Street Photography in Central America: The story so far

“You can’t walk around here with your camera. It will get stolen or you will get attacked”

In your day to day street photography process you can become accustomed to your surroundings. You learn the back streets, the hot spots, the mentality of the local people. The way you work almost becomes second nature as you waltz through the towns and cities getting your shots. Then one day you end up somewhere completely different. Somewhere thousands of miles away from the place you call home. Then it is a whole different ball game.

I have been in Central America for three and half weeks, in which time I have moved through 3 different countries; Mexico, Belize and now Guatemala.

The first thing that struck me was consistency in the light each day. Back home in England, almost every day is different, with the light constantly changing throughout the day. In Central America I have been able to play with some beautiful light, allowing me to be creative with the highlights and shadows - something which is a luxury back home.

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum offers some amazing vibrance through its streets. Providing you with a somewhat rustic vibe, it was the perfect place to get out and shoot, especially in the golden hour. The locals seemed approachable, and did not seem to care too much about me putting my camera into their face. The town is very small so you will see much of the same each time you shoot. However, this can be great for getting your mind thinking and working towards looking at your frame more deeply.

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Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker is not like any other place I have visited before. A tiny island with sandy roads and an array of colourful cabin like architecture, it was an extremely refreshing place to shoot. Caye Caulker, is known for its beautiful waters, so naturally there was plenty of action down on the sea front. The whole island felt like it is was always in party mode. Everyone is relaxed and carrying a smile on their face. It was absolutely an enjoyable location to shoot, and probably the place where I have got my shot of the trip so far. You can also read - 5 reasons why Caye Caulker is unbelizable.

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San Ignacio, Belize

San Ignacio was the first town where I felt an element of hesitation when going out to do some street photography. The people were far more withdrawn than what I had previously experienced in Caye Caulker, and it seemed to put a barrier in front of my creative enthusiasm. As someone who tends not to walk away from a challenge, I pushed myself out of the front door and set out to get some shots. Within ten minutes of walking I was met by a woman and her car horn, asking me to pull over to the side. She was extremely friendly but assertively told me “You can’t walk around here with your camera. It will get stolen and you may get attacked”. With this warning, I decided to put my camera in my bag and I headed back to my accommodation. I was only in the town for 48 hours so missing out was not too much of a concern.

Livingston, Guatemala

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Livingston is a small town on the east coast of Guatemala. Once you arrive it is clear you a firmly in the developing world. Young children working jobs, homes that are made out of wood that have broken down of the years and the many street sellers desperate to make any money they can. It is easy to feel an obligation to document this, however it is a story many have told before. Whilst I felt I had to be extra vigilant with my camera, I did feel comfortable to walk around for an hour and do some work. Nobody threatened me and the local people were generally warm in personality.

Antigua, Guatemala

I arrived in Antigua having spending 48 hours in the Guatemalan jungle. Antigua is a former Spanish colonial town and poverty certainly does not feel present. It was such a shock to the system after spending the past week in places where poverty really hit you in the face - hard. I honestly felt like I was in Europe, and felt my most comfortable here when shooting. It was overcast most of the day, not the greatest light to work in. However, there is plenty of personality and architecture for you to be able to get some good frames.

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I can honestly say I am loving shooting out here. The new destination, the different culture and the sense of vulnerability have given me fresh eyes and an injection of enthusiasm to shoot. I’m still to visit El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama - so there will be plenty more updates to follow!

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Overcoming my mental barrier of photographing children

I have had something playing on my mind for a while which a recent event has made me look at more closely. It’s an issues I am sure most street photographers have wrestled with before, and many more will in the future. However, it is something that has now really started to frustrate me. Why is there a stigma that certain people carry when it comes to photographing children?

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Whilst walking around the streets of Caye Caulker, Belize, I photographed many people along the way - both in a candid and non-candid setting. As I walked the final stretch back to my accommodation I came across a young boy in shorts and flip-flops who was walking in the same street. As is common on this friendly island, we said hello to each other and I asked him if he was local to the area. After chatting for a couple of minutes, and realising he was a cool kid, I asked him if he would like me to take his photo. He was happy to get involved and even asked me what he should do in front of the lens - I told him he should do whatever he wanted to do. I took the shot, then offered him my Instagram details so we could connect and I could send him the photo.

After we parted ways, only a few moments passed before I found that I was asking myself questions and becoming paranoid. “What if he tells his parents about our interaction and they get angry that a strange man has photographed their child?” and “Will people think I am a pervert because he was topless?” are just a couple of examples of the thoughts that ran through my mind.

The reality is I did not even process he was topless as it just was not something that occurred to me in that moment. The paranoia soon turned into frustration. What if the stigma surrounding taking images of children is harming the wonderful art of capturing people from all walks of life, because some photographers fear being labelled a pervert or a paedophile.

The words of stigma

I have heard it all before - “Surely it is illegal to photograph children?” or “I would not want my child photographed, you do not know what people would do with those images”. Of course, I understand people's reservations, as a society we all have a responsibility to ensure children are kept safe. The truth is that the worries more often than not are simply irrational. Those who are sadly taking advantage of children in the worst possible way make up a very small percentage of the population and therefore we should assume photographers are working with good intentions. Also, and this is even more unfortunate, paedophiles are not on the lookout to capture street portraits of children. Instead they are accessing extremely disturbing, inappropriate and illegal content to fulfil whatever needs they have.

When I take a photograph of a child, same as when I photograph an adult, I am interested in their story; maybe I am capturing their inquisitiveness, positivity, innocence or carefree outlook on life. Whilst some children have terrible starts to life, others have that beautiful ethos that the world is a perfect and amazing place - something I feel we can lose as adults. Any photographer would want to record that magic.

Over come your own mental barriers

I know for many street photographers this kind of worry is of no concern to them - like water off a duck's back - but I also know many who are reluctant to photograph children because of the potential backlash they feel they will face. To those in the latter group, I say to you this…

If you know as an artist that you only have good intentions and that you want to capture the essence of youth because you see the beauty in it, then you have nothing to worry about. You are not like the select few who sadly sexualise children and instil fear and distrust into parents and adults. If the young person is comfortable (I would aim to always ask their permission if you want to take a portrait of them) and you feel you have approached them in a sensitive and non-threatening manner - then again you have nothing to be concerned about.

Processing my paranoia and reminding myself I am a good person with strong ethics, has allowed me to start to overcome both the frustrations and barriers that I have allowed to take over my approach to photographing children. There are many amazing stories throughout the streets, with children being the main characters. It would be a shame if stigma was ever able to win the war preventing those stories from being told.

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