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Sometimes You Can Make A Bigger Impact By NOT Taking The Photo

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Volcano views in Antigua Guatemala

We had some amazing views of Volcán de Fuego from our hotel rooftop in Antigua Guatemala.  That was part of why our trip leader picked this hotel; the rooftop offered phenomenal views of the city, churches, and volcanoes.

Lightning filled the sky over the active volcano on the first night.  The second night, the sky was clear and we were treated to bright explosions and lava flows from the caldera.  Although the composition lacked strong elements, it still made for a neat photo and experience.

antigua guatemala lightning
Lightning between Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Agua near Antigua Guatemala
Volcan de fuego eruption
A rare clear view of erupting Volcán de Fuego

We spent the next week in Lake Atitlán working with our NGO partner – which I will write about soon – and returned to Antigua.

2018 volcano disaster

Our return route took us past the pueblo of Finca San Miguel Los Lotes, which on June 3rd, 2018 was decimated by an eruption of Volcán de Fuego.  I had a morbid curiosity to see the ruins and climbed up the lava flow from the road to see what remained.

volcano rubble
Rubble from the flow from Volcán de Fuego
volcano rubble
A shirt on top of a toppled wash bin
volcano rubble
volcano rubble
A house full of debris from Volcán de Fuego

It kind of made me sick, knowing that a couple hundred people had died when the town was destroyed just one year ago.  I took a few pictures and walked around as a dog barked nearby, assuming the place was deserted. But then I saw chickens in a coop among the rubble, and I don’t think they put themselves there.

volcano rubble
A makeshift shelter on top of the debris flow, made of tree limbs, cinder blocks, and corrugated tin

Someone was here.  I stopped taking photos.  A few minutes later a middle-aged woman with a weathered face and wearing a tattered apron appeared from a corrugated tin shelter.

She started speaking in Spanish, and although I only understood probably 75% of what she was saying, I was near tears after a few minutes.

More than a firsthand account

This lovely woman was out of town the morning the eruption happened but returned shortly after.  The ground was hot and ash and toxic fumes filled the air.  The debris flow went right through where her family was beginning their morning, with no time to get out.

A total of 50 family members died that day; 38 were recovered and 12 remain buried under the rubble, including her mother and sister, below our feet.

The government offered to relocate the survivors and provide disaster relief, but she didn’t want to go anywhere with so much family still missing.  So she and her surviving family built a shelter on top of the debris field and stayed, slowly digging day by day, collecting rainwater and tending to a makeshift memorial.

Because they chose to stay, they are no longer eligible for any disaster relief.

The government will come in a few weeks to begin clearing the rubble in search of the missing, but the town will not be reconstructed.  She’s been searching for over a year, herself and less than a dozen other relatives.

Sometimes you can say more without a photo

I wanted so badly to ask her for a photo, to help give some perspective to what happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  

If I had been able to spend even just a few hours with them, learning their story and documenting their life today, I would have no problem with it and am confident they wouldn’t either.

But we only had a few minutes.  Asking her for a photo would have felt like I was just collecting a souvenir of her hardship.  At least that’s how I felt in the moment.  We just listened instead.

As we were leaving, everyone’s eyes red from emotion, we thanked her for sharing her story.  She in turn genuinely thanked us for listening.

She told us that she feels forgotten out there.  No one ever stops by, no one talks to her, no one checks in, and no one knows her story.  All she wanted was an attentive ear, and we were thankful for the opportunity to oblige.

We returned to the hotel and watched the volcano magnificently erupt again that night. But it wasn’t the same for anyone, knowing she was under it all, refusing to abandon her family.

I was here in Guatemala to teach indigenous Mayan children all about visual storytelling, and how important environmental portraits were to telling that story. But there are times when it’s better to leave the lens cap on.

Would you have asked for the photo?

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Daniel Mateus

Thursday 8th of August 2019

Hey John, great work you made with this post.

We know that, specially in photography, we have rules to follow before we click the shutter. But sometimes, we also have to break or change the rules because the situation that is in front of us. If we don´t make it different, the image will be empty, there will be no message. One of the characteristic of photography is that the images that you create will help you to travel in time. Just by looking at it you will remember all that happen when you where there, what was said, how the day was going or what you even had to do that you didn´t planned.

We try to do our best, that´s what matters!

Have a blessed day !! :-)

John Peltier

Thursday 8th of August 2019

Thanks Daniel. I know that I won't need a photo to remember that moment. I know this is an extreme example, but I guess this is why only very few photographers have made a name for themselves as exceptional war photographers.

John Piacentini

Wednesday 7th of August 2019

John,There’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. A photo could not have captured what you described.

Old cousin John

John Peltier

Thursday 8th of August 2019

I like the way you phrased that John, thanks!


Wednesday 7th of August 2019

Not all moments are meant to be immortalized. But it is definitely good “food for thought” because some of the most powerful images were taken during painful and very personal moments in history. I’ll have to think on this one some more.

John Peltier

Thursday 8th of August 2019

Yes, some people can do it and have immortalized some important moments. Definitely something to think about.

Shiraz Dalal

Wednesday 7th of August 2019

Well done! Some things are better told through stories. Even being a photographer sometimes it’s better to put the camera down. Tasteful! Well done man! Thanks for sharing your perspective.

John Peltier

Wednesday 7th of August 2019

Thanks Daz, glad you thought so! Yes, putting the camera down...problems, right?

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