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A Picture's Worth a Thousand Miles: The Noble Travels of Fede Cabrera

Words and photos from Fede Cabrera

Hola, I'm Federico Cabrera (but you can call me Fede). I'm a photographer based in Buenos Aires, and I'm usually exploring remote places in South America.

"Their Only Portrait" is a small personal project that involves cycling, paddling, and hiking through beautiful but impoverished remote areas, to make, print, and give away portraits to families who won't otherwise ever have a family photograph. I also donate water filters & solar lights to those who need them most. 

Almost a decade ago, I quit a successful career in Foreign Trade (15 years) to follow a dream (As a child, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer exploring Africa). Soon after, while I was hiking through Peru & BoliviaI was heartbroken by how many tourists I saw taking photos of local people as if they're in a Human Safari (without showing any respect to their subjects). But it was even worse when I found out several of those local people didn't have a single family photo.

I realized I wanted to make a small difference or try to leave things a little better than they were at my arrival. When I returned home, I started researching the most efficient way to carry a printer and huge studio strobe (and battery) to remote communities by non-motorized transport systems. I started to see "mountain bikes strapped with dry bags" used to explore remote locations (bikepacking), and suddenly cycling was back in my life. 

By early 2015, I was riding my old dirt-jumper bike with "DIY bikepacking bags" and a 35-liter backpack through a small Inca trail at 14,000 feet. I haven't stopped since then! 

A couple of months later, while I was riding at Northern Argentina, I found out how many families didn't have access to clean drinkable water (unfortunately 1,000,000 people die every year due to water contamination) or electricity (1.3 billion don't have access to electricity), so, nowadays I'm giving away water filters & solar lamps, too. 

As I'm Argentinian, and we've so many small communities at remote locations needing assistance, I spent most of my time down here (it's also cheaper and better for the environment if I stay closer to home). So far, I've ridden 20,000 miles, printed 500+ portraits, and donated 350 solar lights & water filters through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela. 

I prefer to travel by bicycle because it lets me cover more ground (reach more communities) and carry more donations. Still, I've also traveled by packraft, by foot, and the combination of all those options. I usually choose where to travel, depending on my budget and the rainy seasons, and according to the destination's terrain, I select the best way to travel there. 

I had my most meaningful experience at "El Impenetrable" (Chaco, Northern Argentina). I made a family's portrait at the beginning of my trip, and a couple of weeks later, when I rode through the same route on the way back, they recognized me, and they invited me to drink "mate" (traditional hot beverage) inside their home. When I entered their kitchen, I saw the little 4x6" print I gave them as the only decoration of their mud walls.

I've had plenty of challenges in my travels. In 2018, I thought it would be a great adventure to cross from Chile to Argentina, paddling through Lake O'Higgins (part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field) in Autumn, but a dry suit was out of my budget. Every afternoon before 6 pm, I had to get to shore on the verge of hypothermia to make a fire to stop shivering and dry my clothes. I also had to paddle as close to the shore as possible, to avoid being dragged to the middle of the lake (where waves can reach more than 3 meters tall) by the brutal winds & currents. 

In 2019, while I was visiting remote Inca communities (Q 'eros) at the Peruvian Andes, I had a big infection in my mouth, and I had two wisdom teeth removed before cycling 4000 miles back home. 

I'm continually searching for the most minimal/lightest gear available, but I don't usually travel light. Saving weight in my gear gives me the possibility to carry more donations (or more food to travel further) and make a small but tangible difference for more people. I guess I have a good excuse if my journey towards "lightweight" is transitioning to an obsession.

Planning for the future, Venezuela is the place where assistance is needed the most in South America. According to UNHCR, by October 2019, approximately 4.5 million Venezuelans had left the country for reasons of insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine, fuel, essential services, and loss of income due to the political situation.

Last February, I headed there to deliver solar lights and printed portraits, but after a couple of weeks, I had to cut my trip short due to COVID-19. Now I'm taking the time trying to gather funds to return there with more donations.

In the meantime, I'm putting together "Trans-Argentina MBR," a 5,200 miles mountain bike route (with 410,000 feet climbing) running the length of the country's high Andes, through remote trails. In two months, I'll be scouting one section of this route on foot, hauling 21 days of food, gear, and solar lights (donations) in a backpack, as there are no resupply points (or even trail) in this remote and wild area. 

Cheers,

Fede Cabrera

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