Fotografi senza Frontiere ONLUS (Photographers without Borders – a non-profit organisation) – Kuna Project
The idea for a photo laboratory with the Kuna people of the Kunayala area of Panama.
FSF answers the questions “why Ustupu?” and “why the Kuna people?”
The idea of creating a photo lab with the Kuna people came about many years ago, when Giorgio Palmera and Gino Bianchi (respectively the current president and the anthropologist of the not-for-profit organisation Fotografi senza Frontiere) set foot on the island of Ustupu along with Simonetta Giordano to carry out a socio-anthropological project. They fell in love with the idea of creating a photo lab there.
The Kuna are one of the indigenous peoples of Central America: proud and jealous guardians of their traditions, yet not insensitive to the needs and stimuli of the modern world, which is viewed with a cautious curiosity. In fact, without giving up their own cultural customs and traditions, the Kuna have always looked for ways to integrate western culture, absorbing the parts of it that are necessary, in order to survive as an authentic culture, the values of which are safeguarded and diffused thanks also to the work of the Kuna organization based in Panama city.
Some Kuna people inhabit the suburbs of the capital, but predominantly they live in autonomous comarcas (regions) inside the borders of the state of Panama. Among these comarcas is Kuna Yala, which occupies the north-west coast of Panama and the San Blas arcipelago; 378 small islands in an arc that runs close to the coast and all the way up to the border with Colombia. Other Kuna communities live inside Colombian territory.
It was on the island of Ustupu, in the Kuna Yala comarca, that we had our first meeting with the Kuna, a meeting that showed us their openness towards the outside world and their innate curiosity for all things new. They seemed enthusiastic about our first proposal of working together with photography, and appeared interested in the possibility of using the communicative power of the mass media to safeguard their own identity.
Fotografi senza Frontiere ONLUS (Photographers without Borders – a non-profit organisation)
Preparing the project and the official presentation of our proposal to the Kuna people.
FSF describe the preparatory mission: the meeting with the Sahila - the general council meeting of the wise men – and the first contact with the inhabitants of the islands
Long-planned by the association's founders, the Kuna project required two preparatory missions. After the first exploratory trip, in which we were welcomed by the Kuna and managed to spark interest in our idea, the second mission in 2011 finally won us their full approval of creating a permanent photo lab on the island of Usupu. We were to start by teaching them the basics of photography.
In order to get the Ustupu lab started, we needed to meet the Kuna authorities, who received and listened to us on two occasions: the first was in an office in front of the harbour, where we outlined our project to the secretaries of the Sahila (the wise men, the authorities) who weighed up our proposal carefully and questionned us about it. Thanks to their approval, we were then welcomed by the Council of the Sahila of the island. Here we explained to the council what we had in mind, and with great enthusiasm, the council accepted our proposal.
A few days after our arrival on Ustupu, the Kuna General Council was to take place on the nearby island of Achutupu. This twice-yearly council meeting brings together all the chiefs and representatives of every Kuna community in Panama and Colombia to discuss the various issues that the Kuna are facing. The General Council takes place in the OnmaqquedNega (“Council House”) – a large oval hut with cane walls and a cane and palm left ceiling, held up by large posts. Seats, benches and armchairs of all kinds fill the hut, with more comfortable padded armchairs in the centre of the hut for the Saihla (wise men) and Cacique (authorities).
The Sahila and five representatives of each community take part in the council: anyone can speak publicly at the meeting and put their own questi
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ons to the council's judgement. The large, dark hall is lit by eco-lightbulbs powered by solar panels, which begins to tell us something about the strange mixture of traditions and technology that the Kuna represent. In this place, which seems timeless to our eyes, we'll be presenting our project, so that everyone knows why we're there and what we'll be doing on Ustupu.
The Cacique (the highest authorities in the general council), listened to us with humility and respect, asked us some pertinent questions and then allowed us to record the activities of the Kuna General Council, making it clear to us that they were interested in the conservation and transmission of their people's cultural memory, asking us directly to teach their young people the techniques needed to spread their message far and wide.
The Kuna parliament then returned to more important internal affairs, with many matters for their consideration. The meeting lasts three long days and the sound of these almost-recited words, along with the dim lighting, mean that it's easy for participants to doze off. Hence the presence of the dueños de el palo – people tasked with keeping them awake with occasional shouts and heavy thuds of their long wooden poles against the ground. On the seats at the side, day-to-day social life carries on as though nothing were happening in the centre… without disturbing the speakers of the meeting, mothers cradle babies, children play, running and hiding under the benches, women embroider the molas (a traditional female item of clothing with brightly coloured designs stitched into it), men chat and weave palm fans. When the time comes for the vote (central to the Kuna governing system), attention focuses on the decisions that need to be made, and after hearing the pros and cons, voting is collective and apparently democratic.
After this first, quite emotional, encounter with the social and organizational structure of the Kuna, we're to spend about 3 weeks in activities with the young men and women of Ustupu who are interested in photography. In those three weeks, our task is to teach the basics of photographic techniques and language to our students, who immediately get involved with great enthusiasm. After this short period of introduction and training, we present the young men and women's first results to the Sahila and the community of Ustupu, as well as showing a backstage video (which is here shown to the rest of the world for the first time) in order to show and explain the work we've carried out. We get their agreement and approval to continue the collaboration.
Video by Sergio Lo Cascio
We'll need another journey (which will take place in 2012) to transport the necessary materials for the darkroom, and to have time to teach the young (and not-so-young) how to use the professional cameras we'll be taking them in order to start gathering and recording the stories, customs and traditions of the Kuna people.
The Onmaqqued-Dummad is where all matters affecting the indigenous people of the area's islands are discussed. It takes place twice a year and brings all the Saihla and Cacique together. Paintings of ancestors and famous Saihla surround and inspire the meetings. Anyone can speak publicly at the meeting and put their own questions to the popular vote. The large, dark hall is lit by eco-lightbulbs powered by solar panels, which begins to tell us something about the strange mixture of traditions and technology that the Kuna represent. In this place, which seems timeless to our eyes, we'll be presenting our project. They listened to us twice: the first time in an office, where the secretaries of the Saihla of Ustupu (the island where we're hosted), listened to our idea, weighed up our words and asked us some questions; the second time, following their approval, in front of the general council meeting of the Saihla of the island of Ustupu themselves. Here we explained to the council what we had in mind, and with great enthusiasm, the council accepted our proposal. Without fully realising it, we were receiving an initiation into the culture of a wonderful people, still capable of respecting and defending their own traditions, with an intelligent eye on the future.
Almost all the tests had been passed, and all that remained was the Great Council.
The next day we were in front of the Cacique, who listened to us with great humbleness, asked us some pertinent questions and, with considerable foresight, allowed us to record the Onmaqqued for the first time ever in their history of encounters with other peoples. They made sure we runderstood that they were interested in the cultural memory of their ethnic group, and expressly asked us to spread their message as far and wide as possible.
….see you in the next episode!
© all photos have been realised in the FSF Ustupu photo laboratory by FSF students or operators.