“I can change my profession and whole life a few times a year – that’s what I like about working as a photojournalist. “
* Text and images originally published in Nikon Pro (spring, 2010).
About 800 Peruvian families eke out a living by harvesting salt in these saltpans in the Andes. Photojournalist Hodalič documented their lives for National Geographic France magazine.
These are some of the 3600 pools of the Salinas de Maras, in the Andes, which have been used to obtain salt for centuries.
You know you have a good story if you can’t find it on the internet’ says photojournalist Hodalič. He came across these saltpans about 50km from Cuzco in the Andes during a field trip in Peru with his photography students. He thought it would make a great assignment, but visiting in winter, the saltpans were laying dormant, so Hodalič planned to come back during the season so he could photograph the people of Maras harvesting salt as they have done for centuries. He successfully pitched the story to National Geographic France and returned with a journalist for two weeks.
The pans are fed by a brackish stream that springs from the mountains at 3200m and has been used to produce salt since before the Inca period. Being so far from the sea and so high in the mountains, salt was a very valuable commodity. The number of pools has increased during the last 25 years and now there are around 3600 pools owned by between 700 and 800 families, producing between 160 and 200 tonne of salt a year. The pools have been handed down through families for generations, but can also be bought or sold for €25 to €50. The sale of pools and the salt trade is managed by a cooperative, which pays the pool owners between €1 and €2 per bag and shares the overall profit.
The work is backbreaking and most families need their children to help in the saltpans, cultivate land and rear livestock to survive. The children
work mainly in the afternoons and weekends, so it’s no surprise that only a few finish primary school at 10 years of age – many have to stay until they are 12, 15 or even 17 to cover the curriculum.
The lives of the locals in Maras stands in stark contrast to the tourists who visit the saltpans. They are not allowed to enter (the often slippery) paths that separate the pans and are usually asked for money – something Hodalič was keen to avoid. Hoping to befriend the workers, Hodalič and the National Geographic journalist hired a translator, who advised them what supplies they would need and tipped them off as to what gifts would be welcomed. This was often fresh food and drinking water.
‘When we offered them our food, they would always share their food with us in return and when you eat together you build a friendly relationship, which was very nice,’ says Hodalič. It was a lucky coincidence that their visit coincided with the community’s biggest annual celebration, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, so that they could witnessed five days of eating, cooking, singing, drinking and dancing. This gave Hodalič a unique view of the Maran people at work and play. As he explains, ‘I am the classical photojournalist and try to really get into a story. I like taking time and getting to know the subject. This is what I love about working as a photojournalist – I can change professions and my life a few times a year. It’s great, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world, because it gives me such great freedom.