In less than a month I’ll be in Guatemala for 16 days. It’s hard to know what to expect, but as with many new experiences in life, the best we can do is plan as carefully as possible, be ready for the unexpected, and most importantly, have an open mind.
No amount of planning can prepare you for the unexpected. That’s one of the joys of traveling, being shaken from your shoes because of a beautiful sunset you didn’t anticipate,
rounding a corner to a tranquil temple,
and acknowledging your joys (and sometimes worries) have the ability to move you into a space never imagined, into a sphere where joys (and fears) seem only known within the binding of fiction novels in fairytale settings.
I am ready for these moments. I sit here planning my days and consider why I’m going to Guatemala. I am also overwhelmed by all that I can and cannot do in a schedule of activities that occurs in just over 2 weeks. I ask myself how can I successfully shoot a photo essay in this time and run a photography/cultural workshop on top of it? How will I know I’ve made an impact that doesn’t leave environmental or social stresses? What indicators will inform me that the workshop complements the support the community has already received? Question marks trickle across my mind like a dripping faucet that’s incurred an incessant leak.
I admit, discussions at work surrounding social impact have been influencing my approach to this project. It’s really caused me to consider how I’m assessing the images I collect, the impact I may have on a community, and the long-term solutions to providing a photography workshop on an on-going basis. Investments, sustainability, impact, transparency, multimedia, change, community, culture, revenue. Wow. All these words come to mind and not with any less weight since KONY 2012 generated myriad questions and doubt within the international community. Greg Mortenson’s mismanaged charitable money that went to the tour for his book, Three Cups of Tea, instead of his charity, Central Asia Institute, is not without consideration, too. If you’re producing a project in any community, documenting its progress or not, you have to be as careful as possible in your preparation and execution. I think photographer Lori Waselchuk states it quite perfectly in her interview featured on Nieman Storyboard as she answers how to portray complex situations, “…You have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are.” Goals. Goals are important. I’m not only referring to photography or storytelling projects, but in general; goals give us something to strive toward and depending on the result, achieving them can really make incremental improvements in a community. The small goals that when pieced together make our day run smoother (and thus we are more pleasant to all), to the larger undertakings of encouraging 100 students in a community to participate in a reading program (which can improve student success in the short- and long-term). I once read a quote that said, “If you’re not challenged, you’re not growing.” I think we can all find a place to contextualize this and thus challenge ourselves to help; in small or large ways. There’s a rhythm the world needs to maintain and we have to work together toward achieving the right beat with meaningful action.
So how did I come upon writing a blog post on social impact and photography?
Late last year I approached Philanthropiece and Limitless Horizons Ixil (LHI), nonprofit organizations who work on the ground in the Ixil Maya communities of Guatemala. Located in the Western Highlands of the country, I will be working with this community for 16 days.
Although I’ve never been to Central America, what drew me to contact Philanthropiece and LHI and propose a photography project manifests itself in my interest with indigenous communities. It is my belief that we can all learn something from someone and even in remote communities or less accessible areas there are stories and lessons to exchange. Traveling causes us to look at our home environment in a different light. This changed perspective comes not from staying at home, eyes locked on Comedy Central, it comes from exploration–in books, in movies; with our feet, our mind. You don’t have to be wealthy to experience a new culture–the imagination is a wonderful portal that can ‘take’ us places, encouraging us to see our surroundings differently and deepening our understanding of humanity. After taking a class on Minority Populations, Indigenous Peoples and International Law with Human Rights Education Associates in 2010, my curiosity in these communities piqued. While my feet didn’t travel, my mind did, with thoughts swimming back and forth concerning knowledge learned. Discussions on rights and international standards surfaced, and in the past few months as I’ve put this project together, this material has moved back into my life, forcing me to think carefully about social justice in the context of photography. What are my objectives? What are my evaluative tools? Whose story am I telling?
One of the things I’ve realized from working through the guidelines for this project is that supporting a community or helping someone doesn’t mean just sticking a band-aid on a problem thinking it will resolve itself. Simply offering answers when a question arises is not the solution either. I think we’ve all heard the proverb, “Give a man to fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Or remember when you were little and asked your parents how to spell a word? The response, “Look it up in the dictionary,” really challenged me, but now I understand that we can’t just hand over answers without an explanation, a certain amount of work needs to occur. I am obligated to think about the work I’m doing there now, as well as what change or help it could afford the community in the future. Waselchuk answers the question, “…How do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?” again with great articulation, by saying (among other things),
“And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.
Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.”
Who will my project benefit? How do we create positive impact in one community that is not our own? I don’t expect to have the right answers to these questions immediately, but I do anticipate a growing understanding of how projects impact communities. I believe questions will evolve to reflect a world that is in a constant state of flux. I think new challenges emerge in every community; and so our thoughts and ways of producing stories/photography/documentary-type works will also evolve. At least I think they should.
My intent on going to the western highlands is to build a body of work that addresses a specific community of individuals, the Ixil Maya, and to illustrate the work of Philanthropiece and LHI. They are helping support the people who are working toward a better future: for themselves and for the world. In a global society where emerging markets, investments and social good are all the rage, where does an indigenous community fit into this flurry of philanthropic talk and sustainability? Here and here. They add a vital voice to global solutions by addressing the challenges of climate change with their traditional knowledge. The students with whom I’ll be working are participants of Philanthropiece’s program, Philanthropiece Scholars, and they are the first round of students in this nascent program. You can learn more about them on GOOD (vote!) and please stay tuned for upcoming stories, images, and updates on my time in Chajul, Guatemala. As my time nears, and even when I’m in the community, these thoughts will hopefully guide me toward creating impact that helps, and not hinders. How are they addressing sustainable community development? How is this achieved in an indigenous community? As a westerner who is new to the region and culture, what elements of storytelling and experience can I add to this project? How will the photography workshop that covers material on community and culture help them view their culture with a critical eye that evaluates sustainable community development from a local perspective? What impact will these images have?
For resources on creating meaningful images and documentary/storytelling work that addresses social good or is a medium for discussion on the affect images have, here is a list of resources that will help you get started. Please feel free to contact me with others:
PHOTOGRAPHY and STORYTELLING and DOCUMENTARY sites
AidWatch (No longer active but still useful information)