Last House

I took all the pictures in Guatemala with a small Leica digital camera at my waist. I assumed the camera saw about what I was seeing and fired hundreds of frames. Any street photographer uses this technique. Having a small black, nondescript camera helps. What I sacrifice in not having the big Nikon is returned in the expressions. The people in this doorway were looking at me looking at them. They were not looking at the camera or even a guy with a camera. I wanted to look at people on the other side of the world–and make the picture while I did. If I had a camera at my eye this would not feel the same to me. Almost any hand held camera works for this including your phone. The next time you walk anywhere take out the camera you have with you and make as many pictures as you can. See what you are seeing in the mall. What if you move a little closer to the people you pass and force them to look at you. Take that photo. I stood straight in front of this family and after a bit I waved and smiled, but not before we just looked at each other.

This was the last house before the cemetery. The crypts were brighter than this shack and yet there was a broom just out of the frame of this picture and if these people were like every other family I saw, they swept the dirt often. These are poor people but not people who don’t care. They are not checked out, wayward or addicted. They are the same as anyone else who cares for themselves, their families; they only have less money. We are the same in most ways. I just have every thing I could imagine and they have fewer things. They love the same.

These are the people I saw in the clinics and operated on while I was in Guatemala. They are generally short, mocha colored, smooth skinned and very beautiful to look at. I spent a lot of time just looking at the difference in their skin and bones and hair compared to mine. I had an odd sensation of being on a different planet and looking at everything in wonder. I love that. I love it that I allow myself to soak those visuals in and not turn away. Because of that my camera finds frames I like to look at. Simple as that. The technical parts of photography follow my willingness to look the same way that a chef’s ability to layer flavors follows her willingness to let the flavors linger.

I loved being a 6’4” gringo in the land of the short people (the kids called me grandote–look it up: the “ote” suffix in Spanish makes an adjective take on particular characteristics). Loved it because people would turn to look and then I could freely look back, like the voyeur I am. Many Guatemalans are intimately woven to their Mayan roots. The bright clothes: jungle green, cockscomb red, sun-at-ten a.m. yellow combined to make parrot colored skirts and blouses; flat facial features, skin pulled smooth over demure cheekbones, and brown, endless eyes; incredible endurance with broad flat feet carrying them up to twenty miles to see us the in clinic–carrying the crying baby girl with cleft palate to see Dustin, the American plastic surgeon, who would reinvent her mouth so she could suck and grow; small hands with very gentle handshakes combined with ready smiles in greeting. Maybe I made it up but I don’t care…felt like I could feel that Mayan lineage in their touch. I can feel what I made up it was, now, as they look at me from these dark doorways, in my camera, in this frame, on this screen, in my mind, in my heart, that’s where.

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7 Responses to Last House

  1. chelsea says:

    What a cool way to connect with people… Love that you thought of this. And, of course your descriptions transport me into your experience. Humble and genuine. Thank you.

  2. Susie Kay says:

    “I love it that I allow myself to soak those visu­als in and not turn away.”
    I love it that you do that too, because with that in you – you looked at me as an ill obese person and you didn’t look away. Instead, you looked at my potential. Thank you for seeing what I could not see. You have helped me on this road of transformation to see what I needed to see, both outside and then inside. I am still on my journey and I am not sure what will be around the corner, but I will look at whatever it is – in the eye.
    And that is because you have offered your will­ing­ness to look at me the same way you look at “a chef’s abil­ity to layer fla­vors fol­lowed by her will­ing­ness to let the fla­vors linger.”
    You intermingle your ability to see and act as a surgeon with your willingness to see and allow transformational growth for those in your care. Thank you, Stephen.
    Gratefully, Susie

  3. kathleenyago says:

    I really love your travel writing, I hope we get to read more, or at least some more images!

  4. Dr. Archer You are an amazing man… thank you for sharing your experiences both as a healer and as a human being. I wish we all had the chance to go to a country where people did not share in the wealth the we enjoy daily.(I know when I went to Honduras and help in pediatric hospitals it opened my eyes) I think it would drastically change their perspectives. But with what you shared and the light you have shed maybe someone will be encouraged to go and partake!

  5. Barbara says:

    Susie said it so well. You see beyond the surface……..thank you for that gift.

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