Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

The person in front of you

A Photo Essay by David Pace


I have been a photographer for more than 25 years. For the past decade I have been traveling around the world observing and recording the effects of globalization on contemporary cultures. I photograph ordinary people at work, at play, and at rest in the course of their everyday lives.

Each portrait is the result of a collaboration, a tacit agreement built upon honesty and respect. An image emerges from a dialogue, sometimes directly, sometimes through an interpreter or a simple gesture. The camera is my intermediary and my witness.

Most of my earlier work had explored the villages and towns of Italy and Spain and the great cities of Central Europe. But the focus of my project shifted dramatically in fall 2004 when I visited El Salvador with a group of faculty from Santa Clara University. On this trip, sponsored by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, we learned about El Salvador’s complex history, its devastating civil war—including the role the United States played—and the serious economic and social challenges facing the country. The tragedies recounted by the Salvadorans were deeply disturbing, yet the courage and strength we saw in their faces gave us hope. I have returned to the country twice during the last three years, supported in part by a grant from Santa Clara’s Bannan Institute.

Last winter I traveled to Africa, and my project took on a new dimension. Santa Clara colleagues Michael Kevane of the economics department and Leslie Gray of the Environmental Studies Institute invited me to visit them in Burkina Faso, the West African country where they have been doing research for more than 10 years. I spent time in Bereba, a small village without running water or electricity. Life is hard, but the villagers are generous and hospitable. Many have never left the village, yet all are aware of the broader context of their lives. Whether they are weaving cotton cloth in traditional patterns or building village libraries where their children can learn to read, they integrate local practices into a global economy with good humor and ingenuity.

Through Santa Clara’s International Studies Program I was able to visit Cuba as well. Although poor in resources, Cuba is a country rich in culture and tradition. Music and dance—both traditional and contemporary—are vibrant and ubiquitous. Food and drink are shared willingly. It’s a country of stark contrasts: literacy and health care are almost universal, yet ox-drawn carts are not uncommon sights.

In El Salvador, Cuba, and Burkina Faso, I encountered three very different stories about tradition and moderni-zation, global culture and local custom, tragedy and hope. Each community welcomed me and stood proudly before the camera. And each asked me to share the stories of their experiences and the images of their lives more broadly.

Juan Velasco, a poet who teaches in Santa Clara’s English and modern languages and literatures departments, has said: “When you really pay attention to the person in front of you, when you really ‘see’ the person in front of you—then you can really help this world.” These photographs are part of my attempt to really see individual lives in all their richness and beauty.

Photographer, musician, and filmmaker David Pace is a lecturer in SCU’s art and art history department.