Fabiola in smoke. Photo: Brian Nevins
This past April, 33-year-old, Hampton, New Hampshire-based photographer Brian Nevins won the Telus Pro Photographer Showdown in Whistler, British Columbia. It’s one of the world’s biggest adventure photography awards. Any action sports lensman could point to it as a pivotal moment in their career. For Nevins, winning the award was a shock. It was also an affirmation that he was shooting the right way. It was not the pivotal moment in his career. He says that moment came six years ago, when he first visited a Nicaraguan dump called La Chureca.
Photo: Brian Nevins
Everything started for Nevins with surf photography. After high school, he and a friend planned to travel to California to be surf bums. His father, who was an airline pilot, told him he’d be cut off from free flights if he didn’t attend school. Nevins enrolled at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo as an easy way to take classes and surf. He stumbled into a photography class and latched onto a professor that inspired him, made him think, and, eventually, changed his life. “He said, ‘If you’re going to go surf and be a beach bum, you might as well take pictures and see what you can do with it,’” says Nevins. “And one thing led to another and it became my life’s passion.”
He attended the Brooks Institute and majored in photography, begged David Pu’u for a year until he got a job assisting as a surf photographer, and started shooting for Surfer magazine while still taking classes. He graduated and spent eight years shooting action sports, living off mac and cheese and crackers while traveling the world. “It’s not a lucrative job, but, you know, in my head, when I was younger, I thought, This is the most impossible dream.” he says. “So once I started making my $4 a year doing that, I didn’t care.”
Then he went to the dump for the first time. He saw parents scraping the meat off of rotting cow carcasses while children walked barefoot over exposed hypodermic needles. It changed the way he viewed the world. “I shoot for different reasons now,” he says. “The La Chureca shoot, the day that crept into my life, I kind of stopped seeing surfing for the sponsored shots and the action shots and it just became looking at life and surfing differently,” he says. “I think the only shots I take of surfing now remind me of the things that I love, rather than the things I know will be published.”
La Chureca. Photo: Brian Nevins
How did La Chureca come about?
I think it’s been six years. A couple of surfers I worked with were like, Yeah, we did this last year and we wanted you to check this out. This guy, Brad Corrigan, who runs a charity called Love, Light, and Melody and is from the band Dispatch, puts on an event. The first three years I did this, I had no idea what Dispatch was, so I had no idea he was a rock star. Anyway, the guys drag me in there. I had done non-profit work since day one. I’ve always tried to use the camera for something good, but came to nothing with it. It was always just the same sad pictures, no hope, whatever. But when I got down there, the experience was just so viciously different on a personal level and it kind of just stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ve been going down with Brad twice a year for six years now. It’s kind of hard to explain in a paragraph, but it ended up being the most overwhelming experience of my life.
Brad Corrigan. Photo: Brian Nevins
A couple of the guys I shot as pro surfers back there still help out too. It’s just such an easy thing to stop when you land in Managua. Now, if I go down for 10 days, I end up spending eight in La Chureca and two at the beach. It used to be vice versa. If I don’t go to the beach first, it’s really hard for me to go surfing. It’s become more of the destination for me than surfing at this point, but surfing was the thing that brought me there in the first place.
How did you approach it?
It wasn’t really an assignment at all. Brad was still in the early stages of a big event and 50 people came down to the dump. If you ever went to this place back in the day ... if you could draw hell, it’s what it would look like. Brad had this vision: Why don’t we make them a few days where life is pretty different? He sectioned off part of the dump, threw a free concert, and had the kids face painting. It brought good things to the dump. So it was just to participate, and I brought my camera down and found myself really buried in it.
What was it about the place that got you hooked?
It was the people. You always handle a non-profit, like, OK, sad situation. The reality of the world outside of our existence is just so different. The more you travel, the more you know how fortunate we are on a daily basis. So you go in there with this wall up, especially if you’re taking photos: Yeah, that sucks. I wish I could do more. Blah, blah, blah. But after a couple of days of being in there, all of those families, they just kind of broke my wall down, especially the kids, and, in particular, this girl Wendy.
Wendy. Photo: Brian Nevins
I’ve been working with her since the very beginning. She’s just incredible, and it was as simple as her just grabbing my hand. I used to just idolize James Nachtwey and all those guys. I still do. What they do has teeth. It just rips your heart apart and forces you to see the world so differently. But they always say you have to just shoot it and not be a part of it, otherwise you change the story. I used to follow that attitude: Well OK, I’m just going to shoot the world that way. With the kids there, they just wouldn’t let that happen. I mean, you could shoot them, but they’re like: OK, cool, you got your photo. Do you want to play for a little while?
They break you down. You’re surrounded by burning carcasses and syringes and just the scum of the world piled up, and, all of sudden, it just disappears. It was Wendy especially. I was just looking into her eyes and she just wanted to play with me. And the camera gets put down, and the whole backdrop gets put down, and you’re just living life legitimately for the first time.
It’s really humbling. I’m really choking up just thinking about it. You feel so stupid all of the time, the way you think about your life and the things you do and how trivial it all is. And all it really is, is sitting down and taking in the world for just a minute. And a kid knows that, a child knows that. She just broke it down. I can’t go in there to shoot them anymore. It’s really hard. I have to be a part of it. I more or less photograph my experience in there now. I want to change it. I want to be a part of it, and they want to change you. They have helped us more than we’ll ever help them. It doesn’t take anything in this world to be happy. It’s just relationships and the small stuff that’s the important stuff. Sorry, that’s kind of a rant.
La Chureca. Photo: Brian Nevins
Not at all. Why do you think they let you in?
At times they will not let outsiders in. There are a lot of people that have gone into the dump over the years, and a lot of them are in your face. Like I was saying, how most people handle things: We’re going in there to fix it. We’re first world people and we have money. They can see right through it.
They simply see the sun is shining and think, I’m alive today. You can get off your high pedestal and simply start seeing that’s all we’re doing, just waking up and enjoying the sunshine. The second they see that you’re that type of person, they just let you right in. And they have no shame. I’m the one that should be ashamed, because I’m the one with the dirty secrets. I’m the one that gets angry when someone cuts me off in the lineup. I’m the one with the issues. They’re like, You’re the one with the problem. Why don’t you come sit down and talk to us? It’s a very different vibe, and it’s very humbling.
La Chureca. Photo: Brian Nevins
Can you take me through a normal day?
Normal is hard to say, because I’ve seen everything from a 14-year-old girl being thrown from a van onto the street after being raped and beaten to children starving themselves to be thrown into a hospital. Normal is really hard to say, but what you want the normal to be is that they wake up at seven o’clock in the morning and everyone goes out into the dump to collect recyclables. They earn on average $8 to $10 a week. They collect copper and plastic. There are the people that collect it, the people that organize it, and the people that take it somewhere. They will also go through the trash to look for food.
As soon as a kid is six or seven they will go out there and work, backbreaking labor, all day, from six or seven in the morning until the sun goes down. There’s another charity out there, called School of Hope, that built a school inside of the dump. Some of the kids can have a place with walls to hide out for a few years in the dump, as long as the parents let them go there.
Once they go to work, that’s what they do. And that’s in a perfect world, because the kids will get pushed onto pega, which is a glue-sniffing drug, or crack, or anything. You can have kids who are getting their hands on some really nasty drugs. It’s so easy to see how it’s happening. Their life is incredibly difficult and they’re starving. And if you’re starving for three or four days, you want to do something where you can’t feel it. To see the value in going to school can be hard for them. But the ones that have seen the example of a school as a safe haven will continue to go.
Wendy’s the perfect example. Her mother and father are awesome. They have their fourth child. The father is a hard working dude. He lets the kids go to school. They’re living some realities we can’t understand, but they’re loving parents, which is another change. Most parents there don’t say I love you to their kids. Wendy’s parents love their children.
What’s the toughest shot you’ve taken?
Sometimes, for me, it’s some of the shots of Wendy, and some of the kids, just happy and smiling. It really chokes me up, because when I go home, I just look at girls who get their license and the things they complain about, and I think, God, this girl’s never going to know what it’s like to drive a car, or go on a date with a boy. And so I see them smiling and I just picture that. Or I picture the possibility that they won’t have that in the future, and that kind of gets me the most.
Illeana. Photo: Brian Nevins
Looking back, there’s a couple pictures of Mercedes and Illeana, who were really close to Brad. They were kind of the fuel for him starting the project. They both died of AIDS. Mercedes was 14. Illeana was 17. So when I look back at those pictures, that’s hard.
Has your shooting evolved from when you first went down there?
I haven’t posted anything in the past two years. I’ve kept it all back a bit, because I want to see what happens with this project with the Spanish government, and I want to see what happens with the landscape.
The place is very different now. Three, maybe two, years ago the Spanish government bought the property. Slightly illegally it was bought off—70 or 80 square miles—the Nicaraguan government that didn’t even own it. They have kind of leveled the place. The initial photos you saw, a lot of it’s gone. A lot of the visual part, the part that it’s easy for people to see that there’s a problem, that’s going away. They’re building a transfer station, but they’re also displacing 1,200 people. It’s one of the biggest ecological disasters I’ve seen in my lifetime, so environmentally the change is a good thing. But socially and human condition-wise, things are still the same.
There are probably 2,400 people making a living there sorting through the trash. Whether it’s in a house or something to rest under. The Spanish kind of set aside a portion of land, and are building a little ghetto. A lot of the families will have nicer homes then they’ve ever had—they’ll have a one-bedroom concrete house. They kind of did this weird census thing where they went around to figure out who was honestly there the most. It’s kind of BS on the political side because they’re all in there to some degree. So some families got those homes while other ones will go to another settlement, which is about 20 miles away from the dump, but they’re so far out of the city that they can’t get work, so it’s kind of a fool's errand.
I’m always shooting the kids I’ve shown since day one, and their growth. It’s like shooting your own kids, or your nephew or niece. You just legitimately care about them so much, and you’re shooting how things have changed.
Wendy, April 2012. Photo: Brian Nevins
The last time I was down there, back in April, I actually brought a My First Camera for Wendy. Every time I’ve been down there she’s loved playing with the camera. Any kid in a third world country is going to grab the camera. For the most part you’re hovering around them thinking, Don’t break it. Wendy kind of really grasped photography. I feel really weird saying somebody is good at photography, because I think you could teach a monkey to do it, but she really got it. Over the course of a few years, I’ve gone down and given her the camera for a day and given her a project: Oh, shoot all the things you love in your life. She’d do a photo essay for me, and I put them up on a site so you can flip through that.
I’m actually excited to see what she’s done with her My First Camera, pending, of course, that it hasn’t been stolen or used for food or something like that. She’s been awesome to watch. You see something one way, but they see it different. You’re like, Oh my God, that breaks my heart. They see it as: Why is it breaking your heart? Let me show you why it’s really cool. It’s interesting to see the stories they want to tell you.
Wendy, 2006. Photo: Brian Nevins
What’s the most rewarding photo you’ve taken there?
I don’t have one. They all mean a lot to me. Talking about it is nothing like being there, so I just look at them as reminding me of a time in my life. I do like the ones that have affected other people. There’s definitely one of Wendy that has knocked a lot of people over. I wanted to take a portrait of her with the dump burning in the background, and I got so nervous over it, like it was my daughter. And so I gave her my sneakers to wear because I didn’t want her to step on the burning trash. And she was like: Whatever, that’s stupid. I know how to do this.
She did it to humor me. So she’s wearing my sneakers with the trash burning in the background and she’s just smiling. She’s this drop dead beautiful girl and there’s just terror behind her. There’s such a huge contrast. You can just understand the humanity when you see that. I didn’t want there to be a starving kid in that scene. I didn’t want you to see it that way. I didn’t want all of the disasters in the world to be so unobtainable to all of us that you can’t wrap your head around it, but when you see a beautiful little girl, that looks like somebody you know standing in it, you understand it more.
So that one has always affected a lot of people.
I noticed a picture of guys stripping the meat off of what looks like rotting carcasses? It’s not on your main site, but it is on getinthevan.com.
Yeah, that may have been the hardest photo I’ve taken. There was a family. We didn’t know them, and I actually haven’t seen them since. Those were piles upon piles of 400 rotting cow carcasses that were, like, four weeks old. They were disgusting. This isn’t fresh meat, and they were scraping the tiny shards of meat off the skulls to try to make a bowl of soup for the night. To them it was like: We’re just getting by. This is normal. And we’re like, Oh my god. It was hard to photograph. I didn’t want them to know that I was showing somebody else. I wanted them to feel like it was a family portrait because I had talked to them for a while first. I didn’t want it to feel like a shameful moment for them, because it was parents doing what they had to do for their kids to survive.
We offered to take them out for dinner, and they’re like, Yeah, OK. It was $3 and they ate enough carnitas to puke, but they still kept the meat from the carcasses. They brought it with them, like: Oh no, no. We’re going to eat this. We don’t know what’s next.
The next day, we had this younger pro surfer girl and we were going in to do some sunrise shots. I was like: Oh my god, just close your eyes. Don’t look at this. We were passing a death truck. It’s a big garbage truck that takes the innards from animals. If you look at it, you ‘ll puke. As they were dumping it over, people we’re reaching over and grabbing things to put in their pockets—anything that could possibly be viable food. Your heart just breaks. I will always feel so guilty. I eat the food that I choose to eat and drink clean water. It’s so hard to see how we’ve created this balance in the world. It’s vicious. It’s literally just you and me instilling this change. We don’t have to wait for the government to do it. And there’s just this overwhelming feeling when you see that. Give me the strength not to be angry today and put my energies into doing something better.
Photo: Brian Nevins
Has this project changed your photography?
Absolutely. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s still a driving project for me. I haven’t lost any speed or desire. I’m still in as much love with it as the first day I saw it. And not to discredit it, but just shooting the basic surf stuff and the cool part of life was a big deal, and it’s just not a big deal anymore. I still value surfing and I want people to value surfing and snowboarding because it’s so important to do these activities and be outside. These are the good things in life. I even share surfing with the people at the dump, but I shoot differently now.
I shoot people and adventures for the experience and the love of it. You know, the lineup and the way it feels to be a surfer instead of the hot moves now. That part of it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. The fashion doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I can see people and shoot people how they are now. It makes you see the world differently for sure. It makes you block out the things you don’t need to share and don’t need to shoot. The stories you don’t need to tell go away too.
My life is my life before going to the dump and my life after going to the dump. And it’s not just photography. Jesus, I was a traveling bachelor, and that place really opened my eyes up to having Samantha, my fiancé, in my life and trying to create a life and see this part of the world and trying to be grounded a bit more. Not being so young and dumb, I guess. It was a huge, huge change in my life.
And then in 2012, you won Telus?
Yeah, that was pretty gnarly. I didn’t see that one coming at all. I was mortified getting in the finals and I was mortified winning, especially considering who I was sitting next to. That was all surf photos, but no logo sponsored shots. It was literally more or less what I just said, you know, Well I’m just going to put in all of the photos that I love that tell the story of my surfing life. Next thing I know I’m standing up making a speech completely mortified, red in the face, tripping over my words.
Nevins at La Chureca. Photo: Brian Nevins
Do you see yourself moving more into reportage?
I'm not going to say I’m at a standstill right now. I’m still working it all out. I do so much with the music industry right now, and it’s kind of a love/hate thing. I’m trying to figure it all out. I thought back in the day that adventure sort of thing was going to be it. After going to Nicaragua six years ago, that’s kind of broken in half. I’m kind of in this weird hodge podge of not quite understanding, and letting things take their own course. Ask me in three more years. Right now is a day-by-day thing. The only thing I have that is stable is going down there, because that gives everything a balance. The rest of my photography is still up in the air.
What is the one thing you hope people get out of La Chureca?
I want two things out of all of it. It’s one to understand how easy it is for any of us to make a change. I mean, I’m nobody. I’m just a kid from New Hampshire. That’s it. And going down and spending time with somebody changes their world. And it’s applicable back home, and it’s applicable anywhere you go. Most of the places we travel to, this exists. This is a common thread. La Chureca exists globally, and it gets much worse. Go to Haiti. Go to Indonesia. These are humongous La Churecas, but if you can stop and just have a human connection, and understand the different conditions, it changes your life. If they can change the way I’m looking at it, they can do it for everybody.
Stop looking at the world as, I need to obtain, I need to get this, I need to have this. Start looking at it as, I need to give back, and be a part of it, and go with the flow. Just take the time. It’s not worth it so you can tell somebody you did a charity thing. It’s not worth it because it looks good. It’s worth it because it changes who you are in the best possible way. I just hope someone else wants to go down or share stories from somewhere that I don’t know about, and that it makes me look at La Chureca differently, or at my life differently.
There’s a bunch of hopes, I guess. Hopefully none of them are down there living in those conditions. That’s what I really hope. I just hope that those kids have the opportunity to have everything we have at some point. That’s it.
La Chureca. Photo: Brian Nevins
For more photos, check out the La Chureca gallery.
To learn more about La Chureca, go to LoveLightandMelody.org.