Everything began when I traveled to South America, where I went to look for adventure, to live new experiences, and to know cultures utterly different from my own.
All that I saw, and felt, and experienced during those travels, taught me too much, and gave me the necessity to help those who are in need. So I went to work with ANIA (Asociación para la Niñez y su Ambiente)—an NGO in the Peruvian Amazon. Their purpose is to preserve nature through working with children, who hold the future of our planet in their hands. With an education based on preserving and respecting the environment, today’s children can stop the errors that we, now and in the past, have committed.
ANIA works by distributing small pieces of land, where the children can take care of it, conserve it, and understand its real value. They can be taught how to use nature without damaging it.
These photographs are the fruit of my time working in Palma Real, a small Esa Eja village, where I taught English and ran a photography project for the children with the support of Kodak Perú.
The Ese Eja are an indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru, in the southwestern Amazon. Around 1,300 Ese Eja live in Bolivia, in the Pando and Beni Departments, in the foothills along the Beni and the Madre de Dios Rivers. In Peru, they live along the Tambopata and Heath Rivers, near the town of Puerto Maldonado.
For the photography project, I gave cameras to the children, so that they could learn a new way to communicate, but also could show us how they see and experience their world.
It was a big challenge for me to work in Palma Real, since it took a while for me to be integrated into the community, even if I was working with a local NGO. The people from the village saw me as a stranger, and so I had to take it slow until I was accepted, especially with the men.
Football was my way to gain their trust, since every day they would play football on a makeshift pitch in the center of their village. When they realized that I could play, they began to become more friendly and invited me to take part in many village activities.
On the other hand the children of the village received me straight away with a smile. They were very excited just to know that they would have the opportunity to play with cameras.
In a place where toys are rocks, sticks, and any kind of plastic container that they can find, the cameras I had brought were both magical and fascinating to the children.
Adapting to life there was not easy in the beginning, but after a few weeks I remember how disorientating it was to go back to the civilization of Puerto Maldonado — the town where the ANIA headquarters were, and where I had to file a report every twenty days — and face the streets full of motorcycles, people, noise, and confusion.
It was so difficult and I used to count the days until I could go back to Palma Real, because even though it was me who went there to teach, I think the person who learned the most was me.
I learned a new way of life, living with fewer things, with no commodities, and every time we walked through the jungle I became humbled and fascinated with all the things those little children could teach me.
One of the ways I taught photography to the children of the village was through a variety of games to show them how a camera worked. One game they particularly enjoyed was when we pretended that one child was the camera and the other was the photographer.
They would walk around the village, with the child who was the photographer putting his or her hands over the camera’s eyes. When the photographer wanted to take a photo, he or she would let the ‘camera’ see what was in front of them and then replace their hands after a few seconds. Then we would go back to the classroom and the child who was the ‘camera’ would draw what they had seen.
With this game I was teaching them both how a camera worked and also stimulating their creativity and awareness of the world that surrounded them every day.
Once the children had a better understanding of how a camera worked, I gave them a theme for the day and they would then take six photos each. It was this way because there were many children and not so many cameras, and so I had to ration the film and the cameras to make everyone happy.
I was amazed by some of the photos that the children took. In this way I learned much more through what they showed me and how they captured their own lives in the village.
Eventually after my project was done, I had to leave the village for the last time and it was so hard to answer the questions of when I was coming back from my students and residents, knowing that possibly I would never return.
My time with the children and the people of Palma Real was more than a photography project, it was a deeply profound life experience where the real pupil was me.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Eduardo Leal is a Portuguese freelance documentary photographer focusing mainly on Latin American social issues, politics, and traditions.