With cameras, kids see a dump full of dreams

SNAPSHOTS OF SURVIVAL IN GUATEMALA

June 11, 1993|By Fiona Neill | Fiona Neill,Contributing Writer

GUATEMALA CITY -- Rosario Lopez wants to be a professional photographer when she grows up. For a 10-year-old indigenous girl living in a wooden shack on Guatemala City's garbage dump, such a wish sounds like an impossible dream.

But Rosario's photos already have been exhibited as far away as Tokyo, and her scenes of life on the dump will soon be on show in Texas, Alabama and Paris.

"I like to take photos of animals and people working," says Rosario, who keeps her camera with her at all times. "It makes me happy." Her family sought refuge in the dump 10 years ago, to escape the brutal civil war that has driven a million mainly indigenous Guatemalans from their rural homes. The dump is the only home Rosario knows.

She is immune to the foul stench of rotting garbage, the hordes of vultures and the sight of hundreds of people scavenging for bottles, plastic and nylon to sell to recycling plants. For her the dump has become fertile ground for her budding career as a photographer.

Rosario and seven other children from the dump have been given a chance to dream through a project started by Michigan-born photographer Nancy McGirr.

Weary after years spent documenting the atrocities of civil war in El Salvador for the Reuters news agency, Ms. McGirr had been looking for a way to use her skills to open up the eyes of children such as Rosario to photography. Kids were always fascinated with her cameras, she says.

"I couldn't document any more scenes of mothers mourning over the death of their sons. I would probably be crazy in Yugoslavia by now," she says. "Working with kids is a renewing experience."

Starting small

Ms. McGirr first visited the dump, home to about 3,500 impoverished Guatemalans, while on assignment in 1991. She began teaching photography twice a week to a group of eight children after an American nun told her about the plight of kids living there.

Her only conditions were that the children should attend school and stay away from glue sniffing. Her youngest student was JTC Rosario's sister Marta, then 6, who Ms. McGirr says was so tiny that her first shots were of people's waistlines.

Marta now developes her own film and prints her photos. When she has difficulties, she asks Rosario for help.

Until early this year, all classes were held in a workshop beside the dump, but after one of the children was attacked by a pack of dogs and another was robbed of his camera, Ms. McGirr found a new location.

Each week the kids bring a roll of black and white film to develop in classes held in a church building, a 15-minute walk from the dump, where photos are discussed and criticized. Plans are under way to put out a photo-magazine that the children have named "The Murderous Dragons."

Each has developed a style and preferences. Rember Ramirez, 13, whose talent already has been spotted by Reuters, gives himself different assignments.

One of his favorites is his series on vultures, which keep the dump clean by clearing rubbish.

Some of 11-year-old Gladiz Jimenez's best shots are of wrestling in a Guatemala City club. After months spent perfecting a series of photos of Barbie dolls, Miriam Esquivel has moved on to baptisms.

Photos 'like poetry'

Even after a year and a half of teaching the children, Ms. McGirr

is constantly surprised by their talent and ingenuity. "I was interested to see how they would see things, but I thought they would be more childlike. Some of their photos are just lyrical, like poetry. They are visual kids. When they have problems, they don't talk about it."

The photos give powerful insight into the children's life at the dump and the violent world of domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction in which they live.

A shot by Adelso Ordonez, 11, shows his sister standing in a room strewn with clothes thrown by his father in a drunken rage. When sober enough to move, Adelso's father beats him. Several times the boy has come to class with a black eye.

Talent noticed

The children's talent caught the attention of the Japanese company Konika, which donated cameras, film and other equipment to the project for a year. In 1992, Ms. McGirr's project was a finalist in the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary.

Cards with the children's photos are on sale in Guatemala, and the money raised is used to pay for school uniforms and books and to provide extra income for families where parents earn an average $20 a week selling rubbish from the dump.

"One mother told me that you are born on the dump, work on the dump and buried on the dump," says Ms. McGirr. "I wanted to get them excited about learning so they know there are other options."

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