I had the good fortune to attend some of the PC 50th celebrations in D.C. over the weekend. I met many wonderful RPCVs, most from the early days. These volunteers who served in the first groups of the ’60’s were truly pioneers and paved the way for future volunteers such as me and the volunteer subjects of my book. They stepped into the unknown and forged a lasting legacy.
Over the weekend I realized that photography has been a part of the volunteer service from the start. When Peace Corps began the modern 35 mm slr and rangefinder cameras made it possible for volunteers to document their experiences and many volunteers did. The same smaller portable cameras that revolutionized the visual coverage of the Vietnam War, and helped turn public opinion against the war, also helped those who heeded the call of Peace Corps to document their experiences in far-flung places. Many volunteers came home with pictures and slides to help them fulfill the third goal of bringing the world back home.
My first experience in the realization of how integral photography is to Peace Corps is upon visiting the Peace Corps office and looking at the exhibit of the top photographs from a photo contest hosted by Peace Corps. The top images were matted and displayed. A very impressive display indeed. Not only do Peace Corps volunteers have a wealth of interesting subject matter, there are many volunteers who are skilled and talented at visual communications. Some may have entered Peace Corps with this talent and skill in hand and others may have developed it while in service. In any case I was truly impressed by the photographs on display. These photographs and more can be viewed on the Peace Corps website, and I highly recommend taking the time to view them. They are yet another testament to the vast and diverse experience that is Peace Corps.
Another opportunity to reflect on the connection of Peace Corps and photography is when I met first Peace Corps photographer Rowland Scherman (whom I blogged about in my first entry here) at the Black Rooster Pub, around the corner from the Peace Corps office, during a RPCV social. Rowland had a documentary film maker in tow as he entered the pub. I quickly struck up a conversation with him after observing him take some photos with a small point and shoot camera. He had Nikon D300 around his neck as well. You can read more about Rowland in John Coyne Babbles, however I just have to say that I was thrilled to meet the man who made the first images of volunteers. These images that have become iconic helped promote Peace Corps in the early days. Hopefully my images are a continuation of his and will help to further spur interest in the support of Peace Corps.
While promoting my book I met many other RPCVs who were photographers, both amateurs and professionals. At the staff reunion I met a volunteer from the early days in Columbia, Sandy Fisher, who had pulled out his boxes of negatives and slides and put together a beautiful hardcover book Columbia, Pictures & Stories, that records a moment in the history of this vibrant South American country. The book predates the drug wars later in the 20th century that eventually caused Peace Corps to pull volunteers from Columbia. I gladly traded my book depicting volunteers of now with his book of images from the early days of Peace Corps. One thing I’ve learned from Peace Corps is if you wait long enough everything eventually comes full circle. We discussed the fact that Peace Corps is preparing to send volunteers to Columbia once again to renew what Sandy Fisher and other Columbia volunteers began.
During the Peace Corps bash I once again had a table to promote my book which gave me an excuse to talk to many fellow rpcvs. I’ve discovered that photographs are a great vehicle to start discussions, and because I photographed volunteers in 22 countries around the world I could relate to many of the other volunteers because I had either been to their country or at least in the same region. Another aspect about sharing my book I like is that it opens up others to show me their photographs for I enjoy looking at how others see things as well. Chile RPCV Mark A. Mahoney came up to me and after looking at my work he pulled out of his pocket a packet of 4×6’s and one larger photo of which he was very proud. It was of boys partaking in the long practiced third world game of pushing tires down the road with a stick. I have taken similar photos, with some variation, in Jamaica of the children in my village. Mahoney’s photo was chosen as the cover of the International Calendar of the RPCVs of Wisconsin - Madison. To me just getting a photo in this wonderful calendar is an accomplishment. Having the cover is a great achievement. (I have yet to get a photo accepted, but there is always next year!)
Also at the Peace Corps bash I met a fellow professional photographer Joseph R. Connors. Actually Connors has done many things besides photography and had many amazing stories to tell including the one about how he came to be an extra in the film Apocalypse Now. Connors had some of his photographs of Washington D.C. and other subjects on display and he donated photographs for the raffle at the bash. To see some wonderful photographs by Joe Connors go to this link: http://www.panoramio.com/user/2983561?with_photo_id=20425445
During the flag procession I saw many participants taking photographs with various cameras, phones and such. There were also official photographers at work as well. I again ran into Rowland Scherman, who was back at work photographing the same subject matter he started out with 50 years ago … Peace Corps volunteers. He seemed to be relishing the opportunity, and of course, new many of the participants. He asked me why I wasn’t carrying a camera, and then he allowed me to use one of his. I immediately snapped a picture of him on his perch on top of the railing of the bridge over the Potomac. No small feat to climb up there! Climbing down he remarked that he was much more graceful going up. To which a friend remarked that she was glad that he came down on the proper side. Going to the extreme to get the angle is a the mark of a great photographer and this shows Scherman has not lost a bit of what made him a great photographer.
After the procession I struck up a conversation with another of the early volunteers who served in Africa. I stopped to talk to him because I saw that he had a good camera and looked serious about photography. He was very serious about photography going back to his days in Peace Corps. So serious that he built a darkroom out of whatever he could get his hands on at his site. He used the container that his med kit as the chemical trays. He described how he made a sink out of the ubiquitous zinc that is used for roofs and such in developing countries. He even made a system to filter the water needed for the process. His darkroom enlarger was crafted out of a Nikon SLR camera. His description of creating a darkroom illustrates the creativity fostered by serving in Peace Corps as well as the fashioning of appropriate technology out of whatever you can find on hand. I forgot to ask him where he obtained the chemistry needed to develop the film and prints.
From the early days of Peace Corps to the present volunteers will continue to document their experiences visually. With the advent of digital cameras it is easier than ever to do so. I believe that photography is an integral aspect to the continuing the story of Peace Corps and also in fulfilling the third goal. In future blog entries I will further discuss ways volunteers have used photography during their service as well as Peace Corps projects in which photography is integral.