award in NPPA best of photojournalism video contest

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.


filming in a peat swamp

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.


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.


praying to a would-be saint

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.”

Published by Catholic News Service, Nov. 6, 2013

yawar fiesta video in the new york times

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.

rio host families open homes to world youth day volunteers


By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — In 2011, Luis Martinez, 29, traveled to Madrid, almost by accident. He said it was destiny that took him from his home in Fresnillo, Mexico, as a pilgrim to World Youth Day. Someone could not go at the last minute, and he ended up taking the spot.

James Kelliher, 27, was also there, visiting from London. He said his country can be “aggressively secular,” something that challenges him to think about what he believes and ultimately landed him in Madrid among millions of young Catholics from all over the world.

Both said the pilgrimage changed their lives, so much that they are now volunteering in Rio de Janeiro, preparing for 2 million pilgrims that will arrive in the city July 23-28 for World Youth Day. In addition, Pope Francis will make his first international trip to attend the event.

Martinez arrived in Rio in January, Kelliher in February. Kelliher said he cannot get enough Guarana, one of Brazil’s most popular soft drinks, while Martinez wondered how he ended up “in the only country in the world where they eat avocado with sugar and milk.” He thinks it should be with salt, as served in his beloved guacamole.
About 4,500 international volunteers will contribute to World Youth Day; an additional 55,500 Brazilian volunteers are lending a hand.

Martinez works as the Spanish language volunteer coordinator, a vital role because the majority of international volunteers speak Spanish.

Kelliher works as the social media English coordinator and in May became co-author of “World Youth Day: Inspiring Generations,” a book of testimonies from those who have attended past pilgrimages.

“I was so inspired by the event that I felt I had to do more things with my faith,” Kelliher said. “It can be difficult being a young Catholic these days; I wanted to do something to help young people feel they weren’t alone.”
Martinez said people often look for happiness in places where it cannot be found. He said he has come to realize that happiness is expressed automatically among those who share the same faith.

“I am without words for the people of Rio de Janeiro,” Martinez said. “When they open their doors to you, they open them all the way, not halfway.”

Martinez lives with a young host couple, Leandro and Danielle França, in Vila Isabel, a middle-class neighborhood known for its samba. The couple is one of more than 20,000 families hosting volunteers and pilgrims.

In July, the Franças will welcome five more pilgrims into their two-bedroom apartment. Leandro França said opening the couple’s home is an expression of their Catholic faith and at the same time a rich cultural exchange.
Martinez is learning Portuguese, and the Franças are picking up Spanish, while incorporating Martinez’s guacamole into their diet.

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere, and the cost of hotel rooms in the city has risen 50 percent in the past two years. Inés San Martín, a World Youth Day press officer, said the international event would not be possible without volunteers such as Martinez and Kelliher and host families such as the Franças.

“Host families are particularly important in receiving with open arms pilgrims who, for diverse reasons, travel alone to the event,” San Martín said. “Being received by a family, these pilgrims feel more like part of a group than if they were to stay with already formed groups of friends.”

Martinez and Kelliher have seen less of their host families as they log long hours in the office. Churches across Rio de Janeiro continue to urge members of their parishes to open their doors to pilgrims, as more homes are needed to take on the large number of youth.

Leandro França said while Brazilians are people of faith, he hoped World Youth Day would ignite what he called a “sleeping faith” in the people of Rio.

“We are doing all this work because World Youth Day will leave its mark on our hearts, on the people we’ve come to help, on the pilgrims and, above all, on the city,” he said.

brazilians reflect as papal visit approaches


By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — Carlos Rojas is the keeper of 240 keys at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Vidigal, a hillside slum in south Rio de Janeiro. He opens the church each morning, guards, cleans and closes it each night.
Before the church was built eight years ago, priests celebrated Mass in the street. Wanting their own space, Catholics in the community walked the hillside, going door-to-door, collecting signatures and eventually winning enough support to build their own sanctuary.

Brazil has more Catholics than any country in the world. In 1980 Blessed John Paul II visited the favela, or slum, and left his gold cross-shaped ring there, urging the community to sell it and use the money to better living conditions. Rojas was on the committee that helped to coordinate the visit.


Carlos Rojas, manager of Our Lady of Consolation Church in Vidigal.

In July, another pope will come to Brazil for World Youth Day. While Rojas said he quietly hoped for another papal visit, he said another favela deserves the chance to experience what Vidigal did in 1980. Since Blessed John Paul’s visit to Vidigal, Rojas said the Catholic Church has played a pivotal role in helping the once-dangerous and drug-ridden neighborhood improve.

“The only fight, the only one that the church will serve, is the noble one for truth and justice, the one for the real good, the one where the church is at one with each man,” Blessed John Paul told the people of Vidigal.

In the years that followed the papal visit, Blessed John Paul’s words rang true. His visit and the media attention it generated turned the government’s eyes to the slum. Rojas says the government began to repair streets and put in streetlights.

But for decades, Vidigal has struggled with more than poverty. Its ocean view and proximity to the most exclusive areas of Rio make it coveted real estate. Residents have been threatened by investors and in some cases evicted from their homes. Rojas said the Catholic Church has defended the residents’ rights and helped to protect their land and homes.
Our Lady of Consolation Church built an addition five years ago because it was out of space. Today the neighborhood has sewer, running water and a street named after Blessed John Paul. Hotels have sprung up and real estate prospectors continue to eye the favela, where property values are rising. The neighborhood never sold the gold ring left by the pope: It sits on display in a museum at the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Rojas said he wonders what impact Pope Francis and 2 million young Catholics will have on Rio. Throughout Rio, he said, youth are often seen as troublemakers and thieves, and events like World Youth Day are important in showing that they are not lost, but are the future.

In mid-April on the other side of town, Msgr. Joel Portela, executive secretary of the Local Organizing Committee for World Youth Day, celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Bonsucesso de Inhauma to celebrate the 100-day countdown to the event. Volunteers from dozens of countries have already arrived in Rio to prepare for the pilgrimage. At the Mass, their voices joined in song with residents of the community of Mandela.
Mandela and Vidigal were both recently targeted by police in an effort to clean up the city and rid the favelas of gangs and drug traffickers. World Youth Day in July will be the first of many major events the city will host, followed by the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.

Msgr. Portela said while Mandela is a community that has suffered a lot, like Vidigal, it shows signs of life, strength and hope. This is the message he said World Youth Day will send — that the Catholic Church is everywhere and includes everyone.

“Why Mandela? I like to invert the question, why not Mandela?” Msgr. Portela said after celebrating the Mass.
During the homily he reiterated that World Youth Day is for all of Rio de Janeiro. While some of the main events will be hosted in better-known areas of the city, such as on Copacabana beach and at the Christ the Redeemer statue, the archdiocese and the World Youth Day Local Organizing Committee have made sure to offer events citywide.
That’s the attitude that Rojas said he hoped the new pope would bring to Rio and one he says the Catholic Church should follow worldwide.

“Pope Francis says the church has to go where the people are,” Rojas said. “People don’t go to the church, the church must go to them.”



Msgr. Joel Portela, executive secretary of the Local Organizing Committee for World Youth Day.

uros islands

I came across these two images as I was organizing and backing up my archives. They are from the Uros Islands – floating islands made of totora reeds on Lake Titicaca. Back in January we shot a video on one of the islands about Adela. I loved her braids : )

uros islands lake titicaca peru