Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

A View Through the Student Lens

The LLILAS Benson Student Photography Exhibit       


by Susanna Sharpe

Dark clouds gathered in the late afternoon sky in anticipation of the last storm of the summer. Inside, a DJ set the needle down on the 45-rpm version of a Jorge Ben classic just as the rain began to fall. Flecked by the light of a disco ball on the circulation desk, a convivial crowd had gathered to chat, snack, and enjoy the fact that it was almost Friday. The occasion was Field Notes, the fifth annual LLILAS Benson student photography exhibit and competition, held in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection on the third Thursday in September.


Photo by Ruijie Peng, LLILAS

Photographs from a summer of study, both abroad in Latin America and in Latina/o communities in the United States, hung in the Benson’s first-floor corridor, and visitors took in the images with interest and curiosity. The photos themselves expressed the range of experiences, viewpoints, and settings encountered by the student photographers: Ruijie Peng’s prize-winning photograph, taken in Ecuador, depicts Chinese and Ecuadoran workers standing in hard hats among rocky debris at the site of a hydroelectric construction project; the other prize winner, by Mariana Morante Aguirre, was snapped in Guadalajara, Mexico, outside a hostel along a railroad route used by Central American migrants and transient Mexican nationals alike.

In Mario Mercado’s photo, a trumpeter plays on a San Juan sidewalk in front of exuberant graffiti that invokes the instrument’s brassy sound. In a lovely image by Charles Wight, a lone boat floats on the Rio Negro near Manaus, Brazil. Our gaze turns skyward via the lens of Felipe Fernandes Cruz, who photographed airplanes flying in formation against a clear blue sky above the Christ statue in Rio, the wings in identical posture to the outstretched arms of O Redentor. (A history student, Fernandes went to Brazil to study how the twentieth-century state built air routes to colonize the interior.) A stunning black-and-white image by MFA film student Álvaro Torres Crespo shows two boys fishing from a pier under a cloudy sky at dusk in Puerto Jiménez, on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Coast.

Some student researchers encountered roadblocks both expected and unexpected. In Rio de Janeiro, Sara McTarnaghan faced hurdles in her attempts to study public housing in a city turned topsy-turvy by the soccer World Cup. One of the biggest challenges, she wrote, “has been getting inside existing public housing projects and speaking to residents. There have been quite a few barriers—including the gates around the condominiums—that have made it near impossible to talk with residents.” McTarnaghan says that militia and/or organized crime activities in peripheral territories have made residents reluctant to participate in research about the housing projects.The thirty-three photographs comprising the exhibit are just a glimpse into the immersive experiences of each of the student photographers as they balanced research, travel, field interviews, writing, and the challenges of daily life during their summer study. Whether the topic was biodiversity in Peru’s Cordillera Azul National Park (Kaitlin Tasker) or resource use in the Peruvian Amazon (Sara Diamond), investigative journalism in late-twentieth-century Lima (Teresa Mioli), an indigenous autonomous movement in Bolivia (Bridget Footit), motorcycle culture in Maceió, Brazil (Kate Layton), or Tejano bar culture in East Austin (Christina Noriega), students in a variety of disciplines ventured outside of their comfort zone to observe and learn.

For Manuel Guadalupe Galaviz, summer research in San Diego’s Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan was emotionally complex and nuanced. The irony of explaining ethnographic “fieldwork” to family members who had actually worked in agricultural fields as migrant undocumented laborers was hardly lost on him. Conversations with family, he said, “caused me to question my position as a Chicano researching Mexican-American neighborhoods for a Latin American studies master’s degree. I realized that I am not too far removed from the very people I study.”


Photo by Mariana Morante Aguirre, LLILAS

The exhibition benefits not only from the viewpoints of graduate students in various disciplines, but also from the participation of undergrads. Latin American studies majors Andrea Clark and Ana Vidina Hernández contributed lovely images from Bluefields on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, where Clark examined at the criminalization of black Creole youth and Hernández studied Afro-descendent and indigenous social movements and land rights claims during the faculty-led program there. 

But a picture is worth way more words than can, or should, be written in this article. We at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections invite you to visit the exhibit yourself to see the images we could not display here, and to imagine each of these researchers encountering the new and unfamiliar, or perhaps the very familiar, but through a new lens. You won’t be disappointed. 

To read LLILAS graduate students’ summer research blogs, visit http://www.ilassa.org/summer-research/.

Field Notes: The 5th Annual LLILAS Benson Student Photography Exhibition is on view in the first-floor corridor of the Benson Latin American Collection through January 31.

Banner Image: Courtesy of Katie Floyd, LLILAS

  • Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

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