Skip to content

Portraits of Grace, House of Hope

Portrait of Grace Book

To see a digital preview and to buy the book Portraits of Grace, House of Hope, click on this link:

ARLINGTON–I first saw Casa Esperanza in the fall of 2006. I spent no more than an hour there, on my way to somewhere else, but it remained etched in my memory. My thoughts would regularly return to that mission serving the homeless of San Salvador. I could see the light that filtered in through the front and back door, illuminating the men and women inside, reflecting off the cheerful yellow walls. I thought of the people I had talked to and the things they had told me. Faces, light and stories—I wanted to return.

34140010 I would not get my chance until the spring of 2014. Shortly after seeing Casa Esperanza for the first time I moved to Sweden for two years. I worked on documentary projects there, in Ukraine and Hungary, and eventually moved back to the United States. I got married, became a father and spent nearly four months in Central America on two different trips but never got back to those faces, those stories and that light.

Time passed and my family found itself on the brink of a move to Washington, D.C. It was a move that, sooner or later, would be sending us overseas—possibly to Central America but, in all likelihood, much farther. At the same time I had a major photo exhibition showcasing nearly 15 years of documentary work in Central America and I was determined to bring a few images to the show that no one had ever seen before.

I had a short window to accomplish this and traveled once more to Central America. I left Guatemala for El Salvador feeling some sadness, realizing I was saying goodbye to people and places around whom a large part of my life had revolved for more than a decade. I also felt dissatisfied. The images I had made so far on the trip were good ones, but I didn’t feel as if I were breaking any new ground. My hope was that I would be able to do so at Casa Esperanza. When I arrived, I soon met Jamie Stark and realized why I had never been able to work on this project before—the time had not been right.

Jamie is a talented young journalist, who was then working as a volunteer at Casa Esperanza and exploring Central America. We talked about the project I had in mind and quickly agreed to work together and benefit from each other’s skills and knowledge. We drew up a plan.34120007

Jamie knew most of the regulars by name and explained the project to them as I set up a makeshift studio in the courtyard. I have had a lot of makeshift studios in my travels but nothing quite like this. As a background I had a mildewed cinderblock wall marked with small graffiti. We were shaded by the branches of a mango tree. It dappled the light and occasionally threatened body and equipment with falling fruit. On a raised platform to the left was a pickup truck whose bumper protrudes into several of the photos.

Jamie gathered the subjects two at a time. I would photograph one while he interviewed the other. While it was far from what we think of as a formal studio I tried to treat it as such, providing a dignified atmosphere and space where people could choose how to stand and how to present themselves for the camera, knowing that they would later receive copies of the images.

P1240426I shot the portraits with two cameras, a Hasseblad 500 CM with an 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar on Kodak Tri-X and a Panasonic DMC-GF1 with a 25mm f/1.4 Panasonic-Leica DG Summilux in square crop mode. The color photos following this essay were shot with a Nikon D800 and the GF1.

I had a relatively limited film supply and typically shot two frames of each person (or group) with the Hasseblad. I would then change to the digital GF1 and shoot several additional frames. We worked as long and as fast as possible, shooting and interviewing until we were out of film and out of time. I flew back to Ohio and a month later my family and I were unpacking in our new, temporary home in Arlington, Virginia. As I write these words, Jamie is back in San Salvador and I will soon be moving to India.

Copies of these photos are on the walls of Casa Esperanza and in the hands of the people they depict. I think often of Casa Esperanza, of the people I met who work there, of the men and women and families who rely on the place for assistance, for sustenance, for hope. I see their faces on my computer screen, in negatives held to the light and printed on the pages of this book. I read their names and their stories, life histories recorded in a few lines. These are a few more lines than most people in their situation get. I wonder if I will ever return to that place. I wonder if they will escape.


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *