TAKING OVER THE MANGROVE
The mangrove is a semi submerged forest under sea water in which a photographic exhibition was made for the first time. In this habitat, photographer Felipe Jácome showed the children who work there the images that he took of them along nine years. To return their portraits, he printed the photographs, traveled 300 kilometers with them, took a canoe and hung them among the trees.
The official exhibition was inaugurated at the Center for Contemporary Art, there were visitors, press releases and, a month later, the photographs were removed from the walls. In April of this year the exhibition completed its life cycle, but photographer Felipe Jácome insisted on hanging his images in the mangrove swamp, a submerged forest under salty water where only small canoes can enter.
In early June, Jácome traveled to San Lorenzo, a port city surrounded by river and sea waters. In its streets full of Afro-Ecuadorians, Felipe’s white complexion was distinguished from a distance. He made plans to mount the photographs on the trees, the exhibition would be at the end of July on International Mangrove Day.
As the date approached, Felipe Jácome, who is also an economist, went to Haiti to work as an international consultant for the World Bank. Wherever he goes he looks for stories to photograph. In 2014 he published portraits of community leaders rebuilding that country, still fractured by the earthquake. Earlier, in 2013, he photographed Amazonean indigenous women who made a long march to claim for their territories. In 2011, in Beirut, he photographed Syrian refugees’ stateless children. In 2010, he registered the effects of the Colombian war on the Ecuadorian border. In 2007 he photographed La Bestia, the train that crosses Mexico transporting undocumented migrants. His projects are a testimony to the expulsion, but the work he has devoted most time to is that of the children that the mangrove takes in.
The first time he stepped on the mangrove swamp in northern Ecuador, in 2008, he accompanied communities to collect oyster (an edible mollusk). He went at the speed of children because it was difficult to move through trees flooded by water, while adults were impossible to reach. His slowness allowed him to photograph the little ones who worked exhausted, but were taking over the forest. After nine years of constantly returning to the place, Felipe Jácome gathered the photographic body he called Los Reyes del Manglar (The Mangrove’s Kings). The cycle would only end, he argued, if the photos returned to those who appear in them.
He looked happy days before the exhibition when we met in Quito for a coffee. He had obtained funds to take the photographs by boat for the concheros (oyster collectors) to see them hanging on the trees. We will be able to accompany them to oyster picking before the mangrove show opens, he told me. I asked if any conchero could criticize his exposition. Tell him, for example, that he makes all this effort for fame and that’s it. He answered:
–I am the photographer that I am at a technical level, at a quality level, thanks to the mangrove. And the recognition that I have, or may have, is thanks to the mangrove. Yes, certainly. There is no denying it. That is the situation of photographers, of artists.
The canoe did not reach the shore, we got a little wet to get it up. About twenty people were on board when the engine started. We could see in the distance a thin green line dividing the sky from the water, it was the mangrove in which we were going to disembark. In successive stops people began to get off; two here, three there. It was nine in the morning, they had four hours to fill the bucket, while the tide was still low. Then it would go back up and the forest would be impossible to walk through.
In the forest darkened ambience, we entered with three concheros carrying smoking lighters. The smoke and the clothing that covered the body tried to protect us from the mosquitoes that, despite everything, bit our hands and eyelids. In the mangrove, tree branches stick to the ground, creating tangled networks of sticks that cannot be traversed. The concheros walked on the branches to be able to advance. When they found a piece of cleared soil, they felt the rigid covering of the oyster in the mud.
The shirt that covered my face was wet with sweat. While the locals only used their feet to walk on the branches, we strangers also supported ourselves with our hands so as not to fall. We advanced slowly, listening to the thud of the oysters falling into the buckets. Milena, 18, and José, 16, were counting aloud the ones they found; they were competing. Jeremy, 10, was searching among tree roots for oysters that only his Lilliputian hand could reach. They passed crouching, avoiding the stabbing pain that occurs when getting up.
Exhausted and with a long way to go, I heard Milena sing love songs while she was working. Jeremy would let out something like a rap. The buckets were filling up when we heard other songs further on. There was another group of concheros nearby and they shouted to say hello. The music eased the anxiety.
Felipe Jácome’s camera accompanied their work in silence. If there was a lot of light, he had to wait hours to photograph, but when the sun diminished he crouched down next to Milena to take a picture of her; he told her “don’t be mean, look at me for a little while”. Then he asked both boys to sit on some branches, to be still, and he shot over and over again. José and Jeremy got tired, showed boredom and Felipe thanked them.
When the boots began to get wet, Milena knew that the tide was rising, so we had to go out. She would get 8 cents for each of the over 100 oysters collected. It was 1 in the afternoon when we left the forest to wait for the boat. We saw some ladies from another group submerged with clothes in the warm water. They joked and laughed. The young people cooled off by jumping into the salty waters from the trees. Felipe hugged a lofty branch with his legs and began to take photographs.
Every national dish was initially local. Until 1957 the
ceviche could only be found on the coast, but that year Ibarra city communicated by train with San Lorenzo and with thousands of mangroves’ hectares. The seafood traveled twelve hours without refrigeration. The merchants poured water on it to make it live a little longer in order to prevent intoxication. It offered an unknown flavor that pleasantly stings the palate and with time it occupied a leading place in the culinary tradition of Ecuador.
Food does not always enter through the eyes that decipher and analyze. There is one kind that stimulates atavistic instincts and makes us attack it with all our teeth. That’s the case with oyster ceviche. If one meditates on that cold broth (purple color, protruding from the misshapen flesh of a swamp mollusk), one doesn’t get any useful thoughts. We only stop to squeeze lemon before gobbling a spoon overflowing with seafood.
Oyster is the mollusk but also its covering, the two parts that protect it. The impregnable mangrove is a second envelope. An amphibian, forest and aquatic habitat.
Canvas is the material used in billboards, boat sails, and has recently been recycled to make purses. It’s heavy, a bit stiff, and waterproof, ideal for printing these black and white photos. They were 6 meters long and 4 meters wide, very large. To hang them they used ladders that danced on the roots of the trees. Once installed, the photographs were less impressive: the mangrove makes everything look smaller.
The boat was wide enough to carry seventy people standing up, but that July 23 it could not pass through the channel that would lead us to the exhibition. Most on board were children from Tambillo, one of the 26 communities that collect oysters in the region. While we waited for the way to be cleared with a machete, a cultural group played the marimba and people danced softly.
The boat came in with the engine off under the shade of fifty-meter trees. The hanging photographs appeared in a circle and the children jumped overboard. They ran, they shouted, filling the branches with colors. “The Mangrove’s Kings” took shape. “Look at that oyster there, boy!”, a woman yelled. Some young men began to pick oysters and others ran them over on their way to the photographs. A group arrived at the center of the exhibition, a place from which all the portraits could be seen. They started to turn their gaze, contemplating themselves or their people.
A cameraman who recorded the children’s visit commented that they arrived in groups, with excitement, but that the moment of seeing the photographs was rather individual and silent.
When the marimba sounded again the children ran back to the boat. They were in the exhibition for twenty minutes and began to comment as they returned to Tambillo. The few adults gave their opinion laconicly: elegant or motivating, they said. Joel, 10, didn’t like the photos because they were black and white, they had no colors. Merlina, 8, said “this is our life in the mangrove”. She liked finding her sister in a portrait.
Back in Tambillo we ate in a house that, like the rest of them, has pillars that raise it from the ground. When we got out the tide had risen, the water covered the ground and some boys made a boat out of a rusty refrigerator. The floating garbage was the landscape of a town in which, according to the last census, 98.5% of its 1,600 inhabitants are poor. The people took out small canoes and began to row. You are in Ecuador’s Venice, a lady told me with an intriguing smile.
A few days later a photo tarp was stolen, perhaps to cover a boat or a house. In August, at least three communities visited the exhibition. From Haiti, Felipe Jácome organized the logistics, the cameramen and the making of a video via cell phone.
The president of Tambillo town, Mrs. Malena Solis, said that those photos’ natural habitat was the mangrove swamp. Jácome’s photography provokes an opening of this elusive world and keeps it in the memory of those of us who have observed the images . Without permission from the photographer, on the last visit to the exhibition, members of a shellfish community in Palma Real took another canvas to frame and hang it in their community. Greater recognition.
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