The Photography Teacher and His Student
That's me with my former student, photographer and artist Carlos Bittar of Asuncion Paraguay. I'm holding his most recent book.
March 28, 2016
Note to my readers: It’s been almost a month since we returned to the States from our unforgettable journey to South America. It didn’t take us too long to re-connect to our regular life “off the road.” The necessities, obligations and distractions of getting on with our lives where they had left off before our departure in January have definitely slowed my blogista output. But rest assured, I am still committed to spilling out my thoughts and ideas, in the forms of words and images, into the digital void if only for my own enjoyment, and if I’m lucky for yours, too.
The artist as a young man. That's Carlos in the background carrying a chair from the classroom to join his classmates in the warmth of a winter sun at the American School of Asuncion in 1978.
The Photo Teacher Reflects
I first met Carlos Bittar around June,1976. He was a student in my biology class at the American School of Asuncion, as well as one of the first students in my photography elective. Shelley and I had just arrived in Asuncion where I was hired as a science teacher and Shelley was going to be a classroom and library aide at the school.
My first semester of teaching at the school seemed a bit overwhelming at the time. Not only were we adjusting to a new culture and language, learning where to buy the essentials and get the necessities done, but we also had to adjust to a new school culture. It seemed like lot of work at first: my responsibility was to prepare science lessons for four different grades, 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th, all which met for about 45 minutes each day of the week. I also taught Photography as an elective to high school students which met three times a week. It was a pretty full schedule compared to what I was accustomed to teaching Stateside.
The school had recently converted a maintenance closet into a very small black & white film darkroom. There was room for myself and about three other students in its cramped quarters. We had two Omega B22 enlargers and the requisite developing and printing equipment. Carlos, along with Renato Bellucci, were the only two members of my first formal photography class. Since I was largely self-taught, having learned my darkroom skills as a work-study student in my college’s Media Lab, I was basically writing the curriculum on the fly from week to week. I do remember feeling an enjoyment and relief whenever the class would meet because of its size and the more open-ended and less structured nature of the subject. It was collaborative learning at its best. We covered the basics of 35mm camera operation, film development and printing, and we also spent time looking at and discussing other photographers’ work in magazines and books. There was no Internet or YouTube then, but I did have the classic Scholastic Concerned Photographer filmstrip series which included cassette-taped narrations by such legendary photographers as Henri-Cartier Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Elliot Porter and William Albert Allard among others. It is said that the best way to learn a subject is to have to teach it, so this class helped me to raise my own knowledge and skills in photography as well.
Most of the photo assignments Carlos and Renato did involved either documenting school activities for the yearbook, for which I was the advisor, or photographing subjects of their own interest. I regret not keeping a copy of some of the work they produced then, as I have done for classes I have taught since then. I’m sure it would be revealing. In retrospect, the class was probably a lot more casual and self-directed than the other academic classes the students were taking, which was probably the reason for its growth in popularity. Over my three and a half years at the American School, Photography’s enrollment increased each semester, and we eventually had to enlarge the darkroom to accommodate the demand.
Preterito, one of Carlos's book of photographic images of Paraguay which was published in 2006. Preterito translated to English means preterite which is a noun denoting a tense of verbs that describes past actions.
The Student Becomes The Photographer
I remember Carlos as a very thoughtful student who asked many good questions, some of which gave me pause to think before giving my best answer. After leaving Paraguay in 1979, I lost track of Carlos. It wasn’t until sometime around 2011 when I was living in Singapore that a friend of mine, who had also taught in Paraguay while I was there, contacted me to tell me that Carlos had contacted him through FaceBook and was interested in re-connecting with me. When we did connect by email, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Carlos was a professional photographer in Paraguay. After high school, he attended the Catholic University in Asuncion and graduated with a degree in Architecture and Design in 1987. After graduation he studied Graphic Publication in Florence Italy. Afew years later he moved to New York for a year and studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography. Upon returning to Paraguay, Carlos continued his career doing commercial projects as well as his own documentary work. Since then he has published at least three books that I know of, and has had print exhibitions in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. Carlos had sent me a link to his website where I discovered in his bio page that he credited me and the Photography class he took at the American School for introducing him to the magic of Photography. For a teacher of any subject, this is the ultimate tribute and compliment. It is also one of those intangible rewards of being a teacher that at this point in my life makes me so grateful and satisfied that I chose it to be my profession.
When we finally returned to Asuncion last month, it was wonderful to meet Carlos again, this time as an adult, and to share the paths of our respective lives as well as ideas about the art that we both are so passionate about. A interesting aspect of Carlos that I learned in our reunion is his love of philosophy and politics. This is evident in how these have influenced his approach to making photographs. The images that follow are some of his work from his most recent book: Fin De Zona Urbana. These images are of the “street photography” genre of photography that I respond to very much. Carlos has demonstrated a mastery of this, for him it is a very personal and important endeavor. Much has changed in Paraguay in the last three decades and Carlos has documented it with the keen insight and observation of one who was born there and very familiar with the culture. Yet Carlos also brings to his images the perspective of an outsider, perhaps due to having spent his formative years immersed in the English speaking culture of the American School. Of this dichotomy of experience he says: “I always felt a foreigner in my country ... despite speaking more or less Guarani and having lived here all my life ... photography and especially the essays was a way of researching and to understand and insert myself into Paraguayan society. I think the fact that I come from the middle class, my background gives me the possibility of belonging and at the same time being a stranger in my own place...photography was a way of being in and out at the same time.” As a result of this, Carlos’s work demonstrates a social consciousness that is often combined with a wry sense of humor and political satire of the detached observer. His images show a respect and deference for his subject’s humanity while simultaneously critiquing the conditions they are forced to live with. In a way he is doing for Paraguay what Robert Frank has done for America. He has stripped away the romantic conceit of the travel brochures and presents us with an unvarnished view of a Paraguay that continues to grapple with it’s own tragic and tumultuous history, as well as trying to find and preserve its own unique identity and spirit as a people and nation while navigating the complexities of our highly commercialized and materialistic globalized world.
Delgada Fugaz - Ciudad del Este, July 1995
Chofer - Asuncion, August 2001
El Linodromo - Luque, October 2001
Fragilidad - Ciudad del Este, August 2001
La Espera - Mariano Roque Alonso, March 2000
Papa Noel - Ciudad del Este, November 2001
El Agente - Asuncion, March 2000
Siesta - Ciudad del Este, September 2003
La Chipera - Asuncion, October 2001
Self-portrait, Carlos Bittar
More of Carlo's work is posted on his website: http://carlosbittar.com
Mr Griffin, it's great to see you again!
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