Central America Once Again

DEPARTAMENTO DE COPAN–While out in the backcountry of Copan Department, Honduras documenting medical brigades for a public health NGO in 2001, I found myself surrounded by a group of curious children. More and more kids gathered, wondering what the kinds inside the crowd were looking at. It was only me but I felt, just a little bit, like a camera-toting Elvis. Nikon F3, Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, Ilford HP5.

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY — There may be no place in the world more familiar to me than where I am now, here, back in Central America.  At this point I have lived abroad longer than in my hometown (at least in recent years) and anyway, my hometown isn’t my hometown.

A long time ago I wrote a story, which I will reprint here soon, called, “The Long Central American Goodbye.”  The title recalled a specific memory but in a broader sense how I was unable to say goodbye, how each trip to the region led to the next trip, each of them both expanding my explorations and revisiting places I had been before, getting to know them in a deeper, more complete way.  My experiences in Central America, centered around my work as a reporter and documentary photographer, led me directly to Sweden and Ukraine and in ways I consider those side journeys along the greater arc of my time in Central America.  As I write this I will clarify that by Central America I mean the three countries, so much in the news lately, referred to as “The Northern Triangle,”Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  I hope to visit the other countries that make up the region: Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but for the moment I am living in Guatemala and, with both Covid and work, more extensive travel is somewhere out in the future.

So it feels both strange and completely normal that I am here in Guatemala and writing about Central America.  It feels inevitable, to tell the truth, and only strange because this time I am here with my family, kids, dog, car, stuff, and a job that pays slightly better than itinerant documentary photographer.  So it is more than just me and a backpack, camera bag, and whatever organization I was working for but that feels pretty natural as well.  That was my life then and this is my life now, a life that has taken me to India and Nepal and Mexico and other places, unconnected to those previous adventures.  Those were not side trips from Central America as were Sweden and Ukraine because I had the rare grace in life to satisfactorily finish a thing.  I long had the idea that I wanted to do a photo exhibit of large format prints, a retrospective showing the best images from all my trips to Central America, not focusing on one country or one relief organization.  After I got married and was living in Columbus, Ohio I met Gina, an art agent who became a great friend and made that show happen.  I exhibited more than 40 images, blown up to 20 by 30 inches (or more) interspersed with textiles and carvings and other artifacts I acquired along the way.  I even made a last trip down, not long before the opening, to make a few images that had never been seen before.  It neatly tied the whole thing up, ended more than ten years of work and wandering.  As I said black then, that didn’t mean I will never come back here, but it meant that cycle of trips, that time in my life, was over and I could go forward to new things.  Which I did.  Not too many months later we were in India.  Two and a half years after that we were in Mexico, complete with a full Spanish language course.  Two and a half years after that and I am sitting here in Guatemala City writing these words.  Hello again and goodbye to all that.

The 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO Lens: a Glorious Point and Shoot in the Digital Age

This amazing and affordable little focus-free lens turns any digital camera into a gloriously trouble free point and shoot like those of days gone by.

GUATEMALA CITY–Behold the amazing oddity that is the 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens mounted on a Fuji X-Pro 1. Photo taken with a Fuji XT-4 and a 35mm f/2 Fujinon.

GUATEMALA CITY — It’s a little-known fact that when Cindy Lauper sang her iconic 1983 hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she was lamenting how her second career as a photojournalist, a career that had led her to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis and the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, left her little time to simply enjoy the pursuit of photography and her love of music.

MONTERRICO — Red head, black sand, white foam, blue sky and water. Looking out over the Pacific Ocean from the beaches of Monterrico, Guatemala. 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens on Fuji X-Pro 1.

So, yeah, I just made that up completely out of Wednesday-morning boredom but hey, you read it on the Internet so it must be true.  But I was, quite honestly, thinking about having fun, about the lack of it, about how our deep and serious pursuits (and what seems like an increasing inability to simply have fun) has led the world to some pretty dark places.  I think the general public’s reflexive, addictive need to document everything, every meal, every meeting, every little moment where we used to have space to disconnect, is a large part of that.  And somehow we still end up with no actual pictures.  Instead of having a few snapshots acting as touchstones for memory and nostalgia, we have what amounts to stop-motion movies of our entire lives, movies that are increasingly complete as people take more photos and videos, start using dashcams, bodycams, and action cams that record automatically, film every mundane moment with a cam on a selfie stick, reflecting their own images back to themselves in an endless feedback loop that leaves less and less time to actually live life.  It’s a terrible thing, a strange and brutal way to live where nothing is experienced for what it is and simultaneously, we have created a record whereby nothing can be forgotten.

MONTERRICO — Why are the Piña Coladas always gone? Out of focus up close, everything sharp in the background. 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens on Fuji X-Pro 1.

So that’s why I am going to convince you to buy another lens!

You see, this lens is different…  This lens is fun!

This is the 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens and if just saying that isn’t fun enough, you can buy it for about $62.00.  It looks sort of like a flying saucer.  It weighs only a few ounces, it’s the size of a lens cap, it has no moving parts or electronics, is all metal and glass, and it actually works.

It works, mind you, within its particular parameters and in my opinion, does very well at that.  I have one mounted on a Fuji X-Pro 1 and I would like to get one for my first ever mirrorless camera, the Panasonic GF1.  And what this lens does best, I think, is turn a loved, senior digital camera into a glorious, worry (and focus) free point and shoot like we sometimes had back in the 80s and 90s (when we remembered to bring one).  You can put this on a small, mirrorless camera, slip it in a jacket or a bag, and pull it out every now and then to take sunlit pics on beaches and group photos in front of monuments or canyons and maybe a friend holding the Eiffel tower: pictures I am more thankful to have than any of the images I have published in newspapers or magazines or shown in galleries.  I do think the lens could well be used for certain styles of street photography, for documenting processions and parades and other public events, and perhaps for certain styles of art photography making use of the particular lens signature.  It certainly doesn’t take up much room or weight in your bag.  But I don’t think this is really what this lens is best suited for.  I think it’s best suited to just use on its own, to mount it to a dedicated, loved camera that has been languishing on a shelf, and to take it along just as it is, with no other lenses, no other cameras, and to, every now and then, remember (or not) and to take a picture (and print a picture) as a keepsake, as a memory of family and friends, because we have far too little fun in this world.  In short, this lens is something that lets you take intentional photos while at the same time relieving you of the responsibility and angst of fiddling with your settings.  Turn on camera, point, shoot, return to your life.  Look at the pictures later.

ANTIGUA — Payaso y Volcan. Ronald chills in the courtyard of the best McDonald’s in the world with Volcan de Agua rising in the background. Seriously, in addition to the amazing outdoor seating, this Golden Arches has the freshest, tastiest Big Macs I have ever eaten and old school deep fried apple pies for that sense of danger. 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens on Fuji X-Pro 1.

The 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens is focus free.  The manufacturer says it has a minimum distance of 0.35 meters, but I think it’s more like two meters.  You might have to remember to set your camera (I had to do this on both the X-Pro 1 and the XT-4) to “Shoot Without Lens,” in the menu.  On an APS-C sensor the focal length is approximately 27mm.  This is fine though to really have that classic point and shoot vibe I’d like to see a 40mm equivalent focal length.  You aren’t going to be taking any macro or tightly framed portraits with this one.  Subjects in the fore=ground might well be out-of-focus.  Who cares?  It vignettes a bit.  It is, particularly in the center, quite sharp enough, but with that particular glow that only a fixed-focus lens can achieve, a look that is drenched in sun and fun and the nostalgia of events best left mainly in memory and maybe one or three snapshots shared with friends that will fade a little over time, like the memories of that day, and like all the people who were there.

Diver Down Again

LAKE ATITLAN–Practicing my buoyancy after more than a decade above water.  This photo was taken by my Dive Instructor Juan De Garay with my GoPro Hero 8 Black.

GUATEMALA CITY– I remember my first time.  That first time sinking under the water and thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t breathe underwater, and on faith in the equipment taking that first breath. The dry air flowed through the regulator and filled my lungs.  I heard the hiss of the inhalation and the loud bubbling exhalation and then the next breath and for the first time was able to look around without the immediate thought of getting back to the surface.  The thought that followed was, how long can I stay in this place?  How long can I make this wonder last?  It wasn’t very long, a few minutes, but longer than anyone can hold their breath.  There were no fish, no coral reefs and no danger from sharks or kraken or marauding enemy divers.  We were safe in the pool at my military school where an Army diver was giving a demonstration and a pitch for his specialty.  It might not seem very exciting but if you have never drawn breath underwater then you have no basis of comparison.

I had wanted to learn to dive since I was a kid growing up on the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau but it was one of those things that seemed far off, a thing one did someday when one was grown and older.  But then I found myself grown and older at the tail-end of a documentary project in Central America.  I was staying at my favorite hotel in all the world, La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  I had been coming to The Lost Iguana for several years at that point and they had the only dive shop on the lake (ATi DiVERS).  As I would sit in a sun-shaded chair with a cold beverage or watch the clouds change over the volcanoes from the safety of my hammock, others would appear, heading for the dive boat clad in wetsuits and tanks and I would feel rather lazy, left out and feckless by comparison.  I was still in my 30s, but I had realized there were no real retakes and that there really was no someday.  I had already traveled a fair bit, lived overseas and had had a few real adventures along the way.  Those made realize how quickly time passes and how much effort it takes to make any little trip, let alone the grand adventures people put on lists and dream of from their desks and chairs and die without doing.  There I was, with the money, the time, and the opportunity so I got out of my hammock when the divers returned and signed up to begin the next day.

LAKE ATITLAN–This long exposure was taken at dawn with a Fuji XT-4 and a 14mm f/2.8 Fujinon.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic caldera lake in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala.  A mega-volcano exploded some 84,000 years ago leaving an immense hole that filled with water over time, forming a lake over 1,000 feet deep, (essentially bottomless in term of scuba gear and its recreational diving limit of 130 feet).  Atitlan is surrounded by villages with populations of the indigenous Mayans (today predominately the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel groups) who have lived there and considered the lake sacred for thousands of years.  Rising from the shores of the lake are three volcanoes in the 10,000-12,000 foot range: Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro which would have been tiny hills compared to the original volcano that formed the lake below them.  Over the years, the lake level has risen and fallen drastically and ancient Mayan cities have been found, one at a depth of around 100 feet on what would have been an island some 2,000 years ago.

I did my Open Water training around 2005 under the tutelage of the woman who founded La Iguana Perdida, and I could not have asked for a better instructor.  It is a far more difficult place to learn than the Caribbean.  That is a good thing; it makes you a better diver.  The water is fairly cold and you wear a heavy two-piece wetsuit.  It is more difficult to maintain buoyancy in fresh water and there are additional considerations related to your decompression tables because of the altitude of around 5,000 feet.  The water isn’t always murky but, in my experience, visibility varies between two and six meters.  I am always asked, by divers and non-divers alike, what there is to see, often in dubious voices, and all I can think is that the world is full of oceans full of pretty fish but there are very few volcanoes to dive in.  At some places the cliffs go from air into water and drop very nearly straight to black.  Other areas are more shallow at first, with beds of mud and reeds inhabited by small lake fish and freshwater crabs.  Then these too drop off to black.  When I first dove in Atitlan there were tiny, nearly invisible freshwater jellyfish with tiny red dots at their centers, but on my recent dives I saw none and the Dive Instructor said that he had heard of them but had never seen them either.  There are schools of sunfish and the elusive, non-native black bass introduced in the 1950s which have ruined the native ecosystem, and there is, of course, a lake monster in the form of an enormous serpent.  In places, identified by a fine white algae, you can put your hands into the thick silty mud and it is hot, so the volcano in which you dive is not quite dead after all.  There are submerged docks from when the lake was many feet lower and rock formations and if that isn’t enough then perhaps you should head back to a reef somewhere.

LAKE ATITLAN–Dive Instructor Juan de Garay on the Ati Diver’s boat as we return to dock and La Iguana Perdida after a training dive. GoPro Hero 8 Black

I did those dives back then and loved it almost more than anything I had ever done.  I went directly to Utila in the Caribbean a week later and did a series of dives there.  I nearly went back the next year to do my Dive Master course but I chose to travel and work on medical relief projects with a doctor I was dating instead.  I returned to Atitlan over the next few years and dove the lake more and then life intervened.  They were mostly good interventions but they didn’t afford many opportunities for scuba and my skills were becoming as rusty as an untended dive knife.  Anyway, I had been busy moving to Sweden, moving back from Sweden, getting married, having a son, moving to Virginia, moving to India, having another son, exploring the Himalayas, moving back to Virginia, moving to Mexico, photographing bullfighters, exploring Oaxaca and ten-thousand other things in between.  Any time I thought about diving, which was often, I took solace in the fact that my life was very far from unadventurous.  I might not have been breathing underwater but I wasn’t seeing life from an easy chair.

When we found out our next job would be back in Guatemala I immediately thought of Lake Atitlan and La Iguana Perdida and working toward my Dive Master if not beyond.  I made lists of all the places from my previous life I wanted to show my wife and sons, lists of all the things I had wanted to do in Central America but not accomplished in the past, wrote letters to friends about how this transition would be the easiest on record as I already spoke Spanish and knew the area.  Then Covid arrived and the transition from Mexico to Guatemala wasn’t so easy and the pandemic was (and still is) raging.  Nothing I wanted to do was as easy as I wanted it to be, but then again it never is.  There was one small setback after another but mostly they came down to the fact that I wasn’t traveling the byways of Central America with nothing but a backpack and a camera bag and days or weeks in between anywhere I needed to be.  In place of a backpack and a camera bag I had a house and a car, a wife and two kids, a dog and a full-time job.  Add in Covid restrictions, the months passed, and I still hadn’t gotten any farther underwater than the lap pool in our housing complex.  In the meantime I read about scuba diving, read the theory and gear and physics and history.  I found a YouTube channel I liked (Diver’s Ready) and watched the videos there.  I subscribed to PADI’s magazine and I swam laps.  I swam and swam and regained the fitness I had lost after Covid lockdowns began.  I bought some fins and a dive computer and a vintage press photo of Jacques Cousteau to put on my desk so I didn’t forget.  Finally the time was right and I was as ready as I was going to be.  I put in for nearly a week of leave.  As it once had been, I packed my camera bag and my backpack and closed the door behind me before the sun had risen.  I took a small bus from Guatemala City to Antigua, then on to Panajachel, a boat took me to Santa Cruz, and I walked onto the patio of La Iguana Perdida.  People looked at me from their hammocks.

LAKE ATITLAN–A diver swims above me as I practice both buoyancy and taking photos at the same time as part of an underwater speciality class. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Too much time induces doubt.  I had thought about it for so long, here I finally was, and what if I couldn’t manage anymore?  I was swimming a mile or more every day in the pool but I was older.  What if my eardrums exploded?  What if I had some rare condition in which two atmospheres of water-pressure caused my head to implode?  Too make matters worse my youngest son, an absolute fish in the water, told his mother he was worried daddy was going to get lost underwater.  I went to my room and climbed into my own hammock.  I got out to have dinner and went back to my hammock to study the course manual and think dark thoughts and went to bed early.  I got up at dawn.  The surface of the lake was smooth and gunmetal grey and I watched the sun rise.  Juan, the Dive Instructor, met me at breakfast and we went over some of the knowledge before going to suit up.  There wasn’t any more time to wonder or worry.  The dive shop behind the hotel hadn’t changed in 15 years and I was pulling on the heavy wetsuit pants and then the top and the booties.  I connected the BCD to the tank and the hoses to the BCD and the first stage to the tank and I was opening the valve and checking the air flow, checking the tank pressure, resetting the depth gauge to zero, and putting it all on.  We walked to the front and then I was standing in purposeful gear while the people in their hammocks looked on.  We went to the dock and into the boat and I got my fins on, squirted anti-fogging solution into my mask, rinsed it with water scooped from the lake.  I splashed cold water onto my face and put the mask on, sat up on the edge of the boat and put air into the BCD.  I put the regulator in my mouth, held it and the mask with one hand, put the other behind my head.

“You’re ready,” said Juan, and I rolled backwards.

LAKE ATITLAN–It is a victory to be back underwater and to have 2000 psi left in your tank… GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Out of the Mountains and Down to the Sea

MONTERRICO, GUATEMALA–Looking out to the Pacific. The coast of Guatemala feels like an entirely different world than the highlands. Fuji X-Pro1, 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3
UFO lens

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERRICO — The road straightens out after the turns and twists of the highlands and it feels like you are sliding towards the coast down a palm-lined slide.  The change comes on suddenly.  You have fought the traffic to get free of Guatemala City and corkscrewed down the mountain.  You are in one environment and then you are in another.  Mountain trees give way to the vegetation of Central America’s low, hot plains.  When you roll down the windows the cool, thin air is now thick with heat and water and the smells of the coast.  Slow-water mangrove swamps, fish, sweat, palms, corn, coconut, salt, oil, smoke, and the sea.  Your hands relax on the wheel and your foot comes off the gas and the sun is a different kind of bright.

There is an enervating quality to the Guatemalan highlands.  They exist in a state of semi-dreaming, a relatively vast region of transition.  There are places where the vale between worlds seems thinner, where you feel the hand of the Creator and that you might step through to somewhere else if not careful.  I have felt this in Varanasi, in parts of the Navajo Nation, in Oaxaca, and once in a strange thicket of woods in central Ohio.  But the whole of the Guatemalan Highlands has this feel of being not entirely of the physical realm, a place of smoking volcanoes, water, and clouds between two vast continent, hot and fertile, cold and rocky, crushed into a narrow isthmian land by the fist of God Almighty.

You often don’t realize you have been living in this waking dream until you leave.  The sun in Antigua is hot and bright and will burn you like Icarus, so you stay to cool shadows.  Purple flowers fall from trees like rain.  The mountain nights grow cold and sometimes you see red lava glowing on black volcanoes.  The longer you spend at Lake Atitlan, the harder it is to escape.  You are deep in the crater of an ancient volcano, with the water filling it deeper still.  Every moment the clouds change, the surface of the lake changes, the wind brings a different feeling and after long, the act of packing up and finding transport and lifting oneself out of the caldera seems just a little too hard.  It is one of my favorite places but I determined long ago I would never be fully seduced by it.  It is not my native home nor do I desire to make it so.  It is my favorite place but I always feel an almost breathless relief upon leaving it, feel the spell of suddenly broken and it is later hard to remember exactly how it felt and what kept you in thrall.

So it is leaving the mountains for the coast.  When you see the palm trees and smell the sweet bitter salt of the ocean, you are free of the mountain’s glamour.  Under the mountain’s spell you seem relaxed but you are under an unrealized tension, existing in a liminal space where maybe we are not made to spend to long, at least not without surrender.  Maybe if you eat the lotus the tension will leave and you can stay on and on, forgetting year by year what came before until you too disappear into the mist.

A Single Photo: A Bucket of Baby Sea Turtles

MONTERRICO–A local Guatemalan NGO prepares to release hundreds of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean. Note, this is a color photo. The baby turtles are all black and grey. Fuji XT-4 with 35mm f/2 Fujinon.

TRAVELS WITH LEICAS (AND THEIR FRIENDS THE NIKONS)


Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–I was 11 or 12 years old and looking for my first camera.  My father told me, “Son, whatever type of camera you chose to be with is just fine with your mother and me just as long as it’s a Nikon.”

I had been perusing the centerfolds of camera magazines, ogling the Nikon bodies and yes, even the fine looking Olympus, Canon, Pentax, and Minoltas.  When my father was once looking to buy a camera, his photographic mentor Gino Rossi told him to buy the one he really wanted, to not compromise. My dad told me the same thing and what I really did want was a Nikon.  The others were pretty but they didn’t feel right for me. There was one caveat. I had read an article about Leicas and when I asked my dad about them he didn’t turn up his nose as he did at other brands. He said something about them being very good but too expensive — and for an 11-year-old about to spend his life savings of just over $100 that was the end of that.  I ended up buying a well-used Nikon FM black body. My dad gave me a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 E Series lens, since my life savings wouldn’t cover any optics, and that camera carried me years into the future — to work at newspapers and on my first international documentary assignments in Central America. Along the way it was joined by a Nikon F3 and a few other lenses, most notably the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.  Finally, the old FM and the newer F3 were joined by a brand new Leica M6ttl. That my introduction to the M system and this is the story of that journey.

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