September 17

Photo Essay: Making Photos in Guatemala

Since 1993, when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, I have been making Latin American women laugh with my inability to make round corn tortillas. I’ve sat beside their stoves, sharing stories, eating warm tortillas with salt and making photographs.

When on international assignments for clients, I opt to eat with and if possible stay with a family in the community where I am working. This way I can witness and document what woman do in the morning. How early is she up? Who takes the corn to the molina to be ground? Which person gets the one or two eggs available to eat?

I have also learned that the number of eggs on the counter directly correlates to the food security of that family.

It is these assignments in coffee growing regions that are my favorite and I owe it all to Bill Fishbein, the founder of The Coffee Trust. Twenty years ago I met Bill and showed him my photographs from Peace Corps. That same day he hired me to document the micro-credit projects he was supporting in Guatemala. Since then I have traveled to Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua witnessing the communities that grow coffee as well as the development work Bill does. From the beginning Bill and I agreed that I would never produce and we would never publish photographs which diminish someone’s dignity for the sake of shock value or guilt fundraising.  Instead my camera would serve as a witness to what life is really like living in this coffee growing communities.

On my assignment earlier this month for The Coffee Trust, I stayed with Maria Raymundo Cruz’s family.  The first morning I was served the only egg they had for breakfast.  Despite my desire to stay the rest of the week, I knew my presence put a strain on the food security in the house and so I stayed at a hotel down the road and ate just one meal a day with the Raymundo Cruz family.

Sitting in their dirt-floor kitchen with my expensive camera equipment on my shoulder, made me acutely aware of the economic injustice between my life and theirs.  Situations like this make me question if my work really makes a difference or is it an ego-driven desire to show what great pictures I can make at the expense of someone else’s poverty and suffering?

This is when my personal mission statement comes in handy. I know that my goal, as a visual storyteller, is to use my skills and my equipment, to connect people to one another. I use my camera to show how we are all more alike than we are different. Being a photographer is more than a way for me to earn a paycheck.  Being invited into people’s homes and kitchens with my camera is an honor that comes with the responsibility of photographing our shared humanity.

Maria Raymundo Cruz is a mother, grandmother, wife and community leader. She works hard to help her family survive.  After two days in the village of Chel, Maria’s 4 year old granddaughter, Flor, referred to me, in Ixil, as her sister. On my last day Flor stuck to me like my shadow and as the sun set she crawled up on my lap and fell asleep.  This family has so little, but they would have filled my bags with all the coffee I could carry, if I let them.

So now what? Will these photographs accomplish anything?

The most direct result is that my client, The Coffee Trust, has tons of compelling visual content of their projects that are truly making a difference in the well being of the community of Chel. You can see them on their Instagram and facebook pages. With these photographs The Coffee Trust can pursue additional funding sources so by 2018, they can complete the projects they have started. By 2018 Maria and her family will have lots of chickens and eggs, a family garden and newly gained knowledge and training to pass along to their neighbors.

The indirect but lasting impact of being a witness is that my audience can connect with Maria and her family.  My greatest hope is that if people around the globe feel connected to one another they will not seek to harm one another or harm the natural resources that we share.

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