The Tipitapa Photographic Project

By Mel Rosenthal


The Tipitapa, Nicaragua, Photo Exhibit is the most visible part of a project that I have been involved with for two years. The show itself consists of 50 photographs I made in Tipitapa accompanied by a rent with information about the town. Beneath many of the pictures are quotes taken from messages sent to people in New York City by the people in the photographs. The exhibit comes out of an interesting and, I think, important interaction involving people in Tipitapa, people in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and myself as photographer. This interaction is resulting in an exhibition that keeps changing. It has been shown in schools, churches and other community centers in New York City. As you read this it is showing at the Labor Gallery of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies in New York City where it will be until December 22, 1989, and where many union members will see it.

The project grew out of a short trip to Tipitapa, Nicaragua that I made with three other people in May of 1987. We went as representatives of a committee from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, to see if it was possible to set up a sister city relationship. Our purpose was "to get acquainted," gather information about Tipitapa, and establish working relationships with people there. We only had four days to meet with people and visit institutions such as schools, health centers, co­ops, community and political organizations and religious centers. I took pictures while the other three interviewed people the Mayor arranged for us to meet. I quickly got tired of taking pictures of those meet­ings and began to wander around by myself. The Mayor, Luis Fonseca, who had been a poet and medical student before the revolution, was very well-liked and his introductions gave me great access to people.

There was much to do. I needed to show in both black and white and color what the town looked like, make portraits of impor­tant or representative people, give some sense of economic, social, and religious processes, and be able to show what daily life there was like. I like photographing in Nicaragua and felt that I could do all that in a short time. When I'm somewhere oth­er than home, everything seems new and fresh, my eyes seem sharper and my brain, eye and fingers work better together than usual. Photographing in Central America and particularly in Nicaragua is especially challenging. For most of us who are drawn to that part of the world, the political lines are clear. We feel that the United States government is wrong and is supporting the bad guys, which motivates us to do as good a job as we possibly can. Someone once asked me why so many photographers keep going to Central America and I ventured the opinion that perhaps for many of us it is our Spanish Civil War. (It would be interesting to explore why this wasn't true for Viet Nam and that unpopular war.)

The Project

As I photographed, I was struck by how poor Tipitapa is and how hard life is for the people. It is an agricultural community lacking in industry and business. There's a big sugar refinery and a prison, both of which are outside of town. When we were there the area was suffering from a severe drought. It is hard hit by the U.S. government's "low intensity" war against Nicaragua. Sewage flows through the main streets of the town because there isn't enough money to lay pipes or fix ones that have been broken. Large sections of the town have no drinking water except from wells, and they are contaminated by sewage much of the year. Consequently many peo­ple get sick and children die. The local clinic and satellite health posts are often
out of medicines and desperately need basic essentials. The great strides in implement­ing preventive health measures have been set back by the war and the imposition of the U.S. government's intensive economic embargo. In April 1989, the last time I heard from someone there, fourteen chil­dren had died that month from infantile diarrhea, malaria and other preventable illnesses.

The tremendous drain on the economy caused by the war results in terrible problems in the schools. Most of the local schools are out of pencils and paper. Students frequently share chairs and desks, and in one school the students bring chairs from home to the school every day. One school I visited had few blackboards, and the ones they had were broken. The peo­ple we talked to in Tipitapa said they hoped the sister city program would pro­vide help with major needs such as the sewage problem and lack of clean drinking water, and would help supply health and educational materials. As I photographed I kept that in mind and spent a lot of time photographing kids, schools and health processes (I was lucky that one of their
many vaccination campaigns was going on).

When I got back to the U.S., we put together a slide show/talk to introduce peo­ple in the Uppet West Side to the town of Tipitapa and her people. It was very suc­cessful. Our local government Community Board endorsed the sister city relationship. We also made slide shows for use by people who were organizing medical and educational projects. Within a few months our committee was sending shipments of health and educational supplies to Tipitapa.

Meanwhile, I printed the first version of the Tipitapa Photo Exhibit and we wrote an introduction to Tipitapa. We also selected quotes from the interviews that we felt rep­resented our experiences to be put up with the pictures. This exhibition was shown at a large community center in our neighborhood. Well-known writer Margaret Randall read from her work on women in Nicaragua at the opening as a benefit to raise money for medical aid to Tipitapa. The exhibition then moved to a number of other community centers including the Riverside Church, and plans were made to have it begin to be shown in the six or seven schools which wanted to be paired with schools in Tipitapa.

I made prints of 200 Tipitapa pictures and sent two copies of each to the Mayor with, a note asking him to make sure that people in the pictures got copies. (Frequently, I photograph people who wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity to have themselves photographed and who don't have good photographs of themselves. Giving them pictures of themselves has become an inte­gral part of my photographic practice. I want the people in my pictures to be one of my main audiences, and I feel that every­one should have good pictures of themselves. I find that the ongoing interaction with my subjects is very valuable and that I learn a great deal from their responses to my work.) Ialso sent copies of the 50 pic­tures that were in the exhibition that was circulating in New York City. Before I had left Tipitapa, the Mayor had agreed to put them up in the town hall with sheets of paper underneath them so that people in the pictures could write messages to the people in New York City. He was going to send me the messages so that I could translate them and put them under the pictures in our exhibition.

I went back to Tipitapa in November of 1987. I was very excited about going back. I hadn't heard anything from the Mayor or anyone else and wondered what had happened to our project. When I arrived I found that conditions had gotten worse. The U.S. Contra War against Nicaragua was exacting a terrible toll. The economy was in chaos. There were epidemics of malaria and dysentery. The health center was out of antibiotics, asthma medicine, and most stomach medicines. A lot of young people had lost arms or legs. (A major tactic of the Contras is to plant mines in the fields or along the roads.) Considering the situation there, photography was not a great priority, but I wanted to get the show up and I wanted to make the pictures I felt were missing. I particularly wanted to make more photographs in the schools, in agriculture, and on everyday life. Having already received my pictures of themselves, people were glad to see me and happy to help. Many suggested new picture possibilities.

Putting up the exhibition turned out to be a comedy of errors or, more accurately, a study of what happens when you have good intentions but don't have enough experi­ence or knowledge, i.e., nothing worked out as I had planned. Most of the walls of the town hall were concrete so I used heavy duty double-sided stick tape to put the RC prints up. By the next day they were all on the floor. The tape was no match for the heat and humidity. Good gaffer's tape might have worked, but I did­n't have enough with me. Two of the walls had some wood sheets on them. Luckily I had brought lots of pushpins as part of the supplies for the schools. Using them I finally got the pictures up. My great plan to have people write messages under the pictures of themselves also turned out to have some problems connected to it that I hadn't foreseen.

Many people who had comments to make weren't in the pictures. Some of them were annoyed with me until I took pictures of them for the next exhibit. Some people weren't living there any more or couldn't be found. Many of the com­ments didn't provide much information, nor were they interesting. Even given the great success of the literacy campaigns in Nicaragua, there were still people whose writing ability was minimal. Many of the most literate people wrote very rhetorical things about the revolution and how nobody would surrender, which was the patriotic slogan of that year. We solved some of the problem by having a few of the high school students spend some time at the "gallery" and act as village scribes. By the end of the week, dozens of people were coming in every day to see the pictures and to write or dictate messages to New York City. I spent a few hours a day there and spoke to the people. People loved the pictures and felt empowered by them. They used the pictures frequently as an opportu­nity to engage in oral history. I learned a great deal about the history of the town, about the revolution, the fight against the United States, and about the power of pho­tography.

I spent a lot of time photographing in the schools. I had brought with me hundreds of letters from children from the New York schools that are paired with schools in Tipitapa. As part of their curriculum these kids are learning about Tipitapa and the history of Nicaragua. Many of them speak Spanish or are learning it, and, as part of their work, send letters to their pen pals in Tipitapa. who write back and tell them what their lives are like. Some of these letters are in Spanish and some are in English from students who are learning it. Many of the letters of the kids in Tipitapa and the kids in New York City are very moving, and one of the teachers in the sister city project may work with a teacher in Tipitapa to edit a book of the letters. This has turned out to be a unique and wonderful cultural interchange for them all.

When I came back, I made prints of the new work from the schools and health centers and we added new slides to the shows. We translated the messages and added them, along with some of the new pictures, to the exhibition. The new exhibition has been in a number of schools and colleges and we use the exhibition as astarting point to get new people interested in our sister city. We continue to send aid to Tipitapa. Last month our committee shipped over 30,000 pencils and thousands of dollars worth of antibiotics and other medical supplies there. Other people have begun to visit and photograph in Tipitapa and the slide shows grow. We are sending photographs of the events here and of the New York City people to Tipitapa where the Mayor puts them up in the town hall.

Afterthoughts on the Project

I frequently act as an artist, a photojournalist, a documentary photographer, a com­mercial photographer, a teacher and a critic. I sometimes feel alienated from photography and its many different worlds. I think about the relationship of photogra­phy to reality and to power relations, and about how important it is to continually confront the assumptions behind how we represent reality. The Tipitapa Project has redeemed much of photography for me. In a recent letter from a friend in Tipitapa, she asks for photos of three boys I pho­tographed on that last trip. They were killed this year fighting the Contras, and the families have no pictures of them.

Mel Rosenthal is a photographer and directs photography programs at Empire State College of the State University of New York. His particular concern is the relationship between changing social conditions and their influence on individuals. He is best known for his work from the South Bronx, Cuba, Viet Nam and Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the world and has been shown in many galleries and other exhibition spaces. He has received a number of fellowships and awards.

The following people worked hard on this project:
Penny Coleman
Ricky Flores
Sara Kleeman
Carolyn Reed
Donna Katzin
Kirk Condyles
Michael Kamber
Roberta Perry
Ken Wittenberg