It’s pretty common whilst travelling to think, wow, I am having the BEST time, I had better photograph everything! Photos are a wonderful means of reliving key moments and experiences, augmenting your memories with detail and relived atmosphere. Photos also serve the purpose of documentation or proof: this is my family, cat, holiday, best meal ever. How often do you actually look at those photos again after you have arrived back home? Are they on your wall, inspiring you to another trip? What about photos in your wallet? Do you carry your loved ones with you?
I have been volunteering for En Vía for three and half months now. During this time I have been taking tours sometimes twice a week to visit our woman borrowers in their homes and places of business in the small communities outside Oaxaca de Juarez.
As we commence tours, we explain the etiquette of photo taking – you must always ask before taking a photo. No means no, and to please be respectful of people and situations. On tours in general, everyone has their own camera – to document the tour, the women, sometimes their lunch – and then afterwards they are able to share their time in Mexico to family and friends.
In contrast to travellers, other than calendar pictures of saints, these women we visit don’t actually have many, if any, photos displayed in their houses. Over time it has slowly dawned on me that this is because the Mexican families we work with don’t have cameras available or accessible.
Growing up in NZ, and especially as I had an interest in photography, I have taken for granted my access to photos, images and cameras. Working with En Via and visiting these families, I have had to rethink photography. What was to me just a fun hobby could do so much more.
Recently I took a series of photos of the women we met on tour, and once back in Oaxaca I got 4×6 prints made at a local lab. The next time I saw the same women I handed them their photos. The results were as you would imagine. They grimaced over their photographed expressions and their hair; they admired photos taken of their friends, and they all wanted to know when they could get others taken. The photos were smoothed flat by careful hands and placed gently into the pockets of their embroidered apron/dresses to carry home.
I had printed photos of women in other communities as well, and since we were visiting 5 different towns that day, I had all the photos in a big pile. The women carefully looked through all the photos, asking where they had been taken, and remarking on photographed activities that were familiar – making tortillas on a comal, weaving tapetes, making candles. Some of these women would never travel to the other towns, and so they were very interested to see that things were the same as they knew, but also a little different elsewhere. It made me remember what a unifying thing photography is.
I know of people who travel with a Polaroid camera so they can give instant photos back to the local people they meet and photograph. It’s such a lovely idea and one that really doesn’t cost a lot. Recently I took a photo of a woman’s parents, a Zapotec couple in their late 80’s. The family has never had a photo of them and so they are eagerly awaiting their print so they can send it to far-away family members.
I am now thinking about photography and more importantly prints in a whole new way. Instead of using photography solely to record my experiences, with permission, I can help document the lives of others for their own use as well.