Sitting on a hot concrete slab among rusted playground equipment, my sense of helplessness felt more oppressive than the midday sun. I was a college student, and I was giving my summer to volunteer at a rural orphanage outside Guatemala City. The summer was ending now, and the barefoot children I watched spinning on this lopsided, discolored carousel had become the loves of my life. They told me, “Te quiero, Papa” – I love you, Daddy. How could I leave them?
But I did leave them. And I’m not sure I ever forgave myself for it. I keep the photos I took of them – some of the first portraits I ever made. I looked back on them last year after my friend Chris called me with a strange request. He had just returned from a service trip to Guatemala, where he worked alongside an uncommonly white, red-haired Guatemalan named Nathan Hardeman. Nathan was born in Guatemala (his parents are American), and he returned to the country after a couple years in the U.S., during which he went to college and began serving at the church that Chris and I now attend with our families.
I can best describe Nathan as a visionary. He can look intimidating, what with his muscular build, square jaw, and super-advanced-black-belt-in-karate-kick-your-butt-take-names-later reputation. It’s a useful reputation to have working in some of the world’s most dangerous slums. He’s also the definition of a normal guy, a natural comedian, and a kid at heart. (Most of those muscles are the result of horseplay with his two boys and the boys in the impoverished Zone 18, “Paradise,” for whom he’s the only father figure many have seen.)
So back to the strange request. Chris knew my wife, Eileen, and I have a heart for humanitarian work (I don’t think you can spend significant time among the needy without it altering your priorities), and he knew we were photographers who cared about storytelling. But, when he asked if we’d consider shooting a video to draw awareness to Nathan’s ministry, he apparently forgot we had never worked with video. (I take that back: We recently had purchased a FlipHD to take one-button videos of our newborn. So I guess we were experts.) Anyway, the prospect of returning to Guatemala must have affected my judgment, because we agreed to it. We started at square one, asking more knowledgeable friends what equipment we needed and what advice they could offer.
We threw our savings into a Nikon D7000 (borrowed a second camera), a tripod and monopod with fluid heads, Zoom H1 and H4 audio recorders, a Rode shotgun mic, and Pelican cases to haul it safely into the third world along with our usual camera equipment, lenses, and computer. Chris, his wife (with newborn in-tow), and Eileen’s brother went along for the ride. Before flying out, we even got together one night to figure out the equipment. You could call us idealistic – or nuts. They mean pretty much the same thing anyway.
I had been inspired by stories of Nathan’s work. He helped in the construction of a hospital and school serving hundreds of the most vulnerable each day. He was building simple homes for homeless families; helping children in these illiterate communities to pursue serious education and even college degrees. Nathan’s faith in these kids’ potential knew no bounds. He was providing a rare alternative to the seemingly inescapable gang culture. In fact, about 60 percent of boys in Guatemala’s slums end up in a gang by age 13. Of those, 95 percent are dead before they turn 24 — due to violence, drugs and related diseases. Still, nothing prepared me for the sense of hope I experienced as I filmed Nathan serving families and pouring his life into Engadi Ministries.
Engadi, now in its construction phase, is Nathan’s lifework: an ambitious boys home project that will provide a safe family environment and education to hundreds of at-risk boys. This was the answer to the helplessness I felt when I left behind my beloved children at the orphanage! A project that – rather than treating only the symptoms of Guatemala’s impoverished and fatherless culture – was teaching boys how to become the “mighty men” who can turn the culture around entirely.
As a photographer (and journalist at heart), I knew this story was too big for a five-minute video on Engadi’s Web page. As activists and Christian humanitarians, Eileen and I always believed our art had to be about more than moneymaking; it had to celebrate and foster the beauty in life that we experience in Jesus Christ. Engadi captured our hearts like no other cause we’d had the opportunity to turn our lenses on.
Our effort became a 50-minute documentary: Lost Boys of Paradise. The official movie premiere is this September 11, 2012, in Athens, GA. But readers of Jeremy’s blog can view it before it goes public: Visit https://vimeo.com/47240957, and use the password “mightymen.” Feel free to spread the word! This is all about making the Engadi vision a reality! After that, the movie tours several churches, a film festival, and at least a couple university campuses. The movie is no big deal; in fact, let’s just say my filmmaking skills have room to improve. But we hope the story fills you with the same hope we felt – the kind of hope that makes you stand up off your concrete slab and pour your life into something worthwhile.
We've been extremely encouraged by those who have gotten in touch to see how they can help these kids thru Engadi Ministries. That's exactly what this project needs -- a little more help from a lot of you. Seriously, with the number of you who have watched this film already, we could complete this boys home -- which a few people have been pouring their lives into for years -- now! That fills me with hope; it's why we decided to pour ourselves into this, too. For more info & to see/share the official "lost boys" trailer, check out www.lostboysofparadise.com. PLEASE SHARE THE STORY! Sincerely, Phillip
wooooo, it's a kind of wonderful to know that you were here in Guatemala taking photos, thanks for showing our country to the world in a really artistic way. Contact me if you come back some day xD (sorry for my bad english)
It's very hard to see young kids boys/girls ending up in gangs/prostitution. Their story never changes.. it's very sad to know and hear about them. this is a great initiative which has been taken . I really like the portraits as well. Actually one of the best showing the true face of life they live. watching the video as well..