In a coming-of-age story of a young Panamanian, the decade-long project, King of Fish, uncovers the impact of careless action on the land and community today.
”It was in a phase of my life when I just said ’yes’ to everything,” recounts Rose Marie Cromwell, speaking about her first encounter with Coco Solo, an area on the northwest side of the Panama Canal Zone. Suspended in a state of perpetual development, Coco Solo has been continually ravaged by economic growth for decades. Compacted by the chemical footprint of its legacy as a US military base, its inescapable past is profoundly inscribed within the environment. ”Coco Solo is an isolated place; you could never just stumble upon it,” says Cromwell. ”When I first started going there, it was pretty dangerous. There was a lot of gang activity. Out of fear, taxis would drop me off a mile away from the housing project. But spending time in Coco Solo, I began to see a major difference between the perception of a place and its reality.”
The Miami-based artist first moved to Panama in 2006 after being awarded a Fulbright grant – the Fulbright Program is a US cultural exchange scheme offering grants to help graduates and young professionals to study abroad – to investigate the effect of the US-built Panama Canal on its residents and how it influenced Panamanian identity. Indeed, Cromwell had long been fascinated by the complicated relationship between the US and Panama. Her professor, Harry Mattison at Maryland Institute College of Art, who worked as a photojournalist in Nicaragua during the US-instigated civil war, educated her on the violent histories of US military intervention in Latin America.
While working on her Fulbright project, she met a female bishop from a Spiritual Revival Church, one of the fondly known churches where the congregation often gets lost in the spirit of them. These churches were formed by Panama’s Afro-Antillean community, many of whose ancestors arrived there to work on the canal construction. ”She asked me to meet her at the bus terminal,” Cromwell recalls. ”Four hours later, we arrived in Coco Solo. The bishop introduced me to her friend, Pastor Michael Brown, a reformed drug dealer who worked in a church in Colón. Mikey had lived in Coco Solo for most of his life and had always been a community leader. Spirituality, for him, was this way to fight the oppressive forces of globalisation affecting his marginalised neighbourhood. To support residents, he focused on personal and local actions which could help counter the global forces around them. He started a local soup kitchen and had six adopted sons at the time. I was inspired by Mikey and wanted to help out.”
In the 1980s, Coco Solo’s former military base was repurposed as public housing by the Panamanian government, tucked away between two enormous port terminals and the largest free-trade zones in the Americas. The base, which had not been maintained in 30 years, lacked clean water, electricity, public transportation, waste disposal and a police presence. ”When travelling to Coco Solo and passing hundreds of acres of stacked containers full of consumer goods – it is one of the most striking visual contradictions I have ever seen,” says Cromwell. ”Fifty-two million gallons of fresh water are needed every day to float millions of consumables down the Canal. Yet in Coco Solo, 300 families had to drink, bathe and wash dishes and clothes from just two faucets of water. It was a glaring example of how the world is so unequal and how globalisation can pass some communities by.”
”At times, it was a natural paradise; at other times, an oppressive dystopia. Over the years, the community lost access to nature. The land is not stable and prone to flooding. In heavy rain, the housing project was inaccessible, even by foot. Rising sea levels are affecting the entire coast, and ever-expanding container yards continue to encroach on their space.”
At the request of residents, Cromwell began teaching English classes in Coco Solo, making the seven-hour round trip from Panama City several times per week. ”Self-representation through photography saved me as a teenager and led to self-determination as an adult,” she says. ”I wanted to help young people in Coco Solo have the same outlet.” She adds: ”This was the beginning of our community project Cambio Creativo, co-founded with Mikey, that facilitated after-school activities and art workshops for Coco Solo youth.” English classes quickly expanded into a rich programme of knowledge-sharing, hosted by friends of the community. ”We eventually established as a non-profit, after receiving grants from the US embassy. I saw first-hand the benefits of our programming when violence that had long plagued Coco Solo abruptly stopped.”
Cromwell was a director of Cambio Creativo for four years, returning for weeks at a time to teach and photograph the community. Her relationship with Mikey’s adopted son, Vladimir ’Pocho’ Utria, was the catalyst for her decade-long work, King of Fish (begun in 2008 and still ongoing), a coming-of-age story set against the environmental and economic aftermath of military presence, neo-colonialism and globalisation. ”Pocho and I bonded through our shared love of nature,” she says. ”We spent time fishing, climbing trees and searching for coconuts and sloths. We would make photographs together, and I would help him with his homework. Through his adolescence years, he also became a teacher at Cambio Creativo. Pocho is now in his mid-20s and has a wife and daughter. He works in construction and has odd jobs in the ports around the Canal.”
Despite the region’s undeniable impact on Pocho’s life, Cromwell’s vision is celebratory, using joy as an act of resistance. Richly coloured and beautifully poetic, her photographs are disarmingly striking. Her connected gaze is tender and loving, capturing the free and innocent spirit of adolescence. In the transition from boy to man, we see Pocho’s identity and life expand in multiple forms. A quiet image of Pocho resting his head on his hand surrounded by his daily catch, to a playful embrace with his baby daughter, Cromwell’s imagery becomes more powerful the more subtle and acute her frame.
Photographically there is a lot of room for play in King of Fish, as Cromwell hovers between different modes of construction. Blending found street scenes with performative gestures, her work sets realism alongside dreamlike scenes laced with symbolism to access a psychological space. ”I think performance can point to sincere and authentic things,” she says. ”For Pocho, it was a way to use imagination to overcome his environment – having space to play outside of his everyday life. This was true for me too. It felt exciting to do something a little more unexpected or imaginative, a more creative way to use the camera. It also has to do with the limitations of photography. I’m not sure you can truly document someone’s life – using an element of performance felt more honest.” This conceptually innovative approach builds on similar frameworks used in her highly acclaimed first book, El Libro Supremo de la Suerte (which translates as The Supreme Book of Luck). Shot simultaneously, both works engage in a recalibration of the documentary tradition to support a more expressionistic and intimate exchange with her collaborators. The element of performance allows her collaborators to have some control over their images. They can show themselves as they want to be seen.
Cromwell uses photography to examine how layers of history shape our cultural identities. While she often works within the confines of specific geographies and communities, her work transcends documentation and instead uses the environment as a stage to speak to universal issues. In King of Fish, social and economic shifts are grounded in Pocho’s narrative, but the landscape also carries its own emotional tempo. Cromwell charts the environment as a psychological space, a site of trauma, violence, joy and resilience. From lush and abundant to dilapidated and burning, the images speak to the emotional energy of our surroundings with an almost panpsychic quality. ”At times, it was a natural paradise; at other times, an oppressive dystopia,” she says. ”Over the years, the community lost access to nature. The land is not stable and prone to flooding. In heavy rain, the housing project was inaccessible, even by foot. Rising sea levels are affecting the entire coast, and ever-expanding container yards continue to encroach on their space.”
There is also the toxic by-product of US military intervention, which left indelible scars on the land. In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia, leading to the signing of the Hay-Herrán Treaty between Colombia and the US. The treaty granted the US access to the isthmus, and the construction of the Panama Canal. In that moment, the American government obtained the right to occupy five miles of idyllic tropical land on either side of the waterway, of what became known as the Panama Canal Zone. Over the 20th century, the Canal Zone’s military bases, which included Coco Solo, a submarine and naval air station, and the infamous School of the Americas opened in 1946, became training grounds for counterinsurgency combat, chemical weapons, and interrogation practices that are now tragic and unforgettable parts of Latin American history. The ingrained chemical footprint left behind by those training exercises, simulating conditions the US military might have encountered in Vietnam, still renders some land inaccessible as it is laced with Agent Orange and unexploded landmines. It is a haunting reminder of US dominance.
After years of activism, the residents of Coco Solo were transitioned to a newly constructed community in Buena Vista, where they now have land for gardens and more access to nature. ”It’s beautiful to see their renewed connection to the land and how it has improved their quality of life and made them more autonomous,” says Cromwell. ”While there were some heavy moments working in Coco Solo, it was sad when the community finally got moved – they had bonded together through hard times, and there were a lot of fun memories.”
Despite the Coco Solo housing project being demolished, it’s vital to Cromwell that the territory’s history is not erased. ”In making this work, I started to think about my place in this community and my role,” she says. ”The United States’ involvement in Central America during the Reagan and Bush years is hardly documented. It’s not a history you learn in school, but a lot of money and resources were invested in fighting wars in these countries by proxy, killing thousands of people. Panamanians are only now starting to have an open dialogue about this history and not brush it under the rug.” Cromwell uses photography to honour communities that suffer erasure at the hands of the state. In doing this, she draws attention to the harmful injustice endured when histories are delicately rewritten to be more palatable within the cultural fabric. In many ways, this is her direct riposte to the medium’s weaponisation, as a tool to reinforce the vision and values of colonialism, to reimagine it as a gesture of resistance and repair.
“The products we buy, adore and consume in the United States pass through communities like Coco Solo, and affect the lives and psyche of young people like Pocho. The stories and suffering of these communities are ingrained in our consumption. The tension also exists in the consciousness of people. Panamanians have a complicated relationship with US culture, wanting to be close to it but also to assert independence. Panama uses the dollar but calls it balboa. It’s similar to how they deal with their history of US military intervention – accepting it, but calling it something else.”
From a young age, art and activism have always been deeply intertwined for Cromwell, who joined artist-activist collectives as a teenager in Seattle. ”Witnessing the 1999 World Trade Organization protests was one of the most formative experiences of my early career,” she recalls. ”The protests shattered my ignorance as a global consumer. I began to question the inequity of the global economy and the associated exploitation of people and the environment.” This line of inquiry manifests in King of Fish in Cromwell’s interest in how US consumerism has shaped the identity of Panama. ”The products we buy, adore and consume in the United States pass through communities like Coco Solo, and affect the lives and psyche of young people like Pocho,” she says. ”The stories and suffering of these communities are ingrained in our consumption. The tension also exists in the consciousness of people. Panamanians have a complicated relationship with US culture, wanting to be close to it but also to assert independence. Panama uses the dollar but calls it balboa. It’s similar to how they deal with their history of US military intervention – accepting it, but calling it something else.”
The embodiment of ethics within her art practice enables Cromwell to form extended networks and long-term relationships with people and places in which she works. This deep engagement ensures she can navigate past visual stereotypes and rethink ways of seeing. ”I’m conscious of the colonial legacy of travelling and taking pictures, so I try to counter that by having long-term relations,” she says. ”Places like Cuba and Panama, where I’ve lived and worked for a long time, are my second homes. I’m still constantly engaged with them.”
In King of Fish, Cromwell’s images convey the chaotic, multisensorial and disorienting life of Pocho and his community, affirming the role of photography to address experiences and memories that remain unsayable or unreachable. The project’s success comes from her ability to entangle the viewer in multiple and complex narratives and histories while centring the human experience. Her frame is an invitation to imagine our way into the realities of others, using photography to build empathy and bond us together. For Cromwell, the psychological is political, and in destabilising dominant forces, she is helping both her subjects and her viewers to locate our innermost joy.
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.