nearly a decade photographing the latino community´s fiestas
por gabriela olmos
Since high school, Ron Nicholl’s closest partner had been his camera. He carried it everywhere, and printed his shots in the small dark room his parents installed at the back of his house. It could produce black and white prints, “but mostly it was gray and white,” says Ron recalling the magic of analog photography.
Born in Washington state, Ron set foot in Alaska for the first time in 1954, before Alaska became a state. Ron was then eleven years old and came to work on his uncle’s farm in Wasilla. At the end of every vacation, he wanted to stay in Alaska, but his uncle was firm, “You should go back to your father.” Later, upon finishing his undergraduate studies, Ron opted for a military degree. He joined the Coast Guard and was stationed at Ketchikan, in the southeastern part of the state. There he worked as a ship officer. Ron remembers that whenever they set sail he made sure to carry his raincoat and a camera.
After completing a graduate degree, Ron worked as an Operations Manager for a company that manufactured machinery in Washington. “I took a lot of photos of the machinery, but it was not my job. Photography was secondary.” Seventeen years ago, after going through a divorce, he asked himself what he really wanted to do. He realized that what he most wanted was to travel north to live in Alaska. So he looked for a job in the state and soon started working as a project manager for a company based in Anchorage.
For this job he travelled frequently to rural Alaska, and especially to Barrow, the state’s northernmost village. In Barrow, workers usually stayed in a radar station built in the mid-twentieth century. They supported logistics for oil explorations for the UIC (Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation), the Barrow’s native corporation. During the winter they walked onto the tundra at temperatures that reached -20 degrees Fahrenheit. “All explorations are done in the winter. Otherwise you would damage the tundra in the summer. It is very fragile.”
In those days Ron photographed the Arctic landscapes, including polar bears that smelled the food in their camps and approached. Ron says that in Barrow there is a sign posted for tourists saying “the top of the world.” But, in his words, “it is another world.” Eight years ago, after many adventures in which he was always accompanied by his camera, Ron retired from the construction industry. Since then he has been completely dedicated to photography. On his first summer as a retiree, he visited eight native villages photographing schools, clinics and warehouses. He traveled to places as remote as Deadhorse, in the North Slope; Scammon Bay, in east Alaska; and Savoonga, on the island of St. Lawrence, in the Bering Strait. “Every trip was an adventure.”
But Anchorage’s Hispanic community does not remember Ron for his photos of polar bears or ice landscapes, but for his festive images of Latino folk dances. For almost a decade, Ron has captured through his lens the vibrant vitality of our fiestas. The Latino community “has helped me improve my photography. They probably do not realize how much they have helped me by the expressions of their dance and their culture, and me trying to capture them.”
His link with the Latino community started through Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. A devoted catholic, Ron has been involved in the church that serves one of the largest Latino communities in Anchorage. Ron has shown his gratitude to our community by supporting the causes of Hispanic parishioners, such as Spanish Masses.
He remembers that “one of those times the choir was all dressed in Mexican costumes, but I was very reserved about going in front and taking a picture,” says Ron. He adds that he greatly enjoys the aesthetics of Aztec dance, and that is why he always wanted to photograph it. “Little by little, photography integrated me into the Latino community.” Now whenever he hears the drums of the dance, he runs for his camera.
His photos of colorful dresses waving in the dance are well known. The dances fascinated Ron since the first time he saw them at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Lunney Center. But he says that he achieved his best shots at the Fiesta Under the Midnight Sun, the summer festival organized in Cuddy Park by Sol de Medianoche and Latinos en Alaska.
Ron’s Spanish improved after a recent travel to Mexico. However, he remembers with joy his first approaches to the Latino community, when at the entrance of Mass he greeted Hispanic parishioners with a warm “good morning,” wondering what would happen if suddenly someone answered him in Spanish. Very soon he stopped worrying. Ron admires the Latino hospitality, and he was sure that any problem would be solved.
Later, when he served on the church’s financial committee, he gave a full report in Spanish. He wrote it carefully, and Patricia Gould, then Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Director of Hispanic Ministry, corrected it. When he finished reading the document, the expected thing happened, everyone addressed him in Spanish. Ron had to explain that, although he understood quite a bit, he could not hold a conversation in our tongue. But he felt a great admiration for the language of Hispanics.
Perhaps because of his willingness to participate in our world and the passion with which he photographs our fiestas, Patricia Gould said that “Ron has a Latino heart.” His images give colorful testimony to it.
Sol de Medianoche thanks Ron Nicholl for allowing us to publish his photographs when we speak about the strength of our traditions.
Photos courtesy: Ron NIcholl
PROUDLY POWERED BY SOL DE MEDIANOCHE CO. Sol de Medianoche is a bimonthly publication of the Latino community in Anchorage, Alaska