the foundation operates a number of schools in the neighborhoods of las golondrinas. during my visits, many of the students wanted their portraits taken.

i got to see a variety of activities: sports day (which included dance lessons), geography lessons, art lessons, computer classes … overall, the kids seemed engaged and happy. watching them rush into the school after their lunch break was pretty amazing – they were excited to be back. there also was a team of students from a private school who came by to distribute donations of rice to the neighborhood. (unfortunately, my spanish wasn’t good enough to get the full story on this.)

the schools offer free dental care for students, courtesy of the local dental school.

Momenta's Project Colombia 2016

the school’s rooftop playing field needed rehabilitation. the staff had the idea redo the field with rubberized material and sell advertising space on it to whomever would sponsor the work, since passengers on medellín’s cable cars would see it every time they passed over.

school construction, managed by foundation architects.

next: little kids

a family

meet ioan and violeta, both 37. they have been married for 11 years and have seven children, aged 7 through 21.

ioan, violeta and abel, 12. most of the other children did not want to be photographed.

we met them when i noticed their kids playing on the railroad tracks outside their house.

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ioan and violeta are a mixed couple, in that she is a roma and he is not.  the family – all nine of them – live in a three-room, 30 m² shack by the rail line that leads into the old abandoned factory. the house, which originally had only one room, was owned by the railroad company before it went out of business.

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ioan added the other two rooms and built a storage space on the roof. (he works in construction, and frequently decamps to england for a few weeks at at time to find work, as there is little work for him in romania.) the house has electricity, but lacks a refrigerator or running water, which was cut off two years ago. every day, the family takes a cart with empty jugs to a standpipe down the road and fills them with water. violeta cooks one meal in a large pot on a stove which sits next to one of the beds (and which serves as the house’s only heating source), and then the family eats the food throughout the day.

ioan and violeta had a lease with the railroad company, but, since the company went bankrupt, the city has been trying to evict them for years and move them to the factory housing where the other roma are. ioan and violeta have avoided eviction so far, but their options for better housing seem non-existant.

they closed the mine

petrila, a town about halfway between bucharest and the serbian border, was a mining town until 2015. according to one article, petrila’s mine had been in operation for 156 years, and without the mine, there is no significant economic activity in the town at all.

naturally, photos like this look better in black-and-white.

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from the looks of it, parts of the mining operating had been left to fall apart for longer than a year, but who knows.

for the former miners, life goes on. these guys aren’t sitting alone at home at 10 on a friday morning.

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housing: havana, part 6

one of our projects involved a visit to an apartment building known as a solár. soláres are buildings that were owned by a single family before the revolution, that were then taken over by the state and split up into apartments. the state provides the soláres to the residents for free: free of rent and, apparently, largely free of maintenance except for what the residents do themselves.

the solár that we visited, on calle san ignácio, had been owned by a member of the aristocracy, the duque de pinar del rio. the duque’s slaves and servants moved in after the revolution, and their descendants still live there.

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in addition to the soláres, there are regular apartment buildings, also owned by the state. while in the san ignácio building, i met a woman named zoraida who had recently moved out of her apartment because the ceiling had collapsed. she gave me a copy of an inspection notice from the city’s housing agency, dated december 2013, which recommended that the units on the second floor of the building be demolished because they were structurally unsound. the order was later extended to the entire building, but before any work commenced, her bathroom ceiling fell in while her grandchild was in the bath. the baby died, and the remaining 14 (!) members of the family relocated from their two-bedroom apartment to an empty industrial building that they found with their friends’ help.

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kitchen area part of the sleeping area zoraida and two of her children
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zoraida’s daughter shows a photo of the child who died in the roof collapse zoraida’s sewing machine. she works as a tailor zoraida shows an example of her work in a letter to the city asking for help that she wrote prior to the ceiling collapse, zoraida reminded the authorities that she was a revolutionary in obedience to Fidel and Raúl

subsequently, i visited her old building and was invited in by some residents who showed me their apartment and zoraida’s next door.  with my rusty spanish, i couldn’t understand all the details they shared, but i understood two things: they were at pains to say that the state did provide them help in many ways; nonetheless, as regarded their housing, they knew that their building was in bad shape.

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next: cigars!

what i’m doing during the week

20141103_Daily_007during the week, i volunteer at a food pantry, assembling (on mondays and wednesdays) and distributing (on tuesdays and thursdays) boxes of food for low-income families.  with the continuing economic problems in greece, many families who used to have decent incomes now need extra help, so the municipal service center for the poor operates a program, underwritten by one of the local private utilities, to assist 100 families with weekly groceries for a six-month period.  the boxes contain basic staples – juice, pasta, dried beans, cereal, tuna, and the like, as well as cleaning products: not enough to completely feed a family of five for the week, but it helps.

the clientele is a mix of greeks and legal immigrants. if yesterday’s demonstration was any indication of the size of the need, 100 families is just a drop in the bucket, but one drop is better than no drops at all, and the people who come in seem awfully grateful for the assistance they get.

ας μάθουμε λίγα ελληνικά!

we are moving to athens this summer, and we went to larissa, about four hours north of the city, for a one-week language immersion course.  greece, as anyone who is paying attention knows, is in the midst of a deep economic crisis.  the numbers suggest that the country is finally pulling out of it, having recorded a primary surplus and re-entered the international bond market; nonetheless, for the average person, the economic contraction and high unemployment of the past 6-7 years remains a constant.  i was curious to see first-hand how the crisis “looked” on the streets, and while every block has at least one storefront that is vacant, to me the graffiti was more interesting.  it is everywhere: in alleys, on storefronts, on private houses, even on churches.  with that in mind, ας μάθουμε λίγα ελληνικά! (let’s learn a little greek!)

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this first one translates roughly to “f— the state.” here we have some boys kicking their fallen friend in front of “stand against state terrorism” last, “s— to fascists” next to posters of alex tsipras, head of the leading leftist anti-establishment party, syriza.

culture awaits!


(as some of you know, i managed a low-income housing repair program before i moved overseas. i no longer work in the field, but when i come across examples of housing policy, i look into them.)

while i was hunting around for photo stories earlier this year, i learned about an urban community called semmanchery, located about 30 km outside of chennai. the government had begun building units in semmanchery in 2004 specifically for households relocated as a result of slum clearance and urban development projects. in 2007, it relocated squatters from their homes on government land on the cooum river bank – which is just 1/4 mile from my house, down a street where i like to take photos – out to semmanchery as part of a now-abandoned river clean-up project. i learned about this situation from the guy who owned the tea stall where i shot a portrait for the “chennai 24/7” art project; and since moving people with limited transportation options 30 km away from whatever jobs they held is not the way to minimize the economic impacts of relocation, i decided to check it out. the tea stall owner agreed to introduce me to his friends who were living there. it turned out that my driver also knew a family living in semmanchery – one that had moved there willingly, by buying a unit from a family that had returned to chennai after being forceably relocated to semmanchery – so there were two households i could interview.

semmanchery is composed of approximately 10,000 units (no one with whom i spoke knew the exact number), clustered into buildings of eight units, with each pair of adjoining units sharing a single toilet. each unit is approximately 125 square feet – essentially, one room large enough only for a double bed and a few chairs, plus a kitchen area for which the tenants must provide their own sink and appliances. every family gets one unit regardless of the number of people in the family.

top row, photos one and two: the housing development is set back far from the main highway. there also is private housing development underway behind the government houses. the access road to the highway was being paved when i visited. photos three and four: the main road through the development. bottom row, first photo: a block of units. second and third photos: a vacant unit, unimproved except for the vinyl tile flooring. i haven’t included any photos or names of the people i interviewed.

the relocated couple i spoke with, said they are paying 300 rupees (approximately u.s. $6) per month for the unit, over 25 years, after which they will own the unit outright. they had owned their home on the riverbank – to the extent that one can own a house built illegally on government property – and they told me that it had been four times the size of their current unit, which they share with two sons. both the husband and one of the sons had been drivers in chennai, but with the move, they lost most of their clients and have been scrambling to find new ones in the area.

when the government forced the couple to leave their old neighborhood, it provided no compensation or moving assistance, and it’s hard to argue that the family was entitled to any, since they were squatters. this couple’s story may be typical or it may not be; from what i observed, however, the space allocation policy and the accompanying economic dislocation associated with moves to semmanchery seem to be at odds with the government’s positive goals of clearing slums, providing decent housing, and promoting development.

onward: outside dharmapuri, i came across this housing site of approximately 80 units, one built right next to the other, row after row. i was told that the construction began under the previous government, but the current administration stopped the project. the government’s policy now is to provide housing money directly to the rural poor for housing. whether it actually gets used for housing is another question, but in theory the policy is more practical, not unlike the issuance of section 8 vouchers in the u.s., but in a lump sum. in this case, the policy seems for the best, since in this project, there again was no allowance for family size. in fact, the builders didn’t provide a lot of room for much of anything, including indoor plumbing. (not unusual, unfortunately.)

i came across a different, but equally bizarre, situation in yercaud, next to the crowded “pagoda point” tourist attraction, which i mention in an earlier posting. the tamil nadu housing board had built more than 60 houses of a good size and design, with glass-enclosed staircases, as a component of its “small and medium towns project.” despite the structures’ quality, they were empty and vandalized. as i picked my way through the grounds, i met a local resident who told me that the houses were vacant because they had been too expensive for local residents, but according to a web post i read when i googled the project, the project failed because there was insufficient water on the cliff to supply the houses. either way – does no one do feasibility studies anymore?

two weeks of teaching photography in rural tamil nadu – part 2

during the second week, i went to salem, about 65 km south of dharmapuri. it is a significantly larger city and district than dharmapuri (3.5 million people vs. 1.5 million), and there was a different feel to this second group of kids. in part, it may have been that, because they come from a more urbanized area, they have different perspectives; or perhaps, because they had further to travel each day, they had less time to search for stories. it also may be that “only” six of them had been rescued from child labor, while the other four instead were members of the children’s parliament, the local children’s advocacy organ. (i don’t mean to be glib – six is still six too many – but i think the mix affected the way some of them approached the assignment.) at any rate, we ended up with more daily life scenes than issue scenes, but they still produced some great photos by the end of the week.

it’s also important for me to mention that one of the girls who was rescued from labor was subsequently mainstreamed back into public school, and she now is a star track athlete who is about to represent tamil nadu in a national competition in mumbai. i’m trying to not sound preachy, but … child labor is a crime against the future of the entire country.

now, the photos:

kannan focused on village life and caught some wonderfully spontaneous shots. lavanya did a mix of photos.  the second photo is of a child laborer.
nathaji photographed garbage in the village and unsanitary conditions around the water tank – two common scenarios. pasupathi executed some textbook close-up shots, and also documented issues of food safety in the markets. (note the flies.)
rathidevi documented workers, including these scenes at a brick kiln. ramya’s work fascinated me because she took a lot of photos of magazine pages and television screens, essentially taking a post-modern approach to photography. but how do you explain jean baudrillard to kids?
santhosh was drawn toward photographing flowers. the second photo subtly reminded me that trash on the street is a human problem; it doesn’t exist by itself. shanti took one of the best street photography shots i’ve seen in a while. the second photo shows workers employed under the national rural employment guarantee act.
tamilselvam also focused on scenes of village life. tamilselvi was concerned about the men and boys climbing coconut trees without any safety devices.