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Environment : Guatemala, in the Eyes of the Child : Through photography, some youngsters have found a way to see beyond the squalor of the city trash dump that is so much a part of their lives.


GUATEMALA CITY — One of 12-year-old Rember Ramirez's first photographic essays was a series on the huge black vultures that swoop over and pick through the teeming garbage dump where the young boy lives.

Rember takes pictures of life among some of Guatemala's poorest families, a colony of people whose home is the capital's principal trash heap. It is his photography that may rescue him from that life and give him, in contrast to many of Central America's children, a chance at a future.

Rember and seven other youngsters are part of a project launched by U.S. free-lance photographer Nancy McGirr. McGirr is teaching the children--all of whom live at the sprawling, squalid dump--how to operate a camera, how to shoot and print pictures, how to open their eyes and see beyond misery.

"It's about giving them the ability to dream. I want them to know there are options," McGirr said.

An estimated 3,500 people live at Guatemala City's dump, one-third of them children. Adults and children alike live by the waste of others, scavenging through rotten, toxic trash to find recyclable cans, plastics and paper, which are sold to middlemen for less than a cent a pound.

The dump is a place where the stench is nauseating and inescapable, where vultures darken the sky and where disease breeds uncontrollably.

McGirr, who began working with children from this wretched existence in August, 1991, titled the photo project "Out of the Dump." The children's photos have started to attract international attention, with an exhibition of their work featured in Tokyo last month and another planned for Paris.

The photos, the result of something between creativity and serendipity, show the dramatic horrors of life at the dump--the drunken scavengers, the wretched landscape of trash, the roosting vultures. But they also capture private moments of poignancy and joy, of young Indian girls dancing, of a wedding of an elderly couple, lifelong residents of the dump.

McGirr, who is from San Francisco, has spent the last decade in Central America, the last four years in Guatemala. She was a free-lance photographer for Reuters, the British news agency, for many years and still occasionally takes a journalism assignment.

It was during her years as a journalist that she became concerned about street urchins. Throughout Latin America, millions of children live at the bottom rungs of society, with scant possibility of education, health care or a real home and job.

In Guatemala, the situation is more bleak than most: According to a recent study by the U.N. Children's Fund, 72% of the country's population under the age of 18 lives in poverty, and 68% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished. No country in the hemisphere registers worse statistics.

Aware that their very poverty, anger and fear make such children fiercely independent and hard to reach, McGirr said she wanted to find a way to "seduce" them from the streets. She decided the camera would be the hook.

"Whenever I was out in the streets (on photo assignments), I saw how fascinated the kids were with the cameras. They always wanted to hold the camera. They wanted to hold the film canisters."

At first, finding kids who were not glue-sniffers--the poor person's drug abuse in Central America--was difficult. McGirr turned to a group of nuns working with families at the city dump and through them encountered her first pupils.

McGirr was taken aback at how "tiny" her students were: She expected teen-agers; she got a group ranging in age from 6 to 12.

She began with three cheap cameras she bought at a drugstore during a visit to the United States.

Soon, Japanese photo giant Konica learned of the project and donated 35-millimeter cameras, printing paper and darkroom chemicals.

The children have learned rapidly, and today some of their pictures--most of which are black and white--are as starkly expressive as those made by professionals.

Marta Gonzalez, a wide-eyed Mayan Indian child, was 6 years old when she started and is McGirr's youngest pupil. In the beginning, Marta was so small that she would walk up to her subject, throw her head back and snap the shot. Her first pictures "showed a lot of waistlines," McGirr said.

But Marta continued to practice and more recently took a striking shot of her two aunts in the remote Quiche region. The women, strangers to a camera, stand proudly, dressed in their hand-embroidered huipiles (blouses), against a wide, cloudy sky. Little Marta used a filter for the shot.

Rember, in addition to his vulture series, produced a collection of photos on the inauguration of new, one-room houses that the government sold to poor families on credit. Twelve-year-old Lalo Polalo offered pictures of fellow dump dwellers sniffing glue. Adelso Ordonez, 10, snapped a shot of his younger brother with a plate of beans "crying after I hit him."

Benito Santos was 10 when he captured a scene of life at the trash heap titled "Family of Six in House of Plastic."

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