If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I just witnessed the visual equivalent of about five million words being created over the course of a couple of weeks. The place: Guatemala. The picture maker: Joe Coca. The project: an upcoming book on traditional textile workers in Guatemala, by Deborah Chandler with Terésa Cordon.
As we traveled over many miles of winding mountain roads, dodging sink holes and watching the altimeter go from 1500 feet to 7000 feet and back down again and again, I couldn’t help but notice that photography is hard work. All I need when I travel is a notebook and a stash of pencils. Joe on the other hand, was hauling two big cameras, bazooka-size lenses, lights, tripods, reflectors, batteries, who knows what else. And that was his “simple” setup.
Thanks to great advance work by Deborah and Tere, we were welcomed into the homes of weavers, spinners, basket makers, embroiderers, and bag twiners from one side of the country to the other. Sometimes the home was in a small village or town, sometimes on a small farmstead. Chickens wandered in and out, as did children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and stray dogs. Some of our hosts signed their photo releases with a thumb print; some spoke only Caqchikel, Quiche, or another of the many varied Mayan languages. But all were welcoming, happy to see us, happy to share their work.
Their work, to a large extent, is endangered, and they know it. Thus their willingness to let this gringo photographer with major equipment into their homes. Their smiles were gracious, even after telling us their stories of communities decimated by earthquakes and mudslides, of families decimated by a thirty-year civil war. Textiles provide the literal and figurative threads that hold Mayan culture together, and it’s far easier to express this in pictures rather than in words. You’ll see it in the faces, the hands, the tools, the cloth—once we get this book pulled together.
If you want a sneak preview, go to Joe’s Facebook page, where you’ll see a tiny sample of what he and his camera saw. If you want a closer look at the astounding variety of weaving in this country about the size of Ohio, check out Guatemalan Woven Wealth, by Deborah Chandler and Raymond Senuk.