The Two Sisters of Antofagasta by
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Antofagasta is a northern port city in Chile. It’s a small city, Chile’s fifth largest and is perched on a narrow terrace between the Pacific Ocean and the barren coastal range that dominates the eastern horizon. Antofagasta’s only reason for being has to do with the silver and other minerals unearthed in its bleak mountain backdrop.

Antofagasta is a northern port city in Chile.

Today, the city boasts high-rise apartments and hotels, but the moment captured in one of my oldest possessions comes from a time when poverty beset its indigenous population, and industry ravaged the landscape.

1939. My father, the radio operator on a freighter sailing out of San Pedro, California, was roaming the waterfront with his large, bellowed Speed Grapic while the ship loaded copper ore into its holds.

It was late on a winter afternoon and my father attracted the packs of kids who scavenged along the waterfront. The motley crowd spoke to him as all waterfront life did. He handed a peso to each kid after he took his or her picture. The sun glowed at his back, setting into the Pacific. The air was cold and clear and the light had been good but now, as sunset approached, the temperature had dropped and the shadows lengthened.

My father began to strike his equipment, stowing the camera’s 4”x5” film cartridges and loosening the heavy camera from its wooden tripod.

He looked up to see a solitary child, small, about 11 years old, dressed in heavy, rough-spun canvas holding a smaller child in her arms. Both were bundled against the cold.

My father realized that she had been waiting patiently with her sister to pose for a picture and collect her peso. She gave my father such a desperate, penetrating look that he reset the camera on its tripod, slid home a final cartridge, and snapped the shutter.

He dropped two pesos in the older girl’s hand. She turned and walked into the twilight, carrying the child in silence.

My father never imagined the picture would turn out. When he finally got back to his San Pedro darkroom, the photo you see above floated off the white photo paper in the magic tray of developer. For years, it hung in our home but when that place was no more, the image traveled with me until it found its place, 83 years later, in my home. The heightened shadows, the cold clarity in the two sisters’ eyes remind me of all time, all space, my father, that camera, the emerging images under the red light of a darkroom, and the intricate, unbreakable mycelia that connect us all, everywhere, over all time, dead or alive.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. susanrubin says:

    How does this author make every story so heart stirring and still so clear in its progression? I would’ve cried if his father had not photographed those two final children waiting for their peso.

  2. Thanx Charles for your beautifully written story of your father’s photo and the two nameless sisters he captured in his lens.

    Lest we forget our connection to the other , especially in this current uncivil climate.

  3. Such a terrific piece! Your writing makes this feel cinematic. Isn’t it wonderful that a chance encounter so far from home could result in an amazing story and such a beautiful photo.

  4. Marian says:

    The photo is stunning, Charles, and what a precious item on so many levels. On a scientific note, you are right about the mycelia, as they proliferate under the soil and nourish the trees. There is a research group in South America that is exploring them because they are mysterious and little recognized.

    • Thanks, Marian. The photo is remarkable, even better when there’s not a reflection on the glass, but what’s an iPhone to do? And yes, there’s been a tremendous amount of excitement over the depth, complexity and significance of mycelia in recent years, moving beyond the realm of a few botanists. I highly recommend “Fantastic Fungi,” a documentary featuring the world of mycelia with Paul Stamets and other mytologists. It’s available on Netflix if you’re interested!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a beautiful photo, holding so many precious memories for you of your father, his camera, developing pictures without knowing what treasures they may unearth. So glad you are now in possession of this photo. The expression of the girls is haunting.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    The photo contains magic; for those young girls, for your father who captured them and for you, who now owns the portrait and knows the story that connects them through all of time.

  7. A beautiful way to put it, Betsy, thanks. As I read your comment, I think the story is the most precious. It’s lasted as long as the photo!

  8. Suzy says:

    I am late in commenting, but I agree with what everyone else has said. Stunning photo, and the story of the children waiting to be photographed for pesos is the best part. The magic of not knowing what you have captured with your camera until it floats through the developer is something future generations will never experience.

    • Never too late to hear from you, Suzy! The photo evokes very early memories of childhood attempts to decipher who those two people were. And yeah, that photo-developer magic, laborious though it was to set up the means of production (a darkroom), produced such magical interactions of light and chemistry and by six, I understood how it worked! Thanks to the old man!

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    That is indeed a remarkable photograph, capturing the desperation and poignancy of the moment. And knowing the story makes it that much more meaningful. I immediately thought of some of the Dorothea Lange photos from the Great Depression. A treasure indeed, and thanks for sharing it.

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