By Josh Rhodes, Mission Trip Participant
When I stepped off the plane in Mexico, I was ready to tell a story. I thought I would encounter a narrative similar to those in magazines and television. The down-trodden and the lowly, waiting for someone to tell the world about their struggles. What I encountered was completely different.
I have always been fascinated by the camera. It has been telling stories for almost 200 years. One click of a shutter can capture an encounter for the rest of time. For me, taking photos is a process in understanding the world around me. The frames I capture share with others the way I perceive an interaction. They document the value of happenings and create shared experiences. We all value sharing our moments, the existence of social media demands it. Everything becomes a moment worth sharing. You can excessively Instagram pictures of your food, or if you’re like me, bleed the feed with every photo you’ve taken in the past month. We all encounter life through the camera lens, but sometimes that isn’t enough.
In Mexico, I noticed something troublesome about myself: I let my camera become my social crutch. When I’m taking photos, I can avoid interaction and maintain my comfort. I become some sort of scientist, studying the room around me, intrigued by the happenings, but never needing to actually participate. It’s like someone who pulls out their phone in a group of strangers, avoiding eye contact, hoping no one tries to make uncomfortable small talk about the weather. That was my camera and me – intrigued by the happenings, but avoiding the experience. Pingüinos changed that.
If you speak a bit of Spanish, you’re probably stuck on the idea that penguins changed my life, but I’m talking about tiny, cream-filled chocolate cupcakes. In Hispanic culture, if someone has a birthday and there’s no cake, you pick up a box of pingüinos and stick candles in them. On day three of our trip, the staff gathered everyone at the children’s home with a birthday. They gave them a pingüino with a candle to blow out, and we celebrated like I’ve never witnessed before. That moment was filled with pure joy: hugs, kisses, singing, dancing, and shouting. Everyone in that room wanted the children to know how honored they were to know them and share in their existence. Facebook birthday posts ain’t got nothing on those chocolate cupcakes.
While I was standing there, hiding behind my camera, singing happy birthday in Spanglish, I realized an important truth. All the words and pictures in the world will never do that moment any justice. It was choosing to go all in, talk with strangers, and become a part of their world that proved to be transformative. That day would end, leaving its impression on the people who chose to encounter it. Only my new friends and I will know how good that moment felt. Yes, there are photos to remember it by, but those will never replicate the beauty of that community.
When I got home, I was asked a lot of questions about my trip to Mexico. Was it dangerous? What are the people like? Was the food good? No matter the question, I respond with the same answer every time:
The community I participated in believes in the good of the whole. If a birthday needs celebrated, a truck needs loaded, or a soccer game needs started, it’s accomplished like everything else: all together, with great love.
I went to take pictures of the downtrodden and lowly… I never found them. Instead, I encountered a giant family – ready to weather all of life’s good and bad together. They are people loving people for better or worse. They don’t need me to tell their story any more than I need them to tell mine, but they’re always looking to extend their family. Those three days taught me a great lesson. If you want to tell the greatest story, be a part of it, not apart from it.