2009 - Ongoing
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