The Price of Memories - Thai Chu

Remember when you cleaned out your parents' home? You found a stack of photos you hadn't seen in many years. It was a childhood photo of you with your family. You held it in your hand and a flood of memories rushed back. Maybe it was the braces. Or that shirt that you so loved. Or how it was the last photo in which everyone was together that way.

Now, put a price on that photo. You can't.


In 2010, during my first trip to Nicaragua to visit a friend doing Peace Corps on Ometepe island, I took a photo that changed my photography forever. John had been living with Karla and her family. Karla was a generous, intelligent woman who balanced her effortless charm with hints of self-deprecation. She greeted me with the type of hug that family members usually give each other, and immediately invited me to sit down and eat with her.

This is not only Nicaraguan, it's just how  Karla is.

Always looking for ways to connect with people, she was the only psychologist serving her community on this rural island of 8,000 farmers and service workers. We skipped introductions and started chatting about how her kids had been giving her grief all week, so it wasn't until deep into our meal that she found out I was a photographer. It wasn't Karla who suggested it, but rather John who said I should take a family photo for them.

Family photos simply weren't a "thing."

The kids were already in the backyard, a large space that seemed to naturally extend from the lush jungle sloping from the base of the volcano. It was densely-packed with plantain trees and dragon fruit cacti with chickens, a couple family dogs, and two kids busily circling about. She wrangled her two kids, noting that one of them was with their dad, and I snapped a few quick shots before we lost the kids to the backyard once more.

It was their first family photo ever.

Before I knew it, Karla had grabbed my hand and was leading me around the village. She knew everyone on the island.

"It's my neighbor's son's communion today! I think they should be back from church now," she spoke to me in her rapid Spanish. Sure enough, we caught them just as they were coming home. I took a few quick shots of their family before running to 4 more families that afternoon. Each family was caught off guard by our sudden request--Karla wasn't one to knock. But they were all excited and greatly appreciative at this odd request to have their family photo taken.

Since then, I've photographed over 50 families on this island over the course of 10 years.

Each time I come back to Nicaragua, I walk around with either Karla or Juan Pedro, another wonderful friend I've developed through the project, and we do the same thing we did that first day. We weave from lake shores to plantain farms in sweltering heat, going from home to home, asking for permission to enter, explaining the project in a few words, and taking a few photos of whichever family members happen to be there (we've learned it's impossible to get everyone together).

I would return to the U.S., edit the photos, print and frame them, and return to deliver them a few months later.

I learned that most individuals could count the number of photos of themselves on one hand, and that most families did not have a family photo at all. Many of the kids have had their photos taken, but by tourists who stop by the island and happen to come upon them. Those photos weren't theirs to keep. They never saw them again.

Most people had never seen an image of themselves outside of a mirror.

In 2013, during my 3rd trip to Nicaragua, a group of kids pulled me into a house where their grandma was sitting, gently lit by a single window in an otherwise dark and musty room. She was not doing well, but she sat up and made contact with my lens. She didn't need an explanation. I came home, printed, and framed her photo. On my next trip back, I went back to the same home. As I approached, I saw a large white tarp providing shade to 20 plastic chairs facing a platform. The woman's husband approached me as I was holding out her framed photo, and Juan Pedro, my guide, quickly confirmed what I had suspected.

I was delivering the last living photo of their grandma to her funeral.

I've photographed single mothers and their children. I've photographed men and their pet pigs. I've photographed toddlers that are now teenagers. In all of this, here's what I've learned:

A photo is more than a memory.

Every family has a right to visually preserve their legacy.

Travel photography is often exploitative, but it doesn't have to be.

I continue this project to this day, now returning to re-photograph families that I photographed many years ago. Even as people gain access to cell phone photography, nothing will ever replace a hanging picture frame on the wall. It's true what they say:

Photos are priceless.

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