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Leica + Guatemala: An Introduction

October 3, 2009

MP_Guatemala_003
The shot that made me feel I had found my path, Nebaj, Guatemala.

MP_Guatemala_001
Cemetery, Antigua.

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Streets of Antigua.

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Local family in the mountains above San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

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View from the rear of a surplus WWII Jeep Willy, Santa Cruz del Quiche.

Dateline 1995:

I’ve graduated from university with a degree in photojournalism.
I’ve interned at a major newspaper, on and off for over a year.
I’ve returned to Texas and am somewhat floundering, and not floundering in a good way like John Belushi in Animal House.
I’ve sent out dozens of portfolios to newspapers all over the United States, large, small, strategic and the truly awful.
Nothing. Not a single response.
I’ve visited the local papers, in at least three major cities, and was met with “not a chance.
It wasn’t just that my portfolio wasn’t superb, it was a combination of things. Changes beginning to happy in journalism, etc.
I hadn’t thought about going to New York at this time, didn’t think I had the work.

So I went to Guatemala.

I studied Spanish in school, loved it, and ran into some friends of my brothers who had just returned from an extended period in this Central American land. They were raving, talking about selling everything stateside and were moving back to Guatemala.

They suggested I go so I went. I had a name, an address and nothing else. Got off the plane in Guatemala City and looked for the bus to Antigua, where I was enrolled in a language school for one month. My plan was to study three days a week, then travel for four days each week, shooting random things, but also working on a list of projects I had researched, some as grand as repatriation of refugees from Mexico.

Got on the bus in G. City, got off in Antigua, bus drove off with my bag still on top. Not a great start. Got my bag back, found my address, met a mutual friend, settled in and began to work a foreign picture story for really the first time. My first time alone, no script, just trying to produce.

Several years back, during my time at the paper, I had switched from Nikon to Canon, back when the EOS had taken over the world. Nearly everyone I knew had switched, but I didn’t have the cash, so I grunted it out with my old gear for as long as possible. I finally saved enough for a EOS A2 and 20-35mm zoom, then eventually got an EOS-1 and 70-200mm. The 2.8 zoom had really landed at that time, and the newspaper world was filled with two lens shooters, and basically I was one of them.

These cameras were fantastic, still are actually, and were so practical for what you found yourself doing as as newspaper person. Press conference, feature picture, portrait, brush fire, high school football might be a typical day, so you needed something broad based and encompassing.

I lugged these large cameras to Guatemala, in my $25 dollar backpack and poncho, but right before I left I used what savings I had remaining and bought a Leica M4-P and 28mm lens. I had seen these cameras for a few years and were intrigued by their size, small, and weight, light. Nobody at the paper was using them, so I didn’t have a real chance to test it out, or ask around. I bought this thing in San Antonio, tossed it in my cheap backpack and flew south.

After making a trip or two, between clase de espanol, into the Guatemalan countryside, I realized something almost immediately. Big cameras meant big disturbance. I met an American with a pickup truck who was living in Antigua, someone with an interest in photography who said, “You teach me about photography and I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” A deal was made. I also traveled a lot by bus, hours, sometimes days at a time, over crazy mountain roads.

Many of the places I ventured were void of gringos, void of foreigners, and I was a major attraction, in both a good way and a bad way. These were towns that had been hotspots during the war and people were suspicious, even more so of people snooping with cameras. When I would pull the big cameras out some people, grown men, would run away. I began to use the Leica more and more and the larger Canon gear less and less. For overall gear, the Canon was superior, but for this one select use, the Leica was the perfect fit.
I wasn’t shooting as much film, but what I was shooting was more diverse, and I was catching moments more and more. A single roll of film would yield twenty different images, scenes, and with the SLR I tended to have fewer takes per roll, using the motor more and making more pictures of the same scene.

The real moment for me was the moment I shot the first image on this post. I was in Nebaj, up in the mountains, traveling with a botanist, and were, besides a few UN people, the only foreigners in the entire area. There were two Dutch women on the bus with us into town, but for some reason had been stoned and chased from Nebaj by local townspeople. We never figured out why. There had been some sort of shootout the night before. We sat in $1 a night, plywood hotel room trying to figure out if the shooting was getting closer or further away.

The following day we went out and began to explore the town. It was very quiet, somewhat off in a way. It didn’t feel quite right.

Along came a procession, a funeral it turned out, and I turned to my travel partner and said, “There is no way I’m gonna be able to shoot this.”

I left my big cameras in my bag and just began shooting with the Leica. A snap here, a snap there, as I walked with the procession. No one said a word. They knew I was shooting. I was right in amongst them, but it just felt okay.

We angled up the mountain, went through the burial procession and then the mourners began to drift away. The head guy walked over to me and began speaking in his native dialect, Quechua or Kekchi, or something along those lines.

Guess what? I don’t speak either, so I answered in Spanish, and we went back and forth. Finally he just motioned for me to follow him.

We walked and walked, up into the mountains, and suddenly I was at the house of someone else who had died. An 80-year-old man had died the night before, was still in his house, and his neighbors were mourning/celebrating.

The head guy pointed at the doorway to the house and motioned his arm. I thought “Well, here goes nothing.”

Entering that house was like going back in time. I felt like I was in a museum that had come alive. I went in, very dark, took one step to my right and backed myself up to the earthen wall. I froze.

All around me people were moving, chanting, talking, smoking, drinking, eating, comforting each other. It was if I did not exist. Nobody looked at me. Nobody spoke to me.

I raised the M4-P and starting shooting. I never moved. I just watched and waited. I was looking for ONE picture. THE picture. I had the light where I wanted it. I had the right lens. And the camera was so quiet it did not disturb anyone or anything.

The M4-P had no meter, and I didn’t have a hand held. But I had shot the same film, every day for one year, so I KNEW my exposure just by looking.

I did not at all feel like I was a part of what was happening, just too much distance between cultures, and too little time, but I also didn’t feel like I was disturbing anyone.

I felt like I was doing what I was put on the Earth to do. Regardless of what happened with the image, what happened with my career, with anything else, it didn’t matter. It was the experience of making the picture that I knew was my destiny. It’s not to say this is the world’s greatest image, or the best picture of Guatemala ever taken, but for me it was.

Not wanting to over expose myself…get it, overexpose? Okay, I’ll shut up soon. I left, walked outside.

My escort came out and handed me a piece of a partially cooked animal of some sort, with the idea being he wanted me to eat this thing. For the life of me I didn’t know what it was, and I could see it wasn’t really cooked, burned slightly on one side, but not anything I could eat and live to write this.

I had visions of what my 24-hour bus ride back would entail if I even sniffed this carcass. I was slowly learning about being a photographer and getting out of eating things like this was another step in my learning process. It ended well. I told him I was already sick, all through an amazing pantomime skill I had somehow acquired and he was cool with it.

Now, the guy in the red jacket in the middle of frame. He came out of the house, wasted, bombed, gassed, hammered, blottoed, slayed, tanked or whatever else you want to call it, and proceeded to wind up and throw his best right cross at me. He missed by a mile, luckily, and all those gathered around cheered him on as he reloaded, trying to send the evil interloper to Hell with his crushing blows. I danced and weaved, backpedaling the entire time, waving, throwing out dozens of “soy amable,” and “gracias, adios,” and his stamina sucked, so he soon pulled up, doubled over and panting at the side of the trail.

All I could think about was my moment inside the house, that image I knew I had captured.

For the rest of my trip it burned like a fire in my imagination.

Returning from Guatemala I found a lab in Austin to process my film. I remember driving into Austin with my parents, just blown away by my experience down south. It was hard to come back to a world of conformity and job hunting. I couldn’t think of anything but the film.

And I as I pulled out the plastic containers I raced to find the roll that held what I need would be my shot. And there it was. Not that you can tell by this crappy scan, but the image was perfect, exposure wise. And content wise it was just as I remembered.

Over the following months I placed this image in my portfolio, along with several others from Guatemala, all shot with the Leica, and began to show it around.

Another photographer bought this image, printing it 6-feet-wide and hanging it on his living room wall, where it still hangs today. This was long before the giant print craze of today, so it wasn’t as easy to get a 35mm to that size in those days.

Several weeks later, someone else bought the same image and also printed it this size to hang in their house.

I realized I had done what I was there to do. Even if I didn’t make another image the entire trip, this one moment in time was worth every sick moment, every 24-hour bus ride, every time of getting stuck in the jungle in a torrential downpour.

When I look at this image today I can smell that room. I can feel the isolation I felt and I can also feel the Leica in my hands. Not the same one, like an idiot I sold it, but another just like it. And still today, I know this work is what I’m supposed to do.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2009 7:27 am

    Really wonderful story. For me it’s always a pleasure to read about beginnings. Now that I’m quickly approaching the big 50 I think stories like this should be required reading for young people who want to know what it takes to succeed. 


    I’ve long subscribed to the theory that if you follow a passion there will be ways to live a fruitful and successful life. I think it’s up to each person to decide what that success entails. But having read through your posts, it seems to me you are successful in a role that allows you to live your passion. This post just seems to confirm that for me.

    Thanks for sharing and providing some insight into your history as a photographer.

    I particularly like the family portrait (4th image) and how you’ve framed it and used the light to bring the eye to the family.

  2. October 4, 2009 6:12 pm

    Man, so hard living that passion. A whine I know. And in the grand scheme, means little.
    That family portrait has another story.
    We, me and my buddy with the truck, a former missionary, hiked for several hours into the mountains to get to that location. He knew a kid who guided us back there. We walked into that house and there was an old timer in the back of the room who saw us and literally screamed and tried to run. His family talked him down and asked him why he was so afraid, and he claimed to have never seen white people before. I thought maybe he thought I was a wedding photographer?
    Then, outside, someone’s dog tried to sink it’s ONE disease ridden fang into my leg. The entire village laughed themselves sick as I battled this little bitch. It went on and on and I was thinking I was going to have to take drastic measures, REALLY drastic, until someone called this thing off. Dude, that dog, that fang, a bite, that far out. My life would have sucked in a major way.

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