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.
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.
One of the most heart-wrenching manifestations of inequality I’ve observed is when the lives of people I know from the barrios turn out just as one might predict. While there are multiple exceptions, many young men have ended up jailed or dead and young women have had to rely on their own ingenuity to provide a meager sustenance for their children. One such person is my friend Cao.
During my first visits to La Yagüita, I immediately took to Cao. She had a quiet, reflective aspect of her personality that leant itself to being photographed. Over almost twenty years, I have compiled photographs of her at various stages of her life which depict that sensibility.
When I look at these two pictures, I feel as if the young Cao on the right is imagining her life as the older version of herself, and the older Cao on the left is remembering her childhood as she braids the hair of her daughter. (In fact Cao has told me that when I take pictures of her she thinks about all of the years we have collaborated.) In both cases, her expression seems to be more of resignation than hope or nostalgia.
Cao lives in the same house where she grew up. Instead of the throng of children (siblings and cousins) who were once her playmates and rivals in the home, she is now the mother of three new children who are growing up much the way that she did. She continues to live with her disabled brother and sometimes other siblings who sporadically show up (according to rumor, when they are on the run). Her grandfather and grandmother died in the house some years ago, and her mother died there just two weeks ago.
As much as I’d like to point to the unity of her family as exemplary, it often appears to be more of a survival mechanism driven by necessity than a situation born of warmth. With scarcely a plate of rice to be eaten, Cao’s story is one that decimates any possibility of romanticizing the lives of the impoverished.
As a four year old child, during a summer stay in a town in Mexico, I remember being drawn to the warmth and unity of the families I met on my cobblestone street. While they lived in crowded homes with dirt floors, rustic roofs, and spartan furniture, I did not think of the smiling adults or boisterous children as disadvantaged. Instead, I noticed their camaraderie, closeness, and conviviality - all of which were lacking in my own life as an only child in a quiet California neighborhood far from my loose-knit family.
A man from Louisiana whom I met during my travels (who was on the run from the law) described how, as children, he and his friends felt perfectly contented with their lives until social service agencies found their way into his community and informed his family and neighbors that they needed help. “You’re not poor until someone comes and tells you you’re poor,” he said, remembering the change in attitude he observed once his life was categorized as lacking.
Of course, I understand the deprivations, hardships, and struggles people like my childhood neighbors in Mexico face. And I recognize a need to strive for a more equitable world. But I can’t help but feel that being constantly told that one is “poor” (through images of “normal” life on television, for example) devalues the positives of the life experience of the majority of the world. I do believe that’s an antenna, in this picture from Colombia, connected to the back of the house…
One of the more difficult things for me during my trips, as well as life in general, has been when people I like do things that hurt other beings. In keeping with the tradition of some of my favorite artists (the Ashcan School painters, Liliana Yampolsky, and Helen Levitt), I think of myself as a human first and an artist second. What this means is that if I have a chance to intervene to stop something I don’t like I take it.
I once encountered two young teens locked in combat. It was late afternoon and the glowing sun illuminated their straining bodies with only the shadowed hillsides and sky in the background. It would have made a fantastic image but I chose instead to separate the fighters and send them safely home. On another occasion, in México, I forwent an interesting documentation of activity when I opted to coax a group of boys with slingshots out of shooting birds for sport (at least until I left). While some might write off my interventions as an outsider, himself flawed, imposing personal ideals on those of different cultures, my decisions have been applauded by locals. In fact, a grown man from the barrio recently recollected how, as a child at least a decade ago, he had appreciated the calming pat on the back I gave him as I blocked him from a fight.
But for the situation occurring in this picture I was too late. A large non-venomous snake had been spotted in a tree and, despite its unthreatening state, a man had shimmied up the trunk to club it. Moments after I clicked the shutter (and realized what the people had been watching), the snake fell to the ground, writhing in distress, until it was fully dispensed with. I find the faces in the photograph reminiscent of some of the expressions that can be seen in Weegee’s crime scenes: a mixture of intrigue, repulsion, conviviality, and morbidity. Curious, how limited our repertoire of human reactions is, even across distance and time.
The juxtaposition between cemeteries and their surroundings has interested me for years. Every weekday on the Q100 bus in Queens, NY, I pass a plot of land (about the size of a small house) filled with old graves. Surely unimagined by those who long ago laid their loved ones to rest, the cemetery is now engulfed by a working class neighborhood. Gritty buildings enclose two sides of the burial ground and a barbed wire-topped chainlink fence delineates the other two. By contrast, not long ago, I visited an old cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. It blended perfectly with its surroundings, with mature trees and lush foliage both inside the grounds and beyond. The pervasive quiet gave the sense that the cemetery remained just as it had been envisioned by its original designer over a hundred and fifty years ago.
Another interest I have in cemeteries is their physical composition. In Northern California, I frequently visit a cemetery on a picturesque hillside scented with the sharp fragrance from groves of Eucalyptus trees. There are well-tended paths, carefully organized plots, and ample room for lawns around the granite gravestones where offerings of flowers or plastic buddhas are made. A hemisphere away, in a Venezuelan fishing town, I came upon an overgrown field scattered with above-ground, concrete rectangular tombs, where children jumped from one grave to the next and young teenagers lay in wait for birds to capture as pets. Within cities in México, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia, I’ve encountered many cemeteries that are like miniature apartment developments: concrete grids of tombs stacked one upon the other, and narrow grid-like “streets” providing just enough room for pedestrians to navigate their way.
What I wanted to communicate in this scene from Morocco was the similitude between the dwellings of the living and the dead in relation to density, building materials, and setting. I don’t think I’d like to look out every evening from the roof, as the man in the photograph is doing, and know that not much would change even upon one’s “departure”.
During my weeks in Perú and Bolivia, I met an eccentric European (German, I believe) who had been living for a decade or so in South America. For years he traveled exclusively via the comprehensive public transportation routes common to many Latin American countries. Aging, however, he grew to find the schedules and delays onerous, so he purchased a van. Having a revolutionary streak that required a justification for the acquisition, he gave lifts to anyone along his route in need. Luckily, the definition of “in need” was broad enough to include an American traveler whom he met at a budget hotel one morning.
During the three hours we spent on the road together, winding through remote mountains, houses sparsely strewn on hillsides and valleys, I observed again and again the country people he picked up prepare to pay him, only to discover (to their delight) that the ride was free. It was heart-warming to watch an act of generosity so appreciated, and the joy he took in sharing the good fortune of owning a vehicle.
The European postulated that the existence of conveniences such as cars would not continue much longer. With references to global warming and humanity's possible trajectory towards societal breakdown, he envisioned that soon the only people able to survive would be those who were close to self-sufficient. It would be people who lived far from cities, knew how to tend to crops and livestock, and subsist on very little… the very people to whom he was now giving rides!
I came across this scene on Cuba’s famous Malecón in the 1990’s. A storm had just passed, leaving pools of salt water where the ocean had breached the sea wall. Deeply absorbed by their homemade styrofoam boats, this group of children barely took notice of me as I trailed them along numerous mostly empty streets. Fresh out of Photography 101 class, I was elated to find scenes reminiscent of the action and backdrops of my favorite photographers, Helen Levitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Since taking this picture I have been back to the Malecón on more than one occasion. During my latest trip, the street itself was filled with actual vehicles, many of which were topless 1950’s-style cars carrying selfie-snapping tourists— a Disneyland effect that was an impossibility during my first trip due to the dearth of both gasoline and tourists. Also, now many buildings had either already received a facelift or were in the process of renovations, and some had been converted into guest houses. Nonetheless, an air of authenticity remained. Children still jumped rope and locals still socialized in front of their spartan dwellings. A fisherman in his underwear cast his hook into the water for his family’s sustenance, even as his activity was recorded by a half dozen tourists from the wall above.
This morning, I saw a photograph of the same area of the Malecón following Hurricane Irma. It was completely submerged in water, grown men standing waist deep. Surely this has occurred many times since the wall was first built, each time the breach a bit different in severity and duration, each time the society and lives of those affected distinct. And while this particular hurricane does seem to have been especially devastating, I can only hope that when the waters recede there will again be children waiting to make a game of the world around them.
I find the argument that we only have a responsibility to take care of our own citizens tenuous at best. Generally, it is based on the concept that nationals of a country have built a society that is somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the world. My feeling is that the world economy and trade, including both production and consumption, has permeated borders to the extent that we are all completely intertwined. This connectedness is most visible when inspecting the country of origin of one’s clothes or observing what is advertised and ingested in locations most distant.
While it’s easy to yearn for days gone by - life before rampant commercialization, packaged tours, and touts hawking experiences or souvenirs - dealing with the reality of untouristed places has its own challenges. I discovered this while visiting a colonial mountain town in Colombia.
Beautiful, dilapidated architecture was arranged traditionally, with cathedral and municipal building set on a central plaza, and streets lined with worn, white-washed adobe walls hiding old homes in various states of repair. There were views of the mountainside where cows grazed and crops grew. A stream gurgled through the center of town, adding further coolness to already crisp air, and men and women, bundled against the cold, made their way to their daily activities. Few cars or motorcycles disturbed the silence. When I arrived in the late afternoon (after traveling for hours), however, I discovered that what there was not was much food. The two restaurants in town were closed as it was a Sunday, and the few corner stores sold nothing but junk food, booze, and produce. Irritability setting in, I gave up my search for a square meal and settled on bread and coffee from a bakery and an avocado seized from a passing vendor. Hunger marginally dissipated, it was now night, so I returned to my room in a drafty lodge, took a cold shower, then hurried to take full advantage of the warmth of the wool blanket on my bed.
I passed the next week or so quietly enjoying the time unlocked by the leisurely pace of the town: the ebb and flow of farmers heading out to their crops or pastures then returning; walks with children up mountains and to a hidden waterfall. Quiet days were punctuated by a Wednesday livestock market and a Saturday celebration of the town’s patron saint (shown in this photograph). I had ample time for reading and reflection… perhaps too ample. Without access to the internet and missing foods that were not designed for subsistence, I grew restless. Would I not be as likely to find images worth capturing in a lively coastal village with raucous bars and fishermen hauling their nets in at dawn? Would such a coastal village not have better food, more adventure, perhaps other wandering travelers to commune with over beer and stories? I left.
Years later, I don’t second guess my decision to continue on my way, but I am pleased that I stuck with the village as long as I did. Not only did it turn out to be photographically significant for me but it also left an indelible memory that I continue to treasure. So perhaps the verdict is that I do prefer the forgotten mountain towns of yesterday to the bustle of developed tourist destinations, but I also do like the excitement and energy of somewhat busier coastal communities like the one I moved on to.
Down a mile long dirt road, which originates from a longer dirt road (stretching many miles to connect Guyana’s Letham and Georgetown cities), there is a an indigenous town of not more than a couple thousand spread around a series of large clearings in the jungle. The town is remote, but many of the inhabitants have had extensive contact with modernity, after traveling or working in the capitals of Guyana or Suriname. While the indigenous language is still spoken, English is also commonly heard, and the traditional customs have become less ubiquitously practiced.
The two elders shown in this photograph are the town’s last Shaman and his wife. Unable to communicate with either me or my guide (who spoke a different indigenous dialect), the couple was still happy to show me how they conducted a traditional healing. Inside their hut, they fanned smoke from a fire, moved their hands just above my body, and chanted: one voice overlapping the other in a rhythmic unison brought about by years of collaboration. There was a timeless quality to the moments I spent with them, a feeling of communion across distance and time, the convergence of two cultures and ways of life.
It pained me to think that the knowledge and wisdom of the couple would be lost as the younger members of the community transitioned into a lifestyle closer to my own. But who was I to regret this change? The day before I had foolhardily walked into a field of grass and been covered by small red mites which kept me scratching in anguish the entire night and yearning for a comfortable return to my own paved universe. Yet I couldn’t help but admire the old couple and how contented and grounded they seemed in a way few elders in my own urban world appear to be.
The first photograph I took which received a positive response outside of the classroom was this one. I remember sending it off in the mid 1990’s to a contest called Alligator Juniper with great hopes which came to fruition when it won first place. The following year, I submitted another photograph to the same contest and was recognized again (but with a less significant ranking). Competitive gene mostly sated, I don’t know if I’ve entered more than a contest or two since.
The first time I saw street boxing for money I was a child in Mexico. The tropical night air of the Pacific coast added a sense of magic to the dirt roads lined by cheap restaurants and scraggly dogs. A crowd knotted around two younger adolescents (daring and glamorous to my eyes) with boxing gloves on, and an adult referee encouraged onlookers to cast coins into the haphazardly demarcated circle. I remember many large Mexican one peso coins with monumentally sized heads on their faces being tossed in the direction of the fighters as well as various smaller denominations. The fight itself was short and somewhat brutal, and I was unclear who the winner was until I saw the majority of the money being divided in favor of one of the individuals. The whole experience left me in awe of the participants and more than a little intimidated by wildness of the whole scene.
A year or two ago I came upon a similar occurrence on the other side of the world. In Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa, surrounded by locals and tourists, was a boxing “coach” who brought forth fighters of different ages to compete against both one another as well as members of the crowd. This time the experience of watching was very different for me. I worried about the equipment: lack of both head gear and mouthguard, old gloves and no hand wraps. My nervousness was exacerbated by the possibility of a fall by one of the contenders onto the hard pavement. Thankfully, the bouts were short and controlled and no one was seriously hurt. Nonetheless, the glamour I had perceived as a child in Mexico was gone, replaced by a realization that the young children slugging it out with minimal precautions were most likely in more need of the money that came their way than of the boxing instruction.
One of the most devout places I’ve encountered during my trips was Ethiopia. At the world-famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, I heard a chorus of shrill chanting on a ledge above me. Wending my way up to the source of sound, I discovered a group of a dozen children, together with instructor, fervently intoning lines from worn Bibles. Like the most committed adult spiritual seekers of many faiths, these children lived in ultra-spartan shelters adjoining their place of worship. Receiving not only intensive religious instruction but also a rudimentary place to sleep and daily bread, their participation in the church was clearly serving both social and spiritual needs. Macro-dynamics aside, the young students, aged from perhaps 5 years, loved having me take their pictures. They evidently relished direct interaction with a “faranji” who, unlike the many foreigners who visited the church, managed to find them, hidden like a treasure, just slightly off the beaten track.
When I first met Miguel Ángel, shown in this photograph, he was a luminous youngster who traveled about the open fields behind the barrio (La Yagüita) where he lived, together with a pack of his neighbors and his brother. It was a time of freedom and excitement, both for the children and (recently out of college and eager to spread my wings) me. We spent hours wandering, Miguel Ángel and his gang fashioning toys out of found objects (both natural and discarded), swimming in small watering holes created by who knows what, and me amongst them thrilled to be part of the adventure.
Not much of this remains besides our memories and my photographs. Some of the fields have been subdivided into a housing development, there is a road which facilitates movement in and out of the city, more cinderblock barrio dwellings, and banditry; our old haunts now both unappealing and dangerous. And Miguel Ángel… he is grown with a daughter of his own! He does live on the same block where he grew up, in the same house even, with many of the same neighbors - but the landscape (both physical and social) is certainly not the same. I wonder where his daughter will go to play?
The evening before this photograph was taken, I arrived in Beira, Mozambique. As usual, I had no hotel booking, only a list provided in my guidebook for possible accommodations. Wary of the impending darkness, I hurried through the twilight to the place most promisingly described. It was, indeed, a good value at (probably significantly) less than $30 a night, with all the indications of being a well run, professionally staffed, safe spot to lay my expensive medium format camera, backpack, and head, down for the night. Unfortunately, it was booked solid.
The helpful, young, uniformed, worker at the counter, directed me around the corner to another establishment. After walking (more than once) past a man sitting behind a small desk at the bottom of an apartment building’s staircase, I realized that he was the gatekeeper of my destination. Completely different from the first hotel, this was a mixed use building, with single-room-occupancy apartments for rent by the night or week, alongside larger apartments inhabited by families on an apparently ongoing basis. Slightly taken aback by the peculiarity of the situation, I decided to try one more guidebook-listed hotel that was just a few blocks away: the building with storefronts shown in the accompanying photograph.
This next hotel was one of the strangest time capsules I’ve encountered during my travels. When I tried the front door, I found it to be locked, with almost all the lights in the hotel off, the long halls, stairs, and 1970’s chic lobby all shrouded in darkness. At the reception desk, however, a man was sitting watching television, who upon seeing me try the door, immediately hustled away with a motion indicating that I should wait. Perhaps five minutes later he returned with key in hand. Opening the door, he ushered me in with great enthusiasm, proceeded to turn on lights (which flickered more than illuminated), and walked me along the hallways, through the dimness, from room to room. Many of the rooms had a certain dilapidated charm, some of them more functional than others, but overall the ambience was that of a never truly elegant, cavernous, somewhat frayed version of The Stanley Hotel in “The Shining”. Clearly, like the Stanley, this establishment was completely empty, only it was not in the remote location of the Rocky Mountains but instead a purportedly somewhat dangerous coastal city in Africa. Loath to insert myself into such an unusual equation, and despite the friendliness and apparent good nature of the concierge, I opted to return to the unconventional apartment building hotel with the comforting sounds of families and a gentleman sitting guard at the base of the stairwell with ledger and pen.
After thanking the man who had guided me along the time-worn carpets of the uninhabited monolith, and exiting through the front door (that was again locked behind me), I returned to what was now a very gritty street - stores dark and shuttered, just two or three dim street lights exposed the sinewy bodies of the out-of-luck or addicted as they scavenged and congregated. Slightly disoriented and very tired (I had in fact been traveling for a full day), I attempted to get my bearings, fully aware that the backpack weighing me down would make a very desirable score for any thief in the area.
Looking down the street, I noticed a completely incongruous pair. A rail thin, dark, Black woman, in an elegant and sexy dress and stiletto heels, who must have been more than six feet tall, was walking alongside a rotund Whitish man, who couldn’t have been more than five feet and a few inches, wearing shorts, sneakers, a Hawaiian shirt, Panama hat, and a fabulously ostentatious large gold chain. His pudgy hand affectionately on her waist and her spider thin arm gracefully encircling his shoulder, he spoke softly to her, and they both turned in my direction. Making a hissing sound to summon my attention (despite the fact that I was staring directly at them) the woman beckoned me over.
Normally, I might not have wanted to approach strangers at night on a sketchy street, but sensing that there might be eyes sizing me up from the shadows, I leapt at the opportunity to engage. The tall woman, in broken English, with a look of concern, asked what I was doing, and immediately stated that it was “toooooo dane-jer-us” for me to walk alone. Wonderfully, she and her companion escorted me through the dereliction and half way back to the apartment building/lodging-house I was hoping to return to. Only three blocks we walked together, almost in silence, but that was enough to get me to the thoroughfare of illuminated businesses and sober society. More than a decade later I still remember their generosity.
In a town in Ethiopia, I left the central historic district- crossing a bridge to reach a predominantly Muslim area. Amongst other people, I met Sabuto, a wiry, fire-cracker of a girl, with a great intensity of energy, emotion, and ferocity, despite her diminutive size and young age. Clothes hanging off her small frame, she would regularly produce and smoke cigarettes, organize and direct the other children, and excel at games being played. Unable to communicate verbally, we none the less learned one another’s names and formed a fleeting friendship. Sabuto urged me to take photographs of her and the others (which I did), and the following day I returned, prints in hand ready for distribution. While I was able to give away the majority of the photographs on the spot, my young friend was not there, so I left her keepsakes with a middle aged woman who indicated a willingness to pass them along. None the less, when I next saw Sabuto, a day later, she rushed over to me looking distraught, shaking her hands in a manner that indicated their emptiness. Clearly, Sabuto and I had been swindled. Down the edge of the riverbank we went, to where the woman I had left Sabuto's pictures with was camped. An exchange ensued between Sabuto and the woman, as onlookers gathered. Finally, Sabuto with a look of complete dejection turned to walk away. One word that was translatable was “photo”, so pausing, I queried the woman, “Sabuto, photo? Sabuto, photo?” The woman shook her head no, but looking down I could see the edge of a photograph poking out of a magazine on the ground. “Photo, photo,” I excitedly pointed at the magazine. As the woman lifted the magazine photos began to fall out, many of which were of her own children, but mixed amongst them was one of Sabuto! Laughing along with the gathered crowd (but in my case partially to deflect confrontation), I grabbed the magazine and removed all of the remaining photos, separating the ones that belonged to my little friend. Sabuto was thrilled! She kissed my hand and went buoyantly skipping away with the photographs, leaving her smile and happiness etched into my mind.
In the mid 1990's, still a student in college, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba. Wandering the streets of La Habana, in a semi-industrial area near the Central Railway Station, I came upon a group of kids playing stickball. After the requisite request for permission to photograph them, they settled back into their game and I settled into my role of photographer. Half an hour later, ball players tired, we all took a break. Sitting in a nearby doorway we chatted, along with a relative of one of the children. Having heard of the levels of continued de-facto segregation in the United States, she (the relative) proudly pointed to the variety of colors and racial make-up of the players. "Blanco, Mulato," and even, "Negro Azul!". I felt like this observation/description of the ball players (friends, really) was indicative of some of the differences in ways race is perceived and treated in Latin America vs. the United States. Everyone was, in fact, playing together. Everyone lived as neighbors side by side. Yet, of course the boy was not happy to be called "Negro Azul", despite the fact that it was just used as a descriptive term (by someone who in the United States would be considered Black). But maybe his reaction wasn't about a discomfort with his deep African roots (like I have witnessed in other people I've met) and more about being singled out as different and extreme? I'm not sure how much a pale white child would like to be called "Blanco Transparente" either! Regardless, 10 minutes later they were all back out on the "ballfield". Here's one of the shots...
When putting together the portfolios for my website I had to trim many images for the benefit of the project as a whole - photographs that didn't fit (numerically or aesthetically) as well as an entire portfolio (from Mozambique no less) which included some of my favorite shots but not a sufficient quantity of them to merit a tab of its own. I also discovered the potential for some interesting diptychs/triptychs in my Yagüita project that can be drawn from portraits of the same people over the course of the 20 years I've visited their community. In the coming weeks, months, years (?), you can expect to see all of those images here, as well as ruminations and anecdotes about my trips. Hope you'll join me!