Jordan: Photography by Vanessa de Bruyn

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Jordan: Photography by Vanessa de Bruyn

Ever since my parents gave me a camera for my twelfth birthday, I have almost never left home without one.  I love the weight of the camera in my hands, the sound and the feel of a shutter as it clicks, and the idea that one can preserve memories and moments in time.  A photograph can capture sadness, pain and suffering, or it can capture joy, excitement and love – and every possible thing in between.  Photography brings me back to that very moment in time in which a picture was taken. When I look at a photograph, I can again feel the sun on my skin as I walked outdoors, smell the incense floating through a busy marketplace, or hear the laughter of a group of children as they play outside.

When I moved to Jordan to become a Peace Corps volunteer, I found that taking photographs was much more difficult compared to other places in which I had traveled, due to the country’s inherently conservative society.  Taking pictures of women was considered taboo; taking pictures of men made people think you were a spy.  In very rural areas, people believed that having your picture taken meant that a piece of your soul would be taken as well.

Thankfully, over time – and due to the nature of the Peace Corps – I slowly became a part of my local community.  As people began to accept me - and get used to seeing me lugging around a huge camera wherever I went – they began to open up to me, and to the idea of having their photographs taken.  And the more I became one of them, as I learned their language and their culture, the more comfortable I became asking people if I could photograph the more intimate moments of their lives.  

At a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was going on to Jordan’s west, the Iraq war to the east, and the Lebanese-Israeli war to the northwest, I found that photography not only helped me to preserve treasured and valuable memories for myself, but also helped me to convey scenes of normalcy to my friends and family back home.  In a region seemingly constantly marred by conflict, photography helped me demonstrate a side of life in the Middle East that many Americans don’t see –a life that is, in most respects, just like ours.

-Vanessa de Bruyn is a Foreign Service Officer and a returned Peace Corps volunteer.  She served in Jordan as a TEFL volunteer from 2005-2007. In addition to Jordan, she has lived in the West Bank, China, Yemen and Portugal and has traveled to – and taken pictures in – over 30 other countries.

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Peace and Friendship Through the Lens

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Peace and Friendship Through the Lens

By Anne Pellicciotto

See more of Anne's work in her book.

The director of the Cultural Institute said people will stay home and watch television and drink beer, their usual Rioverde Friday night routine. ‘Falta de education, ni modo,’ what can you do, he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Get a small cake,’ he advised.

But I didn’t listen. I got a huge cake; and the people did not stay home.

The Semillas of Esperanza turned out in numbers, in their high heels and flowing vestidas, niños in tow with gelled hair and polite gallery comportment. The owner of Yogurlandia, my landlord and her daughters. Antonio the artist was there and Samantha the librarian and a doctor I’d never met who came to record the event on the new Ipad!

I’d done my homework, distributing flyers all around town, from the Mayor’s office to neighbors’ homes to the shops around the Centro and to strangers in the main square. 50th Aniversario de Peace Corps en Fotografía: Exhibición y Celebración.

I’d learned over the years with my photography:  it’s not just about the shooting, nor the sorting and selecting, processing and printing. I fought for three hours last Friday night with the Spanish-speaking Kodak machine in Galvan’s shop.  I misinterpreted some prompts and had to restart my portfolio of edits from scratch twice!

50th Aniversario de Peace Corps en Fotografía: Exhibición y Celebración

In the end the prints turned out beautifully, the colors popping off the page, the cropping exactly to spec. But it was not enough to have the perfect collection on the walls if no one came to see it.

As the guests filed into the courtyard, taking seats in familial clumps, I scrambled around the gallery with title tags trying to find their mates and shoring up photos slipping from the walls in the 100-degree heat. We were so close. But what really had me perspiring in my black party dress was the formal panel table and microphones they had setup in the courtyard. The Regiadora and Director were waiting for me to take my place at the head table and give a speech.

‘Can’t the art just speak for itself?’  I wondered aloud as I jammed bottles of white wine into the cooler of ice.

Kuko overheard me and understood. A painter himself and assistant at the IMAC, he’d also taken on the role of cultural interpreter through the exposition setup process. ‘It’s the way we do it, Anna,’ he clarified, shrugging.  ‘Official process. All the openings go like this.’

‘Por supuesto, Kuko’ of course. I appreciated the cross-cultural nuances and the Mexican fondness for ritual. I was just nervous – and unprepared.

The final photo tag hung, the registration table setup, the wine on ice, we took a step back to gaze at the gallery, the amber light, the regal cake ready to be sliced, the space in beautiful, calm order after days, weeks of preparation.

‘Listo,’ Kiko and I agreed, exhaling in unison.

I brushed off my dress, took a deep breath, and entered the courtyard. Gazing out at an audience of smiling faces, in this sudden quiet moment under the stars, I remembered what I was going to say.

Promover la paz y amistad mundial.‘ Promoting peace and friendship is something that photography can do,’ I explained, ‘creating a dialogue that goes beyond words.’  And I invited the guests, as they toured the gallery, to share their reactions, questions, impressions to my perspectives of their pueblo.

After some light applause we filed toward the gallery behind the officials who carried three pairs of scissors on a red velvet pillow. Pausing at the door before the giant orange ribbon, we picked up the scissors and, in unison, cut the ribbon, officially opening the festivities and making way for the guests to enter.

Within moments the gallery was full of energy and animated conversation. I watched the hairdresser’s sons staring at themselves in my Palm Sunday procession photo and Alicia, with her fishbone braid and dimples, peering into open walls of the abandoned Planta, while a regally dressed senora lifted her spectacles to get a closer look at Sombreros Escuchando, Hats Listening. Samantha’s favorite was Niña Volando, Flying Girl; and Kuko liked Montaña de Maiz, Corn Mountain. ‘An interesting way to look at it’ he said.

We drank warm wine and ate stale sandwiches and all the while snapping more photos for posterity – photos of photos and all of us in front of the photos, around the urns, the chorus line of women from Puente de Carmen, new amigos and acquaintances. We made a toast and reluctantly cut into the beautiful cake, made by Sophia, a piece of art itself, decorated with the Mexican and American flags, merged, red, white, blue and green and oozing with chocolate, strawberries and cream.

Then suddenly, in typical Mexican style, we were all informed we must leave. The funcionarios had removed the food from the table and shut-down the music. It was 9 pm; there was no guard on duty, so apparently they had to close. Of course there hadn’t been a guard there all day – Cesar had not shown up for work. Daniel and the ladies in the office were simply ready to go home. But they could not get the conversations to stop and the people out the door; so they gave-up and just left us there to continue our celebrating and finish off the last of the wine.

As the crowd dwindled down to just a few of us, the diehards, we started getting silly, hanging out the barred windows of the former prison building, pleading for freedom, snapping more photos for posterity. Eventually we closed and locked the massive wood prison doors behind us, then wandered the streets giving out leftover cake.

A few days later, after all the excitement had died down and Peace Corps life was re-normalizing, I was walking the sweltering streets of Rioverde and feeling the slightest bit of post-show letdown. None of my co-workers at SEMARNAT or the Municipio had shown-up, and I wondered why. Was all the effort and expense really worth it? And what does art matter anyway, in the work of development?

Ni modo. I was already onto the next thing, meeting with the judge about our EcoFeria plan. Rushing past the storefronts on Madero, heads-down, going my usual Americana pace, I heard my name.

‘Anna, podria hablar contigo?’  the pharmaciast called out, his hands cupped around his mouth.

Darn.  I reluctantly crossed over the narrow street and ducked beneath the scalloped awning. ‘Mande, senor?’ I asked, glancing at my watch. I often stopped for a Gatorade and a chat; but today I really didn’t have the time.

‘Victor,’ he corrected me, smiling and nodding. Then he delivered a profuse and heart-felt apology for missing the photo show on Friday, explaining something about a sick family member, out in Pastora, mil disculpas.

‘No problema,’ I responded, explaining that he could visit anytime over the next two weeks. The photos will be up.

‘Ya! I already did, on Sunday with my family,’ he said. His eyes lit-up as he explained: his wife Celia loved Birds on a Wire, and his son Benjimin loved the Flying Nina. But his personal favorites were La Planta and Corn Man. He buys his elotes from Serapio, too, they are the best. And it’s such a good funny of him. Just like he is.

‘Muchas gracias,’ I said, grateful for but a bit uncomfortable with such praise.

Victor continued, the words gushing, and I tried to catch them as best I could.  His son speaks a little English; he’s learning.  It’s so important to know another language, don’t you think?  Would I be willing to talk with him someday, to help him?

‘Claro, como no, sure why not?’

Then he told me this:  He hadn’t really understood why I was here in Mexico, in his little town; and now, after looking at my photos, he did. Then he came from behind his counter in his white pharmacist coat and, contrary to distant Rioverdense style, he gave me a hug.

‘Thank you for being here in our pueblo,’ he said, ‘for leaving your country to do this work for us.  Muchimas gracias, Anna.’

I felt my face redden. I didn’t recall anyone thanking me before. It felt odd, nice, bittersweet. As much as I tried to suck them back, a few tears forced their way out. I didn’t want the pharmacist to see so I ducked out quickly, thanking him and waving as I continued down Madero.

I noticed my pace slow and the heat subside the slightest, remembering that I may never know the impact I’m having. All I could do was plant some seeds; and with some water and light and luck, they might one day become trees.And then there was the impact they had on me.


- Anne Pellicciotto served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mexico from 2010 through 2012 in the pueblo of Rioverde, San Luis Potosi. This piece is an excerpt from her book in progress, Stories from South of the Border on Surviving, Thriving and Serving.

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Landfill

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Landfill

Photography by Mark Treuenfels:

During training in Jamaica they were telling us how difficult some sites were, and as an example they described one dangerous site where a basic school had been built next to a toxic waste dump. They told us this site had no safe housing, and volunteers would have to find housing outside of the area.

That became my site. I was in shock. Some people got fishing villages, and sunsets and cool sea breezes. Some people got coffee farms in the mountains, with little waterfalls and wild ginger growing along the footpaths. I got 41 hectares of burning garbage, and 6000 souls trying to make a living off what other people throw away. Dumps in the US are nasty, smelly places. Dumps in the third world are apocalyptic. When I found I had been granted the worst site on the island I told myself, "I won't quit today."

I kept telling myself that every day, but I found something many volunteers never found. I found a group of men willing to get together every day and work for a common goal no matter how lousy they felt or how difficult it might be or even how angry with each other they were that day. These men would take salvaged aluminum from the dump, melt it down in a rudimentary blast furnace fired with waste crank case oil, pour the liquid metal and make pots and pans from it. They used a two-part sand mold method, and rammed up the molds with their bare feet. I was amazed. I didn't know that was even possible.

They had a great process and a good product, but they were barely scraping by because every backyard foundry in Kingston was making the same thing. They were all competing in this very tight market, and driving the price to rock bottom. I suggested we start making things nobody else was making. They were skeptical. These were a people who had learned to believe it when they see it. 

So I started making new patterns for them to cast. We tried a lot of things. Many never really sold. Some caught on and are still selling to this day. But what they really wanted was a new workshop. Where they were the goats could get in and walk all over their sand molds. The roof was so bad that a heavy rain could ruin days of work. I landed a USAID grant. We begged old power poles from Jamaica Public Service to use as uprights. We built a much larger workshop, poured a concrete molding floor, and got them a decent zinc roof.  

Have you ever flipped through a magazine and seen photos of sad, wide eyed children in poor countries, the text reading something like, "you can save these people for 10 cents a day?" I always resented those ads because they portray the people in those countries as victims. These photos are of men and women who live in poverty, but they are not victims, they are not pitiable, they don't need anyone to save them.

- Mark Treuenfels is a sculptor in Northern California. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica from 1999 to 2001

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Working Title: The Jamaica Project

The feature documentary Posh Corps focuses on the modern volunteer experience. Posh Corps presents the Peace Corps experience from the volunteer perspective. This intimate portrait of the volunteer experience is exactly what prospective volunteers need, a true vision of the experience they are contemplating. Posh Corps specifically avoids delving into the complexities of volunteer projects in order to focus on the volunteers as characters.

The Jamaica Project is a short film project which aims to fill this information gap for prospective volunteers. This short film will capture the experience of working on a development project in Jamaica. The Peace Corps volunteers in this film will serve as supporting characters. They will be just a few of the many people who must come together to organize a successful project. The volunteers will also serve as cultural ambassadors, translating cultural nuances for the viewer. This will help the viewer see a development project for what it really is: a complex task with many stakeholders, and many challenges.

The Jamaica Project is a much needed portrait of international development work. As this film will appear on the Posh Corps platform, it will provide the Peace Corps community with a true representation of the work that volunteers do in their communities. For general audiences, The Jamaica Project may be even more informative. This film will provide for general audiences a deeper understanding of development work.

Most films attempt to generalize in order to produce a clear call-to-action. Unfortunately, the current trend in films about international development is to produce a narrative which suggests that international development does more harm than good, or that it is a form of neocolonialism, or that it is simply ineffective. The producers of The Jamaica Project do not subscribe to this view. Our intention is to capture the complexities of international development work. We want to exhibit the people in Jamaica who are committed to developing their own communities, as well as the people who travel from their homes in the United States in order to help.

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Peace Corps to Public Health: Photography by Caryl Feldacker

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Peace Corps to Public Health: Photography by Caryl Feldacker

Ecuador

Although my love for photography started long before Peace Corps, those two years in Ecuador (PCV ’99-’01) afforded me an amazing opportunity to photograph the people and places that I grew to love. With the advantages that came with language fluency and community immersion, I was able to take close-ups of people and events that I would never have had access to as a tourist. The patience, smiles, and humility that I learned while serving as a PCV came in handy on my future travels as well, giving me insight into how to get the shots I wanted in other settings.

I work in international public health, moving from population/environment programs to family planning and integrated HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment largely in the area of monitoring and evaluation. Sometimes, I think I wound up in this career to feed my desire to travel and take photographs, but feeling like I may be part of something beneficial also makes it worthwhile. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to over 20 countries for work, and I lived for 2 years in Ecuador, Brazil, Malawi, and Israel along the way. Now, I live full time in Seattle working on HIV prevention programs in Mozambique and Zimbabwe for I-TECH, an organization out of the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington. I also have a one-year-old; I must admit my travel schedule has lessened considerably for the time being.

Vietnam

For this post, the photos of Vietnam are from vacation time I took after presenting some data from my graduate work on cholera prediction. Traveling alone, I find it easier to make friends with women and children, and with some smiles (and often a purchase of a trinket or two), it is often easy to get some amazing photographs. When I travel for these short stints, I tend to take photos of hands and feet as they show how people live and work while avoiding offending people.

Malawi

The photos of the Chewa festival are from Malawi where I lived from 2010-2011. Malawi, in general, was a fascinating place. But, as I lived there like an “expat” working in an HIV clinic as their Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor, it was hard to get out to see and understand the village life that I had grown to love in other places in the world where I lived and worked. Luckily, I made a good friend in the Peace Corps there, and when she invited me to her village, I jumped on the chance! The festival was amazing – complete with dancing, singing, costumes, and too much nsima (the local corn porridge). You can read about my experience in Malawi in the essay I wrote for, Chasing Misery: An Anthology of essays by women in humanitarian response.

- Caryl Feldacker was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1999 - 2001. She transitioned from Peace Corps to international public health, and has been traveling the world ever since.

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