Photo Journal Monday: Cory Zimmerman
After working with the caravans of Central American migrants in Mexico, I felt like the next logical step was to journey south in search of answers to questions not all that different than those being asked by one another in my home country, the United States. "What is driving these people from their homes, and what is being done to improve living conditions in Central America?" I now find myself in the highlands of Guatemala, an area known as the "Altos", and the home of the indigenous Maya, a people whom account for a great portion of the exodus.
I have embedded with three NGO's, Feed the Children, ASSADE, and Primeros Pasos, and with their help, I have been given a rare and intimate access to the lives of a people long ago driven by colonialists to the mountain tops of a nation once their own. I arrived with what I believed was a fairly thorough knowledge of the dark history of Guatemala, which includes a civil war that ensued for 35 years, one great funded by my own country, and former president, Ronald Regan, and one that led to the mass genocide of 200,000 maya. This is the official count, but many believe the numbers may reach into the millions.
But I have come to learn more, as much as an outsider can, of an infinitely dynamic situation, and I have come to document and photo what and who I find here in the Altos. Now, not only do I feel confronted by what I have come to learn, but I feel haunted by my photographs. It is a difficult task to drop into people’s lives, see their inescapable reality, and then walk away with their image forever etched in my mind, in film, in pixels. The poor, so humble, they are incredibly easy to fall for instantly and intimately.
When I first arrive to a home, the moment is intense, all the attention, the embarrassment of being seen is mutual. Strangers studying one another out of the corner of one's eye, we gradually become acquainted. And although the Mayan people of this region of Solola, Guatemala speak twelve languages older than most of global civilization, English nor Spanish is rarely one of them. So with verbal communication, we speak only with our eyes.
In silence we observe each other, and I see what I have come to record…how to endure a life most would not survive a week, and how to find joy and the will to live with dignity upon dirt floors. Their kindness and willingness to expose the truth of their lives, they conduct with pride as they open their door to a stranger, and that is precious, virtuous, allowing me into their home, a home many would consider nothing more than a barn for livestock, but livestock they cannot sustain without.
Then suddenly, through a crack in the planks of the shack wall, I see an eye ball peering back at mine. But I do not yet see the dreams hidden deeply behind that peering eye, and I can not yet see those dreams now peeking out daringly from behind the corner of the door of the darkened room. And as I look down at the earthen feet of the young girl who swiftly runs from the room and out of the shack, off into the corn stalk, nor do I sense the dreams she carries deep in her heart, as she flees the strange gringo who has suddenly appeared in her life.
As the time comes to journey on, we bid farewell, “Gracias, gracias, adios, goodbye," and I make my way out of the dark home and into the light of day. I then walk away, my shadow cast along the dirt path, as I turn and waive to the smiling family, who wave back, their golden teeth sparkling in the otherwise dusty compound. I notice their shyness now absent, and the intensity now solely mine. With their image, I begin my journey back into a world they will most likely never know, a world that only exists within in their dreams.
As I gently place one foot before the other along the dusty path, carrying away their image, and leaving behind their lives, the young girl who had fled into the corn stalk, emerges into the light of day and grasps onto the hand of her baby brother, dragging him along as she follows me as far as the edge of her families land, an edge I continue far beyond. And from a great distance I turn back and wave, but from so far I assume I will be out of sight, or at least, out of mind. But I see am wrong as I see her wave back.
I consider that maybe she doesn’t want my eyes to leave, maybe she truly does want to be seen. Maybe her fear is of never being seen again. And in a community as tight knit as her's, to disappear must be akin to death. And for seeing eyes to walk away, is the death of interest, interest in her, someone who possibly feels invisible, possibly feels forgotten by the world, a world she can only dream of. But as I look back one last time over my shoulder and give one last wave before descending the crest of the hilltop and out of view, there she stands, baby brother in hand, and in that moment, I see in the vanishing silhouette of her high waving arm, a dream as clear as day.
To find out more about Cory Zimmerman’s work please click here.