Tuesday, September 27, 2011

San Salvador Zoo

My schedule in San Salvador was sort of tight, and I didn’t feel I had time to get out into the country, as I would have liked. But on my free days I wanted to find some peace, and also to find some birds, so I explored some of the city parks. One place I enjoyed a lot was the zoo—the Parque Zoológico. One Saturday I went there and just absorbed the peace and green of the place. While it’s not big, like the Jardín Botánico it offers some tranquility and a place to recharge one’s batteries. Not surprisingly, it’s very popular with families, and also with couples looking for a couple of hours to be on their own.

They have an extensive collection of monkeys. While some of the cages were old-fashioned and small in my view, there are several monkey islands that I liked a lot. They gave sufficient space and habitat for the monkeys to express their social behavior.

They also have a nice collection of birds—the large bird enclosures are spaced among thickets of trees and shrubs. And of course, the caged birds—and their food—attract some other birds as well.

The afternoon I spent there was particularly enjoyable because I had a question about a bird I had seen among the trees of the lagoon where some of the monkeys are (for the birders in the group, the bird in question is Melanerpes aurifrons—Golden-fronted Woodpecker. I fully expected to see this bird, but then saw a couple that had red crowns and napes like our M. carolinus—Red-bellied Woodpecker. Really, it would have been hard to separate these birds from Red-bellies). When I asked some of the grounds crew for help, they directed me to the administration building. The result was a lengthy and enjoyable discussion with Tomás Alberto Chávez, a personable and engaging biologist who turned out to be the director of the zoo, and Ana Vásquez, who’s in charge of the birds. Later I had a lengthy discussion with Esmeralda Martínez, who works with reptiles in the zoo but is very knowledgeable about birds. A really enjoyable afternoon.

(By the way, my question about the woodpeckers was resolved when I returned to my room an read in a Peterson guide that the narrow-banded sub-species of M. aurifrons looks like M. carolinus.)

I didn’t do much serious photography at the zoo—though I think one could. Here are a few images:


One thing that has not changed very much in San Salvador since our last visit is traveling by bus. I was on at least two or three buses every day during this visit (which sadly has ended, though I’ll try to make a few more entries in this blog). As I mentioned earlier, the buses are inexpensive (.20 for the full-size buses, .25 for the minibuses on the same routes). The minibuses are faster, though also more crowded, and the older ones on some of the routes are truly a very tight squeeze.

There are lots of routes, and lots of buses on most of the routes. Not as many as in Bogotá, but still, for a Clevelander, it’s terrific to be in a city where you can get to pretty much wherever you want to go on buses. The vehicles are less modern, less clean, and in worse physical condition than the ones in Cleveland, but they are much cheaper and most important, they are available; the system is a functional public transport provider.

There’s a lot more attention paid to stopping at designated bus stops than in Bogotá. A couple of years ago, I was in Bogotá when the authorities tried to bring order to chaos of buses stopping where ever passengers wanted to get on or off on the Séptima, one of the main avenues, but that was a total flop. Here, the police will fine buses that pick you up or drop you off at corners or traffic lights instead of at bus stops, and there are even signs in some of the buses declaring that they will only use designated stops. But they don’t overdo it. More than once a driver or assistant said to me “Get on quickly” when I stopped them where I happened to be…

During rush hours, the buses become really crowded, though the people face them with a combination of fatalism and good humor. Like in Bogotá, they are friendly, even social places. In both cities, I’ve noticed that if you ask the driver to tell you when the bus will reach some point, in fact several other passengers will also help you figure out where you area. Here, people who are seated take the packages or bags of people who are standing.

But those rush-hour crowds in San Salvador are impressive—sometimes as the driver and/or assistant urge people to move further back, or further into the bus, you realize that it’s simply impossible—there’s a great plug of humanity that blocks any attempts to get by, until someone gets off…

Here are a few pictures of buses. But of course, pictures can’t capture the sounds—the horns and air horns, the squealing breaks, the roars from inadequate exhaust systems, and of course, the assistants or cobradores calling out destinations and telling the drivers to wait or to move on…

Friday, September 16, 2011

Returning to the University of El Salvador

When Beth and I were last here, from August of 1994 through January of 1995, we had Fulbright fellowships to teach in the Journalism department of the National University. And even before then, the UES had been an important place for us during the years, a place where we had attended meetings, participated in discussions and marches, and like many people found the place one of our important centers. The university was in terrible shape—two earthquakes and three occupations and sackings by the army had left the library empty, in the classrooms windows were broken, doors were absent or didn’t close, many of the chairs were broken. There were no resources in our department—the photo lab was a janitor’s closet. The video students had to go on a field trip to visit a TV station in order to see an actual camera.

Despite this, there was a lively atmosphere in the place. People pursued courses as well as they could. The political scene was intense, perhaps more intense than the academic scene on the campus.

Last week I gave a talk at the UES on the politics of photographic representation, in an auditorium where we had been numerous times in the past—it felt like a homecoming. But time pressure prevented me from taking more than a quick look around. Then this week, accompanied by a new acquaintance here who volunteered to be a sort of guide, I spent a few hours getting a good look around, and visiting the building where we used to work.

Back in 2003, the UES was the center for Central American youth games, and that was an incentive to do a lot of repairs, remodeling and construction, all of which is still going on.

The great surprise came when I visited our own building—Journalism—to find it there, but remodeled. Classrooms, studios, labs that were simply in ruins have been replaced with modern rooms, equipment and furniture.

The Central Library was another pleasant surprise. The construction of this building was finished when we were teaching there in ’94, but the building was an empty shell—no books, no journals, little furniture. Now it’s full of material (largely donated) and students.

But I had one additional bit of good luck—I visited in the wrap-up of the quadrennial two-week long electoral campaign, when various organizations and associations were working for their candidates for the top administrators of the UES. In the actual voting, students, professors and non-teaching professionals each get 1/3 of the votes.

One thing that has changed is that the many student organizations (three are legally recognized—the other thirty–plus are technically not legal) are not strongly connected to the major political parties, although as my friend pointed out, they accept money from them, in a fairly cynical way, But they do continue to fill the walls with murals and slogans, and to plaster them with posters and leaflets. More nostalgia for me….And some images for you...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


This is what brought me back to El Salvador, the fifth installment of an annual “festival” of photojournalism, which has now grown to cover the CA4 countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) and Chiapas. I put “festival” in quotes because I have an idea of what a festival is that is somewhat different from this. In my view, a festival involves a range of activities, lots of participants. A photo festival involves several exhibits, panels, talks, workshops, etc. I’m not saying my idea is more correct, just that what I found when I got here wasn’t what I expected.

Basically, the festival has three activities. First: the competition that resulted in a publication of the one hundred “best” photojournalism images of 2010, as well as an exhibit of twenty representative images and a launch of all this in the Photo Café, the center run by the organization sponsoring all the activity. I was the “curator” or “jury” for this competition. I put this in quotation marks, because to my surprise the organization resisted quite a few of my choices. Fortunately, what they wanted instead was acceptable to me, and in only one case of the final hundred photographs did I have to insist on something. My list of twenty images to print for exhibit in the Photo Café was accepted without comment, but at the opening I noticed that at least one of the images was one that was not on my list, and which I don’t think is very strong. Still, we ended up being friends, reserving our disagreements.

The second activity is the workshop. This is a two-week long activity for professional photographers only. It started last night, Monday. It has to be conducted at night, since the participants are all working photographers and aren’t free during the day. The first session seemed quite good—we’re trying to define the projects of each of the participants. The goal of the organizers, which is a terrific one and fits my interests very closely, is to help these photographers see beyond the limits that working photojournalism tends to impose, to be able to think more broadly, and to have a more scoail. Political view of what they’re doing. I’m working a lot on getting them to think about WHY they are talking pictures, and what kind of work would satisfy their own broader goals.

Finally, this Friday I will be giving a major talk at the Universidad de El Salvador on the politics of visual communications. Should be interesting….

And then later on, probably in November, some of my work from Colombia will be exhibited at the Photo Café, but that’s not really part of the festival.

The group that’s sponsoring all this is a small foundation, an interdisciplinary group that’s trying to promote a more socially engaged, political vision of the possibilities of photography. Not surprisingly, this puts them in conflict with the organizations that have more resources and more powerful contacts. There’s an annual photography festival here in September, sponsored in part, and certainly given a big impulse, by the cultural structure of the Spanish embassy. There are similar festivals in other countries. It turns out that they are not interested in incorporating documentary photography. That sounds familiar—are they taking a lead from the US photo art world?

The Photo Café is a house that’s been converted into a combined coffee house and exhibit space, with a little auditorium where we’re conducting the workshop—and workshops are a major theme for them; they sponsor three or four a year—which serves both as a gathering place and as a source of some income to support their work.

I’m happy to be working with the group; one of my next steps will be to digitize some of my files from our work here in the 80s and 90s, to contribute to the historical archive they are creating.

So far, no pictures of those activities—I’ve had a few promises, but we know about those…


It’s not unusual when I’m talking to someone, especially another foreigner, and the optic of my working here as a photographer during the war emerges, that they ask, “Wasn’t that frightening?” Salvadorans know the answer—much less frightening than the period after the war. And it seems that twenty years later some of the violent aftershocks are still very much part of life here.

During the war, although obviously there were no guarantees, and the violence of the conflict or of government repression might reach wherever you were, in general one knew the rules of the game. You could in general terms decide what level of danger you could accept.

Once the war ended, that changed dramatically. The incidence of random criminal violence soared in every city, town and village in the country. I remember that in January of 1995 there was a headline in the papers about the rate of homicide in the previous year. Another Northamerican friend said, “Well at least it’s not as bad as New York City.” So we did the calculation, and the murder rate for the entire country of El Salvador was eleven times the rate in NYC!

This morning’s headline in La Prensa Gráfica was “Ocho asesinatos en cuatro ataques” (Eight murders in four attacks). And they provided these official statistics: to date this year there have been 2,929 homicides in the country; every day there are 12 violent deaths.

To put some perspective on this, in NYC last year (2010) there were 536 homicides, or fewer than 2 per day. Incidentally, this represented a substantial increase over 2009. El Salvador has a population of a little over 6 million. NYC has a population of nearly 8.2 million.

This is a terribly sad part of the social scene in this country, and in the region. One of the participants in the workshops I’m leading is in the middle of a project in which he is making portraits of people who have survived being shot, in order to show the extremely wide social range of the victims.

We have all heard about the recent terrible levels of violence in Mexico, largely the result of the activities of narco-trafficking gangs. Here, much of the blame—but far from all of it—it laid on the gangs, the famous “maras” or other gangs. There was an article in one of the papers this week about a plan in San Miguel department, in the east, to put young guys who are “at risk” of becoming gang members into the army to “straighten them out.” Sounds familiar…But a judge in a court for young offenders opposed the plan. She says it’s impossible to identify which young people are “at risk,” since the issue is kept in secrecy, and she fears the result is that gang members will get military training that will end up raising their violent effectiveness.

And of course, in the media there is no discussion of the ultimate roots of much of the violence in public policies, especially policies of successive US governments. For example, in a broad swatch of territory from Peru to Mexico, US drug policies have in the long run encouraged the development of the gangs and cartels and the violence—and certainly they have been entirely ineffective in stopping the flow of drugs into the US, though they have produced changes in the places where the drugs originate…

Commerce—old and new chains

As I move around town, it’s hard not to notice the high level of commerce, retail shopping and other economic activity. Some places were landmarks when we were last here, and still are—the big Toyota dealer where the Alameda Juan Pablo II crosses Héroes.

One change is in the old shopping center, MetroCentro. We used to go there to get things we needed, and sometimes to have lunch in the old food court. And to make phone calls; there was a bank of public phones, some of them even reliable. To get to the Photo Café, I have to change buses ands pickl up the 30B here, so yesterday I walked around a little inside. What a disappointment! The comfortable seediness is gone. It’s been rebuilt, everything is fancy and irritatingly modern in design. Gross! But the many chain restaurants that have replaced the old ones made me think about the signs—and shops—I’ve been passing. For people who like me haven’t been here for a while, I started compiling a list of familiar and new (to me) chains. Here’s the direct installment:

Familiar chains:

-Super Selectos (supermarkets)

-Mister Donut—but there seem to be a lot more of them, and now some have a Mister Cakes next to them

-El Curacao (department store)

-Optica Franklin—still with that cartoon of Benjamin Franklin wearing his specs

-La Dispansa de Don Juan

-Pollo Campero (fried chicken, natch)

-Pops (an ice-cream parlor chain of good memory—have to try it again)

-Pizza Hut. Well, they’ve been here for a long time, but now their presence is incredible. To use a technical marketing term, they are fucking everywhere! Sometimes within a couple of blocks, and a worker in the hotel told me he knows of a place where there are two across the street from each other. I passed on on the bus, and there ust have been thirty delivery motorcycles in their lot!

Newer chains and stores:

-KFC. I think they were always here, but they too seem to have a lot of stores now

Biggest (hamburgers) I think they were also here, but now they’re more common, and have just introduced pupusas “Ya hay pupusas en Biggest.” Asceroso!



-Office Depot. At least one very big store on Héroes

-Tony Roma’s

-Burger King. Quite a few

-Payless Shoes


and banks:

-Scotiabank. Hard to believe, but in some areas they seem to have a branch every other block.


One nice thing about where I am is that even in the “Plaza Futura” “food court” all the restaurants seem to be local—or if they’re chains, they’re local chains…

Monday, September 5, 2011

Something odd in the newspapers

In the notes I prepared for the opening of the exhibit and the launching of the catalog of the international competition I judged, I mentioned that one of the advantages for photographers in the new technologies is that, while they are hurting newspapers in some important ways, they allow for the publication of more images. The New York Times or other important papers may run one or two photographs with a story in the print edition, but have a “slide show of a dozen or twenty images in the on-line edition.

But here it seems to be the opposite. The two papers that have run stories about the event so far—El Diario de Hoy and El Mundo—have both run rather short stories with just one picture each in the on-line editions, (www.elsalvador.com/mwedh/nota/nota_completa.asp?idCat=6482&idArt=6143197 and www.elmundo.com.sv/espectaculos/16488-la-fotografia-arte-de-expresar-realidades.html, respectively) while in the print editions they have run several images each.

I don't mean to criticize, but it seems to me they're missing one of the advantages of having an on-line edition.

After writing that, I decided to investigate a little more and found that each of the papers puts a reproduction of the print edition on line. That's useful. You can see the better versions of the notes at:


and for El Diario de Hoy:


Although in this case, you only go to the first page, and have to advance to pages 55-56 to see the note.

So that is a useful thing to so, but still I feel they are missing out on one of the real advantages that on-line journalism offers—certainly it's a loss for the photographers.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jardín Botánico La Laguna

I knew I couldn’t spend the day in front of the computer, so I decided to visit the Jardín Botánico La Laguna, in Antiguo Cuscatlán, right next to San Salvador.

This is a place that Beth and I enjoyed a lot when we worked here. The botanical garden, of which a small but well-planted part is open to the public. It’s a refuge of green, of tranquility, filled with plants, insects, birds and sometimes even animals. There’s a little irony in this because, although I’ve always liked Antiguo Custcatlan—at least passing through on the bus—it always seemed so well-maintained and community-oriented, at least in appearance—the garden is in an industrial area—big cement plants, grain plants, industrial nursery. You have to walk through that area to get to the entrance, but once inside you’re in a different world.

When we were here for six months as Fulbright scholars, we even bought plants from their big nursery for our little back yard.

When Beth and I were here, though we certainly loved seeing birds, we weren’t the more serious bird watchers we were to become. Today, I went to the garden in large part to see if I could find some interesting birds.

I got there by filling my pocket with “coras” and taking two buses in each direction—the buses haven’t changed much in these years, though the minis have. On many, of not all routes, there are both “regular” buses—a lot of them old school buses, or buses of that style—and mini buses that run the same route. They are not from the same company, but are in competition with each other, and they show it. They race to pass each other to get to waiting passengers first.. These days, the mini buses are a lot more comfortable than they used to be, though still very crowded. It’s clear that they’re much more controlled than they used to be, and have to pick up passengers at bus stops. What a concept! They tried to enforce that a couple of years ago in Bogotá, but gave up…

What is different is the music the drivers play—now I hear a lot of reggaeton (a sort of hip-hop strongly influenced by reggae, or perhaps vice versa), and I’m not sure it even existed 16 years ago. Or if it did, we didn’t hear it much.

When I first got to the park, I felt a little frustrated—I could hear a lot of birds, but they were well hidden in the thick foliage. And they were new birds to me; I didn’t know the songs—except for House Wren and Great Kiskadee. But in the end I got some help from a few birds called Rufous-naped Wrens. A small group—maybe four or five— were making a terrific racket, making what were clearly alarm calls and acting very agitated. Their behavior started to attract other species of birds. Later, they did the same thing. So I did get to see a few birds—though a fellow I talked to there told me I should come back some day just before they close in the afternoon to see more—maybe.

Anyway, here are some pictures from the garden—I hope you like them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I get downtown--and my ear improves

This afternoon I wandered around the historic center of San Salvador. I started by looking at a map and feeling disoriented, and ended up by walking around and taking a couple of buses and remembering where things were.

Downtown hasn’t really changed that much. I had heard of successive governments trying to get street vendors off the streets, but if anything there are a lot more of them than there used to be. One difference is that some of them used to sell pirated music cassettes. Now there are huge numbers of them selling pirated CDs and movie DVDs. Also, lost of cell phones, account recharges (air time) and parts and accessories.

If anything, the buildings down there seem even seedier than they used to be, with the exception of the cathedral, which has been restored and looks great. The streets, as always, are alive, bursting with people.

Also, my Salvadoran Spanish—or my ear—is getting better. The woman down the block may have said “un corter,” but most of the vendors hawking their wares downtown said “cora.” I seven saw a sign that something cost just “1 cora (25 centavos de dólar).” Lots of things are sold in coras. DVDs of movies tend to be priced at “dos coras”—or 50 cents).

Which leads to something else—some things are really cheap here. Not gasoline, over $4 a gallon, but bus rides are .20 or .25 and restaurant food (at least as long as I stick to the places I like and stay away from the hotel restaurant) ranges from cheap to very reasonable.

Anyway, here are some images of downtown…