Photo Essay: Using Photography to Help Young Shoe Shine Workers Tell Their Stories in La Paz, Bolivia
by April Pojman
Shoe shining is a common job among youth from rural immigrant families who move to large Bolivian cities like La Paz. It generates money to pay for their studies and helps with household expenses. The boys (and a few girls) who grow up shining shoes in the streets are known in Spanish as lustracalzados.
The majority of the shoe shiners wear vests that identify which workers’ association they belong to and cover their faces with balaclava ski masks. The masks hide their identities in an effort to avoid social discrimination. Many lustracalzados prefer that their classmates, friends and family not know what kind of work they do, since shoe shine workers have a reputation for being thieves and drug addicts.
The Fundación Nuevo Día (New Day Centre) in La Paz is run by, and for, the city’s lustracalzados, offering them low-cost services and training. Save the Children and other local partners helped establish the centre in 1988, and it became an independent registered Bolivian charity in 2004. The centre currently serves 200 youth (about 40 percent of the lustracalzados in La Paz) between the ages of 7 and 18, with the majority between 10 and 14 years old. More than 50 adult shoe shiner workers also are served by the centre.
In December 2006, Fundación Nuevo Día held a two-day photography workshop in which the lustracalzados analyzed what it means to them to shine shoes. The workshop was based on the PhotoVoice methodology, which aims to blend photography and social action by providing cameras to “people with the least access to those who make decisions affecting their lives.” It is designed to “reach, inform and organise community members, enabling them to prioritise their concerns and discuss problems and solutions.”
The first day of the workshop focused on reflection among the lustracalzados on what it’s like to work as a shoe shiner, the emotions they commonly experience and the positive and negative aspects of their work, studies, family situations and life in the city. Fundación Nuevo Día then provided the shoe shine workers with digital cameras so they could photograph their lives and what’s important to them.
While the shoe shine workers often feel discriminated against and socially excluded, they believe shining shoes is honourable work, allowing them to support their studies and help their families with food, clothing and health care costs. They enjoy working without a boss or a fixed schedule and often spend their time with friends, enjoying themselves and thinking about the future.
Below are the 10 finalist photos selected during the project, four of which were printed on greeting cards and sold to raise funds for Fundación Nuevo Día.
Choco took this photo to show that "working in the centre of the city gives us the privilege of observing and deciphering things like behaviours and attitudes that many people ignore."
Miguel Angel took this photo to show that “underneath the ski mask there is a human spirit like any other."
Miguel also took this photo to show that while "many people confuse shoe shiners with guerrilla groups, the truth is far from that."
Marco Antonio took this photo to show his friend working and “the effort this takes for us."
Felix Perez took this photo to show that "shining shoes in the streets is a struggle every day; it is a sacrifice full of hope and requires the ability to begin humbly the construction of a better future."
Alejandro Magno took this photo to show a friend who is “pleased with what he has been paid for his work."
Felix Perez took this photo to show that “a simple shoe shine box with tools is enough to sustain a boy on the streets who has freedom and is at peace with his work."
Choco took this photo to show that "the street is not just where we work but also a place to think and come up with ideas for the future. It can be the beginning of a longed-after dream that can come true."
Feliz Perez took this photo to show his friend “going to the foundation after his work day. After shining shoes in the streets of La Paz, he is tired and shares this feeling with his friends."
Miguel Angel took this photo to show "the boy next to the garden means hope and renewal, like the flowers come up every year we hope for a better future. He is next to the word ‘glory’ so that the ideas of great people, people who are no longer like us, will always live on."