When chance took me to Cañar, Ecuador, for the first time in the early nineties, I could not have imagined that for the next decade my life would be tied to this remote, beautiful spot in the highlands of southern Ecuador. I had come to South America from Costa Rica, where for the previous six years I worked for a Canadian development agency as a documentary photographer and adult educator. I had also met my husband, Michael Jenkins, there. When my last contract ended and it was time to think about making a life together in the United States or Canada, we realized we weren't ready. There was so much of Latin America still to explore. After years in a demanding job, my dream as a photographer was to have the luxury of time to live in an indigenous village somewhere in South America and make an ethnographic record of community life. The local people would welcome me to their cloud-shrouded hamlet high in the Andes (my romantic vision went), and once they got to know me, I would be invited to photograph them at work and at leisure, in their ceremonies, rituals, fiestas, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
Although my background is in the social sciences, I wasn't interested in doing academic research. Rather, I wanted to create a visual record of a time and place in the tradition of early documentary photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Mexican photographer Mariana Yampolsky, adding the influence of writer John Berger, pioneering visual anthropologists John and Malcolm Collier, and contemporary photographer/educator Wendy Ewald. Simply put, I wanted to participate as much as possible in the daily life of a place, among a group of people who would be my collaborators, show me how they perceived their world, and allow me to record it in photographs, oral histories, and video and audio recordings.
Michael, always game for a new adventure and not that anxious to return to the world of work and responsibility in the north, was enthusiastic. We had no funding, but there was enough savings to give us a year in South America. But where? We studied a map and shared quick superficial impressions: Colombia was too unsafe, Brazil too big (and we don't speak Portuguese), Bolivia too cold, Peru too unknown, and Chile and Argentina too far. So through a process of elimination we chose Ecuador, the smallest of the Andean countries. Nestled between Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Ecuador straddles the equator (hence its name). About the size of Oregon--Michael's home state--the country is carved by the long spine of the Andes mountains into three regions: the Pacific coastal lowlands; the eastern jungles of the Amazon Basin, known as the Oriente; and the mountainous highlands, or Sierra, populated largely by Quichua-speaking indigenous peoples (spelled "Quechua" in the other Andean countries). We agreed that the Sierra (what a lovely word!) was where we wanted to be.
Several months later, as our plane descended over a sea of red-tiled roofs into the lush green highland valley of Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city, I got the feeling we had chosen wisely. A walk around the cobblestone center of the city, founded by the Spanish in 1557, confirmed my first impression. With its impressive colonial-style architecture, centuries-old churches, convents, shady plazas, and colorful markets, Cuenca charmed us immediately. We decided that this lovely city, situated at 8,335 feet, would serve as our base while we searched for the village where we would live.
We checked into a hotel overlooking the Tomebamba River and began our search. But after a week of daily forays into the countryside, Michael and I realized that we had no idea how to go about finding our mythical place. While the villages we had randomly chosen to investigate within an hour's bus ride of Cuenca were picturesque, they seemed to have little to do with indigenous life, or at least that life as we had imagined it. We heard no one speaking Quichua and saw no distinctive costumes, two indicators of indigenous identity in highland Ecuador. After the second week, during which we moved to a much more modest hotel across the street, Michael and I had to admit that we were getting nowhere. After the third week, frustrated in our search, crowded into a hotel room with all our gear, and getting on each other's nerves, we were having serious doubts about our plan. "The indígenas don't live around here," someone finally told us. "You'll find them in the provinces to the north and south, in Cañar, Chimborazo, or Saraguro."
By then, our evening walks around Cuenca had become the highlight of our futile days, and we were falling in love with the place. Strolling through the graceful plazas and peering into flower-filled interior patios, we asked ourselves why we shouldn't just alight here for a while and give ourselves time to explore the area.
And so we settled into a life very different from the one we had imagined, in a spacious rented house alongside the Tomebamba River, a few blocks from our hotel. Michael planted a garden and I set up a darkroom with the hope that a project would materialize. And it did. Within a couple of months, though a contact from my Canadian agency in Costa Rica, I met a group of social-science researchers who had just been funded for a six-month project in the province of Cañar, about two hours from Cuenca. When they learned I was free and looking to volunteer, they asked me to participate as a photographer. The study would be carried out in partnership with a newly formed indigenous organization called INTI (National Institute of Indigenous Technology). Two young Cañari men associated with INTI, José Miguel Acero and Antonio Guamán, had been hired as research assistants to conduct interviews and take photographs in Cañari villages. My job was to train them in photography and oral history skills.
The first meeting took place in Correucu, a tiny hamlet a mile or so outside the town of Cañar. A cluster of small adobe compounds surrounded by fields of potatoes and corn and ringed by eucalyptus trees, Correucu was a poorer, less picturesque place than I had conjured in my imagination, but it was an indigenous community nonetheless. The reality was even more intriguing than my fantasy.
Seven or eight members of INTI had gathered at the house of José Miguel's mother, Mercedes Chuma, to meet "los académicos," as they referred to us. All were very reserved and formal. José Miguel and Antonio greeted me nervously. Both were in their early twenties and dressed in traditional clothing: handwoven, red wool ponchos over white cotton shirts embroidered on the sleeves and collars, black wool pants, and the distinctive round white felt hats of the Cañaris. Their hair was pulled back in long neat braids down their backs. The two young men seemed hopeful that these small jobs might open the door to opportunities beyond the endless toil of plowing, planting, and harvesting. (For one, this would become a reality; for the other it would remain a dream.)
The meeting went on for hours and hours. But I was patient, having learned during my years working with grassroots groups in Central America that process is as important as content when trying to get something done or make a decision. Short, efficient meetings are considered a barbaric custom of North Americans.
In mid-afternoon we took a break, and as I sat outside in the sun I watched one of the women, Maria Juana, spinning wool. Under one arm she held a stick wrapped with a bundle of raw fleece, which she pulled with one hand while with the other she twisted a thin thread of wool onto a drop spindle. Like the other women, she wore several layers of brightly colored wool skirts, a satin embroidered blouse, and a short black shawl over her shoulders held by a decorative pin. Swathes of red beads adorned her neck, and elaborate filigreed earrings swung with her movements.
My photographer's eye registered a picture-perfect moment, so after we had chatted stiffly for a few minutes, I asked Maria Juana if I might take a photo. She didn't speak, or even look at me, but slowly shook her head no.
My cameras stayed in my bag that day, but this was a defining moment that I would never forget. In asking to take a photo, being denied, and acknowledging the refusal, the terms of my relationship to this place and its people, even at this early stage, had been established: I was an outsider, una extranjera, present by invitation only, and I could not expect to take photos without explicit permission. Not, that is, if I wanted to have continued contact.
Today, more than ten years later, I still do not take photos uninvited in Cañar, other than the occasional Sunday market shot. Even now, when I've become a familiar figure in Cañar, market women will often duck their heads if they see my camera. This is serious, not playful, resistance. The woman is thinking, "Why should that woman with the camera carry away an image of me, and offer nothing in exchange?" Fair enough. Reciprocity is integral to Andean culture, and it is only through the painstaking process of building relationships that I am able to make meaningful photographs.
In an incident that took place months after that first meeting, I learned another lesson. I was sitting beside the road chatting with a Cañari woman as she stripped pea pods from dried vines. As her children walked up the road toward us, I asked the mother if I could take their photo. She shook her head no, and said something about how a photograph can be used by enemies to cast the mal ojo, or evil eye. When I responded that I would give her, and no one else, copies of the photos, she replied, doubtfully, "Yes, but what will you do with the negatives?"
The research project with INTI was over quickly, but I realized I had two eager photography students in José Miguel and Antonio. When they proposed that we continue working together, I agreed without hesitation. Every other week I met them in Cañar, and we would go out into the countryside for a lesson in using the camera. On alternate weeks, the two young men came to Cuenca, where I introduced them to the mysteries of my darkroom, and Michael presented them with the spectacle of a man preparing lunch in the kitchen.
Our first year in Ecuador drew to an end. We had made a few Cañari friends and enjoyed a pleasant year living in Cuenca, but I had taken very few photos. As we were getting close to our departure date, we received a formal visit from the directors of INTI, Isidoro Quinde and Maria Juana Chuma, inviting Michael and me to stay in Ecuador and work in Cañar as volunteers with the group. We didn't think about it long. Here was the opportunity for which we had come to Ecuador, and although it had taken a year to find it, we felt in no hurry to leave.
Our second year in Ecuador was very different from the first. We kept our house in Cuenca, but rented another place in Cañar, a two-room storefront in a ramshackle row of taverns, shops, and houses on the outskirts of town along the Paseo de los Cañaris, the road that leads into the countryside and the indigenous communities. From this place, where we spent weekends, our vision of participating in the life of an indigenous community seemed closer. Michael worked with INTI members on organic garden and terracing projects and gave workshops on constructing and using a low-cost, high-efficiency, wood-burning cooker. I gave photography classes, and as the year went on, our storefront became a regular meeting place and social stop on Sunday market day. I set up a makeshift studio in our bedroom and invited those who dropped in to sit by the window for a portrait. At first, almost everyone politely refused, saying their clothes were not right, or they wanted their children with them, or they weren't feeling quite up to par that day. I made clear that the offer stood, and as the year wore on people gradually began to ask for family portraits or invite me to their houses or into their fields (although why I wanted to photograph people at work remained a mystery to everyone).
Michael and I left Ecuador after two years, determined to come back to Cañar someday. In 1997, we returned for a brief visit at the invitation of José Miguel and his wife Esthela. In their first communication with us in four years, they wrote that they had become "real" photographers and were now proprietors of a thriving commercial studio in Cañar. They'd also had a baby daughter, Paiwa, and asked if we would be godparents.
I returned to Cañar alone in 1998 to help organize my exhibit, "Los Cañaris Hoy" (The Cañari Today), at the national ethnography museum in Cuenca and give a three-day photography course for indigenous participants. During that trip, as I saw the enthusiasm of my students and visited Cañar to reconnect with old friends, I realized that my teaching and documentary work was not yet done. In fact, it seemed only to have just begun.
I came home committed to finding the funding to return to Cañar for another year. In 2000-2001, Fulbright and Organization of American States grants allowed us to do this. This book is the story of that year.