Last fall Jordan Gantz and I told the story of how the U.S. Forest Service helped Peru develop an information system for tracking wood harvested from the Amazon. The trip included my first visit to a saw mill, interaction with many hardworking and inspiring people and lots of mosquito bites.
Last fall I had the opportunity to travel for a few days down the Tambopata River with Barbara Fraser to tell this story for Mongabay. Read Barb’s full story here.
Just wanted to share a short travel video and some images I shot in Lima to accompany Nicholas Gill’s story “Lima’s Melting Pot” in the May issue of SilverKris, the travel magazine of Singapore Airlines. Here in the southern hemisphere the grey skies of winter are upon us. Missing those beautiful summer sunsets!
Peruvian Prison Aerobics, a video that I co-shot and edited for Storyhunter, received an Honorable Mention in this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism video contest. Hurray! If you didn’t get a chance to see it when it published, here’s another look.
Back in November I traveled to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon to tell the story of several scientists working with the Center for International Forestry Research. CIFOR is seeking to improve the scientific knowledge of carbon stocks and greenhouse gas fluxes in undisturbed peatlands in the Amazon basin. It was my first time shooting video in a swamp. Filming while trying not to slip or get stuck in the mud was a challenge. If I stood in one place too long my rubber boots got stuck and, without a tree nearby, there was no pulling myself out. Let’s just say we earned our aguaje ice cream at the end of the day! In addition to shooting and editing this video about the project, I also put together a video that features scientist Kristell Hergoualc’h.
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.
By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service
LURIN, Peru (CNS) — In 1975, Msgr. Joseph Hirsch spent a month living in Lima’s slums as he backpacked through South America. Now he’s back in Peru, working to prove a man he met that year is a saint.
But proving a man is a saint is no easy job, and it will take years of interviews, investigation, paperwork and prayer.
Father Joseph Walijewski from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., diocese died in Peru in 2006, after 35 years of serving the country’s poor. On March 19, his sainthood cause was launched in La Crosse.
“Even if it takes 200 years to canonize him, I think his story is something that can impact us today,” said Msgr. Hirsch, who is also from the La Crosse Diocese.
When young Msgr. Hirsch met Father Walijewski, the older priest was working in Villa El Salvador, a Lima slum. He dreamed of starting an orphanage to help the abandoned and abused children he saw daily.
In 1985, Blessed John Paul II visited Villa El Salvador. Father Walijewski shared his dream with the pope, who donated $50,000. Father Walijewski named the orphanage Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II.
The orphanage started with two children, one volunteer and one tutor. Today, Casa Hogar is home to 64 children. They live in a family style modeled after the Boys Town program. The children are divided into eight families, each with their own apartment, mother and father.
Alfredo Inigo, 21, moved to Casa Hogar when he was 8. He said Father Walijewski taught him friendship and kindness that he had never known in his own home. He lived there until he turned 18 and said he still prays to Father Walijewski.
“He was a very humble priest,” Inigo said.
When asked what Father Walijewski was like, almost everyone mentioned this humbleness. They smiled and laughed, remembering his broken Spanish.
“He almost always spoke in the present tense,” Msgr. Hirsch said.
They also talked about his childlike nature and love of singing. One of his favorite tunes was Old MacDonald, and he had perfected the sounds of each animal.
And no one could pronounce his last name. Father Walijewski would joke and tell them to call him “Padre Whiskey.”
Father Walijewski considered the orphanage his greatest work.
“The vision is to be able to transform society by teaching children how to live in families,” said Msgr. Hirsch. “The transformation of a culture happens always within marriage and within the family.”
In July, Msgr. Hirsch took over as executive director of Casa Hogar. He now lives in the house where Father Walijewski once lived.
Msgr. Hirsch said he had dreamed of working as a missionary in Latin America since his high school days. He was ordained in 1986 and patiently waited to be sent to the missions. In the meantime, he led a handful of short mission trips to Casa Hogar. Finally, in 2013, he received his first post abroad, at Holy Cross Parish in Bolivia, a church started by Father Walijewski.
Just five months later, Msgr. Hirsch was sent to Peru, tracing the footsteps of his friend.
In addition to directing Casa Hogar, Msgr. Hirsch was appointed the promoter of justice in the cause of Father Walijewski. He will spend the next five years gathering testimony. One of the first interviews he conducted was about 600 questions long and lasted six hours.
“I look at this as an opportunity to be able to learn not just the life but the spirituality of a very simple and holy priest who gave himself completely,” Msgr. Hirsch said.
Father Walijewski is buried in the hillside overlooking Casa Hogar and the sea. Every Sunday, Msgr. Hirsch takes the families up there to pray. They touch the grave and ask questions about Father Walijewski; some of the younger children never met him. Msgr. Hirsch said he hopes through his stories of Father Walijewski, he can keep his presence alive at Casa Hogar.
Thousands attended Father Walijewski’s funeral in Villa El Salvador. There, Msgr. Hirsch asked several people what it was like to know the priest.
Many told him, “This is the first saint that I’ve ever met.”
Back in June a colleague and I published this video on Bread for the World’s website about a Partners in Health program that fights malnutrition in Lima. The program trains mothers to teach other mothers in their own community how to take better care of their children.
Last week Oscar Durand and I published this video for the New York Times about Yawar Fiesta, the ancestral tradition of bullfighting with condors in Peru. Don’t miss reporter Willie Neuman’s and photographer Tomás Munita’s coverage of the event. We are now at work on a more in-depth edit for Storyhunter that looks at the conservation of the condor and the impact the tradition has on the population in Peru. It should be published in the next couple of weeks.
I snapped this picture while working on a video story for Storyhunter. The video went on to be a Vimeo staff pick and now has 50,000 views and counting! I am honored and so glad that others are enjoying Alejandro’s story. He’s definitely inspiring.