By most accounts, the various places Katie Figura has called home have nothing in common with the community she stayed in while volunteering in Los Robles, Nicaragua. She was born in Skaneateles, a small town in upstate New York. She stayed with a family in Denmark as an exchange student in high school. As a professional photographer, she’s worked and volunteered in New Orleans and San Francisco’s Bay Area, and she currently resides in the picturesque New England town of Burlington, Vermont. Los Robles, on the other hand, comprises a tiny, isolated community spread out across the Nicaraguan jungle. The country itself is the second-poorest in the Western hemisphere, and close to a million of its citizens don’t have access to clean water.

You’d have to look closely to find the common elements linking all of these communities. But they’re there. They’re hanging from the walls, preserved in frames, propped up on tables.

Locals play football in Los Robles, Nicaragua
Coffee fields in Los Robles, Nicaragua

Even in Los Robles, where Katie walked through a house with dirt floors throughout her homestays, photographs decorated every room. One depicted a daughter’s graduation ceremony. Another immortalized a deceased loved one. As in many cultures, family is central in Nicaragua, and photos allow us to see one another, to fully connect with our loved ones in a way that would remain otherwise elusive. They help us understand each other’s stories.

Of course, Katie already understood this. It was a recognition of this power of photography that set her on the road to Los Robles in the first place.

A farmer examines coffee beans in Los Robles, Nicaragua

Katie first got to call herself a photographer in high school, when she left for her exchange program in Denmark. Before departing, she received a camera as a gift, and though her photos from that trip would end up mostly tucked away in Facebook albums, it taught her a lot about the human power of a camera lens. While most first-time travelers find themselves training their viewfinders toward the city skyline or the rolling hills of a region’s unique countryside, Katie realized immediately that her photography would be about people. Living in a new country — albeit, a privileged one — was difficult and emotionally disorienting, but Katie grew fascinated with the process of moving between worlds and cultures. She became cognizant of the countless realities that different people are facing, and she wanted to explore that with more intention.

After college, she began working for a few non-profits while continuing to develop her photography on the side. One day, her bank teller, Angela, asked her to volunteer with her kids’ cheer and football team in Hayward, California, a distant suburb of San Francisco. Katie was far from home, so it was rewarding when the community, made up largely of Mexican immigrants, embraced her completely. Soon, she was documenting much more than just the kids’ teams. She was present for family portraits, a baptism, a birthday party — reimbursed not in cash but in invitations to family dinners, a seat at the table.

A young boy in Los Robles, Nicaragua
A woman smiles through a window in Los Robles, Nicaragua

Examining coffee fields in Los Robles, Nicaragua

Unable to move to the U.S., the children’s father was still in Mexico, missing all of these touchstone memories. Thus, the family cherished the photos that Katie took, sharing them on social media and hanging framed prints within their home. She’d become a historian, capturing moments within the community that otherwise would have floated on by — and for the first time in her life, she saw the potential held within that simple power.

Photography, Katie realized, allows people to truly see themselves, to have a tangible reminder that carries extreme emotional significance. A photo might symbolize all the years of work, sacrifice, and love that make up someone’s story. This was the first time she’d looked at photography as a class privilege, a luxury that is only available to those in higher socioeconomic brackets. Having photos taken of you is a way to celebrate yourself, to be recognized. If you have more money, your story gets to be documented. Katie decided she wanted to take photos of people who aren’t always recognized, because everyone has a story. We can all learn from one another.

A woman sits in her home in Los Robles, Nicaragua

It’s no wonder, then, that the bulk of Katie’s yearly work is devoted to wedding photography, capturing and telling the most joyous and personal story in a young couple’s life. It’s a task that has taught her the importance of vulnerability, of being comfortable and open with those she’s shooting. She’s learned to treat them as people, not as subjects, so that they feel comfortable letting down their guard a bit and making their true essence more accessible. Then, all she has to do is snap away.

It’s a skill that’s proven invaluable when Katie tackles her yearly photography-based service project, working with non-profits around the world to tell the stories of seldom-recognized communities. Most recently, she sought out organizations in Nicaragua. Having vacationed there three years prior, she knew she wanted to return to lend her services to the less touristy part of the struggling nation.

Two boys with their baseball mitts in Los Robles, Nicaragua
A farmer and two children in Los Robles, Nicaragua

A young boy in Los Robles, Nicaragua

She eventually came across Comunidad Connect, a multi-faceted social enterprise that has been working to alleviate poverty and create sustainable change in Nicaragua for more than a decade. Their programs focus on health and wellness and include facilitating primary and preventive health care, organizing youth sports, and providing clean water. But the reason this organization stood out to her was their commitment to sustainable, community-driven development. This isn’t just another charity that produces new profile pictures for woke Westerners. Their programs deeply involve locals, empowering people and creating growth and solutions, rather than just addressing symptoms.

She emailed their volunteer coordinator, who followed up immediately, making it clear that they were organized and had an actual set project and goals that they wanted to accomplish through photography. Needless to say, Katie stopped Google searching and started practicing her Spanish.

Farmers sort through coffee beans in Los Robles, Nicaragua
A woman picks coffee beans in Los Robles, Nicaragua

A woman and young boy in Los Robles, Nicaragua

Shooting in a community like Los Robles is different, in a way. As with her wedding photography, Katie had to approach her subjects openly, hoping to gain their trust through her own vulnerability. But here it was more difficult because she was an outsider. She was aware that photography from a person in her position could make people feel exploited, and she didn’t want the community members to feel that she was only getting something from them; it had to be mutual.

To do this, she had to put herself back in the mindset she’d adopted during her time in Denmark, reverting to what her family refers to as “exchange-student mode.” She gave up any thought of control over the situation, released her assumptions and judgments about her new environment, and did whatever she could to make quick connections with the people of Los Robles. She was quiet and patient. Even though she didn’t have a good grasp on the language, she listened, gauging their energy and modifying her own before raising the camera.

It was a very particular headspace she had to occupy in order to fall in sync with the community — but it worked. Soon, as with her experience in Hayward, she was being welcomed into the community, her work acting as a bridge across the barriers of language and culture that separated them. She captured the people of Los Robles inside their homes, out in the coffee fields where they hand-picked beans to be transported all over the world, and on the soccer pitch where they came together to play and compete. They made her feel comfortable in their home, and for Katie, that was incredibly humbling.

After she left Los Robles, Katie went to the very touristy town of San Juan Del Sur. The inequality between the two communities was glaring. Expats were dominant there, having come to the country years ago with more money and resources than the locals. They’d built resorts, surf shops, and restaurants that catered to tourists and other expats without integrating or benefiting the local community.

A farmer holds a bushel of coffee beans in Los Robles, Nicaragua

It was the kind of thing that could have been demoralizing, that could have wiped from Katie’s memory any feeling of joy, hope, or humility that she had experienced during the past weeks in Los Robles. But that wasn’t the case. It never would be. Because to this day, even when she’s feeling down, all Katie has to do is look at the photos of the families she stayed with, and she can still feel their warm kindness.

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.