Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Representing urban poverty

To say that Guatemala is a poor country, or that a majority of the population live in poverty, is somewhat of an abstraction. We can look at U.N. Human Development Statistics, or data from various national research institutes, and gather percentages. In my peregrinations through the city, traveling to and from my guesthouse in the Zona 1 to the conference center in the Zona 10, and then visiting a colleague last night, I came across other faces of urban poverty. Faces in a literal sense: boys as young as 5 of 6 planted in the middle of lanes of traffic, at a point where the Boulevard de Próceres, an 8 or 10 lane roadway, dips down into a tunnel, selling sweets, plastic bags of fruit or nuts, plastic toys, and I'm not sure what else. There were a few older children or adults (hard to tell in the dusk; there are many adults here of very short stature), but the majority of the vendors whom I saw, literally walking among the cars, as traffic was crawling slowly towards the ramp that led onto the Boulevard Roosevelt, were young children. When traffic started to move, the boys moved toward the concrete median that separated the two directions of traffic. There were other vendors: disabled adults, wearing bright green vests of the type worn by the city employees who clean the streets and direct traffic. One man who had no legs had stationed himself in the middle of the roadway, between the two left-hand lanes of traffic. He had some flashing lights attached to either his vest or maybe he was seated on something (I couldn't see that well), and was carrying something in his hands that he waved to attract attention. It was in the shape of a hoe but again, I couldn't see it all that well - it seemed to be a stick or pole of some sort with a little sock or bag at the end to receive alms. I want to paint a verbal picture for you, because this does illustrate the depths of poverty. There are child vendors all across the city. I passed along Próceres around 7:30 in the evening, and as I traversed the roads heading to the Zona 21 where my friend lived, I saw other children at street corners. Some were selling things, others had painted their faces and were performing acrobatic feats (I've seen this more along Avenida 19 in Xela than I have in the capital).  Nearly every time one stops at a major intersection, there are a half dozen or more vendors -- women, men, children --who walk through the lanes of cars, brandishing bags of fruit, air fresheners, and other merchandise to sell.  I do not take photographs of these vendors; I don't know them, there isn't time to talk with them and ask permission, as their object is to earn enough to eat and I do not want to interfere with that. Further, I have no desire to represent people in a state of abjection, to perform a kind of tourism of poverty, A few years back I took some photographs of 2 boys who were shining shoes in a park in Zacualpa, but I was on foot and had a chance to talk with them, learn their names, ask permission, and then let them decide what the photograph would look like. I then made prints and brought them back to the boys.

There are other things that are hard - not impossible -- to photograph because there is not a single image that captures what I would want to communicate, or it would be hard to frame a photograph that expresses what I can observe. As I drove to Zona 21 last night, I drove along a long, long boulevard called Calzada Atanasio Tzul. On one side, as we got closer to Zona 21, I saw that the street was lined with a series of tiny buildings, clearly patched together with found materials, mostly with doors or gates of corrugated steel. There were a few walls and structures made of concrete but it looked like "self construction". There was no space between any of the dwellings, and some were shops and others clearly residences. Most did not have windows that opened onto the street. But the "lots" seemed to only go back an extremely short distance - -  because behind there was some larger structure that seemed to be an industrial establishment of some sort. So what it looked like to me was a more established squatter settlement:  people had simply claimed the space between where the industrial establishment ended and the roadway started and built homes and stores with scraps of wood and metal. Perhaps if I could climb a tree and take a photograph from above that showed the small space into which the dwellings were squeezed, I could make a photograph that was somewhat adequate.

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