Since I was young, at least in the Western world and culture, it was common to play with toys that reflected a community or domestic setting: Barbies, G.I. Joes, LEGO’s. Even nowadays with the surge of handheld electronic games and console devices there are games that require the user to build a community from various resources such as stones and goats, or work in a community to achieve a specific goal. If you want additional materials you have to go through a series of transactions, bartering and trading until both parties are happy with the arrangement. Voila! A community or town is now constructed. Communities—what defines them though and how does one go about building them? It involves much more than throwing together some staple supplies and a few people desiring to do something with them, or does it? Does constructing a ship or house out of LEGO’s indicate that a community exists?
I arrived in Guatemala to volunteer on the ground with a nonprofit organization, Philanthropiece Foundation, who works in Central and North America on broad-based community development. Their presence in Chajul, where I’m working, began in 2008 and the organization strives to build relationships and understand high priorities in communities while creating sustainable solutions. Getting here didn’t go without planning as the preparation and execution that goes into building a project with an organization can, and should be extensive.
It is my belief that for most things with value –relationships, acquiring a good job or education, spirituality—they take time. Well, time and patience. You can’t expect friendships to solidify overnight (although sometimes they appear to but that is not always the case), to fall in love after a brief encounter (some say it was love at first sight, but…), to find a dream job after one application or to have your education be the answer to all of life’s questions (yes, some are lucky), or to reach a level of spirituality that guides you through your day without question or anxiety (I think most of us are constantly striving toward something, and let’s be realistic, life’s daily events are rarely constant). For any substantive relationship or job to develop, it may take months or years.
Like a farmer who is cultivating his small plot of land, the yield from his crops represent only the amount of land he has and the seeds he has planted. Farming takes time to produce good crops; you can’t expect something out of nothing, and expecting more than what you’ve given can be expecting too much. Communities, like farms, I believe, are built over time.
I continue to give the example of agriculture here because not only is it an important part of Chajul’s community, but it is also an important part of what I’m working on with Philanthropiece. It provides understanding into multiple contexts and it’s a concept I think most people are familiar with: you plant a seed, you watch it grow; you put in hard work, you reach a goal. My project here addresses sustainable community development within an indigenous culture, Ixil Maya. I came here with an interest in indigenous cultures, a desire to learn more about them, and a goal to photograph their community and how their culture operates in an ever-changing global economy. I need to ask myself everyday I’m here, what am I putting into it? What do I expect out of it?
As a photographer with an interest in communities, indigenous and minority cultures and human rights, acknowledging the rights of those being photographed and maintaining cultural-sensitivity is crucial.
Working here is challenging my limits and defining my own understanding of culture and community. Being here is completely new territory for me. Are there similarities in the Ixil Maya culture to other cultures I’ve encountered? Yes, but the dynamics of cultures change and from community to community they can vary. Observing these differences helps me take a second look at what I’m photographing, and why, in my mind, I need that shot. In some cases, I don’t really need it, but I think it’s more of a want that grows from the experience of seeing something so beautiful you want to be able to capture it so you can revisit it later; so you can share it with the world. In Chajul, while beauty permeates the people and the land, I have realized you can’t capture everything in a community or culture. Not in a week, a month or even years. As with a farmer tending his land, the growth of new seeds takes time and with learning, experiencing, and capturing a community and culture, that too takes time.
Cultures change, and with it, the communities that exist within.
Here in my first week in Chajul it is a lot about getting to know the culture. It’s about striking a balance between curiosity and questions, and remaining patient and silently observing. It’s about taking small steps into a community and realizing you’re in their culture, their space, and between human beings I think we share an understanding that we wouldn’t want someone visiting our culture to take too broad of a step and be culturally disrespectful. Not for a photograph; not for any reason.
If I’m here to photograph the Ixil Maya culture, and Philanthropiece’s and the community’s approach to sustainable community development then I need to plant the seeds before I can expect a great yield—getting to know the people, the land, and all the components of their culture.