A Camera in a Moving World: What I Learned as a Marketing Coordinator in Peru

19/02/2024

Emily Warner (she/her) reflects on her experience as a volunteer for the NGO, Intiwawa

Article Image

Image by Emily Warner

By Emily Warner

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder
Susan Sontag, On Photography

Photography is always a compromise between light and shutter speed, or zoom and focus. However, it wasn’t until I was volunteering this summer that I was confronted with a compromise between art and life. Susan Sontag’s words began to hover at the back of my mind and every time I squinted down my viewfinder, I was laden with the weight of capturing lives without exploitation, turning individuals into subjects without objectifying them.

My volunteering experience started in August when I began creating an impact video for Intiwawa about their work. Born in the streets of San Isidro, Intiwawa is an NGO in Arequipa, Peru, dedicated to uplifting the lives of low-income families and communities. They offer life-changing education to children, socio-emotional support for families and a textile training programme to empower women. As I arrived in this world, I felt the chasm between their reality and my lens. How could I authentically capture the values of Intiwawa - autonomy, responsibility and integrity?

Just navigating to the school involved a bewildering 45 minutes on a crowded bus, surrounded by voices I couldn’t understand and desperately trying to hold onto my belongings (after being robbed several days earlier). Now, here I was on the outskirts of Arequipa, trying to dodge feral dogs and wishing I’d gotten that rabies vaccine after all. Inside the school, every wall was layered with colourful paintings illuminated by the sun. The sound of children seeped from the classrooms and discarded footballs were scattered across the floor, enjoying a brief reprieve before the next break time. Overwhelmed but determined, I gathered my courage (and whatever scraps of Spanish I’d learnt on Duolingo) and walked into the first classroom to introduce myself.

In the space of that first day, my fears were dispelled as I realised that some forms of communication are universal. People speak with their bodies, with emotions, through art, photography or film. Joy might be an abstract thing but laughter is not. Pain might be intangible but tears are not. Love can’t be seen but at Intiwawa, it was written on every face.

I conducted a series of interviews with people across the organisation to weave their voices into the fabric of my video: volunteers, mothers, children, local partners and directors, the school's cook, their psychologist and the founder of the organisation, Leonel Revilla. Julia Audinet, the director of Intiwawa said:
“Intiawa is a family that has a deep connection with the local community. I was surprised how quickly the children and the families allowed us into their culture and wanted to build a bond with an international community.”

Her words reinforce the reciprocity between the volunteers and families at Intiwawa. The shared mission and equality of this organisation.

In order to build a relationship with the families, I began learning Spanish. Over time, their words became more comprehensible to me and I was able to conduct interviews in Spanish, spending hours drafting the questions beforehand with my teacher. The children, of course, found my pronunciation hilarious and delighted in hearing me stumble over basic sentences - “más fuerte” I found myself pleading with them during interviews, feeling quite distinguished for knowing that much. Still, the unconditional love and gratitude they expressed overcame any language barrier, and that was true of everyone at the organisation.

Mardeli, who coordinates the mothers textile project, spoke about the importance of her work:
“The project is important for these mothers because they need so much. A place where they feel welcomed, where they feel that someone wants to help them, that someone listens to them, that their needs are also important and that [...] they also have a potential to fulfil.”

She highlights how Intiwawa gives these women the greatest gift possible, their own autonomy. Their testimonials confirm the transformative impact of Intiwawa:
I decided to come here to improve myself,” one of the mothers in the textile project told me and another said: “I leave here happy. That's the most important thing for me, and I know I'm learning and I'm proud.

However, not only does Intiwawa benefit the families themselves but also the volunteers and the wider community, for these children are (to quote Mardeli again), “the future of our society and our country”. To invest in them is to invest in Arequipa, cradled in the Andes with its vibrant plazas and colonial past. Dayana, the psychologist at Intiwawa, “want(s) to give them knowledge so that their rights are always respected: the right to education, food and health.

I ended every interview by asking how they would describe Intiwawa in one word. “Strength”, “friendship”, “happiness” and “beauty” were just some of the responses. These things are impossible to capture on a photo or in a film, yet, this does not mean that all photographers and videographers are doomed to failure.

As I grappled with the ethics of journalism in a different country and language, I realised what Susan Sontag fails to acknowledge in her famous essays On Photography: that taking photos is more than camera and a subject. To see photography in this way is to assume an imbalance of power in favour of the person holding the camera. In actuality, photography is about honouring the humanity in every individual; it is a process, a craft and an intimate relationship between photographer and subject. Cameras should never claim to possess power - in fact, cameras cannot possess at all, these boxes of glass and metal. Cameras and those who wield them should be humble, acknowledge their insufficiency, gesture to what is beyond the frame without making assumptions about it and allow their art to be guided by the subject.

When wielded with empathy and integrity, photographic journalism has the power to illuminate, inspire, and foster genuine human connection. There, in the space between what is seen and unseen, is where power resides — a testament to the beauty, resilience, and interconnectedness of the human experience.