For a whole year, we stayed in contact with Jesús Smith, our contact with the Kuna in Panama.
© Text and Photos by FSF Ustupu photo laboratory and FSF students or operators.
He kept both us and the Sahila up to date with developments in the project, and tried to work out when would be the best time to set up the photo lab. While the Kuna organisation LFDPI took charge of the logistics and transfers, the staff of FSF gathered the material necessary for the project: fund-raising events, envoys sent out to photography festivals throughout Italy and donations from technical sponsors helped us raise the money needed for shipping, as well as assemble the equipment: film and digital cameras, an enlarger, photographic paper, developing liquids, three computers and hard disks for archiving.
Several meetings and video conferences with Jesús helped identify January 2012 as the starting date for the course since it was also a holiday period for Kuna children, which would mean that young people living in the city could also take part.
When we arrived at Panama City, Jesús was already waiting for us at the reception of the hotel: For a week, we did nothing but try to get hold of material that we still needed. Traipsing round stores in the city, we bought metres and metres of black cloth, electrical cables, switches, plastic containers, flasks and measuring jugs. And in between the shopping trips were meetings with Jesús and with the Cachique in their office in Panama City, where we again outlined the project and photographed the Sahila, who were all keen to have their portraits taken.
This type of procedure is normal for the Kuna: even if a project has been approved by their council, it is continually discussed and evaluated, so that it doesn’t drift away from its objectives, and so that there are no misunderstandings.
On the 19th July, the FSF team was completed by the arrival from Milan of Giorgio Gori and Lucia Ceriani, who would be videoing the project, and Saúl Palma Cruz from Managua, for whom this would be a first teaching experience outside his own country. Everything was ready, and the four suitcases brought from Milan were added to the three existing packs of materials and food.
The expedition set off at dawn on the 22nd January, a convoy of three jeeps that crossed the country coast to coast, through the equatorial forest that’s part of Kuna territory, intact and untouched in accordance with the Kuna principle that since the forest supplies man with all he needs, including medicinal herbs, it is the real treasure of the indigenous people.
In Cartì, the Kuna outpost on the mainland facing the Caribbean, we boarded a boat for a long trip south, to the island of Ustupu (Usdub in Kuna writing) where the photo lab will be based. We arrive the following evening after a weather-enforced stopover.
Once on the island, a whole new series of consultations began: first in the Onmaked Nega (Council House) of Ustupu, then at the council meeting of the administrative Sahila, and finally with the Sahila of Ogosucum, the second-largest community on Ustupu, set up following a difference of opinion between two groups of Sahila, the Nele Kantule and the Yougun, the former more open to contact with different cultures, the latter more inclined towards isolation.
At the meeting, a number of youngsters and adults put themselves forward as students of the photo lab.
After much consultation, the administration gave us two rooms in an ex-monastery to put up the darkroom: this was the first step. We were helped by Jesús and Duiren – a young Kuna living in Panama and nephew of one of the highest-ranking Sahila on Ustupu, back on the island for the express purpose of taking part in the laboratory. Duiren helped putting up posts and partitions, and darkening the windows as much as possible; in the darkest corner of the room we set up the darkroom, slightly unstable at first glance, made of heavy black cloth fixed to the beams, but which proved man for the job.
In a few days, everything was ready for the first lesson.
The first morning, 17 people turned up, adults and kids, equally divided between girls and boys but of vastly different ages: from 9-year old Naila to 50-year old Toyo. Jesús, local tutor of the group, was 57.
After introducing the themes of the course, the lessons were led by Saúl, who came from Nicaragua especially for this project. Saúl is a symbol for us of what you can achieve if you really try, of how you can direct your own life if you want something with all your heart. We remember him in his first year in Italy, where he had won a grant from the IED and found himself parachuted down into unfamiliar territory. He was shy, introverted, perhaps ill-at-ease with his background as a working child; yet he always had a camera in his hand, ready to capture meaningful images.
We hadn’t seen him for three years, and now stood in front of us was a man with clear ideas, ready to tackle this experience without fear; the frightened young man from Milan had completely disappeared. Saúl is a real example for our pupils: approachable, attentive, scrupulous, he immediately knew how to talk on the students’ level, defeating their diffidence and shyness. He looked them straight in the eye and seemed to be able to read their thoughts, their doubts and their anxieties. It was as though he wanted to convey to them a bit of his perseverance and make them understand that nothing is impossible. And the kids were totally at ease with him, always seeking him out and asking his advice, confident in the way he was teaching them. His example made us all the more convinced in what we were doing, and in moments of difficulty, we looked at him and found the inspiration to go on.
The lessons alternated theory and practice: for every new topic introduced, after an explanation on the blackboard or using posters, everyone went out into the courtyard or into the village to put the lesson into practice. The first lessons were on exposure and aperture to get the right light, on focusing and depth of field, on framing and harmony in the image. The first time they tried it all out, the kids were awkward and a bit scared of everything, but constant practice and Saúl’s explanations meant that we saw improvements fast.
After a first phase in which the students could shoot whatever they wanted, we suggested they chose themes to build up a reportage on Kuna culture. Their choices allowed us to see their diverse interests, yet their shared desire to deepen knowledge of their own culture. We then got the students to make interviews on the same subjects they had chosen, with a view to extending the photographic work.
Since it was February, month of the Festival of Independence, many of the students chose that event as their theme: predominantly, it was the adolescent males who chose the topic, probably because they were interested in capturing the battle re-enactments that overtake the village as they prepare for the big event on the 25th February, but perhaps less aware of the reasons behind the celebration itself. The girls almost all chose the theme of the Molas, the typical dress of the Kuna women which is worn by all women of marrying age for the whole month of festivities. But some people picked other themes: Durien was interested in the life of the Sahila; Toyo devoted his attention to the way the traditional houses are built; Lisseika chose the birth of the Yarsursuit co-operative; Andrés picked the boat-building techniques used for the cayucos – typical of the Kuna people and made from hollowed out tree trunks.
Moving around the village and picking subjects to interview, the students honed their technical skills and learned about their own culture; the darkroom sessions helped them understand what mistakes they might be making and prepare for the final project, when the photos would be selected and printed for an exhibition to be given for the community.
The course carried on, despite a few of the students losing interest and dropping out. Those who stayed continued tenaciously. In the Wednesday meetings in the Council House, the photo lab was always discussed; some opposing voices were heard, because no foreigner had ever been allowed to film the preparations for the festival of the 25th, but seeing the young people so interested and occupied learning more about the customs of the village, the majority saw the experience as positive and encouraging in the way it was passing on traditional knowledge.
With work progressing at a quickening pace, the days passed quickly; the kids grew increasingly dedicated and aware as the day of the celebration and the final exhibition drew closer. Kuna
Video realised by Emiliano Scatarzi, Giorgio Gori, Lucia Ceriani