My husband and live full-time in Guatemala in an earth-bag dome-home with our five brown rescue dogs. We are the co-founders of Project Somos Children’s Village, an eco-sustainable community for at-risk Guatemalan families. Our work focuses on orphan prevention and family preservation. Rather than allowing extreme poverty to tear families apart, we are working to keep mamas and their children together.
I have been taking photos to document our work and our progress since this all began in 2008. For the longest time, it was just one of the many duties on my plate. In 2014 when we welcomed our first families to the Village, I decided to switch from a simple point and shoot to a DSLR. I was excited to finally be able to capture fast-moving children and have better results! I discovered golden hour (and it is spectacular here!) and started to really like some of the photos I was capturing.
Prior to coming to Project Somos, the mamas and kids had absolutely no photos of themselves – no family portraits, no school photos, nada. I feel so honoured to capture each mama and each child and to share the photos with them. Every Christmas I go through my thousands of photos, pick out my favourites, print and load them into an album for each family. It is by far, their most treasured earthly belonging. I have printed photo books and have them in our home. I watch as the children look through the photos over and over again. I see their faces light up when they land on a photo of themselves. I know that they feel seen and valued when they see their photos. They are seen and they are valued. I love these children beyond words.
The weight of the responsibility of this Project has been enormous. Needing to find a balance, I started to focus on photography as a creative outlet. I have taken a number of online classes, attended a photography conference back in North America and most importantly, started shooting daily, with intention. It has brought me so much joy to have this outlet. Not only am I documenting the stories of this Project, I am finding some personal peace which often disappears when I am feeling stressed under this great load.
Nothing about this Project is black or white. Every mama and every child comes here suffering from any combination of things: domestic violence, malnutrition, illiteracy, severe trauma, scabies, lice, you name it! Their road to recovery takes compassion and flexibility on the part of our staff and ourselves. It takes patience and a whole ton of love. It can be exhausting and it can be heartbreaking.
I have had a growing fascination with black and white photography and decided to take Michelle Gardella’s Foundations of Black and White class because I loved everything I saw – her photos, her writing, her outlook on life. I felt that I had found a kindred spirit when I discovered Michelle.
I was not disappointed. Michelle pours her heart into her teaching and really empowers her students to find their voices. Michelle encouraged me to tell this story, to keep shooting daily and to believe in myself. I feel re-inspired to do all that, and more!
I had stopped seeing that I live in Guatemala and what that looks like. Photography is a way for me to pause and pay attention. I am making more of an effort to capture not only the Project, with its millions of stories, but also to capture the beauty of the culture and life here. I’ll never be a professional photographer but I do hope to keep growing as a storyteller who captures stories in photos and words. These beautiful people deserve to have their stories shared.
I had a little epiphany after taking Foundations of Black + White – black and white photograph is just that! Black. And. White. And honestly, I could use a bit of that in my life!
Heather Alicia Knox is the co-founder and executive director of Project Somos Guatemala, and past student of Foundations of Black + White with Michelle Gardella. In July, she is hosting her first women’s photography volunteer retreat at Project Somos. Participants will be teaching the Somos mamas and kids some basic photography as well as photographing the Somos families and families in the local community.
Our “Student Stories” are just a few of the many testimonials and stories of growth we hear about from students in our community, along with some magnificent work. We hope you’re as inspired by these as we are.