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!