Rider’s Lens: Federico Cabrera

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Federico Cabrera sets out on bikepacking trips through remote areas in South America carrying a small portable photography studio. His mission? To capture portraits of people and families who don’t have such a photo. And, as his project is named, “Their Only Portrait” becomes a priceless possession for many of the people he meets along the way.

Words and photos by Federico Cabrera

A few years ago I came upon the Burning House Project by Foster Huntington which asked the question, “If your house was on fire, what would you save first?” This resonated with me as I almost lost my house to a fire. When I asked myself that same question the things I would save, right after my dog, would be my printed photos and hard-disks full of photos. Later when I spent some time backpacking remote locations at South America, I found out some people don’t even have a single image of their own family. That’s when it clicked and I knew I would be able to make a small difference for some of the people I meet in my travels.

Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

  • Federico Cabrera
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

Furthermore, when I rode through “El Impenetrable”, one of Argentina’s most remote and wild areas, I realized there are many other ways we can make a difference to the local communities we visit… so since then, besides the photography gear, I also carry solar lights and water filters to give away to the families who need them most.

  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

Federico Cabrera

To make my portraits I mix natural light and flash to get the desired lighting. My photography gear has changed from when I started this project four years ago. Originally I carried a full frame DSLR (Nikon D700) with three fast prime lenses (24, 50, & 85mm) and a Studio Flash with a travel pack (Paul C. Buff Einstein & Vagabond Mini). Nowadays I still use the same printer (Canon Selphy) but I downgraded my photography gear to a small APS-C mirrorless camera with a fixed lens and leaf shutter (Fujifilm X100T) combined with two cheap off-camera flashes (YongNuo YN560IV). This allows more space to carry water filters and solar lights to donate.

I also carry an action camera, a 7” Tablet (with Lightroom mobile), two wireless triggers, two backup harddisks, a tripod, a softbox, a solar panel, two power banks (one with an AC outlet), paper and ink for 100+ portraits, three Fujifilm batteries, 12 AA batteries, several memory cards, filters, battery chargers and cables.

  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

While I was bikepacking through Chaco (northern Argentina) I borrowed a bucket and a rope from Tito, a local guy I met, to get water from their community well. In this dry area, people collect rain water in wells during the rainy season and make it last for the rest of the year, so I wasn’t very surprised to find two frogs inside the bucket when I took water from the community well.

Tito lives with his wife in a small property and survives thanks to a small herd of animals and some gifts from the remaining forest (wild honey & fruits), as his ancestors had done for generations. The only life improvement is a small solar panel he was leasing that worked at random to power a few light bulbs.

  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

I had to explain him three or four times that I decided to explore this area just for pleasure to make, print, and give away portraits to the people I met along the road. He was happy to pose with his wife and even called some neighbors for the photo. Before I was able to print the image, he reminded me that they live with just the essentials and life is very tough up there… and one more time I told him not to worry that the printed portrait was a free gift, just a small way to thank him for the water they gave me. They’re thrilled to see the image materialize and a few mate drinks later I said goodbye and continued my trip.

A couple of weeks later on my way back home, I returned to the area and I found Tito at the front of his house drinking mate. He immediately recognized me and invited me inside. I couldn’t be happier to see the small 4×6 print I gave him as the only decoration on his otherwise bare walls.

  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait
  • Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

Federico Cabrera

Federico Cabrera, Their Only Portrait

About Federico Cabrera

As a child I dreamt of exploring Africa as a National Geographic photographer, but I got a degree and celebrated a successful career in Foreign Trade instead. Five years ago I gave up a 15+ years career to follow my passion for photography, and I started commuting by bike to reduce my stress and to return to a simple/healthier way of living. Nowadays I live at the countryside and I make my living as a freelance photographer and a beekeeper. Support Fede’s project at GoFundMe, and follow his work and travels on Instagram @theironlyportrait or Facebook.

11 Comments
  • THANKS for spreading the word about my Little Personal Project!!! :)

  • Chris

    Federico, this is an amazing project! The thing I always struggled with about bike touring is that is somewhat selfish in the sense that I ride primarily for my own enjoyment and enrichment. While always self sufficient, it’s hard to not to benefit from outpouring of generosity and hospitality encountered on the road. I’ve put some thought into how I can tour with the goal of improving the lives of the people and communities I’m visiting while still traveling light. I think you’ve found the perfect answer here providing portraits that will surely be treasured possessions for years! You’re an inspiration. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Thank you for the inspiration!!

  • Federico – I am an author and your shot of the ship just cured a problem I was having – where is my heroes hidden base of operation – Thanks and Amazing photographic work.

  • Hola Steven, I’m glad you like the images :)

  • Hi Chris, thanks for your kind words! The main purpose of this little project (besides making a small difference for the families I meet along the road) is to show fellow cyclist/travelers we ALL can make a small diference for the local communities we visit… for less than $15 and just adding 2.5oz to your load, you can change a family’s life with a solar lamp ;)

  • john metcalfe

    Good man Federico.
    Respect and a genuine desire to give in whatever way is the bedrock of humanity. I can understand how much these images mean to many people. I applaud you. Thank you.

  • Thanks John, I’m just an average guy trying to make a small difference :)

  • Grant

    Hey Federico – amazing shots! Whereabouts is that big shipwreck?? Looks amazing.

  • Awesome project, great photos.

  • onabikewithnoname

    based on experiences in this part of the world, pretty certain it’s Cabo San Pablo, TdF