This smile followed a dark joke

This smile followed a dark joke, “take a picture of me crying, because I lost my life today.”

By life, Carla* means her cell phone. This is the smile of a woman who was mugged at gunpoint on her way out the door 4 hours ago, and is lamenting the photos she lost. A woman who can find good humor just hours after she felt hands close in around her neck and cut off her airways. Her smile is a tragedy rimmed in bright pink lipstick: yesterday she terminated her college enrollment, today she applied for her first job at a factory that makes Nike t-shirts and Walmart socks.

While researching my fellowship application for San Pedro Sula, I became frustrated by the lock-down of information about which U.S. sportswear brands are produced in the maquilas here. With about 50 internet tabs still open, I abandoned my laptop and went to a sporting goods store and started searching tags. In the sick elation of a journalist watching a lead come to fruition, I started to feel more certain with every tag flip in a section of Under Armour apparel – Made in Honduras.

From wicking sweat to increasing performance to the new trend of athleisure (a successful misappropriation of the English language by marketing executives that makes wearing spandex to brunch somehow socially acceptable), there is perhaps no product more indicative of the crisis of American consumerism than the prices eagerly paid for celebrity endorsed, heavily branded sportswear.

Honduran workers suffer for it, physically and mentally, but they also desperately need the jobs – this critical intersection is what I’ll be expanding on deeply in my forthcoming reporting.

As a visual journalist, my biggest struggle with this story was how to visualize it. I realized almost immediately that getting into the production facilities would be impossible. At first this was discouraging – but I also didn’t want to make a sweat shop story that used dramatic footage of rows of machines and humans crammed together – this image is undignified, polarizing, over simplified and sadly cliche. I wanted to think of a way to report this story that was nuanced and layered – a way to report on conditions without inciting rage that might take away these much needed jobs – but that could still enlighten a vast disproportion and important labor and human rights considerations.

While perusing the websites of these sportswear companies, I found myself drawn into the promises of the dramatically lit photography – strong bodies, glowing skin, power, strength, achievement, bliss. Despite myself, this beautiful commercial photography gave me an itch to go running or get on a yoga mat. The photos, while often damaging in their construction of athletic perfection, are empowering, motivating.

Why should photography of the people who make these clothes be any less? I decided to make portraits, and came up with a concept that I hoped would allow conversation and collaboration with the people I would meet in Honduras: I wanted to take portraits of maquila workers and their families wearing the brands they produce, but in a place of personal significance and representative of the challenges and joys of the Honduran existence.

It was a bold ask of random circumstance, to say the least. What if no one wears these brands? What if they’re too afraid of getting fired to hang out with a journalist? Sometimes the what-ifs of asking someone to let you into their life are paralyzing.

Standing outside the maquilas on my first morning in Choloma felt surreal. Streaming past me were thousands of maquilas workers, many of them wearing the very brands produced behind the tall barbed wired fences of the industrial parks.

Carla was one of my first portraits, and she understood something critical about the concept immediately – that the portraits are meant to be a bit ironic – at once evocative of consumer advertising and counter to it.

When I asked her where she would like to do her portrait, she assertively navigated me to a bilingual primary school explaining, “I want people to know that lost my education because of the conditions in my country, but I hope to save up enough money with a maquila job to go pursue college in the United States.“

This is an outtake from my day with this brilliant woman, one of many times she threw her head back to laugh at herself. The easiness of her joy continued to impress me the more I got to know her. She was mugged at gunpoint this morning, became a mother at 16, lost her partner to migration, and was forced to drop out of school – but more importantly, she is a woman still smiling, who made sure to tell me that she was a feminist, and who is bound and determined to get her education.

My morning with Carla was one of those experiences of exceptional clarity in reporting, where you feel like your intent is recognized and your subject is not just fully consenting, but empowered by having a voice in your work. I never take these relationships for granted – so much of journalism lies in a grey area where you question everything about your intent.

*Carla’s name has been changed

– Emily Kinskey