Mother of the Earth (PachaMama)

October 08, 2013  •  4 Comments

I called this photo the "Mother of the Earth" because, if you look carefully, you will see the character, the suffering and the joys of life encompassed in her expression. To me, she is the epitome of the emotions of the global village we live in.

By the way, this photo won the first prize at the 2011 Calgary International Photo Competition, First Nations Category.

I took this photo in a market place in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. We (my wife and I) were there as the kickoff point for a trip to the Galapagos Islands and a sojourn through the Ecuadorian jungle of the Amazon Basin (I will be talking about this trip in future blogs).

I saw "Mother" as I was strolling (or roving :-) through the market place. She was selling some candy as she walked around. Using my seriously deficient talent for 'charades' I aped "do you mind if I take your photo?" Mother, using her superior talent for mime, nodded "Please, go ahead". I took a snapshot of her and gave her some money for her time.

You are looking at the result.

A year or so ago, I submitted an uncropped version of this photo to National Geographic as an entry into their photo contest.

see here for my complete portfolio of entries

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, "Tatiana" emailed me with some questions about the photo. We exchanged a few emails and the result was a re-education for me, and a re-kindling of my waning creative muse (as perfectly defined by the Oxford dictionary). 'What's in it for Tatiana?' you ask. Well, Tatiana was very happy to have contributed both to my education and my creativity.

Tatiana was concerned about the narrative I had used to describe this photo for National Geographic. I had said that Mother of the Earth was "homeless". This is how it all started.....

"The image is absolutely gorgeous, yet what caught also my eyes was the caption you used at the NGeographic site by calling the woman 'homeless'. I wanted to let you know that she is not homeless, but rather an indigenous woman, likely from Otavalo or similar place. Her weathered look may seem 'homeless' to us from a western perspective, but not homeless by far from a Latin American perspective. I share this with you since anyone reading that comment who comes from Latin America will likely make the same observation.
A more accurate caption is "Indigenous woman  from Ecuador"
I'm originally from Ecuador, but now live in the US.
Just wanted to share that.  :) ...though gorgeous image!!

When asked if she would like to share her thoughts about Mother's heritage, Tatiana agreed.

I've included some of the emails exchanged, in order, so you get the flavor. It is well worth reading through to the end :-)

So Tatiana is the first Guest Blogger on this, my first blog.....

Hello Tatiana,
Thanks for your interest in my photo and especially for taking the time to comment.

I "labelled" this lady as being homeless because of a number of factors. Her clothes were dirty and ragged, her feet were bare, her hands and face were also dirty. There were many other Ecuadorian people in the market place in Quito where I shot this photo. They were very different in appearance to "Mother"... well dressed, clean etc. This lady was begging and I gave her money in exchange for taking her photo. "Mother of the Earth" as I call her, has a very regal air about her despite the fact that she appeared to have led a very hard life. I certainly meant no disrespect to her and in fact am overwhelmed by the stories that are reflected in her eyes. I have her photo, cropped and printed on canvas (e-copy enclosed), in my kitchen and she and I spend a lot of time together. Every time I look at her she seems to have something different to tell me. I greatly admire the fact that she has made the best of her life and one day I would like to find her again, together with an interpreter, and listen to her stories if she would share them with me.

One other thought: The word indigenous is a very generic term and applies to the whole gamut of a country's original population: "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native. "the indigenous peoples of Ecuador". I felt that it was too generic a word to use as I especially wanted to convey the difference between "Mother's" ability to survive her apparently tough life, complete with her sanity, wisdom and sense of humor, versus the easier life that other Ecuadorian people have.
The bottom line is that I meant no disrespect and do apologize if I appeared disrespectful.

Here's Tatiana:

Thanks Stewart for your reply.
I understand the perception and the concern on the word 'indigenous' and it's generic nature. Though, that's usually how people in Ecuador refer to people with strong Inca heritage within them from regions such as Otavalo, as seen in 'Mother'. Perhaps 'Mother' is a best description of the photo. Perhaps I react to this title mainly because I know our people have a very low level of homelessness. They are certainly poor, very poor and have much much less than even the average population, but as shabby as their homes and economic means may be... they have a home. Likely the most humblest of shacks, but they have it.  As well, their culture has great reverence for the elderly. The village, if not the family, will take care of them. They may be 'beggars' but it is for anyone that has white skin or is 'white like' (I'll include myself in here), yet it is more about asking those with more to share with them because they have less, not so much because they have no home or they are hungry.  You barely will ever see an indigenous person that is malnourished. Very unlikely. Our lands are very rich in the fertility of their soils - most of them are farmers or artisans.  She is likely barefoot because she has worked the land all her life, cultivating corn, raising pigs, milking cows and selling this at the Sunday market where she likely walked long miles carrying her stuff in her back... she has maybe raised 5-6 children, which they all have been carried tied in her back while selling her goods in the outdoor Sunday farmer markets in the central plaza, where she likely had a little stall and sat on the floor or a wooden box and displayed all her vegetables. She has likely carried huge loads in her back for her entire life.  Her weathered wrinkled skin is from the strong sun from our equator - sun hits us directly above our head, strong stuff.  
She is likely now done with much of this. From seeing her clothes, she still wears the typical clothes they have, tunic over head, blanket tied diagonally over her shoulders, gold necklaces very typical of Otavalo woman. The fact that she still wears her necklace to follow their feminine tradition and the cuffs of her cardigan remain clean and so are the tunic over them, tell me she likely still takes the time to wash them herself, likely by hand.  She still cares for herself. Dignity not lost.
In essence, your title of 'Mother' is absolutely right on. She is a figure of mother earth, 'PachaMama', as they call her. The Mother God of the earth in 'Quichua' likely her first language. And yes, you are absolutely right, she has seen a lot... painful things from life struggles as to life's mysteries.
Thank you for allowing me to share this. I grew up with seeing incredible women as her throughout my childhood.  I always visualized them as the ultimate women with roots coming out of their feet and their head pointed to our sun.  Extraordinary energies of femininity, strength, resilience and nature.  That is what I see in your picture, perhaps why it clashes so strongly for me when I see it labeled as 'homelessness' and what that represents in developed countries. Specially after seeing it in National Geographic, it saddened me that the extraordinary energy that you so expertly captured is underplayed with a title that may misconstrue what you have so intuitively expressed as your inspiration.
Regardless, it's just a POV.  
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts.

Hi Tatiana,
OK, I'm convinced!
There is nothing I can do about the National Geographic entry & description but I can change all my other references to this indigenous woman.
Interestingly enough, the title of my photograph (the cropped version I sent you), whenever it is displayed, is "Mother of the Earth".
You and I seem to share the same reverence for this woman and her kin, whatever nationality.
There are thousands of women throughout the world that embody the characteristics that attracted me to her. If I were much younger
and rich, I would spend many years searching them out and recording their images for all the world to see and perhaps understand.
When I first started this photography hobby about 6 years ago, I used to write little stories about each photograph I published. The last couple of years, unfortunately, I have got away from doing that.
Your interest and the story of the history of this woman has made me realize that I must get back into doing that. I have a blog site
that I have never got around to using and am galvanized to start it up. With your permission, I would like "Mother of the Earth" to be my first entry and use the history that you have so eloquently narrated. I will credit you with the narrative, using your full name or, if you want to remain anonymous, I'd use only your first name. You have effectively taken what I thought I saw and changed my perspective quite dramatically. Now, I'm not anyone special, just an average Western 'guy', a "white" person as you say. The importance of this is that there are millions and millions of "white" people out there who would come to the same conclusions that I did.... perhaps they need the re-education that I got from conversing with you. I hope that you will allow me to do this.
One of my goals is to produce a book, dedicated to the people and things that I have seen, consisting of photographs and then their "story"... a little history, a little 'romance', something to make people aware of their surroundings and appreciate the things that make up our world.

"Mother of the Earth" would probably be the cover photo and "Grandmother" the back photo.

Thank you for inspiring me. I really appreciate it and I hope you don't object to my conversing with you.
Regards, Stewart

Hi Stewart,
Thank you for your reply.  I am super happy, honored and humbled that this little dialog inspired you! :) It's so important to be reignited to our creative sources.  Absolutely! your photography is fantastic! keep going! Thank you also for checking in if it's OK to include the write up.  Frankly I did not draft it thinking that it would get published, and I'm pretty sure the write up has lot of grammatical errors! ha ha.
Thanks, Tatiana

And, Folks, there you have it. I'm re-educated and re-inspired.... all thanks to Tatiana.

Tatiana, thank you from the bottom of my heart!


Stewart McLeish Fine Art Photography
Hi Barry,
Thanks for your input. Next up is a story from Mexico.
Barry Hamilton(non-registered)
Very striking photograph and an enlightening story. Thanks so much for sharing.
Very nicely done, Stewart!
Stewart McLeish Fine Art Photography
Hi Janice,
Thanks for your kind words.
"PachaMama" is an intriguing woman and a special thanks to Tatiana for sharing her 'story' with all of us.
Hi Stewart, I too love the photo, and like you would love to sit with "Mother" and hear her stories.
Thanks for including your dialoge (email exchange) with Tatiana, and thanks Tatiana (if she is reading) for helping me to understand a little of what might be "Mother's" life, and what is most certainly her background and culture.
A lovely beginning to what is likely a long blogging career Stewart. Good luck and happy writing.
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