Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Big Night in the City Different - A Celebration of Nicaragua

This Friday in Santa Fe, NM, I'll be joining two other photographers for the opening of a photo exhibition featuring images from a trip we took to Nicaragua last November. The exhibition is a fundraiser for various humanitarian projects in Nicaragua.

"Humanitarian" being the kinder, gentler word to mean "extreme poverty". Poverty, indeed, is complex in its discussion and understanding. Nicaragua, however, after Haiti, is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. One out of every six people in Nicaragua simply does not get enough food to eat; and one out of every three children in that country suffers from chronic malnutrition. In simpler terms: every third child you see in Nicaragua is starving and the sad truth is that our pets are better fed then most of the population of Nicaragua.

These are heady statistics and you've heard them all a million times before juxtaposed against an endless assortment of impossibly heartbreaking images proffered before you again and again. The sad truths of Nicaragua, a legacy we Americans helped create in the 1980's, are often ignored and dismissed. Too often we are steadfast in our refusal to believe what we already know to be true. And often overwhelmed by our own problems - we too easily harden hearts and turn our backs and are empathetic only to the point that we can easily imagine our own condition to be equally daunting - ignoring the fact that we'd be hard pressed to find a doctor anywhere that would describe us as malnourished.

Friday night will be the first time that my photography is shared to the public outside of the virtual world of blogs and websites. It will be the first time that I will be formally introduced in public as "a photographer". Am I nervous - just a little bit. But no more than then the first time I posted a photo on my blog two years ago with then what seemed like outrageous audacity to brand the label ©TR Ryan under it. I took a big breath and pushed the send button. What followed has changed my life, needless to say.

I am imagining the event this Friday as nothing more than a big live blog post. The only difference is that my virtual thumbnail images are now impossibly embiggened and framed and I'll actually be standing in the comment section when curious onlookers decide to post a comment before passing on.

Seriously though: what really makes Friday a "Big Night" for me has much less to do with finally getting to dress in the professional moniker of photographer for a few hours and much more to do with finally seeing the fruition of my steadfast belief in the power of photography to create awareness, open a space to begin a conversation and, most importantly - open a window to a world most people can't see. This is the moment I'd hoped for when I made a commitment two years ago to take photography much more seriously. The fact that my first exhibition is in the third largest art market in the United States is just a little extra nerve-wracking icing on the cake.

The road to Nicaragua was born in the highlands of central Mexico two years ago in a private class with National Geographic photographer Raul Tuzon sponsored by Santa Fe Workshops. From that encounter - an invitation was extended by Santa Fe photojournalist Susan Boe to join a private photographer's donor tour designed to explore some of the incredible humanitarian organizations waging the war against poverty in Latin America's poorest country.

Our host for the week was the Nicaraguan charity Empowerment International and it's founder Kathy Adams. An encounter with two street kids while working in Costa Rica as an engineer right after college graduation changed Kathy Adams' life forever. She never left Central America and since 2003 she has been the founder and director of this successful grassroots organization that addresses poverty through education. Empowerment International helps to break the repeating cycle of poverty by working with parents to keep their children in school and by providing children in high risk areas with the physical and emotional support needed to stay in school.

Susan Boe and I were joined in Nicaragua by other extremely talented Santa Fe photographers including Morgan Smith, journalist and former Colorado congressman, and Judith Cooper Hayden, celebrated photographer of the definitive photographic design and travel tome "Oaxaca - The Spirit of Mexico". I don't think any of us, all wizened world travelers, were prepared for how quickly we would lose our hearts and souls to the captivating beauty of both the land and people of Nicaragua. Never in all my travels have I seen such resilient courage and uncomplicated joy flower so beautifully from the muck and mire of such desperate circumstances.

Our trip that week not only wove through rural and urban barrios but also in and out of some of the country's vast geography of mountains, volcanoes, forests and wetlands.

Nicaragua enjoys a biodiversity nearly unmatched around the world and very little of it is truly protected. It was in that context, within this harsh juxtaposition of impoverished humans and stunning landscape that I finally understood the inexorable link between poverty and the loss of biodiversity. Conservation cannot and will not happen until the issues of poverty are addressed and alleviated.

Empowerment International also understands the complex intersection of poverty and conservation and knows that protecting the biodiversity of Nicaragua is intrinsically linked to the human well-being of the community and to celebration of place. To that end, Adams' photography program, Mi Camera - Mi Mundo, which puts a camera in the hands of many of her impoverished students is nothing short of brilliant. It not only provides students with a creative and artistic outlet but, through the lens, also engenders an overwhelming connection to place and an awareness and appreciation for the natural beauty of Nicaragua.

The amazing thing about the social media phenomenon right now - us bloggers, facebookers, and tweeters - is that we suddenly discover that we are straddling that fine line between storytelling and citizen journalists and often find ourselves in unique situations to shed the light of truth in places more conventional media ignore. This is the path that I follow with my camera and this is the path that leads me from the darkest depths of a desperately poor barrio in Nicaragua to the swank wine-swilling crowd of a Santa Fe gallery this coming Friday. I walk this path with outrageous hope and unabashed faith that the connection I make between my camera and the people and places of this world can and will make a change - no matter how small.

I know most of you can't make the gallery opening in Santa Fe this Friday. But I encourage you to follow the links to Empowerment International and see first hand the amazing work of Kathy Adams and her team. And come meet these special people from the barrios who's enduring human spirit rises from this once voiceless, powerless place - carved out of obscene oppression and the abysmal failures of democracy and politics.

And while there, maybe drop a few coins in the bucket. The little funds Adams mines out of that bucket have already gone a long way to foster the continued self-empowerment of several rural and urban communities in Nicaragua.

I'll be sharing much more of my trip to Nicaragua here all month long.
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