Maga Dávalos is a documentary photographer who has lived with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, documenting their ways of life through her lens.
How long have you been practicing photography? Do you believe documentary photography has changed?
I have taken pictures since I was 14 years old, when I got my first Canon camera. I used to go out to the streets and take pictures; I never took pictures of my friends or myself. I always preferred to set my eyes and develop my photography skills around everyday life and people outside of my social circle. Little by little I began finding stories everywhere I went.
I do believe that documentary photography has changed, mainly because of today’s easier access to taking pictures. It’s impressive for me to see that we no longer need the big and expensive equipment, or that we no longer have to travel far to tell a story. Now we can take pictures and tell stories from inside our own house and without having to move too much.
How was your first experience living with an indigenous community?
My experience begins when I was very little, having grown up with Maria and Jacinta (two indigenous girls from the Puyo Runa community.) Both of them worked in my house, where they cleaned and took care of me when I was little girl.
When I was 5 years old they took me to their community, located 2 hours away from the city of Coca, for vacation. It was incredible to experience that change of environment: from my house to the jungle. Both were so different. In the jungle I observed Maria and Jacinta’s way of living; how they would wake up in the morning and fish in the river, how they handmade their jewellery, how they cooked while talking and joking in the native tongue (Quichua), etc.
Since then I always had the sensation that their lives were full of mystery and magic. I recall the anecdotes they told about the virgin rainforest and the “sorcerer grandfather.”
The day we had to go back to Quito I cried uncontrollably, I didn’t want to leave. Luckily, we repeated this visit on many occasions.
What was your most fulfilling experience?
When I was older I visited the Siona communities in the Cuyabeno. I was there for 6 months along with my two cousins. We set up a tent next to the community and the locals were very impressed (they were used to receiving mostly international tourists). Living with them and learning their ways was the most enriching experience for me!
Has it been easy to document indigenous communities of Ecuador?
In a certain way yes, because many communities are used to tourists and
cameras in general. However, you always have to be careful when carrying a
camera because you don’t want to make people feel attacked. That’s not the
purpose. It’s the contrary: you want them to feel comfortable and open up to
What I always do is approach the kids first! I talk to them and make them laugh until I feel I belong in the group and I become just another friend. I no longer feel like a stranger. It is only after this that I take out my camera and begin to take pictures.
It has been harder for me to take pictures of women because they are generally shy and reserved. Most of the time they spend cooking or tending after their kids. On the other hand, men proudly pose for pictures, they don’t feel uncomfortable at all. For this reason, my pictures mostly feature men, kids and animals, and I only have a few of women. I consider taking more pictures of indigenous women to be one of my goals.
But certainly the most challenging photography climate has been city markets. I’ve heard, more than once: “Hey! Don’t take my picture, what’s wrong with you?!” Maybe they feel offended or attacked in some way. Sometimes we (photographers) feel that we can take pictures freely but it’s important to remember that we must gain intimacy with the subject first.
What have you learned from sharing with indigenous communities?
Simplicity. I have seen another life, a simpler life. I have experienced a way of living where no one thinks about tomorrow or the future, like we always do. They’re living in the present and they carry on with their activities to fulfill their daily needs.
I always arrive at a community with the expectation of capturing great shots and enjoying the experience but it has been much more fulfilling than that. Once you live with them and feel welcome, you start letting go of judgment and start becoming simpler. You become aware of your surroundings. You learn to live at another pace. I believe I have learned so much from them, mostly to ease my expectations and my mind.
Tell us about a community that has impacted the way you live.
I loved Zumbahua because of their people, who are very pure.
However, I was hugely impacted when I became a witness to the effects of globalization and culture shock. In Yasuni I saw with my own eyes how children no longer spoke their tongue, only spanish. I saw as members of the community left behind their traditional clothing for clothes that are worn in the city. (Now they save their traditional clothing for tourist visits.)
Many communities have been exploited, having to live with the effects of contamination everyday. The number of canoes in their river keeps on growing as more and more tourists begin to arrive. I met women whose only dream was to leave the rainforest to become successful in Quito.
All of this, all this change, had the biggest impact on me. It saddens me to think that when you arrive to an indigenous community nowadays they have a scripted speech, with a small performance of a cleanse, and their traditional clothes on, only worn for this purpose.
How can tourism contribute to indigenous communities?
I believe that tourism handled by agencies that are focused on selling the most spaces (without minding the privacy of indigenous communities) has affected them in terrible ways. In many communities, locals are practically wearing costumes and putting a show for the tourist without necessarily sharing the way they live their life today. Tourism, in my opinion, can contribute in a smaller scale, without an agency. One has to visit on their own, with an open mind. The tourist has to leave their comfort zone and only then will he/she be able to connect to the experience. This will also give the community peace, and once they earn your trust, they will begin sharing their truth.
What experience with communities would you recommend to tourists?
I recommend not go with any tourist agency. I would advise tourists to go for themselves and dare to leave their comfort behind. Local people are the best guides. Personally, it seems to me a beautiful way of traveling to ask local people where to go and what to do. To get to know them and share with them.
What kind of traveler do you consider yourself?
I love to travel! I am the type of traveler who prefers to stay in one place for a long time and really appreciate it, instead of fulfilling my “check list” without really enjoying the places I go. I consider myself a free traveler, free of itineraries and agendas.
I also like to learn from every place I go. This is why, in order to stay longer and learn from the people, I do sort of an exchange of services. Whether it’s giving English classes, yoga classes, making documentaries, or editing videos that can be useful to them, I always egage in an this exchange where I learn from them, and hopefuly they learn from me.
Thank you Maga for sharing your incredible stories with us!