Kike Calvo: Documenting Indigenous Cultures with Compassion

Kike Calvo is an outstanding photographer with a diverse body of work. After spending five years studying Economics in his home city of Zaragoza, Spain and then acquiring a B.S in Journalism and Mass Communication, he went on to devote his 21-year-long career to photography. Kike has traveled to 75 different countries covering stories for National Geographic, but he also has an extensive portfolio of editorial and commercial work, as well as personal projects. He also teaches extensively on the subject and has been a guest speaker at several Leica Akademie workshops. We had the chance to speak with Kike about his recent trip to Panama to document the Indigenous Embera communities.

Q: What is it that motivated you to tell the story of the Embera communities along the Chagres River in Panama? Why were you attracted to this group and this region in particular, and what did you hope to achieve?

A: The Republic of Panama is divided in several provinces and its indigenous population is formed by seven distinct groups, which are the Kuna, Embera, Waounan, Ngobe, Bugle, Nassau, and Terribe people. The first Comarca Indigena, official indigenous territory in Panama was created in 1938 in the San Blas archipelago by the Kuna people.

The outside world thinks of the country as the home of the Panama Canal and a paradise for investments, but don’t stop to think about the indigenous communities living within its borders. Indigenous peoples, especially in Central America and not only in Panama,  have always struggled with modernization and concepts of capitalism and market economy. The Embera are no different.

They are forced to adapt to deforestation, migrations and development pressure. Younger generations need to go off to school to the city to live and work. Their lives have inextricably changed. Indigenous people realize that to fight for their political and human rights, they need a modern education. Costly modern medicine has replaced shamanism and natural healing practices in some places. There are now villages that have their own generators for electricity, but villagers need to pay for the gasoline necessary to run them. Most communities have no land titles and no authorization to exploit the land commercially. Many villages lose their young people who go work in the city. They are almost always underpaid.

Q: We assume that you shot the compelling black-and-white images in your recent Panama portfolio with Leica M9. Why did you choose to output the images in black-and-white and which lens or lenses did you find were most useful for this project?

A: On a regular basis I see the world around me in color. But since I started working with the M8, and later the M9, my attention to storytelling has acquired a new perspective. Some issues need to be told, but do not demand colorful splashes to capture the essence of the story.

Q: Was there any physical or operational characteristic of the Leica M9 camera and the prime (single focal length) lenses you used that you found especially useful in allowing you to articulate your vision?

A: My vision has evolved since Leica cameras became a unique part of my shooting style. I evolved from Nikon cameras, which I still use for my nature and underwater shooting. But my M9 has become an extension of myself while on the field seeking stories. I realized that I like its simplicity. The fact that for those who don’t know, it’s just an old camera, still fascinates me. It allows my subjects to relax in front of my lenses and  gives me the freedom to wander in areas or neighborhoods that otherwise will be quite dangerous.

The 28mm f/2.8 and 50 f/1.4 are always in my camera bag. My recent trip around Cuba with National Geographic Expeditions, included only those focal lengths for the ten days of the trip in Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

Q: One of your images shows a male youth with most of his head cut off by the framing. Only the bottom of his face is partially visible and that is in shadow, yet you can see what looks like traditional geometric designs tattooed on his prominent left arm and water droplets on his smooth skin. It is certainly a picture that effectively breaks the rules. Can you say something about it and what it means to you?

A: Rules are to be learned and then broken to achieve our creative goals. While it is true that beginners need to be guided into the rule of thirds and similar approaches, these are only the beginning of our way. It all changed from me when Gerd Ludwig reviewed my work, after having met at the Geographic Annual meeting in DC. He suggested my compositions should become more loose, not trying to constrain the reality around me within perfectly framed images. His words made a strong impact.

Q: Your fascinating picture of a group of people with their backs toward the camera assembled under a large thatched-roof structure has a timeless quality, as though it could have been shot yesterday or 100 years ago. Was this intentional and what do you think it communicates to the viewer?

A: I believe all photographers work hard to obtain timeless photographs. Sometimes people think of photography, as something simple that almost anyone can do. In a way I agree, but the more you deepen into yourself, the more intricate the relation between the photographer and his/her work it becomes. As I always begin my photography workshops explaining, I believe I have thought more in developing my photo career, than having studied five years of Macro and Micro Economics, Accounting and Statistics for my Economics degree. Photography freezes time, yet our creative decisions are taken within a second, even less. Variables around us change constantly, yet our heart and souls dream of capturing such moments. Photography is about self introspection. A trip to within, similar to yoga, where instead of competing with the world, we should grow internally.

Q: The lovely group shot showing three women in traditional dress and a pretty young girl in the middle, similarly attired, all looking directly at the camera, has a serene and peaceful quality. Do you think it says something about the character and disposition of the Embera people, and if so can you elaborate on that?

A: I feel that our world is still full of warm-hearted people. Many of those who fight daily to achieve their dreams and goals or simply try to survive. The Embera, like many of those pressured indigenous communities, are still connected to our natural world. While hard to approach on an initial phase, when they choose to open up their world, they present themselves as serene and peaceful, like a river flowing in the mountains.

Q: The compelling close-up of a smiling young boy holding a plant stalk that places a large leaf over his head seems to say “happy in nature.” Would you agree and can you comment on this?

A: I particularly like this moment. I traveled with a group of kids to a close by waterfall in Soberania National Park. On the canoe ride, the children lively played, competing to see who was the one that caught more leafs from the moving water surface. The photos captures the essence of life in this humid areas — the bond between human and nature.

Q: Your remarkable image of a swimmer surrounded and totally obscured by rings of splashing water also conveys that humans and the natural world are one, and there is hardly any distinction between them. Is this something that the Embera people still possess that we in the industrial West have lost, and do you think they have something to teach us?

A: Certainly. On my expeditions around the world, from the high Arctic to the Amazonian jungles, I have been constantly inspired by that bond. When people in developed countries decide to swim, they head to the gym or the pool. The Embera, when they feel they should do so, walk 25 meters and deep into the Chagres River in front of their villages. This moment happened at the end of the day, after I had been swimming with the children and teens of the community in the muddy rivers, trying to capture some underwater moments with my housing.

Q: The image of a man and woman (perhaps husband and wife) with the seated man weaving a traditional design while the standing woman looks down with her hand on the man’s shoulder has a certain timeless and tender quality. Also the woman in her finery and the man working says there is something about this society that transcends the usual stereotypes. Can you comment on this?

A: For some of these communities, tourism is becoming a way of surviving. Pressured by development and daily difficulties, they struggle to sell their arts and crafts in local markets or to the occasional visitors. As my recent incorporation to the United Nations UNITE project as a Support Artist against gender violence, I have started to pay close attention to gender roles and interactions in Latin America.

Q: Do you think you have, by and large, achieved your goals in your overall coverage of the Embera indigenous communities? Do you plan to return to the Chagres River region to deepen your visual impressions, or have your experiences there inspired you to cover other indigenous people or other cultures in Panama or elsewhere?

A: I would say that these group of images its just a scratching on the surface of the tales to be told. Soft strokes on a unique canvas, that with time, I hope to complete, or at least, perfect slowly. I have already started photographing other indigenous groups, such as the Ngobe’s coffee collectors.

Q: What do you think your next project will be, and do you plan to cover it with your Leica M9 and display the images in black-and-white?

A: Like all of us who breathe photography, there are always new projects in the pipeline. I have an ongoing series with ballerinas from all around Latin America, which I would love to share with Leica readers in the future. This is a color project, and most of it is being incorporated to the National Geographic Image Collection. In a parallel way, as an expert of the National Geographic Expeditions Team in Cuba, I have been portraying the reality of this Caribbean country for many years. I started during the special period after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union’s support to Cuba, and continue today.

-Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to see more of Kike’s work, you can visit his website www.kikecalvo.comFacebook Page and Twitter.