CAMERA, ACTION: Erica Brough captures one of her subjects, 8-year-old David Flores, scrubbing laundry. (Photo by Boaz Dvir)
The Florida FlyIns course gives students a sharp global perspective
Clutching her Nikon, Florida FlyIns course student Erica Brough stepped out of Jinotepe’s Hotel Casa Grande at 6 a.m. on her fourth day in Nicaragua, the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country.
As the rising sun cast a soft glow on Jinotepe’s dusty, narrow streets, she hopped into a taxi to go photograph a family considered underprivileged even by Nicaraguan standards. On this day, she planned to document 4-year-old Francisco Flores’ first time in school.
The taxi dropped her off at the edge of a dirt road dotted with potholes, some of which could have swallowed a Mini Cooper. She spotted Francisco running in her direction, pushing a wheelbarrow. When he saw her, he accelerated, as if Adam Sandler was pointing his universe-controlling remote at him and clicking fast forward.
When Francisco reached Brough, he laughed, nodded – and kept going. She caught up with him at a dim bakery, where he picked up tortillas so white, they nearly glowed in the dark.
He raced back home. Brough outpaced him, arriving in time to photograph him zipping into the mud hut’s laundry-line-covered front yard. After he dropped off the tortillas in the musty, bare-bone kitchen, Francisco offered her cake and coffee.
“I don’t drink coffee,” she told him in Spanish, breaking off a small piece of the cake.
He filled her plastic bottle with water.
“He’s such a gentleman,” Brough said, flashing a proud smile.
GETTING THE STORY: Claudia Adrien interviews a coffee plantation owner. (Photo by Boaz Dvir)
She photographed Francisco joining his 12-year-old sister and 10- and 8-year-old brothers in tidying up the government-issued home. They swept the grounds over and over again, as if they could level the crude earth that served as their floor.
Francisco put away the broom to scrub laundry outside. When he started dancing with Cheetah, the family dog, Brough, a former preschool teacher, became suspicious.
“Aren’t you going to school?” she asked.
“There’s no school today,” he said.
“What do you mean there’s no school?”
Francisco averted his eyes. Brough fired a round of questions at him and his sister, Jamileth. “He’s watching the house” is the most she got out of them. The parents had already gone to work.
Brough concluded that the parents could afford to send only one child, Jamileth, to school.
Brough’s usually cheery expression turned downcast as she plopped down on a wooden bench and stared at the ground for a moment. She had no interest in playing the role of the objective journalist with the Flores family, she said. “Oh, I love them.”
At the end of the week the FlyIns group spent in Nicaragua, she gave the family Band-Aids, medicine, peanut butter, honey, applesauce and $50. This prompted a heated ethical discussion among the FlyIns students that led Brough to walk out of a meeting crying.
“I think it’s more unethical not to help,” she said.
‘Really wanted to do this’
Advanced Journalism Practicum: Latin America in Words and Pictures, better known as the Florida FlyIns, has developed such a strong reputation over the past seven years among students that some go as far as delaying graduation to participate.
“I really wanted to do this,” said Aimee Westcott, who extended her college education by a semester just to take the course in 2004.
Her classmate Brough shared the desire to participate in this program.
“The FlyIns class is why I came to UF,” she said.
This fall, the FlyIns group is covering a region in Ecuador. Besides Nicaragua, Prof. John Kaplan, has taken groups to Costa Rica (2000), Belize (2001 and 2005), Peru (2002), and Brazil (2003).
“We hope to expand the program to include other parts of the world in the future, such as an Asian summer program,” said Kaplan, who’s in his seventh year teaching the course. He came up with the idea for the FlyIns course with retired Prof. Kurt Kent over coffee in 1999.
China is a possibility. In 2005, its largest photography magazine, Photo World, ran FlyIns students’ shots from Nicaragua, Brazil and Peru; and, this month, an international festival, Pingyao, is showcasing the students’ work.
What’s made the course so successful has been the students’ “talent and lack of pretension,” Kaplan said. “I challenge them to think creatively.”
He grants a certain degree of flexibility. Last year, he let Ariane Wiltse, MAMC 2006, go to New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath instead of joining the group to Belize. In 2001, he allowed four students to fly to a different region of Belize to document the destruction caused by Hurricane Iris. Their work ran in The Orlando Sentinel and Jacksonville’s Florida-Times Union.
Even if they never become foreign correspondents, the students reap long-term professional and personal benefits from the course, Kaplan said. “There is so much to gain and learn from such a cultural experience. The intelligence and creativity of the group creates a certain dynamic.”
Like CBS’ Amazing Race, the course sends participants on a mad dash. Although the TV-show contestants and the students pursue different goals – the former chase fame and fortune, the latter, stories – they display similar zeal.
The students spend the first half of the semester researching story ideas. About a third of them come up with new ones after they land, Kaplan noted.
It’s amazing any of the original ideas pan out, Laura Fiorilli said. “It’s almost baffling to think that we could come up with stories to do even before coming to a strange new country. I know from experience that even when I’ve been working in a place for four years, it’s not easy to pull together all the threads of a story.”
The pressure Liza Shurik felt, she said, was mostly self-produced. She wanted nothing less than to put together a terrific story.
“I don’t want a diary entry,” she said.
Shurik would have thrown out her researched idea – Pentecostalism’s rise in Carazo, the region the 2004 group covered – if another, more interesting story came up.
“The key is not to be afraid,” she said. “There’s always a better story out there.”
Fear never entered Westcott’s field of vision.
“You step off the plane and see 1,000 stories,” she said during the Friday night ride from the Managua airport to the Carazo town of Jinotepe. “I’m itching to get off the van and start shooting.”
Shurik, who spent the previous summer shooting in Russia for the Associated Press and an independent-study course, pointed her Canon through the van’s small, open windows.
“I wish I could jump out and start right now,” she told Brough as the van cruised through Managua’s bustling streets.
Other FlyIns students need more time to adjust to their new surroundings before they start firing away. Some had never been out of the United States. Most had never studied or worked in a foreign country.
“In the first couple of days, they have a varying amount of success,” said Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize winner. “By the third day, they settle on a story.”
At that point the pressure actually mounts. The students have just a few days to thoroughly tackle their topic. They know that once they’re back in Gainesville, they’ll be unable to get many more quotes or shoot photos.
“We have only one chance to get the information,” Russell said. “If what I get is incomplete, I’m stuck with it. It’s scary.”
HOT SHOT : Although David Zentz focused on health-care issues, he kept snapping his Canon everywhere he went in Nicaragua's colorful and poverty-stricken Carazo region. (Photo by Matt Marriott)
Capturing the story
On their first full day in Nicaragua, Kelly-Anne Suarez and her project partner Matt Marriott visited a girls’ shelter in the Carazo town of San Marcos run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO). They connected with the children, many of whom have been abused or neglected.
Just as they started thinking they had found their story, however, they saw classmates Paula Rausch and Westcott walk in with the same idea.
Instead of arguing that they were there first, they headed to another NGO center in San Marcos. But soon after arriving at La Casa de la Mujer (The House of the Woman), they spotted another classmate, Lauren Russell, tape-recording Director Yolanda Paladino.
“Must be our lucky day,” Marriott said.
They huddled to figure out their next step. They knew they must find a story quickly because Marriott was leaving Nicaragua a day early with classmate David Zentz to attend the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop in New York.
After talking it through, they decided to wait for Russell to finish her interview so they could speak with Paladino.
This turned out to be a key decision in their quest. The women’s center director told them she knew a 14-year-old former prostitute who may be willing to talk about her experience. Suarez and Marriott exchanged glances as if to say, this could be it.
At the first group meeting, which took place that evening in the hotel’s modest lobby, Suarez discussed this story lead with a mixture of shock and anticipation.
“Her own family pimped her out,” Suarez said. “Prostitution, in effect, is legal here, from age 14 up.”
A murmur spread through the group.
“When will you find out if she’ll talk to you?” Kaplan asked.
“Monday,” Marriott said.
“Why not tomorrow?” he said.
Paladino had told them she needed the weekend to get back to them. They decided to take a chance.
Zentz also needed more time. Planning to cover health issues, he wanted to make sure he selected the best subject – even if it meant taking additional treks to Carazo’s rough rural periphery.
“The blood and dust burn in my mind, literally,” Zentz said after the meeting. He paused to ponder his options, then noted, “I’m not doing this for a grade. I want to put together a project I’m proud of.”
Russell held off on settling on a story at that point for a different reason: Although she found a migrant worker to profile, she became interested in a new idea. She heard that Nicaragua’s textile industry, which employed 250,000 people, faced the threat of a global agreement that protected its exports expiring at the end of that year.
On the other hand, Shurik and one of her two teammates, Katie Reid, already started working on their story, even before Danny Ghitis joined them (he would arrive the next day).
“I was 100 percent sure I wouldn’t get the story, but today, that feeling went away,” Shurik said. “I became part of the community.”
When the students started exchanging “war stories,” it meant they gained traction.
Westcott said shooting in Nicaragua was testing her technical skills – and patience.
“There are lighting challenges,” she said. “The houses are dark.”
She also learned to be careful in crowds.
“People were touching and grabbing me as I walked through a market,” she said.
Safety, Kaplan said, is the program’s No. 1 priority.
Shurik noted that not all Nicaraguans wanted to have their picture taken.
“I had enough successes that I’m not discouraged by slams in the face,” she said.
At 6:30 Sunday morning, when Shurik and Reid arrived at a gas station to meet a church contact about a Pentecostal parade commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bible’s Spanish translation, they found no trace of him. After 15 minutes, though, they spotted the genesis of the parade across the street.
They immediately went to work – Reid captured sounds, Shurik still images. They didn’t stop until the parade ended in the afternoon. Along the way, Ghitis joined them to shoot video footage and Shurik snapped a colorful picture of Bible-thumping girls flanked by tall-stem flowers in the back of a pick-up truck. It hangs in the Department of Journalism office. The team’s multimedia submission won second place in the 2004 College Photographer of the Year competition.
Over the years, the FlyIns students have also competed against professionals, and won. Their online magazine, www.internationaljournalism.com, was the only student Web site to place in the 2003 International Best of Photojournalism competition. It won first place, along with The New York Times, The Washington Post and three other newspapers.
In 2001, the FlyIns students’ photos and writing in UF Today helped the alumni magazine win first place for in-depth reporting in the Florida Magazine Association’ Charlie Awards, named after the late Charles G. Wellborn Jr., MA 1958.
TOUGH ASSIGNMENT: Matt Marriott and Kelly-Anne Suarez with a photo Marriott took of Kenia Lopez, the 14-year-old former prostitute they profiled in San Marcos, Nicaragua, as part of the FlyIns course. (Photo by David Zentz)
Bonding with Kenia
On Monday, Suarez and Marriott found out that Kenia Lopez, 14, a former prostitute, agreed to spend time with them and answer their questions. They decided to take their time bonding with her before conducting the tough interview or taking pictures.
“I want to get to know her well before getting into all the gory details,” Suarez said.
They took Kenia – who, in her dress, high-heels and thick make up looked twice her age – to eat ice cream. Afterwards, they went to church, where Kenia prayed everyday. There, she sat next to Suarez.
Suarez switched seats with Marriott, saying, “We want Matt to build rapport with her.” They then headed to La Casa de la Mujer, where Kenia joined Paladino in baking cookies. Marriott started shooting. Kenia appeared comfortable with being photographed.
“We had a real breakthrough today,” Suarez said.
At that evening’s group meeting, most of the students reported “good news” – although it often meant recounting Nicaraguans’ unfortunate developments. For instance, Russell noted that three out of four Carazo textile workers could lose their jobs in the beginning of the New Year.
Adrien said that Carazo’s lukewarm coffee industry was cooling. “Nobody’s doing well,” she said.
The workers, in particular, were suffering, she noted.
“The ‘struggling’ coffee grower lives in a big, beautiful house,” she said. His sprawling coffee plantation, lined by majestic and exotic trees, left a strong impression on her.
Most of the sights the students saw, however, were on the opposite side of the aesthetic spectrum.
“There was burning garbage and smoke everywhere,” Shurik said about an area she, Reid and Ghitis visited with American missionaries.
The sights and smells must have frightened the missionaries, Reid said. “They wouldn’t touch the door or shake hands.”
This reminded Suarez of Kenia’s neighborhood: “It was mud-packed and gritty,” she said. “Everyone was soiled, barefoot, covered in mud. One kid rolled in the dirt after taking a shower.”
On her fifth day in Nicaragua, Suarez interviewed Kenia in Spanish at La Casa de la Mujer. Paladino and a translator sat by the table but remained quiet.
As a wobbly fan created shadows in the bare, white room, bathed in fluorescent light, Suarez and Kenia locked eyes.
With her mature, reserved demeanor, Kenia sounded like a mature woman.
Before uttering each question, Suarez paused for a long moment.
Kenia listened intently to each question, digested it for a minute or so and gave a long answer. Suarez checked a few words in her Spanish-English dictionary.
When Suarez struggled to utter the word prostitution, Kenia said it for her with little hesitation.
She told Suarez everything.
Although Kenia’s eyes welled up a few times, she remained composed throughout the interview.
So did Suarez. She cried later.
Toward the end of the interview, Kenia asked Suarez, who was 22 at the time, if she was married.
Suarez laughed and shook her head.
“Here,” Kenia said, “girls get married when they’re 15.”
When Suarez hugged Kenia, a tear formed in the corner of her eye. As she walked away, she started crying. She continued crying on the bus, and at the hotel.
In “Innocence Sold,” Suarez wrote, “For Kenia, molestation and prostitution blur into a blanket so oppressive, she suffocated beneath it for six years.”
The other students also got their stories – and something else, as well, they said.
“You know what I really learned?” Shurik said. “I learned about myself.”
Melanie Marquez, JM 2005, contributed to this report.