FACES OF FIELDWORK
As a features writer and anthropologist, I often go out on one assignment and find all sorts of interesting side stories that may or may not merit a full investigation. I also love to take portraits of interesting faces, especially of the elderly. Sometimes photos in and of themselves really don’t tell you everything. Faces of Fieldwork is my way of documenting the most interesting faces and what I learned from our interaction.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon in the center of Candalaria, a mountain town located in the Northwestern corner of Honduras. I had spent the week interviewing local leaders about a water resource management project and needed some video and still shots of the general community. This elderly woman shuffled toward me when she saw me taking pictures of other elderly people.
“How much do you charge for portraits?” She whispered.
Her question caught me off guard, for it seemed to me any gringo with a camera in this town was clearly connected to an aid organization.
“Nothing,” I responded, watching for a few more seconds as she lingered in silence. “Would you like me to take your picture?” I asked.
She nodded shyly so I snapped a couple of pictures.
“Why so serious?” I asked her with a dismayed tone as I showed her how she’d stuck her bottom lip out like a pouting child.
“Can’t you smile?” I prodded.
She looked as though she might turn on a dime and run the other direction, but then she slowly drew her cheek muscles back until a subtle smile appeared. I snapped a couple more pictures.
“Beautiful!” I exclaimed.
She peered into the viewfinder and quickly put both hands on her cheeks.
“You’re beautiful!” I said again.
“Really?” She asked, staring at me.
“Really,” I replied.
I’m trying to get a copy of this picture back to the village so that the woman can have it. It pains me to think this woman wouldn’t get to keep a copy of what is likely one of the only pictures she’s ever had of herself.
Honduras is a historically macho country. Men rule the public world and even today they often dominate the schedules and public life of their women. It would not surprise me if this woman had never been called beautiful, and yet her smile helped to reveal her gentle, observant demeanor in her thoughtful brown eyes. Her smile seemed to pull strings through her face and shoulders, and suddenly I noticed she was standing straighter and taller.
Critics of social media sites like Facebook proclaim that photo tagging and profile picture updates help to make us all more narcissistic and self-centered. That may be true, but I think everyone should own a good portrait of him or herself. It’s a physical reminder that even when nobody else seems to be paying attention, you’re here in the flesh and that your presence adds value and beauty to your environment.