Bolivia Land of Belief

A young Bolivian boy stands beside a road/rail bridge, wearing a blue top and tattoo on his face.
Street Child, Bolivia ©John Andrew Hughes

On the western side of central South America sits the former Incan Empire country of Bolivia. Bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru, Bolivia is a democratic republic with a population estimated at a little over nine million. The people of this region hold the belief that when photographed, a piece of their soul or spirit is taken away. If approached suddenly or unannounced, they will cover their faces and pull their children towards them for protection. It was important for me to take the time to get to know them a little before intruding on their world.

After some research I was advised the best time of year to travel to Bolivia was April or May. At this time of year the weather would be bright and sunny, mainly dry with temperatures between 55 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, but I was warned to expect the odd torrential afternoon downpour. 

Upon arriving in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, I was greeted with the sound of automatic gunfire outside my hotel room. Locals were gathered in protest on Calle Colon. I was witnessing the continuation of a geographic struggle between the poor, mainly indigenous people of the highlands and the wealthier people of mostly Spanish descent who occupy the lowlands.  The struggle extends all the way back to the 16-year civil war that began with the declaration of independence from Spain in 1809 and ended with the formation of the republic in 1825. And as it had become very apparent to me, that struggle continued to this day. 

Shots were fired into the air with no intent to cause loss of life. Rather, the purpose was to draw attention to their cause… and they had the desired effect. The danger of being hit by a stray round falling to earth was very real in this country of unrest. It was not until the following morning when the weekend crowds had dispersed that I felt it was safe to wander the streets… especially with a camera. 

I took my own advice on patience and spent one or two days walking amongst the people with my camera over my shoulder without taking photographs. I did not begin taking images until the third day. It was possible to hire an English speaking cab driver who, stayed with me for twelve hours or more for about thirty dollars. My cab driver/interpreter was a local lady named Maria. She made approaching local folks a lot easier.  Had we been a team of two men, we might have been seen as more threatening.

On a short, out-of-town excursion I came across a group of young boys beneath a single lane road/rail bridge. Cars and trucks would wait in one direction while a train passed over, then the traffic would cross straddling the rails on raised planks of wood. The direction of train and traffic would reverse causing long lines of waiting vehicles and pedestrians at both ends. The boys were fishing at the base of one of the concrete support legs of the bridge where it met the rivers edge. Most of them did not have parents and lived in makeshift shelters at night. I was unsure whether they cooked the catch or ate it raw. These young boys, probably between three years and eight years old had serious looks on their faces until I used the monitor on my camera to show them the results. It was good to see them smile and it broke the barrier of language.

While photographing the young street children I noticed markings on them and realized they were crude tattoos. They became apparent after returning to the United States when I was able to scrutinize the images closer. One very young boy seemed to have a mark on his nose which turned out to be a spider web and I wondered why the children would mark each other in this way, especially at such a young age.

On another occasion while shooting at a local roadside market I was caught out in one of those afternoon tropical rainstorms. While running backwards to capture a subject, I slipped and dropped my camera into some red mud. The camera and lens were wet and filthy for two hours, but it continued working flawlessly. I knew I’d caused many chuckles from the market workers alongside the road, who had already taken shelter beneath their stalls, as they watched this strange, mad photographer running around in the pouring rain. Upon returning to the hotel room, I carefully cleaned my camera kit with a soft handkerchief and a little more water to remove the mud.

Bolivians have a traditional culture and live a natural, simple, slow-paced life. A lot of the people live their lives outdoors. I was able to approach most people in Bolivia by giving them a friendly smile or greeting. I often did something silly or joke around just to get a reaction. Those emotions are common everywhere in the world. Like laughter and sorrow. I make eye contact, as I am genuinely respectful and concerned. It’s in my nature. It’s the way my parents raised me. In the final instance, we are all the same. We just grow up in different circumstances. The only real differences are religion, culture, language and food. We are all one. It was a privilege to meet the Bolivian people who allowed me into their hearts and — with each click– take away a little of their spirit.  What an honor!

Judging from the Hot Seat

Kissing Punks ©John Andrew Hughes

The reason for this articles title is fairly simple. Judging is not for everyone and sometimes as a club, National or International judge, in open session, it can feel as if those eyes behind you are burning into the back of your neck. As a judge your opinion is also judged in the minds of the participant listeners.

What is the literal meaning of the word Judge or act of judging? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, judge, judging and judged is to ‘form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises’. ‘To determine or pronounce after inquiry and deliberation, to form an estimate or evaluation of or opinion about’. This of course includes positive and negative conclusions or opinions.

While we are on the subject of judging, we should also look at the words Analyze and Analysis. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, these words or actions mean to ‘Study or determine the nature and relationship of the parts or subject to scientific or grammatical analysis’.

Lets take it down to the basics. We can use probably the most famous of paintings as an example. The ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo DaVinci. We may ask ourselves, when standing in front of this masterpiece, what am I looking at? What do I feel? Do I feel anything? Am I impressed by the quality of the work? Am I pleased by the colors and strokes of the paint? Is the composition pleasing to my eyes? You can see a pattern forming. Nearly every question above has the word ‘I’ in it. This is because the opinion you share with yourself or others should be your opinion, analysis or judgment and yours alone. As judges we should and must stand alone in our opinion even if this means on occasion that the burning feeling on our necks becomes too hot to handle. This is what makes judging necessarily subjective.

Back to Mona Lisa. The reason for using this painting as an example is that it is so recognizable and so famous that most of us can visualize the painting in our minds. It is an image that is, as stated, instantly recognized and pre-determined as ‘famous’. Because of this our thoughts or comments on this masterpiece are most probably tainted. Are we supposed to like it? Could, we be criticized by other art aficionados for not liking it? It would take a strong judge to stand in front of Mona Lisa and make a really true assessment by blocking out influences from history. After all, this is a painting that songs have been written about. The whole point here is that it is extremely hard to comment on a well-known piece when so many comments have come before.

As a photography judge we are not put under such pressure as commenting on Leonardo DaVinci’s great lady. The images placed before us are carefully kept from the judges prior to competition and if an image is recognized or there is a conflict of interest, that particular judge removes themselves from the current round of judging. The pressure is also removed by the use of multiple judges usually numbering around five in total, with three judging at any one point in the process.

How do we judge? Anyone can say ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’. Neither of those comments would be helpful to the image-maker. So, how do we do an image justice when commenting on a fellow photographers hard work? A judge should consider himself or herself a mentor. The folks sitting behind you are eagerly awaiting your comments and scores. If we consider each of our comments as a very short lesson, then the comments will give the maker something to take away and consider for future image making. Can a comment be negative in nature? Yes. This is where we must carefully choose our words as human nature does not allow for direct criticism, especially when the image maker has, in their opinion, done their best and entered a competition with at least some confidence of scoring well.

Mentoring in short bursts is something that needs to be practiced as an ongoing exercise. Those current or would be judges should make an effort to constantly look at photographs and paintings of the great masters and at all other levels. Not just looking, but seeing. Seeing is a conscious effort where we ask ourselves those questions in our head about the aesthetics of an image. Without such practice, it would be easy to resort to ‘canned’ comments about rules, such as the ‘Rule-of-Thirds’. What’s wrong with that? You may ask. Well, also ask yourself this. How many fantastic images have been placed before you that did not comply with any compositional rule or other rule? This would be akin to saying that two particular colors do not go well together, then having a designer place them together in such a way as they do indeed ‘work’. Your opinion though, prevails. 

Don’t be afraid. It seems in most instances the judges opinions are taken in good faith, although an exhibitor may be lightly hurt for an instance, most take away the comments for what they are, someone else’s opinion. Because there is no formula and a machine for judging images has not been invented yet! We will have to rely on others good faith to help us improve our photography in the best way we know how, by entering competitions.

So, you’ve volunteered to be a judge or you are thinking of taking a step in that direction. Firstly, clubs, National and International exhibitions are usually short of judges and will welcome others to the fray with open wide arms. If you are someone who has not tried judging, why not? And a quick note to those of you who do not judge, but whose burning stares at times make the judges chair the ‘Hot’ seat. Don’t just sit there judging the judge, they are doing their best and after all, it’s only their opinion.

As a footnote, this author has an opinion about Mona Lisa. For him it is not just the quality of the painting itself, but about the subject herself, as she begs more questions than answers. Maybe Leonardo knew this when he chose her. Who knows? Maybe Leonardo placed some of his friends in the ‘Hot’ seat to comment on his work for feedback after he had brushed the final stroke on a masterpiece.