Several weeks ago Vincent Stanzione and I talked about the possibility of a collaborative, experimental work in which he would look at selected photographs and write a spontaneous riff about what he was thinking. His commentary may, or may not, relate directly to the photographs. Vincent is the resident Maya scholar living in the Guatemalan Highlands. The reader /viewer is invited to make his/her own reading of the photographs.
Text by Vincent Stanzione
Image and World: Interpretation and Art
These commentaries are what some Spanish writers once referred to as automatic writings and I think, in a very general way, relate to the masterly executed photographs of Tom Waters. I took just one day out of my life to talk to these photos with written words. I feel strongly that Tom's photographs intrigue by the small details therein, ones often overlooked when there is quick, superficial appraisal. I feel lucky to have the chance to participate with Tom on this interesting and stimulating project of lightly giving my very personal interpretations, or responses, to his art. I hope they may serve to encourage your own dialogue with his images of a world become art. ------- V. J. Stanzione May 5, 2010
Barbara Mendoza with her coffee plant seedlings
"Chicken girl" -- worked near the docks allowing tourists to photograph her thereby supplementing her family income.
A Washing Place
Throughout the Highlands of Guatemala there are ‘washing places’ where women and girls go to wash clothes. If boys are there it is mostly to play, If they are adolescent to try to get the attention of adolescent girls. Once, when there were no built washing places (such as public pilas), there were places along streams, rivers and lakes where women went to do their work. These places are still evident throughout the Highlands though used less frequently.
These chajmob’al (washing places) had a kind of energy of their own, a female energy filled with taboo and its sanctions. Men were never welcomed into these places; if present it was never for long. Sons or grandsons, not in the care of father or grandfather, who would otherwise take them to the fields, would be there with mother or grandmother. Often they helped by spreading washed and wet clothes, scattering them across sun-warmed stones or on the ground in the sun . Or they might just loll about in the calming energy of their guardian’s aural embrace.
Natural washing places, at least the ones I know, are always in near picture-perfect settings, locations where nature, society and culture come together to revitalize cloth, cloth that give humans a good part of their identity. Now that the population has increased in the Highlands creating greater demands for water people from around the world have come to organize and presumably improve the way women of Guatemala wash their clothes. Government construction projects and private foundations have built new, but less picturesque, places for clothes washing.
Recently, women and their washing have been singled out as great contributors to water pollution in Highland streams and lakes. Their prodigious use of phosphate-based soaps are ruining the water for themselves and others living downstream, and for those living near lakes that take water from now ‘impure’ water sources. There was a time nobody cared where the soapy water went or how women washed their clothes. Now it seems inevitable that more private and public intervention is forthcoming.
Construction of new pilas -- washing places -- near lakeside, Santiago Atitlan
Dignity has a Face, Age a Place
Some people get old . Some live exceptionally long lives. Some don’t. We never know our destiny. If we did it would probably terrify us, not knowing what lies ahead. One thing that I know about aged people I have come to know in the Guatemalan Highlands is that they hold themselves with great dignity as they manifest their victory in lives of almost endless struggle.
Old folks for the most part don’t talk much and when they do it is usually something so real that most people don’t want to listen. There is a place for grandmothers in Santiago Atitlan, defined by mythology, and it is to be there to observe but not to tell younger people what to do. The nimawinaq, as ‘elders’ are known (the "Big People") aren’t from the same world . They ended up living in this new world by mere fact of their inherited longevity. They aren’t supposed to guide younger folks in what they are doing because, they assume, they don’t know what needs to be done in a world that isn’t theirs anymore. They are there to watch with failing eyes the world that is unknowable to younger generations, a world the young may not appreciate or care for. None of this seems to matter to the nimawinaq I have come to know; they are content to sit in their place, wearing ancient clothes and an aged face of dignity --- in this world where worlds come and go. One sees life and history in their faces. Resignation. Acceptance. The serious demeanor, the occasional smile. I have been where you are youngster, they seem to be saying, be prepared.
Juana sold peanuts and bon-bons to schoool children while sitting on the steps of the Iglesia. She was thought to be in her early 90's when she died.
Andreanna: Was injured as a child from a fall into an open fire. Nevertheless, she boated from Santiago Atitlan to Panajachel each day with her small blue begging bowl. Her efforts helped to support her family. She was a great favorite in both Santiago and Panajachel. She died a few years ago and is missed by many.
Young girls learn to help in the mercado
Looking through a Magic lens
If a photographer could change a person’s life just by taking a picture then photography would attain meaning far beyond the magic it often has in the Highland world. A photographer could look straight through the lens with a deep desire then ... click, the world would change. A young woman recently initiated into the world of her gender’s inherited pain of femininity might no longer need to go to the lake shore to cut, carry and load cabbage or beets to earn a few quetzales for her family.
With just the infinitesimal passing of the movement of a camera’s shutter the photographic subject would find deliverance from the trouble and toil of her human inheritance
In this magical reality a young woman, an older girl, one with the clothing that tells everyone her station in life, would have her photo taken and be gifted, free of the pain of the female way, free from the struggle for life, free to go to school , free from the bonds of her station. Free to choose her destiny. Free to decide for herself the value and control of her womb.
If, by taking a picture, the photographer could transform life for the greater good ,that he, or she, might hold close to heart, then photography would be the magical art. Magical as it is often made out to be in this part of the world. But until that day photographers, photographs and willing subjects will simply have to talk to the world. ~~~~~~~~~~~~