We visited the tiny hamlet of Pavantslom high up in the hills behind Huehuetanango. The road was a treacherous unsealed pathway of hairpin bends above panic-inducing drop-offs without so much as a fenceline between the wheels of the Land Cruiser and a five-hundred foot roll. The hills themselves were dusty and badly eroded- a combination of geography and natural resource management. It was hot.
Guatemala’s brutal civil war left the country’s soul badly tattered, and fear in many rural communities is rife. I was told the villagers here hadn’t had a white visitor in years, and there was an element of disquiet and even distrust to begin with. ML, my colleague, is a Honduran- both the most passionate and most competent community mobilizer I have ever met. I have worked with her in at least six countries in Central and South America, and everywhere she goes she is able to inspire local people with her words and her attitude. Her subject of expertise is community-based disaster management- encouraging communities to take measures to identify the risks they face, and then put into action a plan to reduce those risks. People who have spent their lives planting maize in a radius of two miles from their birthplace stop and listen to her because she knows how to engage them, how to relate to them. I’ve watched her do it equally in remote hillside villages and in urban slums, and her fluency in the vocabulary of poverty humbles me.
It took a little while for people to let me take photos. During the civil war, people with cameras came to mountain villages like Pavantslom, and shortly afterwards, children would disappear. I waited to be invited to break out my camera, and even invited people warmed to the camera to varying degrees. By the end of the shoot, mothers were asking me to take photos of their children- but it took them a good half an hour to get around to that point.
Relating to people through the lens is always a dance, and this photoshoot was actually one of my first with a proper portrait lens. Indeed, I still wouldn’t consider myself an experience portrait photographer today- although I have considerably more experience than I did two and a half years ago in these hills just south of the Mexican border.
I enjoy the variety and intensity of expressions that came through the lens that day. Not always beautiful in a typical sense of the word, but certainly beautiful in the soulful sense, I think the reason I like this shoot so much is the lack of pretense. The gazes are full of honesty, and unlike shoots you do in many other parts of the world where people are used to cameras, here there was no sense that people were putting on a display or trying to be vain.
I’m not travelling for a few months at the moment- at least, not for work- and my opportunities for doing portrait shoots such as this one are a little more limited. I think I’m sharing this shoot as much for my own wistfulness as any other reason, but I hope you can enjoy travelling through the expressions captured here.