The Exotic vs. The Real

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.)

As one grows up in the first world, they learn to see the developing world as exotic lands of vibrant color and fantastic ceremonies.  I recall that for a grade school project I made a large cut-out of the African continent, and populated it with carefully detailed stand up paper people, all dressed in their traditional local costumes, as copied from the encyclopedia.  I marveled at the variations in dress, and how each country had its own unique outfit.

This viewpoint continues on well into adulthood, encouraged by travel brochures showing smiling local people in their indigenous dress, and every traveler with a camera aims to capture those same shots on their journey (see previous post for a couple of my examples).  But after spending just a little bit of time in a developing country, one learns that these types of images are far from the “truth.”  The ones who still wear the colorful traditional outfits are almost always the poorest and most politically ignored segment of a country’s population.  Though they often smile and laugh, their lives are far from exotic and joyful.  They are often difficult, full of pain, and short.  During my recent brief trip to Guatemala, I repeatedly came face to face with these realities of life in a developing country, even more so than I ever did during my many months in Peru.  And in my photos I found I still battle with the contradictions of exotic vs. reality.


San Miguel Dueñas, Guatelmala

I was visiting a compound of several families’ concrete block houses surrounding a paved courtyard containing the shared sink and stoves.  These girls returned home in the late afternoon, and I immediately got caught up in taking photos of them.  Lost in my concentration, my traveling companion gently reprimanded me, “That’s enough, let them put it down.  It’s heavy.”  “Right, right, OK” I said and immediately stopped, embarrassed that I hadn’t realized this myself.  Although one cannot deny the momentary smile on these girls’ faces is genuine, the reality is that they are child laborers.  They had spent the day working in a coffee field, and then as they walked home they gathered and carried the wood, slung on their heads, as they do each day.  I imagine that the attention being paid to them by Elizabeth and I is a big part of the smile you see on their faces and in their eyes.


Concepcion (second from left), Kevin (second from right) and family – 11/16/2009

On another day we visited two boys and their families in order to interview and photograph them to write an article about them that will hopefully find them sponsors.  The two boys are about to enter high school, and each has lost one or both parents.  Without the help of a sponsor to pay for school, books, and supplies, they will have to leave school and begin working.  Elizabeth has written more about their stories here.  One of the boys, Kevin, is losing his mother Concepcion to cancer of the uterus, and his father died just a month earlier.  After interviewing Kevin, it occurred to us that his family probably doesn’t have a single photo of themselves or their mother, which would obviously be a nice memento now and after her passing.  We returned the next day to take a portrait.  They gently lifted their mother on her bed, where she has lied for endless weeks lacking the strength to get up, and supported her as I quickly took a couple shots, praying that they would be properly focused and exposed in the near complete darkness of the dusty, dirt-floored room.

Although she is dying of cancer, there is nothing she can do about it because the family lacks money for both doctors and trips to Guatemala City for the treatment.  And at this point, it would be physically impossible for her to get on and ride a chicken bus the 1 hour into town.  She does not have doctor’s visits, she does not even have appropriate medication for the pain.  She is dying a slow and very painful death.  Sadly, I later learned, many types of uterine cancer are preventable or successfully treatable if detected early with regular doctor visits.  In fact, conditions leading to cervical cancer can often have a 10 year window for detection and treatment.  But Concepcion has probably rarely seen a doctor in her life, and certainly did not have annual examinations.  We had learned the previous day that the other boy, Luis, had also lost his mother to uterine cancer and a very similar death.

Immediately after we left, the head of the NGO I was working with (who had dropped off food and supplies to deal with the bleeding) called a contact and got hold of some appropriately strong pain medication that they, like many of us often do, had left over in their medicine cabinet.  I went into Antigua and had an 8×10 print made, and found a simple but nice wood frame.  We returned to Kevin’s house, and presented it to Concepcion.  She sat up in bed and a huge smile washed across her face.  The pain medication had already begun to work wonders, and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, she was not in constant, unbearable pain.

See more related posts in the Humanitarian Photography category.

Tags: , , , , ,