In the two-and-a-half years that photographer Karen Brodie has lived in San Pedro, Belize, she has taken a lot of pictures.
If you have attended any local events — like Garifuna Settlement Day, the Mothers Day celebration, Seniors Appreciation Day at the Lions Club, the Costa Maya Festival — then you have seen her prowling the edges with her camera, snapping away.
More often than not, she is looking for interesting faces — proud faces, happy faces, strong faces, quiet faces, old faces, young faces — faces that tell a story without speaking a word. So, yes, she has quite a collection.
So, you’d think that when Mito Paz, director of the San Pedro House of Culture, asked Karen to produce a show of her portraits of local women to celebrate National Women’s Month, she would say something like, “Sure! Piece of cake!” or “Easy peasy!”
But that wouldn’t be Karen.
It wasn’t the enormity of the task: 62 portraits of San Pedro women. It was finding the right 62 portraits. And those portraits each had to say something, had to tell a story. And each story needed to add to the larger story of the women of San Pedro and their influences and contributions to the island community.
And one more thing. The eyes. People needed to look into the eyes of each woman and know something of what Karen almost reverently calls, “the struggle.”
The San Pedro women in Karen Brodie’s portraits are all survivors, even the youngest ones who are barely in their teens. The struggle can be many things, from putting food on the table, to running a business, to managing a family, to creating art, to earning a living, to enduring strife, to . . . well, “it doesn’t matter what walk of life we come from, and it probably doesn’t matter what gender,” she says, “… we all struggle and suffer and experience joy.”
Those life experiences ultimately are written across our faces, over time.
What Karen has found in choosing her women is that they all seem to share a single characteristic: “They are all very optimistic women.”
She pauses for a moment to reflect. “Here’s a very good word: ‘resilience.’ ”
In photographing women all over the Caribbean and Central America, there is an air of resilience in the portraits that have appealed most to Karen. “There is a toughness, yes, not a hardness, but an incredible amount of grace,” she says. “I have always been impressed by that.”
What Karen is lacking, and she is hoping that the month long exhibition will help, is the actual stories of many of the the women behind the portraits. She has many, and you can read them as you study the portraits. But many others were taken on the fly, so to speak, in the chaos of public events during which she had split seconds to capture a face.
Karen hopes that the women portrayed will come forward and share their stories.
I am going to leave you with the statement Karen Brodie wrote for her own portrait, one with her late mother-in-law, May Lowe. She explains far better than I ever could the celebration of San Pedro women that is taking place at the House of Culture, starting Thursday night, 6:30 p.m. and continuing all month.
From Karen Brodie:
I didn’t set out intentionally to make this collection and many are missing from the collection I would like to create. If you don’t see someone in the collection you feel should be celebrated, it is simply because I have yet to photograph them or I have not created a photograph of them that I believe is worthy of display. Hopefully over the coming year, and in time for the next celebration of women in the community, I can rectify that.
There are very few photographs of me as I am always more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. This is my mother-in-law, May Lowe, and me, a photo she let me take of us together on her 91st birthday, the year I made the decision to move to Belize. I am so grateful to have had her in my life. She has been a strong influence for me over the years and was everything that my own mother was not: supportive, kind, nurturing, accepting, emotionally independent, down-to-earth and loving.
During my lifetime, I have faced and overcome many challenges, the least of which was leaving home before I was sixteen. I recognise that I have probably always been fiercely independent, maybe a little too independent, even now. It’s not easy for me to ask for help or accept the kindness of friends, acquaintances and strangers in either joyful or difficult times.
Prior to being a professional photographer, I spent 30+ years in the computer technology field, a profession that was, and remains, dominated by men. I will never forget the first technology conference I attended as an entrepreneur in the early 90s. I was the only woman in attendance with 200 men. It had never occurred to me that this would be the case. I still wonder if I would have chosen to go had I realised or thought about the possibility. At first I was shocked, intimidated and fearful. I wanted to hide in my hotel room for the duration of the conference, but after a few deep breaths, I put on my big girl panties and set out on a mission as the only woman business owner in the group. Needless to say, I was the one person at the conference who didn’t need a name tag within the first hour!
If I could give my much younger self some advice and nurturing, here is what it would be, in no particular order:
- Be kinder and more gentle to yourself.
- Laugh more.
- BELIEVE in yourself.
- Remember, YOU are ENOUGH!
- Remember YOU are loveable and worthwhile.
- Dream BIG!!!
- Stay curious.
- Some things cannot be fixed.
- Worry less.
- You are stronger and braver than you think.
- Set firm boundaries for/or eliminate the crazy-making/negative people in your life. You get to set the rules!
It’s the same advice I give myself today.