People and Places
I began photographing the western highlands of Guatemala fifteen years ago. Overall the most beautiful part of Guatemala, the western highlands lie between the Sierra Madre volcanic range to the south and tall mountain ranges to the north, most prominently the Cuchumatanes. Sololá and its Maya were the themes of my early photographs. However, with time I moved farther afield to other parts of the highlands. Thus I came in contact with Maya of different idioms, traditions, and cultural traits than I had known before. I found the cultural and visual diversity of the highlands to be unrivaled.
I always return to a location to return photographs to their subjects. Therefore, the growth of my photographic world proceeds slowly. What began as a simple experiment appears to have gotten out of hand. What I was doing was not unique. Visitors to a place often take and pass out photographs to the subjects of those photos. However, it became apparent early on, that whatever talent I had as a photographer, paled to my ability to distribute photos. Besides, I go out for a visit and just come back with photos. But the visit is my real objective.
Passing Out Photographs
I gain enormously through the dift of photographs to others.The doors of many Maya households open to me. Likewise, my camera and I have become a part of many communities and their social and ceremonial lives. It’s fun to walk through a market, for instance, and have every vendor ask me to photograph them; or to walk in a procession or a parade and have not only the participants but the onlookers askme to take their photos.
While I hope you like my photographs, I know the real value of my work is passing out the photos. There are better photographers but few have better models. Also, there may not be a better distributor of photos. The gifting of over 900,000 photographs may be unprecedented world-wide. In fact, some might argue that only a crazy person would do such a thing.
Recently I received mild praise from a young Catalan photographer with superior talent to mine, however. Oliver told me he liked my photos, but, that the moment a subject looked back into the camera, he or she ruined the photograph. I explained, however, that I had an ethical opposition to shooting photos of a person without that person’s knowledge and permission. Oliver told me he uses a powerful lens and hides well, and so, no problem: no one knows he´s doing it.
I don´t agree with Oliver´s technique nor with his careless disrespect of other people’s personal autonomy. However,,these days everyone is photographing on the sly.. Tourists on public boats on Lake Atitlán routinely aim their cameras at me, but I’m not even that interesting-looking. For a Maya woman, however, with her colorful garb, thick long hair, and rare beauty, the invasion of privacy must be an extreme annoyance.
The best way to win the ethical debate, however, is to prove it through the quality of photos. In the first place, many viewers enjoy my photographs simply because everyone looks back into my lens. They appreciate the connection between photographer and subject. Secondly, a person does not destroy a photograph by looking into the camera. For example, look at the photos of the best, Steve McCurry. Virtually everyone looks directly into his camera; and, while he doesn’t steal souls, he at least captures spirits. I believe it possible, therefore, to photograph ethically with respect for privacy and to create art at the same time.