In 1971 I made a two month trip to Mexico as part of my senior study at Goddard College for my Bachelors of Arts Degree. I hitched around and took buses and public transportation. Often traveled with a guitar I purchased in Michoacan, camped near a river sleeping in a matrimonial hammock, and photographed people places and things in the countryside, marketplaces, lakes, beaches and cities. I photographed with my Nikkormat 35mm camera..Upon return to Vermont I put together a photo exhibition with my reflections on the experience of being a stranger in a strange land…some of the photos are shown in this my Mexican Portfolio.
I found doing photo journalism in a foreign country a challenging experience. Working with telephoto lenses I was able to get a glimpse of people’s intimate lives without really interacting. However in a Oaxaca marketplace, one vendor thru a tomato at me and cried , “Gringo, Vaya!!”. Basically get the hell out of here you foreigner… It told me that in some cases I wasn’t wanted there and in fact perhaps was resented in my presumption to photograph people without asking permission; and today I understand better why this might cause resentment as a white man from the rich USA photographing the much poorer indigenous peoples of Mexico.
Although I do speak Spanish, and in some cases asked permission, I was mostly shy to chat with people at the time (being 20 years old), and I came away feeling like I had taken something from the people. I’ve heard it said, that indigenous peoples sometimes feel that photography steals their soul. And in a way, I understand that. I was more interested in iconic imagery of the local residents than in making true connections with them.
This was a formative project in my career, even as I was getting much praise for the work. I felt alienated from the people I was photographing and decided it didn’t feel authentic and comfortable. Later I did some some photography in a rural upstate New York town and with friends, but then I would ask permission…often get a model release, and often give photos to the subjects. That felt much more connected.
Later this experience led me to become a commercial portrait photographer where people actually were hiring me to make their portraits. I learned that treating people with more respect, getting to really connect with them thru chatting first, was an approach that felt much more aligned with who I am as a person and much more in integrity. The work today is more posed, but still captures the essence of my subjects without alienating them from me.