Thursday, May 27, 2010

Further Observations: Life in the Highlands

Text by: Vincent Stanzione

Happy girl, Happy doll, Happy life.

Sometimes just looking at a photograph can make you feel like the world is a perfect place to be human. Some photographs give you the sense that one can’t be grateful enough for all that one has in this lifetime. Some children just seem to have what it takes to make it on the face of the earth. You can see it in their smiles, the way they align their clothes, the way they present themselves, the way the position themselves for a portrait. The pride they have for who they are and where they are.

Some photos make you say, ‘I love this kid. This kid is how all human beings should be: grateful, alert, open, smart and proud to be who they are.’ I love this child for the sense of hope she emanates, for the innate intelligence she exudes, for the will to be happy that she manifests, for the care she takes to present herself and the doll.

This is a poor child who is wealthy. Over the years I have been blessed to come to know these kinds of people. They have something that people with "everything" don’t have: the spark of life and the inherent goodness of humanity. She dressed her doll like she dresses herself and she takes care of her doll as she does herself. She doesn’t know that other people would define her as poor and that doesn’t matter because the world is all hers.

She has deer eyes. A sign of the wild. She has the smile and nose of a baby jaguar. A sign of the divine. She has the face of the ancient ones. A sign that her life will be a blessed one. When I contemplate this photo I want to get down on my bended knees to ask the gods and goddesses to open this child’s road, to remove the obstacle and make her dreams come true. She has that look that makes you feel thankful every second of the day.

As precious as life can be

Photography when it is great is divine because it take possibility and makes it reality, it takes chance and turns it into an image. A true photographer can not leave the house without his camera because a true photographer knows that the crossroads of opportunity and improbability don’t form on an easily found grid that says this is the right time and right place to make a photo out of life’s constantly moving and changing forms and figures.

In a great photograph there is always the element that says this is an instant in the life of this being that is manifest for all time. And this is what one sees and experiences here in a picture as precious as life can be created in a precious instant of time and space.

The child holds a fluffy dog in one arm as if it weighed nothing and what looks like a marshmallow on a stick. She smiles at the camera as the puppy looks on as if to say ‘take the picture.’ It is the effortlessnes of life that sets my mind in motion asking why I try so hard when a baby child makes it all seem so easy. It is all heavy and light at once, meaningful and meaningless. An image of life in the normal time of normal lives of normal people and that is what is so priceless and unimaginably sacred about a photo that reveals the real in this world that is covered in unreal images of unreal lives. A shoeless child, as adorable as the puppy she holds as if weightless, and something sweet at the end of an ordinary stick; what more can the art of photography ask for in its search to create the perfect image of a precious life.

Who has who bound at the neck?

A lot of times we human beings take on the looks and expressions of those beings with whom we live. My next door neighbor turned into looking like her sheep. Up in the hills where I live the people are known for having the power of turning themselves into animals. In fact, they keep animals to hide their soul-anima when an enemy is after them. Unfortunately the place I live is forested with people whose ancestors were extremely rebellious types and part of that was what made them the tricksters they became. The other part came from all the trickster-like stories that make up the deep structure of their minds. It has been easy living around folks like that but it has made me strong in ways I could have never imagined.

All the women keep sheep, goats, cattle, hens, roosters and cats. All the men keep horses and dogs. I know you know that is a gross generalization but more or less life is like that up here around the house. The domestic animals are very useful for catching any bad vibes that one’s enemy or rival or envious friend might have for one or what one has. Better have one of the animals take it for you then one of your kids. Children are the vulnerable ones who pay debts of their parents so it is always wise to have animals around to pick up on anything that might be sent your way from the bad side of the Santo Mundo.

My next door neighbor kept just a few really ornery rams and sheep for as long as her children were young, just in case. She put so much thought into those animals as the protection of herself and her family that she pretty much became one with her animals and they with her. They both ran each other up and down the hills looking for safe places to graze while taking care of one another through the most vulnerable times of their lives.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ V.S.

Photographs by Tom Waters

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Highland Woman: Donna Leonara

Text by: Vincent Stanzione

Mother, Daughter and Son

The three of them lived together like the Earth, Moon and Star lived together in the Sky, house of the Sun. They took care of one another and themselves like the most independent people I have ever known. Maria Fidelia standing in the door didn’t live fully in this world and spent her life both extremely happy and intensely sad. She was truly a lunatic, she changed with the moon. Her mother sitting on the front porch was known to be a ‘transformer’ which is to say she could change into animal form and roam the world around her. She was born into the world with a destiny from ancient times, she was baptized Leonora Quiche. She and her husband were the caretakers of a large piece of forest, pasture and milpa. They were the last of the K’iche people on the frontier of Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil and K’iche land. I knew her but I can’t say too well. Xuan is still with us on this side of the two worlds while his mother and sister now reside in the Santo Mundo where all souls go to live out their eternity.

I like Xuan and try to make sure he has all the firewood he needs. He was trapped in his mother at birth and has been damaged from that birth to this day. He is the sweetest man, kindest man I have ever known but, no matter, people still make fun of him and make him mad. He doesn’t like that at all, I don’t like it either. He can’t talk but he can hear and he understands everything but people think just because he can’t speak well that he is some how not right in the head.

It was his sister Maria Fidelia who was touched, she was the one who carried a doll around with her wherever she went. But Xuan he is fine. He is just paralyzed in an odd way but he gets through it and does his best at whatever he is told to do. His favorite thing is to take a whip out that he made out of maguey fiber and he whip the world. He snaps his whip in late May and early June to make sure the maize stands up straight and the gophers run off back to the wild. He whips the earth and howls like a wild man knowing that it is he that makes the maize grow and he protects it from its enemies from above and below. He is there at dawn and again at dusk like Venus as morning and evening star.

Leona is gone after living a long life on earth. She worked doing something right up to her dying day. She never did much but she always did something while taking care of her son and daughter for as long as they lived. They took care of one another as best they could. Beyond that the people who lived around them helped them out but not too much to make them feel unable. Mother and Daughter never wore shoes on their feet and never went anywhere beyond the little hollow they lived in and the three closest villages. Xuan still lives next door. The rain is falling and pretty soon his work in the field and forest will end. It will be time to whip the world into order and call out to the Earth and Moon.

Doña Leonora Quiche
Some people get to be really old in this world. Other people die young. Some people have great things to do in their lives but destiny doesn’t give them the time. People live, people die, people live simple lives, others make it as hard on themselves as they possibly can. By the time I came to know Doña Leonora was as old as the last century and then she lived for another twenty years. She out lived two of her children as well as her husband and all her sisters and brothers. She was really very old.

I tried to get her grandson to ask her stories about the past but she said there was nothing to say and thinking about the past only made her sad. She had seen the enslavement of her people, forced labor laws. She had never seen a revolution or a dictatorship or coup d’etat or civil war but she lived through them all. Leona, as they called her, was a women who was both of this and the other world. That is why, the people say, that she lived so long and as simply as she did. She wasn’t a religious person but she was a spiritual person, she prayed all the time.

People said she could turn into whatever animal she chose to be to go walking around at night in the world. She was often tired in the daytime and a day-keeper priest said that was because she was always out at night walking around in the dark. I believed all that people said about her and what she said to me when I passed by her on the trail that went behind her house. She was just a nice old woman with nothing much to do other than survive, no ambition at all more than to take care of her old kids and herself.

She taught me that if you don’t ask from much on earth you will be pretty much assured a peaceful life. If you don’t complicate your existence life will work out, one way or another you will get by. If you pray everyday and tend your garden, make your own food and gather your own firewood you will survive. I have to live a little bit more like Leona lived, a day at a time with gratefulness in my heart, do less and sit more, just taking in life the way it is without asking for more. Maybe I might live longer or I might not .... at least I will have lived in both the light and the dark.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ V.S.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chajul Trip With Jon K.

Jon Kaplan, friend and fellow photographer, and I recently visited Chajul, Guatemala for four days, during which it rained unrelentingly. We were able to photograph only a few hours for each of three days: the results of my excursions are shown below, mostly without comment. Some of the images are merely snapshots, others pretend a bit more to art, some are clearly documentary. The mixture can be confusing. Let's hope not too much so.

Chajul is a small pueblo. The population numbers in the few thousands. It was a focal point of much military action during the civil war (or insurrection, if you prefer) and today it still struggles to recover. It suffers, today, from poverty and a near-total lack of significant infrastructure. The modernization that is taking place there is of the most basic, and, in my view, the worst of modernity. True, there is electrification, paved streets (all concrete), and serious construction of new houses (also concrete and block -- with the ubiquitous tin roofs), so the argument can be made that there is progress, of a kind.

The tragic aspect of these changes, to my mind, is the huge loss of what must have once been a village of adobe casas with tiled roofs. And, insofar as local culture is concerned, the near complete adoption of western style clothing by the men-folk. Women, as in most other Highland pueblos have retained the use of traditional clothing -- and a beautiful costume it is.

All, then, is not well in Chajul. Each time that Jon and I have gone there over the past years (more than 20 for Jon, seven for myself) the pueblo seems a bit more grim. The older adobe homes are in miserable repair, paved streets seem to collect mud run-off, plastic trash, and animal dung. Older homes now abut new and functional concrete eye-sores. How is one to honestly complain, however, when people can live in presumably safer homes? For anyone who might ever be tempted to go there, a visit to the outer areas of Chajul do, still, provide amazing vistas and the best that remains of old Chajul. The pueblo is located in a magnificent valley and some views are breathtaking.

I complained in a recent Facebook profile posting, indirectly raising the question: how can one continue to love such a miserable place? I trust that the photographs below will provide a clue to that answer: they do for me. And they, along with the generous people there, insure that return visits will be made.

We arrived in Chajul in the late afternoon and stopped in for a visit with the Anna Lopez family who live a short walk from our hotel. Jon has been friends with the family for about 20 years and has visited regularly, usually once or twice each year. I on the other hand have known them for about seven years and have visited with them regularly with Jon. Interior photographs were mostly made in their modest but welcoming home.

When Jon and I began traveling to Chajul together we found only one hotel. Bad beyond belief. Then a stroke of good luck. We found a newly constructed one outside the pueblo and it had a kitchen, unstaffed, and we asked to use it in the future. We began bringing our own food supplies. The kitchen lacked most cooking implements. This meant purchasing and bringing these as well. An early addition was a shallow crepe pan. This trip we began to search the kitchen for it, without success. Awhile later Jon glanced out the window: "I think I found our pan," he said. Yes.... and here it is, to your left. A new use for a strange, unfamiliar tool.

Anna Lopez and grandaughter

Preparing lunch for Jon and myself

Portable game room used for fiestas