the gift of story

Recently I returned from Ayacucho, Peru, where a colleague and I told the story of Ana María for PRI’s The World. In its series “The Ninth Month” The World told stories of women across three different countries in their third trimester. In Peru there are 508 waiting homes, where women can stay prior to giving birth. The homes were built in an effort to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates in rural Peru, giving women quick access to healthcare professionals.

We had originally planned to tell the story from Vilcashuaman, a town about two hours from Ayacucho. For us building a relationship with the people we photograph and film is key. As soon as we arrived we explained the project to the five pregnant women in the home and received their okay to film. All of them understood and spoke some Spanish, but Quechua is their primary language. Since we don’t speak Quechua we had several employees of the nearby clinic help us communicate. Some of the women asked questions, we responded. We were received with stares and slow nods of heads, not enthusiasm but not denial either.

We began to film, following the women in their daily routine – cooking, eating, washing clothes and resting. We shared a meal and even laughs with the women. After about an hour we were asked again by the women why we were there, what we would do with the footage, would we sell their pictures on the Internet? We explained again, adding more detail. The women seemed satisfied with the answer, and we kept filming. About 30 minutes later they asked again, and then again. It was as if our words were some how getting lost in the space between us and the women. As we filmed I sensed that they were comfortable with our presence, but when they asked us why were filming I felt hesitancy and at times even hostility.

We felt misunderstood and confused. We had explained everything carefully and slowly in both Spanish and Quechua at least half a dozen times. Our patience was wearing thin. It was clear the women did not want us there. At dinner we put our cameras away and tried to explain ourselves, yet again. The director of the health center joined us, telling the women that stories are powerful and that this story could help the center receive more donations and recognition that in turn would help other women. He told them a previously published story in the foreign media had already led to improvements in the waiting home. His words, despite being in Quechua, seemed to disappear to the same place ours did.

One of the women responded by telling us she didn’t trust strangers. She was the clear leader of the group, and the others looked to her for cues. We asked her what we could do to earn her trust. She told us living through years of terrorism taught her not to trust. For more than a decade towns like hers were targeted and thousands across Peru were robbed, raped and killed. Nowadays few people visit the small towns where these women live, and the “strangers” that do are often tourists touting cameras. It is common for locals to ask them for money after their picture is taken.

To these women, we were no different than those tourists. We were outsiders, and they had no reason to welcome us. It didn’t matter how nice we were or what we said. We couldn’t pay them or make them any promises that our story would directly help their lives. They never asked us to stop filming or to leave, but we knew it would be tough to achieve intimacy and a solid interview that we knew would be the heart of the story. I’d like to think that if we had stayed with these women for a week we could have broken down barriers and told a good story, but we didn’t have time to find out. We didn’t have a week, we had two days, to finish filming the story so we called a waiting home in Ayacucho and two hours later met Ana María.

The women at the home in Ayacucho welcomed us warmly. These women were also witnesses and possibly victims of terrorism, but they decided to trust us, within minutes. As journalists we enter and exit people’s lives in the blink of an eye. We expect people to open up, on camera, after knowing us for a few minutes, hours or days. And, miraculously, usually they do. The women in Vilcashuaman and Ayacucho reminded us that when people share their lives with us, it is a gift that we should not take for granted.


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