Archive for December, 2006


I’m never sure how to start these things off… I suppose “welcome”? Or…

You’ve found my blog! Hooray!

This blog will be my (informal) record of three months, one week in San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala, from January 4- April 11, 2007.

This blog will be the non-academic, slang-filled personal account of my experiences. Please be forewarned that it will detail mainly the food I eat, local weather patterns, and my exercise habits. I’ll probably talk about my project quite a bit, since it’ll be on my mind a lot. The blog will most certainly contain phrases such as “insanely awesome,” “freaking amazing,” or “abso-bloody-lutely hellish” (when the going gets really rough). Also be aware that there will be numerous references to bikes, biking, and photos of bikes from Guatemala. I really can’t help it.

I welcome any and all of your comments… Just remember that this is a public (or semi-public) forum– which means if you comment on my project, I can quote you without asking permission, mwahaha.

So thanks for reading, and please feel free to pass the address along to anyone who might be interested in my project or travels.



Aboot the project

What the heck am I going to be doing in San Mateo, you may wonder?

Well, primarily I’m conducting field research for my senior thesis in Anthropology and Latin American Studies.

To contribute to that, I will be teaching a “workshop” on self-representation in Yinhatil Nab’en High School (“Seeds of Hope” in the Mayan language Chuj). The high school was built in 2005, and funded by The Ixtatán Foundation, through which I am working. I’ll be staying mainly at Ixtatán Foundation headquarters in San Mateo, and working with other volunteers.

My students will range in age from 16-23. They are all teachers- in- training, and the idea is to expose them to some different teaching methods, teach some technological skills (both Ixtatán Foundation’s objectives) and to generate a discussion on representation and identity (my objective) that they can then pass on to their students.

The workshop will consist of two parts: discussion (in-class) and “field photography.” The students will be working on several different, but ultimately related, projects over the course of three months. First, they will explore the town (and their relation to it) by taking photos of significant locations and events. Then they will interview friends and family in order to write biographical sketches and take their portraits.

Next, the students will construct autobiographies and create self-portraits using their medium of choice. Finally, continuing a project started last year by school administration, the students will be interviewing local survivors of the Guatemalan Civil War (1954-1996) and taking their portraits.

All of this will culminate in the creation of a website for the municipality of San Mateo, detailing the town’s history and history of its inhabitants.

I am conducting this workshop as Spanish 428 (Spanish Internship) at UofM. Part of the proposal for my internship included lesson plans and a journal, which will both take the form of another blog. For details and the progress of the workshop (en español), please see my internship blog.

All of this ties in quite nicely with my senior thesis project in Anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. That project looks at photographic representation of indigenous Guatemalans from the Civil War (1954-1996) onwards.

Basically, I want to see how people are represented in photos (intentionally or not), how the intended audience sees those photos, and how the photos might have been (or could be) used by Other groups (ie: international human rights groups, the Media, etc). That’s the short version of it.

"Why the *&#$@ would anyone want to read about THAT??’

Reading this blog, most of my friends and family are going “…Oh. That’s interesting.” in a don’t-make-her-feel-bad tone of voice. But ya’ll are really thinking “Why the $#@*& would anyone want to read about THAT??” So I’ll tell you a little bit about how I came to this project, and why I think it might be interesting. And then I’ll go back to talking about food, bikes, and weather, I promise.

I like taking pictures. I wouldn’t call myself a “photographer” per say, but I’ve always really liked taking pictures. I got my first camera when I was in 2nd grade or so… I won it for selling a lot of wrapping paper in one of those school fundraisers. It was teal. 110 mm film. Wind-up. Nice.

It even had a flash!

My mom always told me that I should take pictures with people in them, because they’d be more interesting. But I don’t know… I never really liked taking pictures of people. I guess I was afraid, or shy, or something.

It bugged me that everyone always looked the same in all of the pictures… “smile and say cheese!” produces this deer-in-the-headlights look. And people don’t really look like that, in real life.

So my first 10 rolls of film were of my cats, dogs, and Barbie’s wedding (and a lovely wedding it was). And then the camera got taken away.

The next time I remember taking pictures was on a fieldtrip to Williamsburg in fifth grade. Following Mom’s advice this time, there were people in every shot. People in front of dried animal skins. People in front of cannons. People in front of a really old tree. I wouldn’t say that the pictures were more interesting, exactly… but they were something.

The frozen, “if- you- make- me- smile- one- more- time- I’ll- kill- you” looks on peoples’ faces are just timeless, let me tell you.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to take pictures of people any more after that trip than I did before. And shortly after, digital photography came into being and I was no longer admonished for “wasting film.” I could take as many pictures of rocks, trees, and water as my little heart desired! And wow… did I ever.

Except for the times I traveled with my mom, all of my photos from trips taken in high school are of inanimate objects.

I didn’t get much better in college. I studied abroad my sophomore year, and nearly all of my photos were taken while I was hiking in the mountains. And, shock and amazement, they’re all landscapes. I like those photos. They’re nice. They’re on my wall, you can go see them if you’d like.

But the images that are burned into my memory are the ones I didn’t capture on film (er… in pixels? On a memory chip?). And they’re the ones with people in them.

I will never ever forget sitting in a dirt-floored schoolhouse in a squatter village in El Petén, Guatemala, when one of the afternoon rainstorms started up. We all sat around, with the rain pelting the tin roof, exchanging jokes and comparing which groups were most frequently made fun of in each of our cultures (blonds are a common denominator in Guatemala, Honduras, and the USA). As the laughter petered out, our ten-year-old guide got up and stood in the doorway, just staring out at the rain, as we all waited for it to die down. I don’t know what it was about that image, but I’m still kicking myself for not bringing my camera that day.

Somehow, I felt that walking around taking snapshots would have been disrespectful. Would it have? I really don’t know. My Honduran colleague had her little digital point-and-shoot with her, but I felt funny taking pictures of strangers. Particularly when I was a foreigner in every sense of the word.

Taking a more formal photo class this year made me realize that—hey! I really like taking pictures of people! Especially candids… no frozen smiles, thank you. Nevertheless, all of my photos are of people I know, and usually when they didn’t know I was taking their picture (heh- sorry guys!).

So my larger “guiding questions” all relate to the above little anecdote. How do people take pictures of other people? Especially, how do people take pictures of “the Other”? But then, how do we take pictures of ourselves, and our families? Why do we find pictures of other people so fascinating (take, for example, the appeal of National Geographic)? And what messages do they convey in our individual interpretations? And even more broadly: how does the “nature of photography” lend itself to these interpretations?

As a side note—I’m not out to critique anyone, or anyone’s photos. Everyone uses the medium as they see fit, which is clearly an individual choice. And I’m certainly not one to judge someone’s artistic choices. I just think it’s interesting that there is such a huge variety within the medium, and such a wide variety of uses and interpretations of photos.

So there ya go. See, not so random a choice for a project, right?

And, because I promised her I’d say this:

You were right Mom. Pictures with people in them are more interesting.