After story-time in Cura Mori, we began the long trip back to Paita. The sun falls fast near the equator and by the time Nicola and I reached our junction, it had been replaced by a swollen moon. The day felt long, but as our Subaru shuttered to a stop there was one thing I was painfully aware of: it had been the most efficient day of my portrait project and yet I was still only walking away with four useable shots.
In Spain, it’s illegal to take someone’s photograph without his or her consent. The same is true in Brazil, Japan, and, with some exceptions, throughout most of the European Union. I don’t always agree with this law—it can be incredibly detrimental to professional journalism—but for the most part I think it gets one thing right: everyone has exclusive ownership over his or her own face. Most small-town Peruvians that I met exercised this right.
In any other context, I would have found this agency refreshing. One simple joy of photography is that it’s a mutually consensual act between subject and photographer. I’d normally stress the fact that my images came secondary to the conversations I have while I try to procure them, but given the short time frame I had to complete this particular project, my priorities were beginning to shift. Nine inevitable words hung heavy over ever conversation I had: ¿Puedo por favor tome su fotografía para mi proyecto? Can I please take your photograph for my project?
I have very few hard rules regarding my photographic workflow but here’s one: I never, ever bring out my camera on my first day in a new country.
This is the result of some scathing criticism I once received from photojournalist in Cairo. I’d asked him for advice on selling my travel content and one sentence of his response stood out: travel photography isn’t even a real genre.
I first dismissed that comment as photo-snobbery. One year later, it makes a lot of sense. Every powerful image has a story that should resonate with an audience regardless of where he’s from. While my images may fall under the travel umbrella for fellow Canadians, for a Peruvian they’d be classified as documentary work within her own backyard. But in order for my project to be truly successful it would have to appeal to both.
The tricky part is finding those universal stories. To look beyond the novelty of chakra necklaces, sombreros and deep mahogany skin and mind the human element at its core. The best start, in my experience was to begin slowly—to take time to observe.
Perhaps my friend’s advice would be just as useful now, midway through my trip. Maybe it was time to hit refresh?
I spent the night camped out on a beach a half-hour outside of La Tortuga. I pitched my tent just beyond a pile of seal skulls (Peruvian superstition had begun to weave its web around my brain) and let an ebbing tide lap away the day’s frustrations. I pounded up and down the red-sand beach between chapters of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run with nothing but the moonlight against my darkening skin. The next morning, I boarded a bus South to Chiclayo, hoping fresh scenery would compliment my new state of mind. A power-breakfast of raw-egg, pollen, aloe, and algarrobina was fresh on my breath.
As the bus pulled out I was eager to return to work, but five hours later my guts were knotted.
All I wanted was a wet-rag and a bed. Whether karma had bit me for cheating an old mentor’s advice or I’d simply sucked back one raw-egg too many, I wasn’t sure; but I suppose I’d be taking another day of rest whether I wanted to or not. I didn’t even bother unpacking my camera and was asleep before the sun went down.