Camera-Curious

At the end of a long dirt road in Imbabura Province, in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, there's a small school. When a car arrives at noon and an American photographer and a writer step out, the curiosity level among the children rises fourfold. As some of these small faces confirm, fear edges into their curiosity.

Some children run to get closer; others hang back because photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I could be ``officials'' from the local government or military, even though our smiles, dress, and tone of voice are easy as our escort introduces us to one of the teachers. Acts of aggression are not unknown between rural organizations and ``officials'' when they disagree over issues of land, farming, and human rights.

Or we could be otherworldly to the children: perhaps the first Anglos ever to visit their school all the way at the end of a road in a community where electricity is uncommon and clothes are washed next to a public well.

These children, stopped in a school doorway, simply stared. One girl smiled and managed a shy laugh. If you look closely and count nine children, look again. There are 10.

The girls' blouses are handmade, worn with pleated, green cotton skirts. The coiled strands of shiny beads around their necks are common jewelry for women in this mountain region. The girl in the lower right also has a piece of string through a pierced ear. You can't find the 10th child?

Look in the upper right- hand part of the photo, just at the edge of the red wall. A tiny eye and a thatch of dark hair are there: a child curious enough to almost look, but not sure enough to step out and join the others in peering at two people who dropped out of nowhere.

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