Anticipating El Alto

There were two reasons I wanted to visit El Alto, at one time a slum on the margins of Bolivia’s capital La Paz and now the country’s second largest city.

One: at an altitude of upwards of 4,050m (13,615ft) above sea level, it’s the highest major metropolis in the world. And two: populated mostly by Aymara who started arriving from the countryside in the 1970s, El Alto is the largest indigenous city in the Americas.

But I didn’t make it. I was pounded senseless by a stomach bug and forced to spend most of my five days in La Paz within a few block radius of my modest hotel near the central Plaza San Francisco. My only visual connection to El Alto would come as it did on the way to the capital –through the confines of a dirty bus window during heavy early morning traffic.

So over breakfast on departure day I came up with an idea for a slightly different way to document my passage through this uniquely 21st century city. I knew that drive-by shooting, much like the bus ride itself, would provide a brief one-dimensional view of El Alto, and a fuzzy one at that. So that was the angle I would go with and try to accentuate. If it worked even marginally well, that one dimension could provide just enough moments of clarity to actually capture a few authentic glimpses into the life of the city.

El Alto 002


Shooting through moving bus windows being what it is, I decided against my DSLR, opting instead to be at the mercy of the still option on my video camera. Since I couldn’t really plan any precise shots, the vidcam would provide the most candid photos of all. At best, I could only anticipate what the camera would eventually shoot once I snapped the trigger. And thus the name of this experimental documentation was born.

I knew that the focus would occasionally pull on the window, which would add a dreamy texture to the early morning. Movement of the bus coupled with movement of the subjects, I also knew, would result in out of focus or blurry shots. That, like the dirty bus window, was intentional.

El Alto 003


The result is below, a slide show consisting of 58 photos presented chronologically. In all, just under twenty-nine minutes passed between the first frame and the last.

The soundtrack is an experimental piece entitled “leche caliente” by the San Cristóbal Orquesta. I think it fits pretty well.

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