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ICADS: Learning Through a Lens

By: Abi Flynn Chamberlain

May 08, 2020

Click! As a photographer, I’ve always been sensitive to how intrusive a camera can be in certain settings. When I’m photographing an event or a talk and the room is quiet, with everyone focusing on the person speaking, I’m hyper-aware of the sound the camera makes, where I’m standing, or if I’m interrupting the moment. I began working with ICADS in January, and part of my job is to capture photos of the lectures, student presentations, and field trips like coffee farm visits and pineapple plantation tours.

I was instantly immersed in a new context. I have worked in the creative field for the past several years in design and photography. But now, I was traveling alongside college students learning about Costa Rica, the greater Latin American context, inequality, injustice, and climate change. Many of the contexts we visited were places of exploitation, like a banana plantation where workers labored for long hours in the sun without fair pay. Places like the National Park of Cahuita were struggling to combat the effects of climate change. Others, like Limon, a coastal city in Costa Rica, were visibly reeling from a recent opening of a private port, which pushed hundreds of union port workers out of their jobs. While Costa Rica is a beautiful place (photographers travel here from all over the world to capture its beauty), so much of what I was capturing went beyond the natural beauty of the country. I was photographing people telling their story, and ICADS students listening, hearing their struggles, and learning the history and effects of hundreds of years of colonialism. While editing, I noticed how serious many of the students looked in the photos!                                   

Although we were grappling with deep topics, there was much joy to be found through learning as well. During our visit to an agroforestry farm near the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Jose, the owner, showed us the natural and earth-healing way they grew cacao, banana, and other tropical fruits, without dropping hundreds of gallons of pesticides on their crops like the nearby banana and pineapple plantations. He showed the students each step of making chocolate, from caring for the cacao tree, to picking the fruit, to the drying process, to grinding it up with his homemade machine, to mixing it with condensed milk to create delicious chocolate. I felt so privileged to be able to photograph these moments of connection and joy between Jose and the students, but yet, felt that same tug that I have always felt—don’t get in the way of the story that’s happening. Capture it, tell the story, but don’t inhibit or intrude.

In some situations during our travels, the presence of my camera did feel intrusive. During our visit to the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, home to some of the Bribri people, a local community advocate named Gloria invited us into a beautiful thatched roof space. She shared the history of the Bribri people, their never-ending struggle with the Costa Rican government over their rightful land, and the many changes that have been forced upon her people. The stillness and quiet of that space, paired with the challenging truths that Gloria shared prompted me to put away my camera, sit on the floor among the students, and simply listen.

 It’s not often that your work challenges you. For much of my time working in the creative field, work has been rote, practiced, tested, stale. The dual privilege of working creatively, but alongside students and educators focused on social justice and equality, has completely transformed the way that I see the world and the work we do in it. ICADS has encouraged me to become an observer, a story-teller, and most importantly, a life-long student.


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