About a year and a half ago my car propelled me somewhere north. I don’t remember exactly where now. I just remember being on 476 North in Pennsylvania starting out on one of our many journeys – a family vacation, a trip with a friends – something joyful and well earned, but a luxury by definition.
There is rarely a time when I’m not considering how to document precious moments both personal and for others. As the miles passed by I first considered how I was going to capture this trip – my phone, Polaroids, the behemoth that is my actual camera. These were all options. Secondly, I considered how blessed we are that we have an endless array of means to capture and hold what we regard dearest. I reflected on how the family portrait and snap shot may be one of the most iconic examples of disparity – something so interwoven into our identities from the moment we enter this world (literally) until the day we die. There is truly no level of poverty so great in the United states that someone would not have (or at least at one time have had) a photo of someone or something that they love. They are heirlooms, casual files that take up real estate on our phones, tiny framed masterpieces and huge works of art. They are sometimes quiet moments we keep tucked away and other times magazine ad worthy status symbols we erect. Yet, we don’t even think twice about the fact that there remain places in the world in which no one has ever, nor will ever own a photograph. The fact that we don’t think twice about this is a reminder of the general importance of pulling ourselves out from within, stepping outside of our immediate line of sight to gain a broader world view.
On my trek toward relaxation my mind went, as it often does, to Honduras; where my heart always finds its way. Many of the people in remote areas have never had a photograph of anyone they’ve ever loved and when loved ones pass on, it is only that fuzzy and careless thing we call memory that helps them recall the details. It was then that it occurred to me that I could change this. I could humbly offer this – the act of remembering. I could go. I could capture them and give them themselves, in that moment – now, (because now is all anyone has) for them to hold onto forever.
I had no idea how exactly I was going to bring a photograph to multiple, remote villages in Honduras with no internet, much less, electricity, but come on! In the age of “there’s an app for that” and 3D printers, honestly, I wasn’t too concerned. I mean, if there’s a self scooping cat litter box, there must be a way for me to produce a high quality printed photo instantaneously. Technology did not disappoint. Furthermore, you did not disappoint. Because of your love and support I arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on January 7th 2017. I photographed one hundred families. I hope to go back next year and photograph hundreds more.*
In consideration for writing this piece I was searching for some profundity to share about this trip, about Honduras, the US, about poverty and disparity, and history, but really I feel that there’s nothing new to say on these topics. Though even if it’s not new, I know it’s still relevant. I just felt the best thing it could offer was what came to me as I spoke a couple weeks ago to a group of Girl Scouts about this trip. As I grappled for simplistic, but effective language to express the deeper concepts of disparity and philanthropy to a group of eight year olds, I offered that I was simply doing something that I loved in a way that was helpful and meaningful to others and that everyone “no matter how big or small” (thanks dr. Seuss) has the ability to find something that they love (also no matter how big or small) and offer some piece of that to people around them as an act of love and kindness. This is how we make the world a better place.
It’s also through our own gratitude that we make the world a better place. It is with gratitude that we building and maintain perspective in our lives. It is not that it is impossible (nor should it be) to have negative emotions when we have gratitude, because emotions are not mutually exclusive. However, it becomes more challenging to dwell in a negative space when we’re measuring by what we are grateful for instead of measuring by what is upsetting in our lives.
I mention basic gratitude because I think we too readily jump to pity and to projections of what it means to us to have joy, happiness and success when we’re talking about countries that are, well, not the United States and I’m here to tell you we do not have it figured out and we are not the measuring stick for abundant living simply because we have more and endless choices. Rather, we should cautiously and reverently respond when met with disparity with curiosity about what it means to be happy and healthy and successful to them, not us. Not all frame work is the same.
*A quick word on the serious demeanor of some of the families pictured above. I’ve received comments on how sad, angry, upset or simply unenthused those pictured seem. One consideration I’d like to challenge viewers to take into account is to remember that at the the turn of the century (the 20th century – not the 21st century you spring chickens out there), when photography was relatively new and just gaining steam, families did not smile. The family portrait was a solemn event that required reverence. This was the one chance to immortalize the precious family name. This was not a time for smiles and giggles. This experience was more a kin to sitting in church than a modern casual day on the beach. It was important to me that I not project our current interpretation of what a beautiful family photo means. I wanted them to simply present their most honest selves. So, I didn’t ask for smiles. Nor did I construct a scene that depicted jovial lighthearted families without a care in the world. The result were piercing accounts of fierce pride in mother’s eyes, genuine joy in a father’s embrace, legitimate exhaustion and the vast depth of the arc of the emotional spectrum that is an honest family on their most honest day of living – today, this day, the only day that is guaranteed.