It wasn’t a particularly warm day, but at the altitude of 4058 mt above sea level, the sun in downtown La Paz, Bolivia, burns strongly on your skin. I was hot, hungry and getting flustered with the cholita women who kept hiding from me as i approached to take their photo. In their belief system it’s possible to steal a part of the soul of a person in a single snapshot or visual representation where their eyes connect with the “taker”. So in the end i have quite a few photos where there seem to be bundles of clothes or blankets with a hat perched on top and their faces tucked in, hiding. C’est la vie! I had too much respect for them to simply zoom in from a distance to take a photo, and tended to request their permission, which was more often than not, denied.
Amidst the city’s hustle & bustle, unbeknownst to me a little girl had been observing me as i weaved my way around taking photos of the goings on along the Calle de los Brujos, the Shaman’s street, next to the Cathedral. There are always lots of children on the street, but what got my attention was the little boy with her, he was too small to be wandering around. Despite the fact i was merely 22yrs old, my protective instinct wanted to know where his mother was. So when she got closer, I asked her where the boys mother was, to which she responded that he was her brother. They were homeless and didn’t know where the parents were but that a few of the other cholitas in the marketplace area sometimes helped them and looked after them.
There was a deep sadness in her, understandably so… I asked her how old she was… she said she thought she was 10. We talked a little bit, mostly me telling her to please be careful. It was remarkable how well behaved and obedient the little brother was to her. Without saying very much at all to him, he followed her and obeyed. She had better authority over him, in a very gentle way, than most mothers in Australia do over their hyper rambunctious children.
I bought them some food and bought her a jacket. I gave her some money i had and we put it in the pocket of the jacket. Her gentleness and sadness were so haunting… my heart broke every day in a thousand new ways seeing the harsh living conditions my fellow country men & women had to endure… i was used to that heartache, but this little girl had such intelligence and sensitivity about her… i wished i could do something useful, but with so many homeless, there is little a 22 yr old visitor to her homeland, in my position could do.
I told her i had to go and so started to say goodbye at the same time as asking her to please be careful and look after her brother. She assured me she would. Her uneasy gaze made me stay put for a moment longer, and she took that moment to make a request, that is one of the most painful things i’d ever been asked.
She asked me if i could take her photo.
“Senorita, could you take my photo? Every day I see tourists and people taking each other’s photos here… they are important people, they come from other countries”
I told her that not everyone that came from overseas was important in their country. Most of them were just tourists. She shouldn’t be unnecessarily impressed by them.
Then this little girl spoke to me with a wisdom beyond her years, a depth of feeling and perspective that moved me more than anyone else had in a long time, and that has stayed with me since. She said, “They’re important because they have their photo taken to show other people where they were… other people will be interested in what they did .. they’re important because other people care about where they go. And they can talk about what they saw and it sounds like they know about things, even if they never talk to us. I see them pose in front of the Cathedral, so i know this Cathedral is important too. Or i see friends pose with each other and they look happy. Senorita, I followed you with my brother to watch you taking photos. Your face changed when you took pictures of different things. I saw that you tried to take photos of the cholitas but they wouldn’t let you. You were nice to them. Those cholitas know they’re important too because people always want to take photos of them. Senorita, I’ve never had my photo taken… I would like it if you could take one of me. I won’t hide my face”
i told her I could but I wouldn’t be able to give her the picture. It took 3 days for the photo developers to develop the film and I was leaving La Paz at the end of that week. It would be impossible to find her again. She replied that she didn’t want to keep the photo, ” It doesn’t matter if you can’t give it to me or i never see it. You look like an important and nice lady and I want to know what it feels like to pose for a photo and be someone special… I want to know what it feels like to smile to the camera because someone wants to remember me…. I want to see what it feels like to be important enough, special enough to have someone want to take a picture of me”.
I assured her i was not important at all. I was a Bolivian like her and had just finished studying Media Communications in Australia which is where I lived, but that I was a normal person. Not an important one. Suddenly the stupidity of what i had said hit me. And I wished I’d not said anything at all. Her eyes had widened on her otherwise expressionless blank face… and I remembered back to when I was a child living in Bolivia and the impression we had of foreigners or anyone who had the chance to travel to another country for that matter, even if it was to the neighbouring ones like Brazil, Argentina or Chile.. my heart also sank as I recalled the prestige that it was if you had the chance to study in a good school, let alone then be able to complete tertiary education in a foreign country. These things are the stuff of fantasy. Education is a golden carrot for most Bolivians both within the country and abroad. Education changes everything.
Her world was so very far from that.. homeless.. wandering the streets on a weekday, the opportunity to go to school would be a dream for her… She noticed my change in mood, whether she understood why is another issue, but she noticed it and she told me she thought I was important. As if I was the one that needed comforting and could i please take her photo. To say I was humbled by her request is an understatement. The look in her eyes pierced right through my soul. I was Overwhelmed by it to the core. In an instant I understood that this had nothing to do with a simple photo, but was about becoming visible. The hunger to go from nothing into something through this seemingly small action. Being invisible oppressed her. She had repeated the words “special” and “important” so many times…
The initial reason I had gone to Bolivia on this trip was to film my country, the people, to represent something that others had missed, but not in the patronising way our country is usually depicted. But rather to represent them with dignity, passion, from their point of view on life not a foreign impression of them…
I told her she was one of the most important people I had met on my whole trip and that I would never forget her nor her little brother and that when I could i would talk about her. I told her I would always pray for her to be safe and to have a better life and that she must also believe it will be possible. Her eyes lit up and I could see tears forming.. “you are a nice lady” …. to which i replied with tears forming in my own eyes ” you ARE a special girl”. She asked if she could give me a hug and of course I gave her a big hug. The sort of hug a mother gives yet I was only 22. All I could think about was how agonising it would be to be a child and never feel that mother’s embrace and I could feel the impact on her of not having had that. Tears fell and i didn’t try to hold them back. She saw them and for the first time gave me a little smile… “You will remember me.. thank you”.
My mind felt like it was spinning, i needed a coca tea to focus. I took the SLR camera, but was so distressed I could barely remember how to turn it on. I adjusted the settings. It didn’t have automatic focus like DSLR cameras do now and the tears kept coming so I wasn’t entirely sure the focus would be correct. I asked her if she wanted to pose in front of the Cathedral, like the tourists she’d seen. How did she want to be remembered? She said she wanted to be with her brother just sitting in a little area where they normally would go to sit because they could watch everyone around them and they felt safe there. It was in front of the Cathedral, slightly to one side. Her brother was eating a food I’d bought for them. He didn’t care about the photo in the slightest. So she took me to the spot and sat down.
From the moment I lifted my camera, I suddenly saw her transform! Everything about her demeanour before was so heavy, depressed, lonely, abandoned.
Throughout our conversation there had been little to no emotion that dared appear. But in the moment I was preparing to take her picture, I saw the trust in her eyes, the gratitude … even a coquettish quality came out .. I could see that she did, for a fleeting moment, indeed feel special! She felt important! I took a bit longer than necessary to take the photo as a way of prolonging that moment for her… she looked around coyly, perhaps to gauge the reaction of passers-by …. now she was someone important who someone else wanted to remember… her proof was that this “nice lady” was taking her picture. Her eyes spoke to me… she allowed herself to blossom with trust… and 18yrs later, this photo, is and remains, the most important photo I’ve ever taken.