Having spent most of the past five years living and working in Colombia, Nicaragua and Paraguay, I’ve come to realize that my most treasured place in any given country will always be the marketplace. For it is in large bustling markets where you fully experience the texture of a culture and observe the ways people relate and interact with one another.
My photo series Mercados explores this unique social setting, capturing the market not just as a commercial space but as a gathering spot for the local community. It is where kids grow up, adults catch up and multiple generations and income groups co-mingle. The sights, the sounds and, more than anything, the smells of a market can be both a delight and an assault on the senses. All of these sensory inputs change throughout the daily life of a market.
When you enter a large market right before dawn, only minute-slivers of pale blue light leak in through the cracks of the roof, you hear but the faintest of footsteps on cold tile floors from vendors setting up their stalls and chattering about the prices they received from their wholesalers. They bring in a rainbow of purple, red and orange potatoes and mountains of goat cheese. Some of these vendors have traveled several days with their goods in hopes of turning a profit at a rented stall.
This is possibly my favorite part of the day in a Peruvian market. I take my time intimately conversing with the many different workers of the market over a shared breakfast of café leche and caldo (hot soup). This is a rare, fleeting opportunity to engage in deep conversation with the locals as it is the proverbial silence before the storm. As soon as the market opens, a horde of street vendors, musicians, housewives, lorry drivers, tourists, pickpockets, businessmen, beggars and, of course, all of their children, will descend upon the shopkeeper’s stalls, flooding every conceivable corner and alley of the once seemingly spacious market-space. Good luck trying to ask the lady selling cheese how her business has been affected by the recent lorry-driver strike while she has 10 people at her stall with whom she is simultaneously haggling. It is at this moment that you realize the sound space has been entirely flooded… and it is mesmerizing.
A walk through a Peruvian market offers endless potential conversations on which you can eavesdrop. Pick up cordial exchanges between loyal customers and their favorite bread vendor or a heated argument between a man and a butcher, whom he accuses of exorbitant prices for the same cut of pig entrails for which he paid five percent less last week.
But more than the all-consuming noise from the myriad of social interactions, the one sensation that allows you to completely immerse yourself in the marketplace is the array of smells. From fresh meat being sautéed with sweet potatoes and savory vegetables at one of the food stands, to the butcher’s putrid discards which may have been touched for a bit too long by the growing midday sun. All of these aromas waft through the market, eagerly competing for space in your nose and occasionally stinging your eyes. As a photographer, I wish my camera had the ability to communicate the power of these smells.
As the day comes to a close and the vendors pack up their stalls, the sensory excitement dissipate and deeper realizations emerge about the culture. I witnessed Peruvian shoppers entrust older vendors with watching their kids, who in turn bestow them with perspective and history; recounting old stories of times past, when the Shining Path was still in the hills and Lima seemed a world away from Cuzco. I observed businessmen shake hands with pan-handlers, calling each other by first name, seeing each other for their being rather than for their estate. I saw desperation in the faces of disabled individuals selling wire bracelets and the worried faces of vendors, struggling to reach a narrow margin in a precarious trade.
In the market, it’s all there. It’s the storyline and the pulse of a society, unveiling its future while reverberating echos from its past.
Mercados will expand to encompass many more countries around the world, my next stop is Kyrgyzstan.