A photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, Vega is founder and director of www.nuestramirada.org, the largest network of Latin American photojournalists. He lives in Ecuador
I remember my summer afternoons in Bob and Nancy Giles’s shady Cambridge garden. A small sign at the entrance welcomed visitors with the words of Dorothy Frances Gurney: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” After my Nieman year came to a close, friends left, one by one, and the festive nights together with fellow Fellows felt like a long-ago figment of the imagination. Yet the warmth lingers on, the sensation that the world is a veritable explosion of sweetness.
In the summer, one sheds all extra clothing, casting off one’s belongings to the point of near-nakedness—without memory, without dreams, without knowledge. Just a glass of cold lemonade, the feeling of sweat on the skin, a novel for the simple pleasure of distraction, the perfect mathematics of Bach melodies, the breeze and its welcome but almost imperceptible tumult. I could have never imagined that the woman I loved, reading next to me in that garden, would die a year and a half later. She propelled me to go to Harvard. She taught me that tenderness is a fleeting opportunity and the only true power.
To accumulate experiences, facts, knowledge. When I arrived at Harvard, I came anxious and ambitious. I intended to stuff myself with learning, to fulfill my endless curiosity, my fascination with thinking. I took classes in neuroscience, mythology, the philosophy of art, politics, architecture, the phenomenology of religion. I immersed myself in the MIT Media Lab with all its delirious visions of the future.
In that garden, in that summer, I only wanted silence. I could not listen to one more lecture or explore one more philosophical abstraction. I was saturated, overcome, tired of me, me, me. I wanted to spin fascinating yarns, to know, to say … We journalists love our soapbox, this urge to be heard by everyone at all cost, to measure our value in terms of followers and impact. I had spent the last 10 years worrying about publishing my photographs in the most prestigious magazines in the world. Is this what I wanted to do with the rest of my life?
It’s not what Harvard gives you; it’s what Harvard takes away from you. I’m just starting to understand this. At Harvard, one has to get down from one’s high horse. There are so many extraordinary people, brilliant people. And just about every single one of them has a passion, a relentless passion for what they do.
How did my Nieman year change me? Now I dedicate my energy to promoting Latin American photography, to organizing the largest photojournalism contest in the region, POY Latam. My latest project is to photograph wild gardens, rather than those created by man. I needed something simple, close to my soul. After one has shed all the clothing, all the accessories, only the simple beat of life is left, only the wind, the sweat, the shadow of that leafy tree.
Those summer afternoons in Cambridge seem so distant. Life has swept everything away in a whirlwind. But in spite of my grief I give thanks for the summer air that entered my lungs, for that explosion of joy and friendship that was my Nieman year.