The Kogi Children of La Guajira, Colombia

Kogi Children, Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Kogi Children, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

Traveling during the holiday season has become a tradition for my partner and me. There was Villa de Leyva, Colombia two Christmases in a row, followed by a New Year’s jaunt to Mexico City. But in recent years, we’ve taken a quick flight to Santa Marta, Colombia, where we stay at Casa Baloo, a delightful family-owned B&B that overlooks the bay in the seaside village of Taganga. During our first visit, we sat up most of the night drinking wine with the hotel’s owners. The next morning, their young son knocked on our door—wearing a Spiderman costume—and invited us to play ball with him on the terrace.

Beach Scene, Taganga, Colombia, 2017
Beach Scene, Taganga, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

As Caribbean towns go, Taganga is an unusual place—seesawing between generations-old history and a newfound tourism identity. It lies just minutes away from downtown Santa Marta, yet retains its quaint simplicity. Taganga isn’t a destination for your typical tourist, the type who lounges around a lavish Cancun resort. Dusty dirt roads divide Taganga into unequal oblong shapes, occupied by old cinder block homes and new hostels and restaurants. While tourists lounge on a rooftop terrace, a fisherman mends a net on the front porch of his house across the street. At the end of the day, Taganga’s main beach, which runs the length of a football field, paints the perfect picture of the village’s past, present, and future. At one end of the beach, tourists soak in the last rays of sunlight during happy hour, while at the other end fishermen sell their catches to townsfolk.

Catch of the Day, Taganga, Colombia, 2017
Catch of the Day, Taganga, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

On Christmas Day, we departed Taganga for a smaller seaside village, Palomino, which has an even bigger tourist footprint. Situated in the La Guajira department on the border of Tayrona National Natural Park, Palomino is the type of place the traveler in me loathes, but the photographer in me loves. Locals, many of whom haven’t found much benefit from the tourism trade, mill about in their routine lives, while outsiders frolic about as if the town is their personal playground. The mix of personalities and agendas creates a somewhat surreal scene, but one conducive to extraordinary photos.

As the bus deposited us on the side of the highway, I looked around to examine the few hundred meters of buildings that define Palomino’s spot on the map. There were auto repair shops, a couple of restaurants, a hardware store, an internet café, and a collection of mini-markets that sold everything from beer to handcrafts.

Palomino’s main tourist promenade is a dirt road that runs one kilometer, from the highway all the way to the beach. Hostels, restaurants, and bars line the road, with sandwich boards and hawkers announcing daily specials. Motorcycles kick up dust as they zip down the road, moving serpentine around tourists, street dogs, and a large population of seemingly feral chickens.

The structures along the road tell the story of Palomino’s fledgling tourism industry. Some businesses operate from buildings constructed with bamboo, others in cinder block houses with tin roofs, while newer, properly financed ventures peddle goods and services in modern structures. Missing from the mix—mercifully—is the presence of multinational corporations that envelop the tourism industry in most Caribbean locales. Individuals and families run Palomino, and it remains a destination for Colombians and backpackers—at least for now.

Luckily, we found a hotel off the main road—Casa Juana, named after a cat—situated five minutes from the beach in a new but traditionally-built home of wood, bamboo, and palm fronds. We settled into a routine of doing as little as possible, spending time on the beach in the morning and late afternoon and enjoying the hammocks of the hotel’s community area during midday.

Crossroads, Palomino, Colombia, 2017
Crossroads, Palomino, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

During the second evening, we met Julio, a friend of the hotel staff, who offered to take us to a Kogi village. The Kogi, who live traditionally in isolated villages in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are one of more than 80 indigenous societies that have inhabited Colombia for centuries.

We awoke early the next morning and met Julio at a store along the highway. There, we bought gifts for our Kogi hosts—a common custom when visiting indigenous societies—including rice, lentils, and coconut candies for the children. We hitched a ride in a dilapidated taxi to Rio Ancho, a small village a few kilometers down the road. From Rio Ancho, we could walk to the Kogi village—about two hours—or take motorcycles most of the way. We decided to go there by motorcycle and return on foot.

I hopped on the back of the lead motorcycle. Within a few hundred meters, the pavement ended and the road became increasingly rocky and rutty. My driver was a pro—perhaps the best I’ve ever seen—skillfully dodging boulders and deep holes with such skill that I never felt a bump the entire journey. Our transport ended when we reached a rapidly flowing stream. As the others arrived, I took off my shoes and stood in the cold water, a welcome relief for my hot feet and itchy ankles, which had suffered dozens of mosquito bites on the beach in Palomino.

As we continued on foot along a dirt path, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen a few tribesmen in Palomino and we had passed a few Kogi children walking on the rocky road toward Rio Ancho. I didn’t know if the community had regular visitors, or the extent to which the tribe still live traditionally. But as the village came into view, I knew we were in for a truly authentic experience.

Rows of coca plants bordered the village. The coca plant plays an important spiritual and cultural role in the lives of the Kogi, as it does in many native Andean societies. Indigenous communities often use coca for medicinal purposes such as to relieve altitude sickness or stave off hunger pains. When I lived in Peru, I crossed paths with a native fortuneteller, who chewed coca to connect with the spirit world. Kogi men chew coca as a way to connect with Aluna—Mother Earth—and trade coca leaves as a form of greeting.

Free-roaming chickens scattered as we walked through the seemingly deserted village. The round huts, made with tree branches, stones, mud, and palm fronds, appeared perfectly shaped and equally sized. In the center of the village, a large rectangular community building rose above the houses. The door was open, so we went inside to see long rows of benches—formed from tree trunks—and a fire pit in the center. Julio explained that the villagers spent much of their time indoors and many suffered respiratory problems from inhaling the smoke of their fire pits.

Kogi Village, Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Kogi Village, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

As we stepped back outside, we saw women and children peering out of distant huts. After greeting a few of the residents, we walked to the other side of a village, where we found a beautiful stream. After crossing the stream, we followed a path, where we came upon the isolated hut of one of Julio’s friends, who was sitting on the threshold of his home looking at a cellphone. He wore the traditional Kogi outfit—a white cotton tunic and white pants. The man’s three curious children met us on the path. All had shoulder length hair and the two girls wore beaded necklaces. The father barely noticed our presence, as he blankly stared at the cellphone, but the children seemed overjoyed by our visit. The father was the only man in the village, we would later learn, as the other men had traveled up the mountain to hunt wild boar.

I realized that outsiders were an oddity in the village. I felt privileged to be in their private world, if only for a couple of hours. Although the Kogi are a peaceful people, they’ve suffered greatly from the modern world. For decades, foreign and domestic corporations have exploited their lands for resources, and guerillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries have threatened their lives and properties. The Kogi see themselves as the stewards of the earth and refer to the rest of us as “little brothers” because we no longer understand the natural world. For decades, the Kogi have made prophecies about an impending global catastrophe brought on by climate change, exploitation of natural resources, and world conflict.

Julio at the Swimming Hole, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Julio at the Swimming Hole, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

Heading back to the village, Julio and my partner decided to take a swim in the stream. As I climbed the hill to take a few shots of them, a group of children wandered down the path. Without prompting them, the children began to posture for my camera. We moved from setting to setting, without saying a word, as the children marveled at the spectacle of the outsiders and while I quietly snapped away with my camera.

Kogi Children on Boulder, Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Kogi Children on Boulder, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2
Kogi Children with Lollipops, Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Kogi Children with Lollipops, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

Julio distributed the lentils and rice among the mothers, while my partner and I explored the community. One of the women showed us a traditional mochila—a small bag carried by men and women—which she’d just finished making. Its craftsmanship was exquisite, woven so tightly that it could hold water. Mochilas–sold in shops and roadside stands in the area–provide cash for the tribe, enabling them to buy goods they can’t produce from the land. For instance, the village used money to buy materials for a pavilion—the only modern building in the community—constructed with metal supports and a tin roof.

As we stood at the edge of the village, two small boys appeared out of nowhere. Like the others, they seemed to almost pose for my camera. The older boy held his younger companion’s hand, as I had seen the other children doing, likely a societal custom. After I took a few shots, the older boy asked us if we had any bonbons—candies. We didn’t. Julio had given all of the candies to the children at the stream. I offered them what was left of a bag of peanuts and raisins, but before they would accept the gift, the older boy said, “There are other children inside.” Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by a small army of Kogi children.

Kogi Children in Village, Guajira, Colombia, 2017
Kogi Children in Village, La Guajira, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

As we slowly walked back to the modern world, I knew I had captured a series of images I would treasure for the rest of my life. It was as if the Kogi children had put a spell on me and my camera—a spell of good fortune, at least photographically. Throughout the day, other children I encountered seemed drawn to my camera. A group of kids playing beside a river delighted in my desire to photograph them. And when we went to the beach at sunset, a young boy selling homemade coconut treats befriended me and let me take his picture. He even took a portrait of me. By the end of the day, I had netted a collection of photographs, but none more cherished than the ones of the Kogi children.

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Join Michael Evans for a photography workshop in Líbano, Colombia.

This holiday season, give your kids an empty box

Courtney in the Garden, by Michael Evans
Courtney in the Garden by Michael Evans

When I was growing up, some parents threatened ill-mannered kids with a box of switches and ashes for Christmas. It sounded cruel to me and luckily I never received such a miserable gift. But this holiday season, I encourage parents to give their children an empty box. I’m not suggesting just any empty box; I’m talking about an archival box to hold your kids’ art collection.

Now, perhaps more than any time in recent decades, we see the menacing grip materialism has on society. Stuff is important in our lives. But are we encouraging kids to collect the right stuff?

Today, some teenagers already have a collection of “outdated” iPhones. Others have owned every gaming system that has existed since they were born. But do any of those kids own a single piece of original art?

Imagine a world in which every person started an art collection during childhood. It’s certainly not a difficult concept to understand. Maybe they would collect artwork they create, or pieces they find at craft fairs, or even yard sales.

We often only think about buying art to decorate our walls. But that’s not the only—or even best—way to collect art. I have several boxes of artwork, some that hold my own photographs and others that contain photos, drawings, and etchings I’ve collected from fellow artists. From time to time, I look through my collection and I always experience the same sense of joy I felt when I purchased or received each piece.

The mountain of commercial products we buy ends up creating mountainous landfills. But the gift of a painting, drawing, sculpture, or photograph can pass from one generation to the next. When I lived in California, I met a couple of people who owned collections of photographs created by masters such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. They’d inherited their collections from grandparents who had helped support the artists during the lean years of their careers.

That’s not to say you should think about art as assets. That type of thinking usually leads to disappointment. But then again, the unknown artist whose work you collect today might just be tomorrow’s art world sensation.

Helping your kids start an art collection might not lead to priceless treasures, but it will expose them to a world of possessions far more important than the latest mass-produced electronic gadget or fashion trend. So this holiday season, give your child an empty box. Better yet, give them a box with one or two pieces of art to help get them started.

 

A Walk in the Colombian Countryside

Mojarra Pond, Libano, Colombia, 2017Mojarra Pond, Líbano, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

Author’s Note: This article also appears at Medium.

I often ponder what my own photographs mean to me. At times, I’ve felt like my images represent my only voice in the world. And sometimes, like the present, I struggle with my photography because I’ve burdened it with the task of earning a living for me. But more than anything else, my photographs represent little life nuggets that I carry with me from moment to moment and from one life chapter to the next. They speak to me of people and places and moments, great and small, constantly reminding me that I’ve been somewhere and done something in my life.

I’m a one-camera, one-lens kind of guy these days, so whenever I walk out the door I carry the little leather bag that holds my modest gear. As I go about my day, I run into the most amazing things–canaries on a wire, the moon rising over a palm tree, a child with a toy horse, a real horse grazing in a park, a puddle of water shaped like a continent…

A few weeks ago, I discovered a valley near my house that I didn’t know existed before. With a companion and my camera in tow, I strolled down the mountain to explore this new destination. We were headed to a spot in the valley where my companion used to go as a child.

As we strolled, he told me the story of walking down to the valley at 5:00 am with his great-grandfather, an uncle, a younger bother, and a herd of little cousins. Their destination was a small lot on which a cow lived and the purpose of their journey was to milk the cow to earn money for the family. Along the way, Uncle Guillermo–who recently passed away at the age of 90–would gently herd the pack of children by tapping them on the legs with a stick. When they reached the lot, Abuelo and Guillermo would go to work tending to the cow, while the kids explored the marvels of the valley. Back then, the valley was home to dozens of farms, one of which had a multi-level coffee drying building designed like a Japanese pagoda, which the children referred to as the “Chinese house”. As the sun rose, the children and their elders would walk back up the hill, carrying containers of fresh milk.

As we walked that morning, cars, jeeps, and motorcycles zoomed past us, but I didn’t know where they were going. Today, many of the valley’s farms have given up coffee cultivation for fish farming–specifically a popular species called mojarra. And on Sunday afternoons, the mojarra farms host visitors for one of Colombia’s most charming and unique traditions–a Sunday lunch in the country.

As we walked from farm to farm, I first noticed the small fish ponds. From a distance, they looked empty, but as we walked closer, I noticed fins darting through the water and small circles forming at the surface as fish gobbled up insects. Along the edge of one pond, thousands of baby fish congregated at the edges. A chicken coop ran alongside one pond and a horse pasture bordered another. Several of the farms had swimming pools, where children splashed in the water, as their parents enjoyed abundant platters of fish and chicken, washed down with cold Colombian beer. Colorful red and yellow hibiscus plants encircled the swimming pools and hummingbirds buzzed from flower to flower indulging in nectar.

We lunched at a small farm–operated by a former classmate of my companion–where we spent the afternoon sitting at a table on the lawn outside the main house. While we waited for our food, a little gray kitty with golden eyes befriended us, gently caressing our ankles, as we watched a table of celebrants enjoying a birthday party.

When it was time to go home, a jeep rounded the corner just as we began walking up the hill. My companion landed a seat inside the jeep and I attempted to hang onto the back like a campesino. A film crew–likely producing a story about one of the new resorts in the valley–joined us on our bumpy but brief journey up the hill to Líbano, my Colombian hometown.

By the end of the day, my simple stroll in the country had evolved into a rich cultural experience. Best of all, I returned home with a small collection of nature photos to remind me of a special day.

Two Ferns, Libano, Colombia, 2017
Two Ferns, Líbano, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2
Bosque de Guadua, Libano, Colombia, 2017
Bosque de Guadua, Líbano, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2
Wild Fern, Libano, Colombia, 2017
Wild Fern, Líbano, Colombia, 2017 | Fujifilm X-E2

You can purchase prints of these photos in the shop.

Want to join me for a walk in the Colombian countryside? Subscribe to this blog at the bottom of the page to receive information about upcoming weekend workshops and photos tours, beginning in 2018 in association with Colombia Eco Travel.

Colombia Calling YOU! Podcasts, Photo Tours, and More…

November begins with a flurry of activity at Michael Evans Photography, as my new book, My Colombia: The First Seven Years, continues to attract attention. Earlier in the week, journalist and hotelier Richard McColl interviewed me for his Colombia Calling podcast. In the interview, I discuss my life in small town Colombia, my new book, and a host of future plans. Listen to Colombia Calling, episode #207, on: iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher.

Black and white photograph of tall wax palm trees in front of a mountain in Cocora Valley, Colombia, near Salento.

During the podcast, I announced my new photography tours, which begin in early 2018. I’m teaming up with Colombia Eco Travel to offer six- and seven-day photo tours to Colombia’s most spectacular places. To start, we’ll offer tours of colonial Colombia, including popular destinations such as Villa de Leyva and off-the-beaten-path locations such as San Juan de Girón. We’ll also begin tours in Colombia’s coffee regions, which will include visits to the famed Coffee Triangle, Cocora Valley, Los Nevados National Natural Park, and my neck of the woods, Líbano and Murillo, where I captured many of the photos in my book.

I’m finalizing the tour details with Daniel Buitrón Jaramillo, Colombia Eco Travel’s co-founder and general manager. Colombia Eco Travel is Colombia’s premier custom and luxury travel company, so you can look forward to a truly meaningful and memorable photography adventure.

For expats living in Colombia, and travelers exploring Colombia on their own, I’m also offering monthly weekend photography workshops in Líbano

Please subscribe to this blog at the bottom of this page to receive further information as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, here are some of the amazing places you can discover with me on our upcoming photo tours:

Black and white photo of clouds hovering over a large cobblestone plaza and a colonial-era church.
Villa de Leyva
Black and white photograph of four men playing guitars on a sidewalk in front of a traditional colonial house in Salento, Colombia.
Salento
Black and white photograph of four mule and two dogs waiting in front of a colonial-era house in Murillo, Colombia
Murillo
Black and white photo looking up at a water tower next to a tall palm tree.
Manizales
Black and white photograph of angry bird balloons in front of the Basilica Menor in Giron, Colombia.
San Juan de Girón
Black and white photo of teenagers dressed in costumes with angel wings, masks, and tall hats perform for a crowd in Libano, Colombia.
Líbano

They Call Me Memphis Mike: A Memphis Native’s Colombian Life

Black and white photograph of two palm trees set against a weathered stucco wall.

Text and photos by Michael Evans

Author’s Note: The following text is an edited excerpt from my new book, My Colombia: The First Seven Years, which features a collection of photographs I’ve taken throughout Colombia. See more information about the new book at the end of this article. The article also appears at Medium.

 

The story of how a Memphis dreamer landed in rural Colombia is too long to tell in detail. After all, I wouldn’t want to bore you. I’ll give you an abstract sketch of what I’ve run into from there to here, but don’t expect it to make any sense.

I sometimes think of life’s chapters as a quilt of mismatched swatches never intended as companions. Over the years I’ve crossed paths with teachers and politicians, celebrities and grifters, leaders and terrorists, humble natives and greedy interlopers. I’ve stayed in luxury hotels and slept rough beside the sea, sold ice to fishermen and helped launch technology. I’ve witnessed political unrest in a foreign nation and marveled at whales in an ocean wilderness. I’ve seen dreams shattered and new visions emerge, industries rise and then fall, nations achieve peace and families tear themselves apart. I’ve felt the rejection of loved ones for returning home and the acceptance of strangers for being an oddity in a rejected land.

If I knew today was my last, I’d tell you I’ve learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. But as proof of my existence, I’d offer you a collection of pictures I’ve taken along the way.

 

It’s 6:25 a.m. when the clanging bell of the garbage truck awakens me. I stumble through the house heading toward the door, where Buddy waits for me to set him free. He isn’t really my dog, but he thinks he is and thinks my house is his, too. He’ll spend part of his day at the butcher shop, where he’ll get bones and scraps of meat, before going to Señora Amanda’s store, where he’ll sprawl spread-eagled in the middle of the floor, while Amanda’s husband feeds him pieces of salchichón. Such is the life of the most beloved street dog in Barrio Protecho.

I live two houses away from the town’s biggest park, Villa Olímpica. On weekends, from dawn until dusk, the motocross kids rev their engines and leap from one dirt mound to the next, as their neighbors play basketball or tennis, or splash around in the pool. The other day I saw a dog chasing a bull on the soccer field in the middle of a match, which, oddly, isn’t so unusual. From time to time, an old-fashioned circus sets up a tent in the park for a week or two of shows. When they’re in town, I can set my watch by the firing of the cannon that launches an acrobat through the air each night at 7:00 and 10:00 p.m.

Black and white photo of girls wearing white traditional dresses dancing in a parade in Libano, Colombia.

Downtown, the main plaza has a park, too, which is why, I suppose, they call it Parque Principal and not Plaza Principal. By the way, the name of this town is Líbano, Colombia, a place most people haven’t heard of before, situated five hours west of Bogotá. To get here by bus from the capital, you have to travel down the end of the plateau, through a narrow valley, over a mountain, through the Magdalena River Valley, and halfway up another mountain. I recommend taking a Dramamine® tablet before you get started and another one in Vianí, the halfway point.

Líbano sits in the middle of the Tolima Department’s coffee region. The Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia has an office and warehouse here, where farmers deposit their harvests and collect their pay. You probably know of Juan Valdez and his trusty mule, Conchita. Juan isn’t just a fictional character in coffee commercials; he’s the trademarked mascot of the federation — invented in 1969 — and through the magic of casting, he always remains young and fit. And although Juan always looks a little too clean and well-groomed for doing manual labor, his outfit is spot on, because Colombian coffee farmers still wear straw hats and ponchos, still strap machetes to their belts, and some still bring their harvests to market on the backs of mules.

Black and white photograph of four mule and two dogs waiting in front of a colonial-era house in Murillo, Colombia

That’s not to say Líbano is behind the times. People here follow trends and keep up with new technologies, but traditions die hard around here. Everyone, except me, has a smartphone, and the cable TV companies recently upgraded their customers to satellite dishes. You’ll find internet cafes in every neighborhood and the government just installed free Wi-Fi in Parque Principal. On the other hand, if you wanted to move a refrigerator from one house to another, you’d call on a horse and wagon team to handle the job.

I still see little kids shooting marbles and spinning wooden tops on sidewalks, while teenagers rocket past them on skateboards. Colombians tend to choose an activity in their youth and stick with it for life. So if you see a kid riding a wheelie on his bike today, he’ll likely graduate to touring gear and full riding attire by the time he’s an adult. August is kite-flying season, and while some folks like to show off their fancy manufactured kit, most people here like to make kites with bamboo strips and craft paper.

Black and white photograph of many children flying kites in Salento, Colombia.

As I step back inside after depositing the trash, Cyndi Lou, my glamorous kitty, beckons me to come back to bed for a while and I oblige without hesitation. Buddy comes and goes at will, like a young prince making demands on his court, but Cyndi is my constant companion, except when she’s on a hunt. In the early evening she hovers around the outdoor sink, waiting to leap up and capture moths and beetles that flutter and creep around the light. She’s an insect connoisseur, and instinctively knows what’s safe and what’s not, which is good, because Colombia has flying insects the size of bats.

By 8:00 a.m. the streets are buzzing with vendors. The tamales man peddles by on his bicycle, barking his never-changing spiel, as a produce seller announces the prices of his fruits and veggies. “Plantains, seven for two thousand pesos. Tomatoes, one pound for one thousand pesos. Avocados, one thousand pesos a piece. Fresh mangoes, papaya, bananas, lulo, passion fruit, guanabana…” You’ve probably never heard of some of those fruits, and I hadn’t either, before I moved to Colombia. Most produce comes from family farms or commercial growers in the Magdalena River Valley, one of several agricultural sectors that produce everything from sugar cane to cotton.

Black and white photo of mountains, hovering clouds, and large farm in a valley.

Líbano sits above a well-known spot in the valley — notorious, really — where the town of Armero once existed. In 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, sending a giant lahar down the mountainside and into the valley. Unaware of their peril, Armero residents never stood a chance as the massive mudslide engulfed the town, killing 23,000 people. The Red Cross set up an evacuation and triage center in Villa Olímpica, and six inches of ash blanketed Líbano. For days, parents sent their children to school wearing gas masks, and one fearful mother wrote her contact information in permanent marker on the flesh of her son’s back. One of my Colombian relatives told me the harrowing tale of a family member, an Armero resident, who arrived in Líbano wrapped in a blanket, after losing his wife and children, house, and all of his belongings, including his clothes. Today, only a few concrete slabs and a giant cross remain where Armero stood. As I write this story, the volcano belches steam and spits ash, threatening to erupt again.

Mid-afternoon a pair or blue-gray tanagers land in the cordoncillo tree, which towers above the edge of the roof, after making its humble start through a crack in the patio’s concrete. Cyndi Lou pokes her head out from underneath a blanket and peers out the window, captivated by the beautiful birds. Around the corner, dozens of yellow canaries perch on the electrical wires, waiting for the kindly neighbor to toss out a handful of rice, their favorite afternoon treat. Near sunset, a variety of small birds will appear, flying chaotically at first, before ending in a beautifully choreographed finale of thrusts and dives toward airborne insects.

I hear a strange clomping noise and when I glance out the window I see Hushpuppy dolled up in a new pink dress, eating an ice cream cone, and wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes that look at least three sizes too big. My partner and I call her Hushpuppy because as a young child she used to run around almost naked, with her ungroomed hair sticking out in all directions, like the main character — Hushpuppy — in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Today, she’s a beautiful young girl — probably eight or nine years old by now — who commands the attention of all the neighborhood children.

Daily, a group of mothers and their children meets on the sidewalk outside my house. North Americans might call this a “play date” but folks here just consider it a routine. Little Samuel shuffles his feet to propel his plastic bicycle and Wallace toddles around in his cowboy costume. Hushpuppy holds tea parties in front of my door and often steals the water containers I set out for Buddy and his amigos.

In downtown Líbano, Café Moka sits at the corner of Parque Principal. Situated in a traditional colonial-style building, pairs of double doors open to create an open-air setting. Waitresses hop to and fro, taking orders for coffee and desserts, while baristas work in steamy clouds behind a counter adorned with an antique coffee percolator and modern espresso machine. Scattered throughout the café, businesspeople chat about their work, families catch up on life’s happenings, politicians plot their campaign strategies, and coffee farmers sip the fruits of their labor from dainty porcelain cups.

Across the street, under the cover of ancient oak trees draped with Spanish moss, merchants fry potato chips, grill arepas and pinchos, pop popcorn, and swirl soft-serve ice cream from machines powered by generators. In the center of the plaza, children take turns driving miniature electric cars, or riding an old-fashioned toy horse, while dealers hawk everything from used books to leather belts.

The Catholic cathedral occupies one corner of the plaza, its doors opened wide, revealing its ornate alter. Along one side of the plaza sits the vacant remains of the Yep department store, beside the Superdiamante supermarket, where people buy packaged foods from cluttered aisles and overstuffed shelves. At night, revelers will flood the square, drawn by the pounding music of the discos and the lust for love and drink.

Black and white photograph of angry bird balloons in front of the Basilica Menor in Giron, Colombia.

Jeeps and old-style chiva buses, with loads of groceries, farm supplies, and bunches of plantains piled high on their roofs, line the streets around the market. Nearby stores cater to farm families with a mishmash of goods: fertilizers, seeds for kitchen gardens, live chicks and ducklings, pet foods and livestock medications, fabrics for making clothes and curtains, and kitchen staples such as rice, panela, lentils, and frijoles.

In the center of the market, folks sell fresh fruits and vegetables, often picked before sunrise and still covered with soil. Along one side, merchants sell burlap coffee sacks, homemade barbeque grills, tinctures, and fresh herbs. The row of herb stands supplies spices for Líbano’s kitchens and plants used in traditional medicines. On New Year’s Day and birthdays, townsfolk prepare a bath with seven types of plants and flowers — a practice I’ve adopted, too — meant to wash away the negativity of the past and promote prosperity and good health for the future.

As the sun fades, Cyndi Lou caresses my ankle, signaling that it’s time for her special treat, a few spoonfuls of tuna. The smell of grilled chorizos wafts past my window from the corner fast food stand and I hear mothers calling their young ones home for dinner. In the distance, Buddy barks at strangers, as the Colombian national anthem plays on televisions sets and radios. A neighbor blasts Vallenato music, as a tiny lizard darts across my wall. The high school marching band practices in the park, while a nearby monastery broadcasts Gregorian chants over its public address system. Later, as my head hits the pillow, a gentle rain will fall on the tin roof, lulling me to sleep.

Another day has passed, not unlike yesterday, or the day before that. But unlike so many other places where I’ve lived, my Andean home reminds me daily that life is all around me. Life makes a sound and has an image and a smell. It’s chaos and ballet, death and birth, war and love, played out at the same time.

This is my Colombia.


Preview and purchase My Colombia: The First Seven Years

Black and white photograph of tall wax palm trees in front of a mountain in Cocora Valley, Colombia, near Salento.

You can view and purchase museum-quality prints from the book through this website.

Black and white photo of a palm tree covered with parasitic plants.

LensWork Announces My New Book!

I want to thank LensWork Publishing for announcing my new book, My Colombia: The First Seven Years, in their alumni news. The book  contains a collection of photographs I have taken during my travels throughout Colombia. Preview and purchase My Colombia: The First Seven Years at Blurb.

Black and white photo of tall palm trees in front of a mountain.
My Colombia: The First Seven Years book

 

In 2006, LensWork honored my Whispers project with a feature spread in its #65 issue. The project explored architectural survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. You can purchase prints from the Whispers collection directly from this website.

Whispers Series - Architectural survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Whispers Series - Architectural survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Whispers Series - Architectural survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Whispers Series - Architectural survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The City Paper Bogotá – July 2017

Big Picture from Colombia: A meeting of mules in Tolima

By The City Paper Staff

Big Picture from Colombia: A meeting of mules in Tolima

Photographer Michael Evans has explored the mist-covered towns of Tolima for seven years since taking a bold decision to settle in this department nestled between the the Magdalena River and coffee growing region of the Central Cordillera. While on one of many trips to the most rugged regions of the altiplano Tolimense, Evans came across Murillo, a town founded in 1872 that preserves a rustic Republican heritage.

As the last municipality before entering the Parque Nacional de los Nevados and craggy folds of the Nevado del Ruíz volcano, Murillo is a small farming community dedicated to cultivating potatoes and tree tomatoes, with no shortage of friendly mules to greet you as you wander this town’s half empty streets… continue reading at The City Paper Bogotá

Backstory: The Believer

Black and white photograph of an elderly African American woman sitting on a cluttered porch, holding up a Bible in her left hand and holding up her right hand as if testifying.
The Believer

 

The most successful photographs usually have an important backstory. The making of this photo, The Believer, played a significant role in my evolution as a photographer.

In the documentary film Everybody Street, the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark said, “Often, your subject matter can show you what the picture is. I’m not a strong believer in heavy-duty concepts when I do portraits of people. I try to make iconic images. That’s my goal, to make images that stand on their own. Still pictures should be single, very powerful images.”

In our digital world, that’s a message seasoned photographers must constantly remember and new photographers must learn. Today, we shoot, edit, publish. We post here, there, and everywhere—Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. Getting noticed has become a numbers game. We must constantly inject our work into the world, or perish, resulting in a glut of mediocre photos that we contribute to and sift through when viewing other people’s pictures. Perhaps we need to slow down, to wait.

In the early 1990s, I worked as a photographer for the Shelby County Government in Memphis, Tennessee. I was the only photographer, shooting everything from grip-and-grin photos to architectural and documentary shots for publications. On a typical day, I might take a photo of the mayor presenting a proclamation, then go to the county hospital to shoot in the newborn center, and later follow a visiting dignitary promoting a pet project.

One summer afternoon, my boss asked me to shadow a social worker, Kay, to take photos for a newsletter story about a heat intervention program that provided free portable fans. Heat was a serious health risk during summer months, because many impoverished Memphians didn’t have air conditioning, and some couldn’t afford to buy a fan to stay cool. During July and August, when temperatures would rise above 100° F (38° C), heat-related deaths would skyrocket.

That afternoon was a scorcher. When I arrived at Kay’s office, she said she knew exactly who I should photograph—a client of hers, an elderly woman who needed relief from the heat in the worst possible way. A lady I will always remember as The Believer.

When we arrived at the lady’s home, we found her sitting on the front porch. She wore a turban-like head covering, cheap canvas shoes, and the type of smock often worn by childcare workers or lunchroom attendants. A set of tarnished keys dangled from a cord around her neck, as she sat like the lady of the manor amongst an eclectic collection of stuff—an empty Gatorade bottle, a pair of antique wooden theater seats, an old football helmet, and an impressive collection of five-gallon buckets.

“Praise the Lord,” the woman said, as Kay walked to the front porch carrying the fan. “I’ve been praying and praying and I knew the good Lord would provide. I’m a believer!” Tears streamed down her face as she hugged Kay, and then me, and I found myself filled with a mix of emotions, from joy to sadness.

Stepping onto the front porch, I peered in the front door of her house and felt shocked by what I saw. She was a hoarder—the type that has to create paths from one room to another to navigate through floor-to-ceiling newspapers, furniture, books, and rubbish. She never opened the windows, fearing burglars, but most were inaccessible anyway, blocked by piles of junk. Once she shut the door, no fresh air could circulate in the house. I wondered how she had avoided dying from heatstroke. And if a fire had started inside the structure, she would have had virtually no way to escape.

I had the urge to pull out my camera and start shooting everything in sight, but my instincts told me to wait. I felt an immediate fondness for the lady. She had a strength of character that only poverty can create and it was clear she really did believe in something—some sort of deliverance, great or small, something that would rescue her from her plight. Hers was the type of belief I’d seen so often in Memphis’ poor neighborhoods, one that comforted her in the harsh reality of her condition.

As her tears dried, a smile filled her face. We sat and chatted for a while, Kay encouraging her to declutter her house, and I just listening, getting to know her. I imaged her as a pillar of the community and a fixture of the neighborhood, someone generations of children grew up knowing and loving. I envisioned her handing out homemade popsicles or calming a child who had fallen off of his bicycle.

When the time came for Kay and me to leave, I asked the lady if I could take a photo of her with her new fan. “Of course,” she replied, but then she asked if she could have her Bible in the photo. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. At first, she placed the Bible in her lap, her legs extended in a relaxed position. Click. That’s perfect for the news story, I thought. Then she opened the Bible, holding it in her left hand, while raising her right hand, as if testifying. Click! That one’s for me, I thought. I felt a wave of excitement, knowing the lady had just given me a portfolio piece, an image I would showcase and cherish for the rest of my life.

I rushed to the darkroom, knowing I had taken the type of iconic picture that had drawn me to photography in the first place. I spent hours in the darkroom perfecting the image—burning and dodging and setting up multiple trays of various developers to produce the best tonality. Years later, I would tweak and re-tweak the picture in Photoshop, always feeling the same affection for the lady and the image.

The Believer became one of a handful of iconic images I’ve taken in my career. In the end, one can only hope for a small collection of truly good photographs, even throughout a long career. Creating the picture taught me the value of my instincts; the ability to read a subject and situation and the knowledge that, when photographing people, respecting the dignity of a person and waiting for the right moment can produce the best results. And on rare occasions, your subject will give you a gift.

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Instagram photo of the day: Simon Bolivar statue in Salento, Colombia

New book – My Colombia: The First Seven Years

I’m pleased to announce my new photobook, My Colombia: The First Seven Years. The book contains 67 photos I’ve taken while living and working in Colombia. It is available in hardcover, soft cover, and PDF editions.

Preview and buy My Colombia: The First Seven Years at Blurb.

See a selection of photos from My Colombia: The First Seven Years in the Galleries section.