Wichi Women And Girls: Through Their Own Lens

Waiting in the center of town. The woman in the green jacket, second from the left, joined us a year or so later to help teach art classes. When the younger kids were too shy of us to draw, she helped get them settled. We later had a chance to teach her a bit of Photoshop. We’d like to teach her and the others her age how to download and edit the photos they take. Then they can learn to sell them as well as teach the younger kids how to do the same. And voila, our role in this project becomes unnecessary.

Emilio led us north on the road out of Salta, Argentina, finally stopping at Mision La Horqueta to ask if they’d help us with our project. Emilio grew up nearby. He’s also indigenous Wichi and speaks the language. Emilio loved our idea of giving digital cameras to Wichi kids, and invited us to join his misión voluntaria to deliver clothing and food.

We returned to Mision La Horqueta every few months for the next three years to clean cameras, replace batteries, and exchange full HD cards for empty. These photos, taken by the children of the community, are the result of those visits.

One of my favorite photos. These two laughed and played like this all all afternoon;

At first, the photos were blurry and off center. Incredibly quickly, though, the kids taught themselves to frame and focus. They tell stories of life in the Chaco Salteño. It’s an extremely harsh environment. Very dry — few animals and plants live there. A river runs through the area, but the byproducts of local farming have leaked into the river, rendering the water unfit for drinking or fishing.

Cooking inside the home. One of the ways we’ve been able to tell the difference between a child taking the ohoto and an adult is that the kids always the photos at angles. They often feature feet and animals; the girl in the pink jacket is the granddaughter of Simon, one of the leaders of the town. She’s about my daughter Lila’s age. Lila usually joins our trips to La Horqueta, so she knows Simon’s granddaughter.

I want these photos to speak for themselves, but I’ve learned that people too often interpret the Wichi — indigenous South Americans who speak an independent language and live mostly in northeastern Argentina — through a lens of their own prejudice and privilege. What does it mean to be a woman living in a small village without electricity or running water? What’s it like to grow up there? Go through adolescence? Have babies and breastfeed them, often without enough food or adequate medical care?

People too often interpret the Wichi through a lens of their own prejudice and privilege.
Notice the raindrops on her hair? We’ve shown these photos in galleries in New York, Buenos Aires, and Salta. At one exhibition, someone asked me about the “lice” in her hair. “How did it get so bad?” If you’ve been around kids for any amount of time, you know lice doesn’t look anything like that.

What can I say about the women in this community that they can’t say for themselves?

The photos the kids take? We sell and exhibit them in galleries in cities all over the world, as well as online. All purchases of these photos go directly to build gardens and install water pumps in the Wichi village, working in conjunction with Fundacion Siwok, a local NGO that provides the technical expertise and materials.

Biking along the way. You can’t see it in this photo, but she has one of the cameras in a case slung on her shoulder; Three generations of women with their children.

Until now, I’ve been the one to process, curate, and sell photography, but I’d prefer to hand that job over to the kids who take the photos, so that this project is more completely theirs.

What does that entail?

  • We need two or three computers and a few more cameras. The specifications of those are here.
  • Photoshop for each computer. I have copies of Photoshop Elements donated via an Adobe Foundation grant, but since the goal is to teach marketable job skills, I’d rather they learned the software that professionals use.
  • Electricity. There’s one room in the community, at the church, that has electricity. They pay someone in the nearby town of Hickman to use it. The computers will put too large a financial burden on them, so I’d like to find someone to cover the payments. It would cost about $300/year.

These photos tell a story, but they also tell you about yourself. Be aware of when your own prejudices impose images that aren’t there. Make note of your own ideas of how people should live, or what’s normal or what poverty means, and how you allow your preconceived notions to modify the story told.

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