In Zinacantán, ten children—five boys, five girls—gathered for my photography class. Antonio, the teacher of Tzotzil, carried in tiny wooden chairs. The girls sat on one side of the room, the boys on the other. I showed them postcards by local photographers and asked them to point out everything they could see in the pictures. They hesitated at first, but as they caught on and started naming things, they began to laugh. Anastasio, a boy wearing an especially bright pink poncho, asked why I was showing them pictures of these people. Were they very good people from whom they must learn how to live? It struck me that the children’s concept of images was like their understanding of traditional stories. Both existed to give moral lessons.
The Ladino children in Chiapas, however, were familiar with the Western concept of pictures as casual snapshots. After showing them how to open and close the camera and how to look through the viewfinder, I asked them to practice squinting one eye. An earnest, dark-haired boy named Juan Jesús had trouble closing one eye, so I put my hand over his left one. “But Señora,” Juan Jesús said, “I can’t see out of that eye.” I saw that its pupil was almost white—the eye was blind. “I have an advantage over the others,” he said with a laugh.
I wondered why Juan Jesús wanted so badly to take photographs. Was it a kind of compensation for the difficulty he had in seeing? Or was what he saw so distinctive or limited that it was similar to the way a camera sees? Or was he able to see, by using the camera, what he missed with his everyday sight?
Juan Jesús turned out to be one of the best photographers of all the Ladino students. He loved to capture patterns of light falling on his subjects. He also mentioned that when his friends spoke about things they did together, they talked about what they had seen. Juan’s eyesight was too poor to pick up these images, so he often felt left out of conversations with his friends, and alienated from their memories. The photographs he made were a way of having a visual memory as rich as or richer than his friends’.
My approach to teaching my new students was simple. Very slowly, I showed the students how to use Polaroid Instant cameras, so they were not only in command of the camera, the black-and- white positive/negative film, and color Type 600 film, but also understood how light passed through the lens, touched the film, and was developed into an image.
The Polaroid ProPack cameras had to be focused by adjusting the lens to the proper number of feet or meters to the subject. It is difficult for children to estimate distance, so I measured each child’s foot. We calculated how many actual feet made a meter. Then they could pace off the number of feet between them and their subject.
The Tzotzil soon informed me that my method of measuring their shoes or feet was not right. They wanted to create their own ways of working with the camera. With a machete they cut corn stalks in one-meter lengths and used them to measure the distance to their subjects. Some children staged scenes of their friends hoeing fields or gathering flowers.
After each shot, they peeled the Polaroid positive from the negative image; the negatives they placed in plastic buckets to soak in sodium sulfite. The first time I showed them the negatives, they laughed to see themselves as viejos—old people whose jet- black hair had gone white. Then they set out to take pictures, ten children running off with corn stalks and plastic buckets clattering, like characters in a ritual ceremony.
Toward the end of the project I asked the students to photograph their dreams or fantasies. I encouraged them to create their own worlds in photographs in addition to capturing what they saw around them. I explained as briefly as I could what we would be doing the next day. I was worried that they might be disdainful of the idea. They giggled excitedly. “Fantasías!” they said, as if both the sound and the idea of the word were funny in a familiar way. For the Maya students, dreams played as important a role in understanding the world as waking events, so this assignment was serious as well as playful.
The next day they turned up with masks they’d made from the gray reverse side of cracker boxes. One was a mask of a jaguar, another of a demon, and another was a devil with horns protruding from the sides of his jaw. The resemblance to figures in Maya glyphs was striking. The photographer and the person being photographed made their pictures together while the rest of us watched from under a large leafy tee.
The children continued to photograph their dreams on their own, using each other and their families as actors. Reymundo, whose father was an important shaman, cast himself in his father’s role and dressed his sister in women’s traditional robes. The students were incorporating symbols and images of their culture using instruments that came from an entirely different culture.
We created an exhibition of the students’ photographs. But after the Zapatista revolt in the cause of Indigenous rights, Polaroid Mexico changed its mind about exhibiting the photographs they’d once liked so much that they’d displayed them in their corporate headquarters.
Excerpt from Wendy Ewald's essay from The Devil is leaving his Cave (MACK, 2022).
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