The plane has landed and I am officially in Guatemala and ready to dive into my Bridges to Understanding journey and participate as a youth mentor in a unique twelve-day digital story telling workshop. I am on this trip because I won an employee competition at Getty Images.
After a good night’s rest, the second day in the workshop started at 8 AM in the local cemetery. It was too early for me to be flashing my pearly whites sincerely to the villagers but I was doing my best. It was the morning after the Day of the Dead festival in the volcanic lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, when it was believed the spirits of the deceased would visit. Kites were flown bearing messages from the earth to the heavens and candles were lit to commemorate the dead.
For me it was a time to watch and learn from the highly respected humanitarian photographer Phil Borges, who founded Bridges to Understanding. They say that behind every great man is a great woman and Julee Geier, his partner of 25 years, stood next to me, offering me her insight on Phil’s technique for connecting with people and creating such engaging portraits.
“Lots of smiling, laughing and interest,” she advised as we watched him speak gently and with great tenderness, in broken Spanish, to a mother and daughter squatting by the mounds of rich brown earth, where two of their family members were buried.
It was certainly a memorable start to a day dominated by a stunning skyline of volcano, mountains and lake. My touristic reverie induced by the beauty of our hotel and the new sights was soon shattered.
Nancy McGirr former Reuters photojournalist and head of the Fotokids education project here in Guatemala, revealed that ‘domestico violencia’ is a hot topic in this community. The young people we’re mentoring have proposed we explore it in our story telling project. We decide it may be too hot for us to touch in this machismo society where rape is dismissed by police in some cases when reported by minors.
It’s a delicate position we’re in, we need to help the children tell visual stories about social issues that have positive consequences. Another topic that interests the youth here is ritual cleansing where thieves and witches are being rooted out and burned.
The girls in this society are so shy that the groups are divided into girls and boys to give the girls a chance to express themselves freely. With no personal gender preference for grouping, I find myself with the boys. They are shy, too, and offer little by way of opinion or ideas at first. But then that’s all part of the exercise, to develop their self confidence, introduce them to the project and help them find their voices.
They warm up to us after lunches and an ice-breaking name game. We break up into pairs and we have our first photoshoot making portraits of each other, followed by a slideshow with Phil giving us lighting and composition tips and techniques.
Over dinner I express my desire to work with the girls group. They now have a solid plan in place to explore how the roles of women are changing in this community, and plan visits tomorrow to a midwife and a natural healer. But Phil advises me to stay with the boys group and my anxiety is alleviated by the hope that the afternoon’s bonding and creative exercises will melt and open the boys’ initially and understandably timid hearts.
We have an interview with the pharmacist tomorrow and the third days of nine for me to develop my skills as a mentor and relinquish some of my need for control. That is all for now. I need to re-read the instructions prepared for us by Bridges on how to mentor effectively. I will do it with a glass of wine with the black kitten curled up on my lap in the cosy stone and wooden interiors of the hotel Posada Santiago’s restaurant. Buenes Noches, mi amigos.