Buenos Aires Through The Lens.

No filter but a Mate straw.

On my last day in San Francisco before heading to Buenos Aires for two and a half weeks earlier this Spring to visit family and friends, my cultural photographer inspiration, Maxwell Hawes, gifted me a package with a card that read:

In this photographic apparatus you have been provided 27 photos with which I’d like you to capture 20 portraits of complete strangers alone with a two-to-three sentence blurb about each. While this is an optional exercise, it will be graded. Good luck!

I unwrapped the disposable camera, familiarized myself with its simple, classic system, and began brainstorming. What would I ask that’d make for an interesting photojournalistic project? What to expect of the people I once called neighbors now living in a completely different reality?

As a storyteller by trade and curious wanderer by nature, this project allowed me to break down the barriers of discomfort, making way for building bridges of sympathy and understanding. Bridges beyond culture. Bridges unseen, but felt potently. It was a way to get to know my country in a different way, without confining myself to a narrow view of the local or the tourism, and allowing myself to learn from strangers and their various perspectives. Familial ties.

In this photographic apparatus you have been provided 27 photos with which I’d like you to capture 20 portraits of complete strangers alone with a two-to-three sentence blurb about each. While this is an optional exercise, it will be graded. Good luck!

As an Argentine, getting lost in Buenos Aires mid-march, I could easily anticipate what was coming: warm breeze, blooming flowershops, restless crowds, bustling streets, bad drivers. Buenos Aires is an ideal destination for travelers hoping to feast on rich cuisine and even richer culture. And still, they — and because I also live abroad, we — were welcomed by an Argentina in a state of chaos. People are anxious. The air is heavy. During my two weeks in Buenos Aires, there were no less than five city-wide strikes and marches, protesting low wages for teachers and doctors, and increases in monthly utility bills, amongst other pressing issues the new administration has both inherited and, some say, made worse.

Various people I met — especially Taxi drivers — wanted to talk about the state of the country and their disapproval of Mauricio Macri, the current president. But, refreshingly - most people didn’t. I chose to listen, to learn, and to snap, capturing the real and the raw, the everyday of Buenos Aires.

One morning on my way to have lunch with friends, I passed a Verduleria, a fruits and vegetables store, when a jolly man with an apron began singing a tango melody. As I continued walking half way down the block, I thought: These moments are the real Buenos Aires, and how important it is to recognize them. So I turned around, entered the store where he had gone in, still singing, and I let him know he had made my morning much more special than how it had started. He thanked me and gave me a piece of chocolate candy called Dos Corazones, and like that, mine was fuller. He then told me how, no matter his mood, no matter the state of things, he always sang. He had to sing to feel good and spread joy. His name was Roberto, but he went by Robertango. Fitting. Walking away, I unwrapped the candy and discovered a small piece of paper with a quote which I now keep in my wallet, Que linda brilla la luna, en su luz hay alegria, es que ha visto muy juntitas, a tu sombra con la mia.

How beautiful the moon shines. In its light there is joy. It’s because it has seen your shadow by mine’s side.

Que linda brilla la luna, en su luz hay alegria, es que ha visto muy juntitas, a tu sombra con la mia

Although at first I envisioned myself doing a project about the state of Immigration in the country, once facing the state of the State, I decided not to press people on this topic. Instead, I listened. Still, I met a couple of immigrants, one of whom stuck with me. Joel, a Peruvian national, had walked to the United States in search of the American dream back in 2001, only to be detained after 15 days in American soil, two weeks before Christmas. He stayed in jail for a total of eight months, and then chose to make his way to Argentina. For some, I realized, the idea of the American Dream is manifested anywhere that will welcome them and allow for a stable life. I’m glad Argentina can be that place for an estimated 1.8 million. If curious, take a few minutes to learn about Argentine’s migration policy & history.

At a little corner restaurant hidden by planted greenery called Nostalgia, I met Norberto Lerner. He was sitting at a table to my left, a cane leaning against his chair. In his early 60s, he read an old magazine, alternated between pints of beer and shots of espresso, and made conversation with the waitress in between snacks. He had trouble speaking fluidly. Through my potentially obvious eaves-dropping, I got curious about him. I attempted to take a sneaky photo, but he spotted me when the flash went off. He didn’t seem to care about the photo at all — in fact, I gave him the perfect opportunity to make conversation and he took it. I told him about my project; he told me about his life, his ex-wife, his children, his heart attack, his recovery process, his father, and, last but not least, his singing career. He was mostly proud of this, and asked me to look him up. Norberto Lerner, I then learned, could once sing beautifully and fluidly.

On the same day, I met Gloria with the round glasses, an architect who has frequented Nostalgia since its opening in 1987. She witnessed my entire conversation with Norberto, and when I made eye contact with her, she shot me a glance that telegraphed sympathy. Our eye contact gave her the perfect opportunity to make conversation. Like Norberto she, too, took it. “That’s very nice of you to talk to him when he clearly needs someone,” she said. And just like that, she was the one to open up. I told her about my photo project; she told me about about the buildings she had designed; about a friend she’d later visit at a hospital; about the late-owner of Nostalgia, Beatriz DiPietro, a woman she admired for her hard work and desire to do whatever it took to provide for her family; about a new art opening happening nearby to which she invited me. I listened and let her open her world to me. A man. A woman. A cane. Health. Different stories. Same desire. We are all consumed by our own dismay. We all need someone to talk to. Nostalgia was all around me.

Because traveling to Buenos Aires is sometimes more about back-to-back plans with family than a time for solo exploring and relaxation, my best friends Florencia, Micaela, Luciana and I decided to do a weekend get-away. We took a boat to charming Colonia, Uruguay, and on a cab from the international dock to our hotel, we met Edison, our Taxi driver. My friends chuckled as they noticed I wouldn’t take a vacation from my project. We learned that he had been a chef a decade ago, but he had to quit because of a worsening arthritis. He had cooked for Argentine celebrities visiting Uruguay. His favorite meals to cook were anything with steak and fish. He also told us to stay off drugs. Uruguay is the first country to legalize Marijuana, and Edison believed it had become like the plague, taking adolescents down a bad road. And like that, our road came to a dead end and our vacation began!

Approaching people in the service industry turned out to be the easiest way to accomplish my “assignment.” Having worked as a waitress for four years, I understand how the business typically goes. Please customer. Get better tips. But in Argentina, waiters are paid a fair and full salary, so I took their willingness to chat with me as more of a reflection of sympathy than of indebtedness. At a little corner restaurant also hidden by planted greenery (Yes, I have a type), I met two young waitresses, Gina from Argentina and Andrea from Colombia. I joined them on their break, and as we passed around a mate on the restaurant bar, they talked about their experience as waitresses (similarly pleasant), and about the views of immigrants in Argentina (rather disparate). The Argentinean, Gina, called Argentines racists. “You don’t see dark people working in customer service, do you? That’s racist,” She said. The Colombian then recalled an instance where a teacher told her that true Argentines were those with blonde hair and blue eyes. And yet, this incident was an outlier in her experience, she said, as she expressed feeling welcomed, accepted, and appreciated almost always. Her experience and her feelings are a mix that can be equated to those I’ve experienced since moving to the States. We’re not so different after all.

One of my favorite moments lived but not captured on camera because of poor lighting (a Kodak can only do so much) was at my best friend Flori’s apartment, lovingly named “Milo Locket,” which I called home while in Buenos Aires. One evening, two of Flor’s friends, Mauri and Juli, came over for an asado, and as they harmonized to Fito Paez’s 11 y 6 and played a keyboard placed on Flor’s kitchen counter, I snapped a picture. It did not develop, unfortunately, but the moment was perfect.

We talked about what it meant to be free. Their answer: a Choice.

Treasure unlocked.

Every single encounter and conversation with strangers enriched my visit significantly. Though “Tene cuidado”, or “Be careful,” were the two words I heard the most while in Buenos Aires from my family and friends, I encountered no one who made me feel at risk or unwanted. I got a more wholesome picture of Argentina than I could ever get by reading the news, by visiting as a tourist, or — dare I say — even by living there. The photo project gave me the opportunity to capture a side of Buenos Aires that is always there, visible to those who choose to see, loud and clear to those who choose to listen, and full of rich diversity — in beliefs and background — to be embraced and celebrated.

At Flori’s apartment, lovingly named “Milo Locket,” we talked about what it meant to be free. The answer: a Choice. Treasure unlocked.

I recently learned about Everyday Africa, an inspiring Instagram feed with fresh, insightful images established by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill to counter the crippling stereotypes that define a continent from the perspective of the outside.

Along the same vein, Everyday Bay Area, a project of CatchLight.io — founded by Nancy Farese, my friend’s Conor’s mom and someone I deeply admire — and Everyday Everywhere, in partnership with KQED Public Media, focuses on the San Francisco Bay Area, and the power of visual storytelling to allow us to see and understand each other across identities, ages, demographics and geographies.

Both projects use the ubiquity and power of photography enhanced by social media tools to direct focus towards the stories that bind us, promoting inclusion, tolerance and respect. It asks us to come together around images from a wide variety of perspectives and issues unique to life in various countries in Africa and the Bay Area. Other projects such as Everyday the Bronx, Everyday Migration, and Everyday Latin America have spurred. Everyday Argentina might be next.