Look at this photo. What do you see? Those are the eyes of a Peruvian boy. If I had to guess I’d say he was around 10 years old. His cheeks are red from the merciless sun and wind of the high Andes. You can’t see it in this cropped photo but he’s wearing a purple sweater with a dirty blue shirt underneath it. His pants show signs of repair and mismatched threads stick out here and there. The photo doesn’t show you his worn rubber sandals that instantly mark him as a “campesino.” It doesn’t show you his rough hands and it doesn’t show you the blade he’s holding in them.
This crop of the photo does show the blade, the blade I felt running down the leg of my pants while I photographed a crowded street last year in Peru. I’ve wanted to tell the story about my encounter with this boy and his knife for a long time but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I didn’t want to share the whole photo, it didn’t feel right to reveal his face to the world. I didn’t know what to say either. Using it as some “hey photographers, watch your pockets” post seemed trite and it wouldn’t address the deeper issues this kind of thing brings up. I’ve had a year to sit on this story and in that time I’ve thought about it a lot.
Peru is a wonderful place but it’s also challenging and full of drastic contrasts. In Peru, I was shown incredible generosity by people with very little to give but I also had people try to pick my pocket more than in any other country I’ve visited. On the day I took this boy’s photo, I was on assignment for a travel company photographing an annual religious festival in a remote town a couple hours outside of Cusco. I tend to have pretty good situational awareness so as soon as I felt a gentle tug on the side of my pants, I knew what was happening. I spun and took a step backwards, putting distance between myself and whoever was after my pockets. In less than a second my eyes shot from the boy’s face to the razor blade in his hand.
I didn’t know what to do. Almost by instinct I lifted my camera and snapped one blurry photo of the boy who was still looking at me, either too surprised by my reaction to move or trapped by the wall of people behind him. The moment my shutter clicked and I saw his face filled with surprise and fear, I felt bad. There was a vulnerability in his face that struck me. I had every advantage over him. Not only was I four to five times his size, I was a white, male, U.S. citizen, visiting a country hungry for tourist dollars. He was a small boy with a dull and broken razor blade.
When I took the boy’s photo I could have shown it to the police but I didn’t. I’d heard that the typical punishment for a pickpocket in Peru was a night at the police station and a cold shower in the morning. But even asking the police for a slap on the wrist seemed wrong. Who was I to demand someone teach this boy a lesson? Could a person who has led the kind of privileged life I have, a person who gets paid to create art, a person who saw a lot of the world before he was 25, really turn in a little boy for being a (pretty lousy) pickpocket? At the time, I thought the answer was no. But this is where things gets muddy and I get confused.
It’s the same privilege that made me feel guilty about catching the boy that lets me postulate about what was best for him. Even in this post, I find myself using words to describe him as a victim. I assume he’s a victim because of the subconscious stories and prejudices I carry about developing countries, indigenous people, and “the poor.” As storytellers we have to be very careful about the kind of narratives we construct around people we don’t know — especially when our work is journalistic. I still think it would have been wrong to drag that boy to the nearest policeman but maybe it’s also wrong to paint him as a sympathetic character in my memories and in my story.
Maybe if I had turned the boy in, it would have put him on a better path in his life. Maybe letting him walk away was the best thing for him. The truth is, I don’t know what was best for him. I’m not his father, I don’t live in his community, and I was only in his life for a few seconds. I’ve replayed those few seconds in my head many times. Each time I ask myself if I did the right thing, if I did what was best for the boy, for photographers, for that community. I still don’t have an answer, and assuming I knew what was best in the moment would have been wrong. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the humanitarian world, it’s that you have to get to know people and places before you can really help. Sometimes you don’t have all the answers, sometimes the right choice isn’t always the obvious choice, and sometimes life is complicated.