Lord of the mangrove - PhMuseum

Lord of the mangrove

Felipe Jacome

2009 - Ongoing

Ecuador

Lord of the Mangrove

La mucha luz es como la mucha sombra: no deja ver la mirada interior.

- Octavio Paz

The mangrove lives between the world of sweet and salt water. It may seem as a passive organism, yet it possesses an immense force within. It is a sleeping giant. And the children play with it.

Over seven years ago Felipe Jácome entered the Cayapas Mataje reserve for the first time. It is one of the last mangrove reserves left in Ecuador. Initially guided by his curiosity – for two years, the photographer had worked for the UN on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border – this impactful visit made him realize that he wished to go back to observe and study this intricate universe. He would not be able to photograph on sunny days, given the strong contrast between light and shadow. Instead, cloudy days would offer him a balanced chromatic space, with arms wide open.

The true protagonists of this series are the children: the lords of the mangrove. Although it is not an activity exclusive of children – adult men and women alike participate in it – Jácome has been following the work of the young shell pickers, known locally as concheros. Their mission is to search and collect shells that are mischievously hidden in the complex, intertwined threads formed by the branches of the mangrove. Even if they are paid an average of 8 cents per shell, the lords of the mangrove continue to immerse themselves in this humid, dense, and at times hostile world. After long hours of arduous work in the open, these children collect around hundred shells per day, providing a symbolic income for their families.

“One finds refuge in the imperative state that certain things must be documented in order to exist, so that they are not lost among the noise,” responds Jácome to the question as to what originates the value of a photograph. Without the inquisitive power of his lens, in fact, it would be difficult to imagine the mangrove simply through anecdotes.

Jácome captures emotions and transforms them into images. There is a game of lights. A game of shadows. And of glances. So many penetrating glances permeated with honesty. These are the glances of the children that unite their joy and sweetness with the sheltered aggressiveness of the mangrove. This is why many of them wear long gloves, in order to protect their hands and forearms from cuts or from mosquitos that bite in constant frenzy. They also use plastic boots to protect their feet from the mud and from the roughness of the mangrove branches. There exists another form of danger: the toadfish. Its sting produces much pain and in most cases leaves a scar. Thus, it is important to cover up as much as possible when gathering shells.

As children, however, they are inevitably prone to play. “They take their time to be children,” explains Jácome. And so, in their vast mangrove kingdom, these youngsters appropriate themselves of the space and become one with nature. As they seek for the shells, for instance, the children sing and laugh. Sometimes they play hide-and-seek or decide to give a prize to the one who is able to collect the largest amount of shells in the shortest time. “It has been a visual exploration for me,” explains Jácome as he describes this environment as “a contrast between the tenderness of childhood and the harshness and madness of the mangrove.”

And now, let us transport ourselves by its madness.

Diana Murray Watts

Curator

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  • Cesar Castro has 7 brothers and sisters. He is the only one of his siblings to pick shells to contribute to his family´s income. The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Reserve in northwestern Ecuador are amongst the tallest in the world. In these communities, children as young as 10 years old are expected to pick shells contribute to their families’ income.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2013

  • The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Reserve in northwestern Ecuador are amongst the tallest in the world. Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2014

  • Alejandra Bones has 3 brothers and sisters. She is the only one of her siblings that picks shells to contribute to the family´s income.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador. 2014

  • Jenny Quiñones has 5 brothers and sisters. 3 of them pick shells in the mangrove. Local authorities have made important improvements keeping kids in school in the past few years. However, their performance in school suffers, as children are too tired to do homework or pay attention in class after picking shells in the arduous conditions of the mangrove.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2013

  • Efraín Montaño plays around with the black shells he just picked. He has 5 brothers and sisters. 1 of them also picks shells.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2013

  • The children that live in the Reserve are extremely agile. They effortlessly climb from branch to branch and navigate through the infinite spider web of roots. Their spryness makes them very efficient shell pickers. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador. 2014.


  • Shell pickers have traditionally worked barefoot. In the past years, however, most people use rubber boots and gloves to protect themselves from the toadfish living in the mud of the mangroves.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2014

  • Jefferson Muñoz blows into a torch made out of coconut husks locally called “mechón”. The torches blow smoke for hours repelling the vicious mosquitoes and black flies that inhabit the mangrove.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2014

  • Anayeli Ordoñez has 10 brothers and sisters, 3 of which pick shells to help their family´s economy.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2016

  • Cesar and Olger goof around on the roots of the mangrove.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2013

  • Kevin Castro walks leaves the mangrove as the tide of the ocean rises. Children as young as 9 years old pick shells in the Cayapas Mataje Reserve to contribute to their families´ economy. Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2016

  • A group of shell pickers go back to their community after 5 hours of working in the .
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2014

  • Rosa Quiñones carries her sons Efraín and Isac to school during the monthly high tide that floods the communities of the mangrove for several days in a row. The communities in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve have absolutely no sanitation as the tides flood any kind of improved facilities. Tambillo, Ecuador. 2014

  • Children play soccer during the monthly high tide that floods the communities for several days in a row. The communities in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve have absolutely no sanitation as the tides flood any kind of improved facilities. The water that floods the communities are highly unsanitary. Tambillo, Ecuador. 2014

  • Alex Ocampo walks through the mud of the mangrove. The mangrove is an extremely arduous environment.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2014

  • Soraya Mesa has 9 brothers and sisters. 6 of them pick shells to contribute to their family´s income. Cayapas Mataje Reserve. 2013

  • Jose Ramirez picks shells amongst the dense roots

  • A group of children take a break from picking shells.
    Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador. 2013


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