From Cartagena: Meeting Eluis

Follow along the 100cameras team experience during Flagship Project Cartagena. This post was written after project completion by teammate, Elle Wildhagen, as a personal reflection from meeting students for the first time. At the beginning of each course, every student enters the classroom with a different background, personality, and level of openness to the ideas of not only learning photography but also to learning how to process and tell their own stories. We are committed to creating space for each kid to explore their past, present, and future through photography with no judgment or expectations. 

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It was a scorching morning in La Boquilla, a humble fishing town with its narrow stretch of bright, sandy beach that jetted out into the sea, speckled with tiny but colorful homes. At eighty-nine degrees, we found ourselves chugging water and trying to soak up as much shade as possible while we worked with the kids at the school. The school is one large cinderblock outline with an open courtyard of concrete surrounded by classrooms, its whiteness reflecting the sun, sending it spreading across the students as they sat behind their desks. It was also portrait day, the afternoon where we sit each of the kids down, individually and take their photograph for the 100cameras website.

I am not a Spanish speaker and most of my communication with the kids has been through exaggerated gestures, interspersed “lo sientos” and “repite, por favor”. But, as a photographer, capturing a portrait of someone is the epitome of capturing who they are. I wanted the portraits to be real; to be joyful and sincere, displaying the varied and unique personalities that each kid showed us every morning. So with my tripod set up in the only unoccupied classroom, I set out to do precisely that, even without the right words.

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One by one, they came teetering into the empty room, eyeing me with curiosity as they sat at a bright blue desk, staring through my camera straight at me. I would begin my gesturing game, making goofy faces, weird noises, asking them to mirror me, doing just about anything to make them genuinely grin. It wasn’t too long before we’d both be buckled over laughing at their imitation or the awkwardness of trying to simply communicate without a common language. After finishing all 24 portraits, we realized we still had one missing: Eluis. 

I walked around searching for him and found him silently sitting with a teacher in an unoccupied corner of the school, his eyebrows furled, his furious fists clasped tightly. He was trying to cool off, droplets of water covered his hair, dripping down his face. It was clearly not working. The teacher let me know he had just been in a very serious fight with one of the other boys in the class and after being pried apart from one another, he was quarantined from the others. This is something that happens between the younger boys often (without much injury) as they imitate the men and teenage boys they see, holding their ground without tears or sign of surrender, until finally separated by a fellow classmate or teacher. 

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Hopeful, I asked if we could at least try. With much resistance, we ushered him into the empty classroom and sat him at the bright blue desk. He immediately grimaced, his teeth flashing, a sneering attempt at a smile for the camera. After taking one photo, I noticed the water still glistening on his face from the fight. Instead of attempting to make him laugh, I got up and walked over to him, gesturing that I needed to clean off his face for the portrait. He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh as I used my hands to gently wipe the water from his little cheeks, nose, forehead and chin. As I did it, I watched his fists unfurl and he leaned in, his demeanor shifting from a stubborn adolescent to a vulnerable boy as he surrendered to the care he needed. Even once the water was gone, I continued carefully cleaning his face, running my fingers over his forehead as we both paused together for a moment, while the sound of fellow classmates lingered faintly outside. Letting go of the wall between us, we just sat there together and I consoled him in the only way I could: without words. 

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