20 April 2009

To Take A Photograph

LUND--I was in the Honduran village of Sensenti. The town lay on the scorching plain of Ocotapeque province in the west of that Central American republic, in sight of the mountains that rose up to the border with El Salvador. It lay near a small, fetid lake and a wide, shallow river spanned by a suspension bridge.

Dentists from Central American Medical Outreach were set up in the new health clinic by the 17th century church treating people from Sensenti and the surrounding areas. After a while I became tired of the sound of drills on teeth and the smell of burning enamel mixed with dust and sweat. I became tired of the pictures I was taking, one open mouthed scared kid began looking no different than the next and, even though this was in the years just prior to mass rise of the digital camera I knew I had enough good shots. As I walked outside one of the dentists handed me a Polaroid camera and several packs of film for it.

"This is the last we brought," he said, "Take pictures of the kids outside and give them their photos. Have fun."

The kids saw me with the camera and charged and I managed to get them a bit separated and began taking their portraits one by one and handing them the magic square that soon materialized an image of themselves upon its blank face. I finished the Polaroid film and the kids began to point at the two Nikons around my neck. It was my first trip to Central America and I spoke next to no Spanish. I tried with gestures and the few words I had to explain that my cameras wouldn't provide any instant gratification. I don't know how successful I was but soon the children stopped waiting for the photos to appear and began insisting I take their photos anyway.

It was about then that I began to think about what it meant to take a picture. There was apart of me that felt selfishly possessive over the Polaroids I had given away. They were, after all, my pictures. It was I that had composed them and picked the moment at which to expose the film and arrest a fraction of a second of light and time. But of course I didn't take them, I left them and took with me my negatives, those latent images that wouldn't be seen yet for several weeks, that, I realized, the children in Sensenti would normally never see.

Later we had lunch at the mayor's house. In the big, airy, green painted living room was a bookshelf filled with various ornaments and oddments: a stuffed bear in Valentines Day garb that had seen better days, one of those gilded Chinese cats with the perpetually knocking arm, a clock in the form of a glowing waterfall and one, small, family photo in a frame. On the wall was a second family photo, taken with a cheap, fixed focus camera but blown up to about 16 x 20. And that was it as far as I could see. One of the wealthiest families in town had two photos on display. I thought of the hundreds, thousands no doubt, of photos of myself. Of me as a newborn, taking my first steps, going to school, prom and so on and so on. I thought about the kids I had given the Polaroids to and realized that perhaps some of their families had no photographs at all and I thought that that was a very strange thing. And I thought it even stranger that large blonde people sometimes arrived in a cloud of dust and pulled their teeth out and handed them images of themselves from strange whirring boxes and then departed in a cloud of dust from whence they had came.

And so, when I came back to the US, I took those photos I had shot with my Nikons and I printed up 40 or 50 of them in my darkroom. And when the doctors went to Sensenti again I gave them those photos to take with them. I thought that they were, then, a strange sort of Polaroid, a smaller, quieter, box that, took a year or so but delivered much better and larger pictures via a dusty truckload of tooth-pulling gringos.

The photos above were taken only a couple years ago in El Salvador. Sharing America's Resources Abroad's John Gilberg brought a mini-printer with him. He took the photos and docked his digital camera and within a half-hour had printed out these kid's photos. Not as much fun as the Polaroid but a technological evolution of the same idea.


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