“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” These words once spoken by U.S. photographer Dorothea Lange are the idea behind the project “Miradas del Sur” (“Southern Views”), through which 12 teenagers from low-income, southern San José barrios were given a camera and instructed to capture their realities on film.
A collection of 104 of their black-and white photos were selected for a book, also entitled “Miradas del Sur/Southern Views,” and 94 of the photos are on display at CalderónGuardiaMuseum in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Escalante.
It all got started when the nonprofit Foundation for Social Links (Fundavínculo) invited a group of young people from southern San José barrios, including Hatillo, Cristo Rey and Alajuelita, to participate in a 12-week Saturday photography class. Their three teachers – Fundavínculo economist Catiana García and professional photographers Alex Arias and Alexander Aguilar – taught the youths camera techniques and assigned them a theme to photograph each week. The result: a genuine look at day-today life in these neighborhoods.
During a recent visit to the museum, five of the young participants pointed out their photos and explained their motives for taking them.
“Everyone has a bathroom in their house; it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,” said Warner Valverde, 18, pointing to a photograph of his home’s humble toilet and shower.
Michael Rojas, 18, leaned in close to his photo “El Pajarito” (“The Little Bird”) and laughed while explaining that although the photo is named after a small bird perched on a power line, people have a hard time finding it.
The book’s cover photo, by Dahiana Barrios, 14, is a simple shot of the top part of her young neighbor’s face. It was taken for an assignment to photograph an image “in parts,” Barrios explained.
The girl’s intense, green eyes drew Barrios to photograph her.
“She has a look that I just love,” she said.
Many of the photos share bleak images common to modest homes and neighborhoods: corrugated tin walls, bare light bulbs, graffiti and bars. But they also capture moments of emotion and connection: a mother braiding her son’s hair, a couple lounging in bed, an old man reading the paper, a group of kids piled on a couch, three young soccer players in uniform.
“These people wouldn’t let just anyone photograph things that are so humble and show poverty,” Ericka Mejía, 18, from Alajuelita, pointed out. “It has to be someone they know, someone from the barrio, so they don’t get nervous.”
The project’s three leaders were surprised at the quality of images the young people were able to achieve with simple automatic cameras, García said.
“We thought this project was important because these are barrios that a lot of middle-class people who go to see photo exhibits don’t know very well,” she said.
“These kids are just as josefino (from San José) as anyone else.”
The National Stock Exchange, Alliance Française, Casa Cultural Amón of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica and the Vecinos association helped fund the project.
The “Southern Views” exhibit is open through March 17 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at CalderónGuardiaMuseum (222-6392, 255-1218). The book by the same name with text in Spanish and English can be purchased for $20 at the bookstore Nueva Década in San Pedro, east of San José, or by contacting the foundation via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prints of the photographs are also available for $75 through the foundation; proceeds benefit the photographer and help with the costs of the foundation’s projects.