Panama City, Panamá: Just Because It’s Awesome

Diana film camera portrait of a construction worker Panama City, Panamá
Construction worker in redeveloping Casco Viejo. Panama City, Panamá. All rights reserved.

Panama City, Panamá is a city in transition. One of the brighter emerging economies in Latin America, it’s home to a stable democracy. Markets and services are blossoming with cash flow, in part from their ownership of the Panama Canal.

This does not make it perfect, and there is still much work to do. But Panama has come a very long way, in a relatively short amount of time. For that, the country deserves respect.

Some might look at the new highrise apartments, condos, and office buildings in the eastern part of the city and think it has already emerged. But as is common in many cities, development also comes at the expense of redevelopment. You might call it gentrification.

For all of the wired modernism in neighborhoods like Punta Pacifica, there is old Panamá on the west side of the city. Here it is not highrise and exclusive living, or wealthy, save for parts of Casco Antiguo. But it is colorful, vibrant, and public.

Casco Antiguo (aka Casco Viejo), is the old historic district, and redevelopment is in-process. This means one building could house or staff well-to-do and cater to tourism or nightlife, while just next door could be a family living in poverty. It does not take a doctorate to know which has a future in this neighborhood.

Regardless of how we feel about it, this is the direction many cosmopolitan cities are now taking. And who are we to tell any country or foreign city how to handle something like this?

Contextual understanding is important, and I get where concerned locals are coming from. But if standards-of-living can and do improve broadly, then it’s shallow to expect a neighborhood to stay poor, just so gringos like me can say it’s authentic. That discussion, in more profound aspects, is up to Panamá.

Nonetheless, the people of Panama City regardless their circumstances, are truly lovely people. Smiles and laughter are common. Conversations are lively, or gentle. Spirits are good. Food is delicious. Even street hustlers and annoying taxi drivers have their charms. Operation Just Cause is in the past, and I experienced no anti-Americanism. I had a great time.

By no means does any of this rationalize squalid conditions some Panamanians still live in, such as in El Chorillo or Santa Ana. But there is a pride and optimism in Panamá, and that cannot be denied.

Photography notes:

It is in the neighborhoods of Casco Antiguo and Santa Ana that I shot most of my Panama City photos during my February visit. But there are snap shots from around downtown areas Marbella and El Cangrejo, too. I snuck in a few pictures from Carnaval, but during the festivities I just put the camera away and partied. Plenty of local photographers were on the scene, anyway. 

The photo you see above is a portrait, not a candid or staged. I walked up and motioned with my camera, and he nodded. I took the shot, nodded back and was on my way. No words spoken. But it was cool as it gets, and it’s my favorite shot from Panamá. And yes, it’s film. 



“The Ethics of Street Photography”

The Creative Independent features artists in their own voice – ranging from thought-provoking to armchair bullshit – and is one of my regular blog reads lately.

Recently there was an interview with Daniel Arnold about street photography, that I think is worth sharing.

Interstate 84 East

street photography parade La Grande Oregon
Union County Fair Parade. La Grande, OR.

In Oregon, there are two distinct regions. Some in the south will tell you the line should be north-south, mostly for political reasons. But from my outsider-in point-of-view and taking environmental factors into consideration, it’s east and west Oregon.

West of the Cascades is what most outsiders envision when thinking about Oregon. It’s green, forested, cloudy, misty, rainy, Portland. East of the Cascades it’s drier, warmer, sunnier, plain, dusty and desolate brown landscape seemingly everywhere. There is no Portland of the east, only small towns.

One is populated and fancies itself trendy, progressive, modern. The other is sparse and is traditional, common, retrospective.

But this line is only imaginary, when you get down to what makes people who they are. The dress is casual, like anywhere else. There are lemons being driven on the road everywhere, just like west Oregon. People work, if they’re employed. For some, work might be a luxury rather than a real job. But the patterns are similar. Most go home to their families, friends, pets, or nobody. There are homeless. Some go out at night, even Monday’s. Meat is consumed, or it’s not. Beer and wine is made and drunk. Marijuana is smoked, somewhere, regardless of local laws. There is a soundtrack. Kids play. Students study, maybe. Fishermen fish. Athletes compete. Parents hover, or trust. Lovers love. People have relationships, especially when they shouldn’t. Folks get married, and then divorced. Houses look similar. There are Native-American reservations. Traffic sucks. Californians pass through, or worse, settle. Democrats and Republicans argue. Crime happens. There is talk of Pride Parades. Nobody reads print newspapers. Someone with a Washington State license plate drives like an asshole.

There wasn’t a specific agenda or itinerary for this project. I knew nobody. I did not have hotel-motel reservations for the night. Just hit the road and drove east, until I felt like stopping. There was no intention with the photography subject matter, other than to shoot what is there and with either my iPhone or a 28mm lens. The pictures would communicate, and anyone who sees them will have their own takeaways from it, or not. (Why only 28mm? Because I felt like it.)

I did not want to show things and places typically included in the tourism guides or the NYT. The off-the-path Oregon, where I could find it. Or, as some would say, “the real Oregon”, in all its good-bad-ugly-beautiful. This required visiting towns and places less popular. Hood River is not an accidental omission. If anything, I wanted to know the state better. And really, I also just felt like going for a long summer drive in my MINI Cooper.

What I did encounter were generally pleasant people, albeit perhaps a bit more reserved in their daily run-arounds in public. I also saw an adventurous spirit and generosity, particularly in Cascade Locks of all places, which seemed the most spontaneous of all towns I visited. There is an appreciation for local history and culture, maybe a desperate longing for it, especially in The Dalles. Other than a relative few Latino migrant workers, I did not see much diversity. But this was not a surprise.

I cannot discern if I visited the past, the proverbial time warp, or did I visit an economically dying culture near its last rites? Or, is it like this everywhere now, that isn’t dominated by corporate influence or hype? In other words, I didn’t visit fucking Aspen.

One thing is for certain, towns must have either an identity or function. If there is no identity, then a town must reinvent itself, or slowly wither and be resigned to sentiments for the past. If there can be no function or a new one found, and if there is no identity or one created, the town is dead.

Here’s hoping the towns featured here live on or find their way back. Will they? I don’t know. Like many things now, the Old Way is ebbing and the New Way has an uncertain future.

84 East Photo Gallery