TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATAN – GUATEMALA.

Lately I’ve been poking around at WordPress trying to understand their obscure system for posting multiple photos, I think I’ve finally got it, or at least enough to get started. I’d like to do an occasional post devoted to photography rather than music. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as a photographer, I wore all sorts of other hats but generally speaking, wherever I went I was always carrying a Nikon F or an F3. But not just a Nikon, often/usually I also had my camera bag on the other shoulder, that contained another Nikon with a different lens, plus both of them had motor drives. A Nikon F with a 180mm, f2.8 lens, with a motor drive with 8 AA batteries in it and loaded with a 36 expo roll of Ektachrome 200 weighs about 5.5 – 6 lbs. I carried two of those plus several spare lenses, spare batteries, plus a lot of various misc. photo gear and lots of spare film. I’m not complaining in the slightest, it was a chosen way of life. Generally speaking, wherever I went, that’s what I carried, particularly whenever on ‘holiday’ or at a musical event.
So I was walking along a rural lane in the village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, It is situated in northeastern Guatemala in the the remote Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountains at an elevation of about 8,000 ft. My fiend John and I had driven there in the VW camper van when we visited Guatemala in the late 70’s. The population of Todos Santos is predominantly indigenous, of Mayan descent, most of whom still speak the Mayan language of Mam. The town is one of few places in Guatemala where the indigenous population still make and wear their traditional clothing.
As I walked along that lane that morning I glanced up and saw a young boy walking towards me, my Nikon was in my right hand at about thigh level, the lens must have been pointing forward.
When he was about 10-12 ft from me he suddenly bent over from his waist to look directly level into the camera lens, I suspect that he’d never seen a professional camera with a long lens before. Instantly I dropped to one knee to be at his level and fired one quick shot and as I did so I remember saying to myself “That’s probably the best photo I’ve ever taken” but at the same instant I knew that it was out of focus. I straightened up and instantly fired another but the magic had passed, he was no longer looking into the lens. There was no auto-focus in those days, every shot had to be manually focussed. I should mention that the reason for using a motor drive was because the film was instantaneously advanced whenever a shot was made, the camera was always ‘cocked’, always ready to shoot, a huge advantage.

This is the first shot I took that day, to the non-critical eye it might look OK but if you look carefully you’ll see that it is out of focus.

best copy

This is the second shot, it’s OK, it’s in focus but something’s missing.

the kid2 copy
If you click on them they will become larger.

Here’s a selection of photos of people from that village, notice the similarity of their clothes, the women make them on primitive looms in their cottages and every family has a different traditional design. This is not uncommon in Guatemala and you can often tell where a person’s from by the design of his/her clothing. I’ve read that the design of these clothes originates with the Spanish conquistadors who came to Guatemala in the sixteenth century, check out the codpieces, the shoes and the elaborate collars. I started buying examples of their clothes and came home with a large collection. They were not dumb about selling them, I recall at one cottage paying about $440 for several items, a huge amount considering that the men usually worked at seasonal agriculture for less than $1 per day! The women were the only ones who made and sold the clothes and these were not tourist items, there were no tourists, these were the clothes that they wore. They’re absolutely beautiful. I have them hanging in the house.
I very rarely asked permission to shoot photos, had I done so the moment would have been lost, instead if I saw a shot I’d point my camera and smile and a return smile was my OK. I can only ever remember one time where someone was upset at my shooting, it was in this village and I was standing against a wall at the edge of the market shooting with a 300mm lens, suddenly there was a ‘whack’ up the side of my head, a woman had hit me with a stick; I took the hint and quit for the day. Generally speaking most people were happy to have their photos taken.

8 thoughts on “TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATAN – GUATEMALA.

  1. A fabulous experience, what an opportunity. Some great photos there, I particularly like the close up ones and the one of the two men standing behind the bananas; the red in their trousers is so vivid.

    The ‘quality’ of the shoes is also noticeable, many of them appear and probably are held together by string.

    Thanks for a thoroughly interesting post.

  2. Hi GF ! ! !

    I really enjoyed reading the post and the photos are lovely, I love the clothes ! ! !

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories ! ! !

  3. A fascinating post, and wonderful photos, really opening my eyes to a people and a way of life I know nothing about – there is a really timeless quality to some of those photos – I really love the ones in the gallery where the sunlight catches one side of their face, they are beautifully composed.

    I actually really like the out of focus photo – it really adds to the whole spontaneity of the moment and really enhances the energy of it – I think the creator’s eyes are always more critical than other observers and to my eyes it looks great!

    Like the idea of expanding the spill a bit with posts like this…

  4. I spent a short time in Guatemala in 2001. Like Peru (the only other South American country I’ve been to), I find the position of the remaining indigenous people difficult to get my head round. On the one hand, they still retain their craft and cultural traditions (hence the fantastic textiles etc) – and they smuggle their own religious traditions under the Catholic one – yet their treatment as second class humans keeps them in poverty. For tourists like me, that means we can witness the fantastic market scenes (I went to Chichicastenango) where such wonderfully characterful images as gf has captured abound. We can take photos, buy textiles, masks, instruments etc etc and bask in them back in our comfy homes. They return to eking out a living somehow in a country where their eradication was, not that long ago, government policy.

    They are great photos, gf, and I know you didn’t ignore the plight of the people you were snapping. I have some similar ones (although I always felt uncomfortable photographing faces) and I’m glad I have the memories. They’re covered in a thin layer of guilt though nowadays.
    The brilliant ‘Mayan’ embroidery that a girl managed to persuade me to buy (after following me all over Chichicastenango for about 2 hours) sits on my bedside table, covered with a thin layer of dust.

  5. Thank you all for the kind comments, sorry I’m late getting back here.
    Chris, of course your’e right I was very conscious of being in a fascist dictatorship and very concerned that MY president Reagan and my CIA were very consciously financing and supporting it. It was evident every day, roadblocks with armed troops around every country curve, they didn’t bother us of course, we were Americans, but god help any Guatemalan male. There was another mountain village, very similar to this one that we went to, the quality of their textiles was the ultimate. I learned some years later that the entire population had been slaughtered and the village burned to the ground. They were villagers that looked just like these but our government saw them as a threat!
    I’ve been to Guatemala 4-5 times and have seen much of the country and most of the towns. Back then it was the only country in central/south America with an Indian population majority, I don’t know if that’s still the case. Chiapas, the region of southern Mexico is also predominantly Indian and similarly very interesting. Oaxaca is the major city and is a wonderful place to visit.
    Re. the issue of photographing faces I know exactly what you mean, when I was a student I’d go out taking pictures, almost always landscapes because I was afraid to photograph people directly. At some point I made a very conscious decision that I was going to photograph faces and I’d do it directly without asking. Often I would speak to my subjects after the fact and in many cases I’d get an address and send ’em a print, but I got to a point where I was shooting so much that it wasn’t always feasible. I overcame that problem by having exhibitions in local galleries and promoting them in the media. The motor drive and the long lens were the most crucial parts of my equipment, they allowed me to frame the close up portraits like those above from a distance without intruding into a persons privacy.

  6. just got around to looking at these properly, amazing photos GF.

    I especially like the one with the three lads leaning on a balcony and looking out over whatever. They remind me of me and my mates on a Friday night when I was a teenager – nothing much to do, but just content to hang around together watching the world go by and the evening unfold.

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