Sunday, July 12, 2009

Subte kids

Child labor. It's a tough thing to capture. But that's what Periodismo Social wanted this week. I'm not exactly sure how to explain all the jitters and hangups that accompany an assignment like this, but the tension was especially palpable on this one. I guess it's something I've been feeling a lot lately. When I'm back home, I'm in control, able to calculate risk. Here, I'm back on my heels, forced to take a more reactionary, observational approach. And that's not always conducive to creating the necessary avenues to a good photo.

But, there I was nonetheless, so I sank into the greasy underground to spend some time on the Subte (short for subterraneo) in timid hopes of making some pictures of the kids that sell sticker books and other small baubles. They wend their way through between those standing to place their products in the laps of those sitting. Once they've distributed to the whole car, they work their way back, recovering their merchandise and collecting a few pesos from those that decided to buy. For most, it's something to be ignored.

One of the oddest things about the squadron of children, teenagers and disabled adults pacing the aisles of the cars is that there seems to be a sort of class hierarchy, even within that form of work. Some are shabby, dirt under their fingernails, wiping runny noses. Others are actually well dressed – clean jumpers; crisp, dark jeans; name-brand trainers.

Two children stood out in particular. I noticed an older man with a guitar on his back holding a little boy's hand as they made their way to a different station. They were carrying on, greeting the other vendors they met on their way through station and having a good time. I wonder if they were related. The boy was dragging a stool with him, and there was a spring in his step that contradicted the difficult circumstances implied by his faded clothes and grimy skin. Everything seemed fun and happy as he bounced along, even rakish, until he passed an overflowing trashcan, reached up and grabbed a discarded juicebox. He put the straw to his lips, sucking the few drops that remained. Then he tossed it to the ground, stomped it flat, and they continued on their way.

The other was a quiet little girl, sitting unobtrusively on the seat the end of one of the cars. She had a stack of sticker books and bobby pins with her – more than she could carry by herself, – ready for individual sale. Her jeans had glittery butterfly patterns on them, and her Chucks had neon mismatched laces. She had highlights in her hair. Yet she was by herself. Her clothing was nice, so why was she alone on the subway, trying to scrounge a few pesos here and there from pitying customers?

I wish I knew more about the intricate culture of subway vending.

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