During my time in New Zealand I visited the National Geographic 50 Greatest Photographs Exhibition. An image captured by photographer Bill Allard really moved me. It reminded me a little of the hardship I had seen in South America and helped me to understand my own feelings about photography.
Bill Allard – Peru
“His name was Eduardo Ramos and he was nine. A Peruvian taxi had carelessly driven through his family’s band of a dozen sheep in the Altiplano near Puno as he was taking them home to his village. Half were killed and lay broken like discarded stuffed animals. Eduardo was shattered. What could he tell his family? I made a few pictures and left with my assistant. I don’t think we gave him anything. I wish we’d had some fruit or food, but we didn’t.
“Later I told the magazine editors we needed to run the picture because it spoke clearly about how difficult life can be in Peru. National Geographic readers responded with great generosity – unsolicited – eventually donating almost $7,000. The Society contacted the humanitarian organization CARE, which in turn located the village. The sheep were replaced, a water pump for the village was installed, and the remaining amount went into a fund for Peruvian school children.
“To Eduardo and his family, the readers’ response must have seemed unbelievable, like something from out of the sky. The response was also a gift to me, because it lifted that heavy guilt for having taken but not really given in return.”
I went to Latin America not quite knowing what to expect but like most Westerners, whose amazing travel photos I had seen, I was expecting Paradise. There were glimpses of it, most definitely, and at times when I was floating in the water looking up at a giant waterfall cascading heavily down ahead of me, I felt it – this state of Paradise. But then I realised that’s precisely what it was – a momentary state of mind, because behind the golden sand, crystal clear waters and incredible skyline lay a very different reality for some people, a reality I struggled to photograph.
The poverty I witnessed in Cuba shocked me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. What I was expecting to see were happy old men, sitting on the porches outside their homes, smoking cigars, singing and playing instruments – what I met were old empty shells of crumbling buildings, in which people still lived, half dug up roads, rubble and dog shit – everywhere, quiet streets with young boys standing in doorways, eyeing you carefully as you walked past – all neatly tucked away behind a whole facade of fancy hotels and restaurants lining the central Havana attraction – The Malecon.
A few fancy ‘old town’ streets played Rumba, Salsa and entertained tourists as they wandered through – but this was far from real and I found it a little unnerving.
But I got some great pictures in Havana. I met a family, I listened to their story, and I spent time talking to the children.
In the countryside it was poorer still but far less oppressive. People there were happy.
In Trinidad I had a great time talking with an elderly chap selling baskets – I gave him a beer, he gave me a mango.
The pictures I took in Cuba are some of my favourites because of the stories behind them. I understood the politics, having listened to the locals and I established a relationships with the people I had met.
In other parts of South America it was not as easy to get involved and as I moved further south, the more harrowing the picture became.
I couldn’t photograph what I was seeing, because unlike Bill Allard I couldn’t carry that heavy burden of guilt with me. If I couldn’t understand the picture I couldn’t take it, If I had no relationship with the subject, I couldn’t justify taking their picture. If I couldn’t help or even understand – what right did I have? The image in my mind is enough, and one I can paint using words.
I’m in the capital city of Bogota. It’s hot and the streets are busy with traffic and people: old men in traditional white hats with missing teeth laughing and patting each others backs in the shady entrance of souvenir shops; older ladies holding the hands of little children taking them to school; young couples on scooters; drug addicts – slouching on the pavement staring ahead, pipes still in hands; a middle-aged man dragging his limbless body with his one remaining arm across a road, whilst a group of young 20-something American guys casually walk past him, talking about the cute local girl who promised to take them Salsa dancing that evening.
In Colombia drug addicts, homeless and disabled people sat in the streets like discarded waste, and to those around them – they were ghosts. It was appalling.
Ecuador was like a breath of fresh air after Colombia. I got to know the locals and I fell in love with the people, the land and how communities pulled together to create a better life for those around them.
There’s a thing in Ecuador called Minga – a Quechuan way of life that has existed for centuries. It is when a community comes together to help support one another. A community or a person is entitled to call a Minga in distressing times, and people will travel for miles to gather around a project, family, or a single person that is in need of communal assistance. It is precisely what helps propel villages forward.
Towards the end of my time in Ecuador I heard about the struggles of indigenous people living out in the countryside. I met a man from the States who was working for a Christian Aid group, volunteering at an orphanage for disabled children who had been abandoned at birth by their families. The reality for many of these families is that if their children are not fit to work the cost of keeping them becomes impossible. Another awful reality and example of the harsh poverty in South America.
But, the fact that I came across organisations and communities whose mission it was to help, helped restore my faith in humanity again, it also made me realsie how fortunate I really was.
No matter what happens in my life I will always be able to find work, I will always have a home, I will always have access to medical attention, I will always be loved. The amount of people who have NONE of this and less is overwhelming and deeply saddening.
I’d grown tired of travelling – as many people do after 6 months. You get something called ‘Travel Burn Out’. I experienced it in front of a 30 metre high glacier exploding in front of me in the south of Argentina. I could register how amazing it was to see but I wasn’t as excited by it as everyone else around me was. I wanted more than anything the comfort of home, the familiarity that comes with having your own room, a set of drawers, a cup of tea and a sofa.
The fact that I could access that in New Zealand with Seamus’ family was a blessing. The fact that I could satisfy my urges as and when I wanted to (I need a better bed, I need something healthier to eat for dinner), has been a blessing.
The fact that I can go home and that the opportunities for me to build a life, around people I love is the biggest blessing of all.
Some people in the world would call it Paradise.
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.