 

Manolo

The woman on the right used to be the girlfriend of a good friend of mine - one of my original friends from La Yagüita, Manolo.  A warm and generous boy when I met him, Manolo developed a propensity to fight as he grew older.  While he had a reputation for coming to blows at a moments notice, I never heard of him using a weapon or leaving any of his opponents in critical condition - although details like that can be shockingly overlooked when stories are recounted in the barrio.  One day, Manolo charged a neighbor only to be met with the point of a knife.  He died in front of his house.

The women in the first image are Manolo’s family.  His mother is feeding a baby who, like the two other young women, is Manolo’s niece.  Unlike some of the other young men in the neighborhood who have died of violence, disease or accidents, Manolo did not have any children before being murdered.  I continue to think of Manolo more than a decade after his death, but sometimes it feels like he has vanished without a trace as he is rarely mentioned.  Undoubtedly, somewhere behind his mother’s troubled brow he is constantly present, though, as he is with me.

Time and Distance

Occasionally, when I am taking pictures, my sense of being an observer gives way to a feeling that I am not actually physically present at all.  It’s as if I’m watching myself from above - a kind of out-of-body experience.  This was one of those cases.  The street was quiet as I passed and saw Ramón through his open door, alone in front of the television.  In this shared moment of solitude I felt like I saw the whole story of his life,  a trajectory that despite auspicious periods ultimately led to a profound melancholy as societal and personal shortcomings prevented him from providing for his family.  I felt the night air while I listened to sounds and voices coming from the various dwellings, as people prepared for supper, argued or laughed.  Each person in their own world, with their own joys and struggles, futures unknown, unaware of my presence as I took note of theirs.  I thought of the earth underneath the pavement that I had walked on many years before when the street was a muddy mess.  I watched myself - a familiar oddity who had somehow become intertwined with those present - moving alone amongst people and reminiscences.  Many of the houses in the barrio were now different from the images etched into my memory from years gone by.  Some of my first friends were grown, others dead - all in some sense gone.  A young man nodded to me and wished me well as I rounded the corner to head home,  but even as I my body bid him farewell I felt my spirit watching from above.

Stillness

Many of my photographs are about transmitting a particular feeling, one that is difficult for me to describe with words.  It’s a feeling I have experienced many times while on the road, typically arising after at least a week of solo travel: a melancholy that is perhaps the precondition for a quiet appreciation of stillness and understated beauty.  Here are four images from three continents that attempt to convey this feeling.

A Disturbing Accusation

During a trip to Mozambique, I met a Frenchman who spent his time reveling in the Maputo nightlife with the local elite and dining out with other international travelers.  On the veranda of our budget hotel (bedbugs included in the more basic rooms), I told him of my discontent over a small ruckus that had occurred earlier that day.  

A neighborhood man in a low-income area had accused me of intending to use the pictures I was taking to fraudulently raise money for needy children, with the end goal of pocketing the funds for myself.  Given that I had already established a rapport with the group of people I was photographing, I was very sad to have a misguided accusation sully our friendly connection.  But the French reveler was unsympathetic.  He felt that the man was onto something; that somehow my including photography in my engagement with monetarily limited people was exploitative.

While people from the communities I have photographed have at most reacted negatively to  me a half-dozen times (including the incident described) over the course of 20 years and scores of situations, privileged individuals from the developed world seem to regularly want to question me.  I think the impulse comes from a good place: a discomfort with the inequality of the world.  However, I do find it ironic that the very people challenging me rarely choose to actually interact with those they rhetorically “defend.”  Nor do they generally trouble themselves with specifics - such as the fact that the vast majority of the people who appear in my images have given me explicit permission to photograph them.

I do believe there is abhorrent exploitation in the world; slave wages, unsafe working conditions, forced removal of people from their land to make room for extractive industry, taxes pocketed by corrupt politicians while the tax-payers go hungry, etc.  In all of these situations a clear loser and a clear beneficiary are easily identified.  While my desire to meet and share an experience with those whose lives are in most ways more challenging than my own, and to later articulate what I have seen through photography, may (rightly) cause some discomfort as a result of the visible embodiment of inequality, my efforts absolutely do not result in the suffering of one party and the financial enrichment of the other - and I reject completely the label of exploitation.

So here is an image of two children sitting at the edge of an area that floods regularly from the rain and the tide.  Before I took the picture, I spent some time chatting with the children’s families inside their home.  After I took the picture, we wandered through the community and shared beautiful moments of laughter as I came close to losing my balance on the precarious pathways.  I remember the experience well and with great fondness, and hope that all who were present do too.  

Peeking

I love this picture because I loved the experience.  I was on the outskirts of a livestock and produce market in Ethiopia, preparing to go home, when I saw two small figures popping their heads up and then hiding as I scanned the distant mountains through my viewfinder.  While I initially didn’t intend to include the girls in the photograph, they emerged just as I pressed the shutter.  After a few shots I put my camera down to wave hello but upon making direct eye-contact they ran off laughing down the hillside.

Transformations

This photograph, taken in Mozambique, is about transformations and continuity.  The young barefoot boys on the street are just beginning life, while the old man in dusty tatters holding a cane is on the other end of the spectrum.  Nonetheless, all three people exist on the same continuum; one can foresee the boys turning into the old man, and the the elder once having been similar to the youngsters.  At this particular moment, however, they all momentarily converge on a single corner, in front of aged and dilapidated buildings which are undergoing a transformation of their own.  

Blood, Death, and Subsistence

While traveling in other countries, I have found death to be much more apparent and clearly intertwined with daily life than it is in most parts of the United States.  Perhaps the most striking (and for me shocking) example of this is the public slaughter of livestock in the developing world - for ritual, meat, or both.

To see the severed head of a goat lying alongside its twitching body, with a crowd surrounding the cadaver and a line of live goats, bound and in a panic as they sense the violence that awaits them, is to wrestle with the question of what our bodies actually are and what they become once we no longer occupy them.  This question was, in fact, central to the beheading ritual I observed in Nepal; but I did note that the choice had been made to behead animals - not friends or offspring of the participants - to prompt the existential inquiry the sacrifice was designed to induce.

Similarly, the emphasis was again on human well-being when I witnessed a cow slaughtered and dismembered in Guatemala.  For whatever reason, despite having my camera in hand, I could not bring myself to record the killing.  Eyes bulging in fear, the small cow offered minimal resistance to being led into the cramped concrete enclosure where it was bound (legs pulled close to one another and head pulled to look backwards - almost parallel to body), tipped, and stabbed in the heart.  As the blood ran out of the cow’s body it let out an emotional bellow and its panic-filled eyes transformed into inanimate objects.  Almost every piece of the cow was carved up, from skin to meat to organs, leaving scarcely a morsel for the vultures awaiting a feeding.

When I was a child, I remember the sanguine stoicism toward life I observed in the country people I met in the highlands of México.  Surely they cut off many a chicken’s head during their existence.  Surely they also passed many a night with empty stomachs and heads full of uncertainty as to how their next meal would be produced.  Perhaps it was partly their intimacy with both subsistence and slaughter that brought about their equanimity.