Sipping Guatemalan Coffee with Jaime Permuth
Last year, Jaime and I got together in Harlem to catch up on things. It had been a few months since I had seen him, and him being one of the only mentors I had kept in contact with since graduation, it was hard to contain my excitement. Jaime had just come back from shooting ‘El Sistema‘ in Guatemala, a documentary project about a non-profit organization that teaches classical music to children. We sipped Guatemalan coffee that was mailed to him from his family farm, and let the trip down memory lane begin.
From visiting peaceful villages to sleeping with a machete under his bed, there’s no one quite like Jaime to tell you the thrill and joy of photography. Listening to his stories brought me back to the first class I took with him, where he told me to shut up if I didn’t have anything valuable to contribute (I had been discussing boobs, butts, and other round things). By the end of the class, he talked about his passion for photography and shared his favourite documentary projects. It was through his honesty that I realized photography was something subconsciously that I had always kept close to heart.
Before photography school – and before I ever met Jaime – snapping photos was just a hobby. I bought my first camera in high school, an ugly one made by Logitech that was a ‘webcam that can be detached’, found in the discount basket in Future Shop. The camera was either 1 or 2 mega pixels (possibly less), and technically speaking, it was just a terrible camera. But I didn’t know anything about photography back then. It was just fun to take pictures while hanging out with friends, or to kill time on my own.
As time passed, my passion for photography started to grow, as did my equipment. The shitty Logitech detachable webcam eventually evolved into a point and shoot digital camera, then in university into a Canon Rebel Tsi, my first DSLR. When our car got broken into in Montreal, during a road trip across Canada, all my gear got stolen, so I worked for a year to replace it with a Nikon D3s, a camera that cost 8 times more than the Rebel. Despite all the photos I was taking, this was when I was in film school, learning to become a writer slash director. Photography had become something that I could never live without, but my future priorities were invested in a similar but different industry.
Coming to New York, I thought I had it all figured out. As a mothercanucker (a humble Canadian without a visa), I would use my photography scholarship as a way into the country, but my true intention would always be to continue my writing and film-making career. In my head, I would breeze through graduation, obtain a work visa, then eventually become the next Tarantino – but in Korean form. Little did I know, being Jaime’s student would reshape how I perceive photography, and how I would push myself to be the best.
I watched Jaime lead our class into the streets of New York City, as he searched for beautiful light. Once the light had been found, he would then camp at the best angle and wait. Wait and wait, trying to capture the right moment. If that didn’t happen, he would approach strangers to take portraits. His approach was a gentle one. I could never hear what he was actually saying, but the smile on his subject made sure that it worked. It was good to see a guy who walked the talk (and vice versa).
In another class, Jaime showed us his book ‘Yonkeros‘, a documentary project he shot in Willets Point, Queens. Beautiful black and white photographs subtlety sequenced with colours told a story in a way I never imagined possible. Slowly and steadily, I wanted to follow in his footsteps; to tell a story that I was passionate about. Much like our chats now, I pitched him ideas and technical approaches for my projects which he always supported and helped me with. ‘Stoners of the World’ was one of them, and hadn’t it been for Jaime, it would’ve been very, very different.
Our chat over the Guatemalan coffee ended the same way how our hang outs usually end: a fair well, and an anticipation of our next sit down. Since the last time I saw Jaime, he went on to work on his next documentary project, ‘Cuba‘, and now he is preparing for a workshop in China, sponsored by the China Photographers Association, with acclaimed photographer Shen Wei and curator Ren Yue. I guess I’m making the journey to Harlem again, and we’ll have to talk about that when he returns to New York.
Edited by Kevin Devereux // Website