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.  


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.


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.

Of Whips and Horses

A taxi driver I met in Santiago, Dominican Republic, told me a poignant story as we passed a scrawny horse trotting along with a carriage in tow.  

During better times, in the countryside where he lived just outside of town, he and his family had had a horse of their own.  His land provided sufficient space for the horse to be pastured, and the surrounding hills allowed for recreational rides on weekends.  The horse was much beloved by all, but particularly by his children.  

As fate would have it, their fortunes declined and, unable to purchase feed and veterinary care for the animal, he sold it to a man he believed would provide a good home.  A couple of years later, by chance, he spotted his former equine in the city.  Now thin, being forcibly driven forward by the whip of an unsympathetic coachman, it pulled a carriage with happy young lovers out for a promenade.  Heartbroken himself to see the state of his old companion, he never told his children what he had witnessed, but allowed them to believe that their four-legged friend was still in the country, enjoying the sun and grass.

This image was taken a world away - in Ethiopia - but the animal appears to be destined to a fate similar to that of the horse described.


Here’s another series of children, drawn from Mozambique, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.  What I like about these images is that the activities they show are ubiquitous throughout poorer parts of the world… and some of the emotions visible universal to children in general.

In a tattered shirt, gazing into a tree to check for ripe mangos, one boy manifests his longing for the simple pleasure of a sweet fruit, while another boy is lost in fantasy with a makeshift cape around his shoulders.  A young girl shows the seriousness with which she takes the responsibilities she has been given when she looks down to check on an even younger sibling.  And the pictures of a boy pushing a wheel and another shooting his slingshot depict timeless activities that can even be seen in photographs taken generations ago right here in New York City.

In Search Of...

This guy was part of a group of young men that I met as they trained and sparred in a hardscrabble Guyanese factory town.  It was dripping hot and I admired the determination of the fighters as they jumped rope and exchanged blows in the bare-bones gym that gave home to their dreams.  The group as a whole was incredibly warm and welcoming to me.  Jokingly, they mentioned that perhaps I might use their photographs to find them foreign girlfriends.  Anyone interested?

Ships on the Beach

Not far from the bizarre hotel I previously wrote about in Beira, Mozambique, is another strange situation: Along the beach, outside of the frame of this photograph, is an array of old metal ships (I was standing on top of one when I clicked the shutter) that were placed strategically to block waves from damaging nearby residences in the event of a storm.  Notwithstanding the purpose of the defunct vessels, I observed men and boys (even some whose dwellings were in clear need of protection from the sea) daily with hacksaws cutting metal from the ships to sell as scrap - a clear example of the human tendency to choose immediate personal reward over the long-term well-being of a community.  At least in this case the pilferers were driven by a need for actual sustenance and many would bear the brunt of their own actions.  I don’t think the same can be said of those who profit from endangering humanity on a larger scale.


Model Village

My time in Guatemala was partly sombre.  Having been raised in the San Francisco Bay Area (where significant attention was paid to atrocities committed by U.S.-backed Guatemalan soldiers during the Central American nation’s civil war), I was aware of the violence that had occurred in locations I visited.  In one town, the quiet concrete plaza was well-documented as a site where numerous people were burned alive.  A tranquil hillside, the location of a mass grave where massacred guerrillas and townspeople lay heaped together.  

During the civil war, the innocuous-looking, concrete-block buildings shown in this photograph were part of a settlement known as a “Model Village” - inhabited by indigenous communities from the countryside, who sometimes sought refuge from the violence of the surrounding areas, but in other cases were rounded up by the military and compelled to relocate.  Despite the official explanation that the settlements were established to provide safety, supplies, and a means to integrate communities previously overlooked into modern society, the conditions of “Model Villages” were stark and exit was not an option.  

Years after the civil war ended and military oversight of this village was concluded, the physical structures remain in use - only the barbed-wire-fence has been removed from its perimeter.  And if one didn’t know the town’s history, it would be indistinguishable from innumerable other Latin American mountain communities.


One of the things that I admire about children in less financially prosperous communities is their competence.  From a very young age they are able to successfully handle many things that their counterparts from more affluent households wouldn’t begin to know how to approach: growing and harvesting crops, cooking, caring for younger siblings, shepherding livestock, selling fruits and vegetables in the market.  Yet mixed with my admiration for their abilities is a hope that these hard-working children will one day get their “fair share”.  

The particular girl in these photographs, Anyelica, handled her chores as a young child with great discipline and good humor.  She was deservedly proud to show me what she did to contribute to the well-being of her family as she worked diligently around her home.  From cleaning, to washing, to preparing food, she did it all.  As she grew older her life took a dramatic turn (resulting from an incredibly intelligent and committed aunt who found her way to Europe and strove to help her extended family, among others).

At age 17, Anyelica now lives in a nicely finished house with all the amenities, multiple bedrooms, a modern kitchen, trendy furniture, and a gated yard - in an entirely different neighborhood.  She spends her time studying or lounging on her pillowed bed, keeping up with her friends via chats on her i-pad.  Somewhat out of place when she visits her old neighborhood, I wonder how much she thinks about what her life might have been.

Of Dogs and Boars


It’s not only in the United States that human expansion has led to habitation of areas that were for a long time inhospitable.  Amidst this arid landscape in Morocco, not only are people present, but modern amenities (as well as timeless artistic traditions like weavings and dance performances) are available to tourists and locals alike.  Springing from the prosperity of the manicured touristed area, on the periphery of town are buildings like those shown here: block-like but air-conditioned - an eyesore in the expansiveness of the surroundings but a boon to their inhabitants.  As if bridging the divide between the constructed and the natural, in the second photograph a dog sits chained, gazing towards the nearby hills.

At dawn, while walking not more than 5 minutes from the area shown, a chorus of barking dogs caught my attention.  Looking to see what had caused the disturbance, I saw a dark, grizzled boar trotting briskly along with at least a half-dozen canines yapping and lunging at its heels.  At first I was surprised to see a wild animal so close to town, but undoubtedly boar lived in the region since well before the freshly painted buildings were built.  Loath to see the animal harassed, I tried shouting at the dogs and throwing some stones, but the group was too fast for me and disappeared over a hill.  By the time I reached the summit, dogs and boar alike were well off into the distance, the entire situation beyond my control.

Past and Future

For years, I’ve been attracted to the textures and time-worn character of architecture in decay, spaces (urban, suburban and rural) devoid of people, and previously used elements of the cityscape sitting idle.  Being in these areas can sometimes feel like I’m at once seeing time move backwards and forwards:  Backwards, as I imagine the places and buildings during their heyday; forwards, because of my sense of impending apocalypse and a belief that the empty streets or shells of buildings may foreshadow what’s on the horizon for society in general.

For the most part, I’ve paid little mind to the isolation and eeriness that surrounds the areas described, although at times I’ve suddenly become aware of the potential for danger.  In a dirt lot that spanned an entire block in Guadalajara, for example, as I was photographing the wasteland of broken bottles, trash, concrete blocks and twisted metal strewn between the 12-foot walls that enclosed the area, a man in tattered clothes suddenly emerged from behind some cardboard boxes about 100 feet away.  While tempted to approach and ask to take his photograph (as a representation of humanities existence in hostile surroundings), I realized that if he was addled by drugs or armed I would be open to attack and opted for retreat.  

Yet my intention is not to show the scenes I’ve photographed as completely stark.  Against the backdrops of lifeless human constructions, many images hold a kernel of hope.  Be it a a tuft of vegetation growing out of a derelict building, a bird perched on an antenna in an unglamorous downtown, or even people (rendered diminutive by their surroundings), nature’s resilience can be found.  Let us hope that will always be the case.


Here’s a diptych of Dario and his Granddaughter Yennifer.  When Yennifer was just a baby, she would sometimes spend a full hour sitting on Dario’s sofa, carefully spooning serving after serving of rice and beans into her mouth.  Triumphant at his ability (really his wife Martina’s) to provide such sustenance, Dario would scoop Yennifer up from her seat, toss her into the air, and speaking in baby-talk tell her she would become the most beautiful “cuero"* in the neighborhood.  Many of the neighbors were visibly perturbed by the statement (despite its semi-jocular delivery), knowing that profession to be far from unknown in the community.

Luckily, Yennifer grew up, first to be a very warm and friendly child who delighted in games and fruits and took good care of her younger brother, and now to be a teenager, who quietly spends time studying, at home with family, and reading the Bible.  At age 16, many of her friends have begun to have children and move in with their boyfriends, but Yennifer has opted to follow her mother’s (and my) advice and not rush into full-fledged adulthood.  I’m very proud of her but do worry about some of the older men that have taken an interest in her and the rumors that she has a taste for beer.

On a side note - I love the creepiness of the dolls that periodically surface and the fact that they are collected and valued despite their decrepitude and oddness.

*The term “cuero” (literally “leather” or “skin”) colloquially translates roughly to “hooker.”


Children in general, but particularly in places like Latin America, have been a source of joy for me for many years.  During my own childhood, I reveled in the improvised games and raucous, multi-aged bands of playmates I encountered during trips abroad.  The ingenuity, imagination, and sheer energy of our activities were something I did not find in my middle-class community in the United States.  Later, during stints working on community service activities as a high school or college student, I found ways to continue to engage with children, attempting to bridle their energies when, for example, I was teaching them math - yet still finding humor in their antics, and myself, too, looking forward to break time when we’d play kick-ball or some other game of their design.  

As a photographer, I’ve spent a great deal of my energy on portraits and street scenes - focusing on children and their lives: young Buddhist monks training, street children wandering cities in groups, country children tending livestock or following their parents to join in chores, or children of the shanties making the best of the only world they know.  I’ve tried to communicate the personality, openness, and emotion of the individuals I’ve photographed as well as provide a glimpse into their realities.  In this series I share images of six children I’ve met during my travels.  Each is from a different place and background, yet somehow they are unified.  

There will be more series of children to follow.

Up the River

The Amazon River, as you surely know, is legendary.  It’s name alone conjures images of remote jungle and tribal people with little connection to modernity.  While there may be areas along its banks that fulfill such legend, much of the river serves as a major roadway, shared by, among others; small boats carrying villagers short distances, indigenous people fishing in canoes, huge barges bringing industrial supplies to cities*, luxury boats housing tourists on all inclusive nature expeditions, military patrols, and multilevel ferries transporting hundreds of passengers on grueling journeys that sometimes last for weeks.  

Unsurprisingly, carved out of the landscape in proximity to this “highway”, are communities of varying sizes and character.  The three photographs I am sharing are an attempt to articulate the grit and feel of some of the mid-sized towns or cities.  Without the glamour of an opera house or baroque architecture like the cities of Manaus or Belem, or the “exotic” feel of barely noticeable indigenous settlements where the few dozen inhabitants subsist on both potato chips and freshly caught fish, the areas I am depicting are without immediate beauty or intrigue.

Nonetheless, they are the backdrop for the lives of many, and as I explored I came to love the ramshackle-nature of the communities and the unusualness of the cast of characters and their dispirit activities.  During my explorations through markets, museums, and along public transportation routes, I got a sense of the area’s diversity.  I encountered an unexpected addition to a fish market when I noticed a dead monkey for sale - brought by canoe from further upriver - whose luminous white skin was being exposed as an indigenous man carefully used his machete to scrape off the fur.  There were people dressed as they imagined ancient Israelies dressed, with robes and rope belts, following a popular religion.  A white man sitting in an internet café appeared to be painted from head to foot with a black substance (extracted from a nut), in a manner consistent with traditional indigenous “tattooing’ - having apparently returned from a destination quite remote.  There were whispers of drugs and soldiers were stationed to guard the compound of a busted kingpin.  Indigenous people, far from their childhood communities, were sprawled in drug or alcohol induced catatonia at the ports.  Other indigenous people were living happily with their families and neighbors in houses built on stilts - enjoying electricity, access to medical care, food, and kinship.  Tourists and the town’s elite mixed in air conditioned cafés as they sipped cappuccinos and ate freshly baked pastries.

Depending on one’s perspective areas like the ones shown might be apocalyptic or flush with opportunity and riches… but for a traveling photographer, they were nothing short of unique.

Alone in the Land of Milk and Honey

Nepal, Tibet and people of Buddhist societies are often admired, even venerated by Americans of certain demographics.  I, myself, find the idea of a life guided by mindfulness, compassion, and simplicity attractive (at least conceptually).  After a trip to Nepal, however, I am less inclined to glorify any particular country or group of people.

Throughout Kathmandu, I encountered many children living as street urchins, usually moving in packs but sometimes on their own.  Ragged, dirty and thin, they reminded me of Dickensian waifs - not menacing (as their counterparts in Latin America sometimes are), but prone to stealing a loaf of bread from a counter or extracting an unsecured item from one’s person.  

One of the most moving scenes I have ever encountered (because of the precariousness of the two beings’ existence, their love for each other and symbiotic bond) was just outside the part of the city where tourists sleep, eat, explore ancient architecture, and prepare for treks into the Himalayas.  Sleeping in an inconspicuous doorway was a boy, left to his own devices at 11 or 12 years of age, under a worn blanket, with a dog nestled in his arms.  Only their heads protruding from underneath the covering, one beside the other, it was still clear that they were completely relaxed in one another’s presence.  Loath to disturb their slumber by hovering over them to take a photograph, I opted to leave my camera in its bag, and prayed that both dog and boy would succeed in protecting and providing for one another.

According to more than one source, the explanation behind the plethora of street children in Kathmandu is heartbreaking.  Apparently, sometimes when women remarry (after leaving or losing the father of their children), they are pressured to dispose of their existing offspring.  In other instances, parents from the countryside simply do not have the capacity to eke out enough sustenance from the earth to provide for all of their children.  Since the capital of Nepal is thought of as the “land of milk and honey” by those living in the unforgiving mountains, it’s perceived as an ideal place to abandon children.  Hence, many boys, in particular, but also girls, are left to wait in markets during family excursions to the city by parents who will not return, or are “accidentally” separated in busy intersections, not to see their loved ones again.

The first of these photographs shows the very edge of a small town with an expanse of landscape extending behind the Buddhist prayer wheels.  The second photograph depicts a young child haunting a busy area of Kathmandu.  Due to the language barrier, I do not know the particulars of the girl shown nor her provenance.  Maybe she did have a family she returned to at the end of each day and perhaps she spent her entire life in Kathmandu. Yet it is certain that there are many, many children like her who HAVE found themselves alone in the city after an early childhood in the country is abruptly cut short, who will never be reunited with their families.

Factory Town

This photograph communicates quite a number of the thoughts and realities I’ve referenced in previous posts.  One of these is the recognition of the camaraderie and shared experience of the group of young boys standing in a circle as they share a casual moment together in the late afternoon.  As a child, I yearned to have a peer group like the one shown, and in fact to this day feel a twinge of jealousy for the social bond of these boys, having grown up without a close circle of companions myself.  

Another thing I notice is the lithe, physical strength of the ball players - and the fact that one of them is barefoot.  In the 30+ years I’ve observed people playing sports in the United States, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single person playing basketball barefoot.  It must be terrible for the feet and joints, but clearly the pain is not immediate enough to stop the individual shown from engaging in something he loves.  

Finally, of course, the environment itself gives context to the activities of the people.  The grasses are unkempt, and the smokestack bears testament to the type of work available and the potential for unhealthy levels of pollution.  Taken together, we have a portrait of hardship and vitality, scarcity and joy, limitations transcended, at least for the moment, with grace and perhaps more than a touch of defiance.

Dario Benjamin Ventura Ventura

Patriarch of the Calle 8, Yagüita del Pastor, Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, Dario Benjamin Ventura Ventura, took me under his wing 20 years ago when I began documenting the neighborhood where he lives.  

Initially, I was unsure if his references to himself as a “León, Toro” and, incongruously, a “Camarón de agua sucia” (lion, bull, and shrimp of dirty waters*) were simply bluster, but after his son came to blows with another man from the neighborhood - who then, together with an assemblage of friends, followed up by pounding on Dario’s door to settle the score - I saw Dario in action.  Armed with a dagger, he stood slightly back from the door and dared anyone to cross his threshold.  Despite the high emotion of the group of men and the discrepancy in numbers and age (the five or so men were probably in their 30’s, while Dario must have been in his 60’s), not a single soul chose to take him up on his challenge. 

On another occasion, I saw a different side of Dario. A young man, devastated by the rejection of a woman whom he madly loved, dove off the top of a steep ravine, half falling, half sliding to the bottom - where Dario lived.  Hearing the commotion behind his ranchito, Dario came charging out his backdoor, his single eye assessing the situation.  Once he understood what had occurred, his face lit up with jeering laughter and he proceeded to clap and cheer as the “Ridiculo” wiped blood from his face and wobbled in an effort to stand up.  (The man turned out to have suffered no serious injuries).

Respected in his home and adapted to barrio life, Dario nonetheless never seemed quite so much in his element as when we traveled to his campo together.  He walked through his plots of land, inspecting crops that had persevered even without attention from his “sinverguenza” (shameless) city-dwelling sons, and casually pulled tremendous roots of yuca out of the ground or climbed trees to gather avocados.  Naked, smiling, in a natural pool formed at the base of a small waterfall in the river, he swam, and told me of the woman he met decades earlier in this same place… whom he ultimately married.

While others, young and old, have died with alarming frequency in La Yagüita, Dario has lived on, first watching both his children grow to become adults then his grandchildren reach maturity.  He has always welcomed me into his community, and even now that "El León" is an octogenarian, were I ever to find myself in trouble in La Yagüita, I would seek him out.

*  This turned out to be a reference to his ability to live anywhere.


I have great admiration for strength; whether it’s for a farmer in México who perseveres in tending to crops for long hours in the sun, a construction worker in India carrying load after load of debris by hand (and head), or a body-builder striving to reach his or her potential with only limited access to calories and nutrition in Cuba.  The commitment and output I have observed in materially limited societies (usually with only bare bones equipment and no medical safety-net) is stunning.  It’s no wonder to me that immigrants play a vital role in the United States.

Dilapidation and Truth

On a humid evening, in a down-and-out mining town of a few thousand situated on the banks of a once pristine river in Venezuela, when I declined to gift money to a youngish woman who lived across from my guesthouse, she flicked out her tongue, mimicked the unzipping of pants, and motioned towards my groin.  Having already been asked by this same woman for money a half-dozen times and been invited to go on a personalized jungle excursion (which the teenage attendant at my dilapidated guest house wildly gesticulated for me to decline) by a man who was identified as both her boyfriend and a thug, I decided I had had enough and firmly told her to leave me alone… which she did.

A couple hours later, as night settled, I sat in the town’s concrete square amongst a few dozen men who were drinking beer or waiting for buses.  Earlier that day, in the same square, when I was drinking coffee not beer, I had observed: someone’s pet parrot as it attacked various women who walked by, a very old German man who was known to have been in the military before arriving to inhabit the town in the early 1950’s, and an immensely tall and lanky European who I mistook for being the only other traveler around… until I learned that he was simply on release for the day from the prison on the other side of the 1000 foot-wide river.

Anyways, as I sat on the edge of the square that night, a nun emerged from a side street, flanked by about a half dozen people - including the woman who had propositioned me earlier.  Demeanor transformed, my would-be seductress was now affable, smiling, and engaging in conversation with the nun.  The Sister, in turn, was equally warm towards those that surrounded her and before parting gave each member of her flock a bag of food.  My first conclusion was that the nun had been conned and in her naïveté not realized who these people really were.  Years later, however, I wonder if it was I who had not perceived the true nature of my mendicant neighbor, seeing only her desperate drive to satisfy the addiction she was known to have… or if both versions of her had truth.