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Traveling Light
The Seattle Times
Traveling Light
Paris, France Provence, France Teotitlan del Valle, Mexico San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Our taxi driver takes us on a road trip from San Miguel to a tiny town of no apparent name, looking for interesting churches that I might photograph.

He stops at a quaint chapel behind a locked gate and runs down the road to get the person with the key - a bricklayer building a wall. In a few minutes, the bricklayer's wife arrives to unlock the gate.

Inside, a tiny burial ground off to the right seems more photogenic than the chapel. I set up the camera, my back up against the tiny courtyard wall.

Soon I have an audience of two small brothers. They are curious, so I show them a Polaroid, and ask them (by demonstrating) if they would like to be in one of the photos. Fortunately, the exposures are just a few seconds in the mid-day sun. I take a picture and give them the Polaroid, saving the negative in a baggie of water.

As I pack up my gear and walk toward the car, I am suddenly surrounded by a dozen children, probably the total population of children in this town. They want their photo taken, too.

Pinhole photographs have an antique quality to them that works well with churches and ruins. The small aperture produces an infinite depth of field, so everything appears in focus. But the focus itself is less refined than what one would get with modern lenses. The rougher appearance resembles the quality of early photographic prints.

There is a chapel I want to see. It is surrounded by water - similar to the famous St. Michel on the coast of France. I think it will look incredible with a pinhole camera, so we - my husband, our friends, the taxi driver and I - head out of town toward the site.

Veering off the main highway, we drive down a bumpy dirt road, past a few houses with chickens and goats, car windows rolled up against the dust.

We stop about a mile from the chapel. Everyone helps with something. Water bottles, baggies, tripod, camera, backpack. We head down the trail that leads to what looks like a lake.

I can see the chapel from the road, a tiny finger poking out of a lake. Closer, I can see that the chapel is surrounded by water, but that the water is surrounded by a cracked lakebed. By now, our group of seven has been winnowed down to just me and my husband.

We set off with camera equipment across the crusted dirt toward the chapel. About 30 yards out, I take a step and sink past my ankles in thick, sucking muck.

Trying to keep my balance, I plunge my other foot in the mire. Panicked that I am in quicksand, I scramble to get out. My tennis shoes and black pants are caked to the knees with thick gooey mud. There is no way we will get to the church this way. We backtrack closer to the edge, looking for firmer footing.

In the distance, near the church, I can see Mexican farmers with horses, working the fields. It seems that there is no way to get there from this direction. Perhaps by boat, but not this time.

The sun is getting low. So we pack up the gear and head back uphill, where our friends patiently wait.

We gather for a group snapshot, then walk back up the trail to the van, accompanied by a small boy herding his dusty goats and two dogs chasing rabbits.

It was worth a try. It always is, even if, in the end, the photograph is not there.

The pinhole camera led us to a place we would have never seen, and to people we would have never met - except in pursuit of a picture. It's like tumbling and letting go and finding yourself, like Alice, in a wonderland you never imagined.

All photos used in Traveling Light may not be used without
expressed written consent from Rosanne Olson

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