Tomas Ayuso is a Honduran writer and documentary photojournalist. His work focuses on Latin American conflict as it relates to the drug war, forced displacement, and urban dispossession. In covering the different types of violences facing the region’s people, he hopes to record a narrative of both continental struggles and local successes. He teaches storytelling across the Americas aimed at helping underserved communities. His work has been featured on National Geographic, The New Yorker, ICRC, New York Times, ABC News, Greenpeace, The United Nations, Bloomberg, MSNBC, Washington Post, Getty, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, Deutsche Welle, CNN, The Guardian, Vice News, and others. Other bodies of work have been shown during the World Press Exhibition in over fifty countries, the World Bank's Latin America series, the Addis Ababa biennial, amongst others. He was recently elected onto the Board of the Child Rights International Network - CRIN. You can view some of his work here.
We connected over the phone while he was on assignment in Mexico, right at the periphery of Latin America, on the border with the United States.
Whose shoulders do you stand on?
My gut reaction would be my mother’s shoulders. My father passed away 14 days after I was born. He had a heart attack, he had a genetic condition. That left my mom alone with two daughters and myself. I was born in Guatemala, she’s Palestinian, had lived in Honduras, so she was an immigrant at the time. When this happened, she went into full mamma-bear mode, to look after her cubs. So she went back to Honduras. Through sheer strength of will, she succeeded and found safety for us. She kept always pushing us, ushering us forward to pursue whatever we wanted to be. Always in a dignified way. In Honduras, being a widow, or just a single mom is not seen as a taboo, but the thought was ‘why don’t you get a man’ and my mom spat at that notion. That self reliance, the belief in yourself, the confidence, was fundamental to the character I ended up developing. The other giant was my grandmother, whose house we relocated to. My grandmother showed me the way to treat people, with kindness; the value of everyone has a story, everyone is a universe in and of themselves.
What do you wish you had learned in school?
I was raised in a household of just women and I went to an all boys school with a segregated way of learning. So in the all boys school, they would teach an idealised version of masculinity. And my mom basically said, ‘I don’t know how to raise a boy, so I’m going to raise you as I raised my daughters,’ for which I am very glad, because that developed my emotional intelligence in a way I couldn’t have learned in such a rigid school system.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in people. I’m a conflict journalist and so the first thing that comes to mind to most people are armed groups facing off, with political ideologies or some sort. And I take it several steps forward to see who are the individuals, the victims, the ones acting out the conflict. … These events of human drama could never be captured in any work of fiction: choices and decisions that were made by teenagers, in the middle of the most hellish place; what people do so that their child or spouse can live, or family member or themselves, through all the hardships, after being victim of anything you can imagine. And keep being compassionate, keep having empathy and understanding and kindness, even of their aggressors. Leaves me speechless.
When was the last time you changed your mind and what was it about?
I often change my mind. I don’t know if it’s my particular brand of neuroses [but] I have learned to live with it. I can’t remember the most recent but I do it often and it usually ends up being ‘should I get tacos or should I stop eating’.... For the more significant things, it’s about deeply held beliefs and having the flexibility to change them. The stigma of being indecisive or changing your mind often is unnecessary; the opposite leads to being dogmatic.
What should you apologise for?
I should apologise to many people for being late. I am often late. It’s a character flaw that I ascribe to overconfidence in time management skills. I really dislike being late because the foundational stones of my person is to be respectful and kind to another person and if you’re keeping someone waiting, it’s unfair to them. So that, I should apologise for, and I do, every single time I am late. As I did with you, in this conversation.
What should you never apologise for?
You should never apologise for taking the right path for you, or doing the right thing in a more moral sense. I often say this to young people or photographers, especially from places like Honduras, where there isn’t much to cultivate the arts and creative endeavours. There might be a chorus of naysayers, emphasising ‘getting a real job.’ Had I listened to what people said, ‘give up, you’re from Honduras, what are you talking about?!’ I unapologetically followed my dream or what I thought was the right thing for me.
Do you have a daily practice?
The unfortunate side of my work is that I often wake up in different places because I travel, so that doesn’t allow for a lot of consistent habit building. However, in a past life, I was a cook and I learned quite a bit working in a kitchen. As a way of self care, I will always cook something for myself, not elaborate, but something that takes effort. The whole meditative process of just single-mindedly being focused on one thing, for me it’s very therapeutic. And due to nature of my work, and being exposed to the absolute pitch black depravity within humanity, this is also my way of healing that; by stepping as far away as I can from that context, using everything that is a part of me in that moment and in my mind to make something beautiful and delicious and wonderful. So, cooking is the answer.
When was the last time you laughed with a complete stranger?
My job is to speak with strangers and part of the reason I chose this profession wasn’t because I picked up a camera and thought ‘wow I take good pictures,’ or because I could write and elicit responses. No, my jumping off point was that I am quick to establish a bond with people, and the way I do so is through humour, because that’s universal. Everyone likes to laugh, everyone has a funny spot, and I love being able to find out if this person likes crude humour, or affronting authority, or whatever the case may be. This is learned behaviour from my grandmother; we used to say she would get the life story of a rock.
What would you never compromise on?
The dignity of other people. I’m answering most of these as they relate to my work but it also relates to who I am as a person; I don’t distinguish between the journalist and the man. Some people make the difference, when they are on the clock, they have different moral codes. I would never publish a picture or run a story if this will displace a person’s dignity for my personal gain, or telling a good story, I refuse to do it. That would be my absolute ironclad rule.
What role does music play in your life?
Music is absolutely foundational. It is part of my genetic code. It is woven through me as far as I can remember. So much so that when people ask me who are my photographic influences, it’s music, even though that might seem synesthetic and make no sense. I try to emulate or capture the sentiment or emotion that a certain song conveys or that matches the moment that I am present and I’m going to photograph. So music is a source of inspiration, a companion during the best times, during the worst times, and my most important influence when it comes to photography.
What should we do upside down?
We should do the economic, political systems that govern these societies of ours upside down. By ‘we,’ I mean those in power designed a system in which power, money, influence, decision-making, therefore, history, flows upwards, and the people at the base are so divorced and far removed from any agency. So if we could switch that around, or at least find a compromise and be turned 90 degrees.
A recent book you read that changed you?
As a practice of self-care and removing myself from things that could trigger a PTSD* response, I try to stay away from subject matters that can cause that, and oftentimes it's those books that I’m most keenly interested in. That said, there are plenty of films that have done me a great deal. The first one that comes to mind - not the most complex story - but the most human story, and one of the better reflections of what I alluded to earlier of witnessing the humanity that I have seen that shines through strife and the complexity of dealing with trauma and trauma responses, is the film called Pig, that came out last year. Don’t read anything about it, just watch it.
When are you most human?
I would say when I am in the service of others. Helping out in some way. I believe that’s when we are all most human, in selflessness and support. In whatever way, when being a shoulder to cry on, or on more material terms, being in service for the other persons’ safety, sanity, or whatever the case may be. That’s when I feel I’m doing my duty as a human being.
What would the world look like if everyone got to tell their own story?
That is one of my goals in life. Especially coming from Honduras, or countries where there are no photo journalists; countries that are at the margins of civilisation. We are crowded out of telling our own stories by the journalists from countries from the North Atlantic that drop in and tell our story without any cultural fluency. If they’re the ones telling the story, then they’re the ones forming opinion, and from opinion, it becomes accepted knowledge, and if enough accept it as common knowledge, it becomes part of the country’s canon. So, I strongly believe that more people from marginalised countries and societies, people in the fringes of Berlin or New York even, should have an avenue or a space in which they can tell their own stories.
Everyone has a voice, I reject this concept of ‘giving a voice to the voiceless,’ it’s the most arrogant and patronising way of seeing, it’s just that people are deliberately ignored. One of the things I have learned is that everyone wants to tell their story, or tell the world how things really are, but also leaving a sign, ‘we were here, we lived, we loved and so many things happened.’
A question on your legacy: for whom do you want to open the path?
For other people who have dreams, or feel like they should be given a chance to show their capacity as an artist or take on any artistic endeavour. My hope is that perhaps people who read up on me or see my work, can understand that there was a lot that I had to surmount before I got my foot in the door.
I would like my legacy to be for people to consider the most vulnerable people, at the margins of everything, to have them recognise their dignity and humanity. I have already received half a dozen messages from people who were self-avowed racists, or at the very least xenophobic, write to me and tell me they understood what this person was going through and now they have changed, and they see that migrants and displaced people are people, and they should be helped. And that to me… I’m doing my job!
* Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.” — Toni Morrison
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein