Living Magazine April 2008

From their inauspicious beginnings as an event crasher and a hometown photographer making his first sale taking a photo of a damaged house for an insurance adjuster, Dan Polley and Cesar Paniamogan, Jr. are now unveiling Nicaragua’s abundant beauty through their photographs, which can be seen on their web site, Whether it’s capturing the joy in a child fighting for the treats buried in the cavern of a pińata or immortalizing the flight of a butterfly, they show the world all that Nicaragua has to offer.

Through Their Eyes
Photographers Document Life in Nicaragua
by Cheryl Sera 

It was a long time between the time Dan Polley first got paid for his photography and the next. It was a career’s worth of time between these gigs, in fact. Dan, 59, became interested in photography when he was a 10-year-old and a member of the 4-H club. He sold The Grit, an almanac-like newspaper in the Midwestern United States (U.S.) and saved enough money to buy his own first camera. It was a Polaroid, he remembers, and he pulled the film out of it a minute after he shot the photo. Pronto, it was developed into a small black-and-white picture.

“I didn’t do too much in terms of taking photos because I couldn’t afford the film,” he recalls. “It cost a lot and I cherished every picture as opposed to now, where you can take thousands of digital pictures and you could throw them out by deleting them.”

He was well-known in his small hometown as the boy with the camera. His big break came when an insurance adjustor needed a photo of a building that had been damaged. He hired Dan and paid more money than Dan had ever earned at one time – about five dollars. Dan was overwhelmed by his good fortune.

These days Dan is still overwhelmed by his good fortune. And he and his partner, Cesar Paniamogan,  Jr., are documenting the treasures they encounter daily in Nicaragua via photographs on their web site,, as well as a through a number of other venues.

Event Crasher .
Cesar, 37, was born in the town of Cabadbaran, in the county of Agusan del Norte, in the Philippines He lived there with his family until he was six years old. He still speaks Visaya, his native language. His father was a minister who successfully sought a position in the U.S., where the family could escape then-president Ferdinand Edralin Marcos’s regime and have more opportunities.

Cesar was scared to make the move. There would be the necessity of learning a new language, familiarizing himself with a very different culture, and experiencing cold weather. They moved to Pierson, Iowa, near Sioux City, during the autumn and it was, in fact, a climate and culture shock. After a year-and-a-half there, they moved to the warmer northwestern Missouri area. Cesar graduated from high school here and went on to University of Missouri at Kansas City, where he earned a liberal arts degree.

After graduation, Cesar stayed on at the university, working as an events coordinator/student activities coordinator. Here he coordinated, marketed and attended student and university events and took photos. While in this position, he became interested in graphic design and continued to improve his skills.

Dan and Cesar met in restaurant/pub in Kansas City in 1994. Dan had received his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, MO. He was director of Disbursing and Financial Operations for the National Finance Center of General Services Administration in Kansas City, MO.

Cesar and Dan purchased their first digital camera – a very big deal – in 1996. It was a one mega-pixel Kodak that cost a wallet-crushing $1,000. Oh, but it was so thrilling for them. In fact, they still have the camera because, as Cesar says with a chuckle, “We couldn’t figure out what to do with it. It’s about the size of a brick.” They shared the camera.

In 1998, Dan was recruited to serve as a financial management system analyst and would later participate in the development of a financial management system used by 46 government agencies. The job was in Washington, DC.

“It was one of those typical six-month assignments that lasted seven years,” Dan says.

Dan moved to Washington for the new post in 1998 and he and Cesar commuted between there and Kansas City until 2000, when Cesar left his job at the university and moved to the big city.

Cesar didn’t know what his next move would be professionally. He wanted to try something different.

“When I got to Washington, I sold myself as a graphic designer and I was hired as one,” he says. He was charged with marketing for a small, minority-owned company that sold computers to government agencies such as the Department of Defense. Some of his tasks were to create the company catalog and web site.

Cesar’s passion for photography, like Dan’s, grew from an inauspicious beginning. When he was 12, Cesar’s older brother, Caleb, owned a completely manual Canon AE1. Caleb taught Cesar the photography basics such as aperture, lighting, and focus. Cesar often borrowed his brother’s camera and went, uninvited, to community events. He would take pictures and later try to peddle them for cash to attendees and event organizers. This practice continued through college, when Cesar would borrow the camera of friends to crash events. It was this involvement, so to speak, in student affairs that helped Cesar land the job at the university later. After all, people were accustomed to seeing his work. When he got the job at the university, he was delighted to finally have a budget for film and developing it.

The pair started while living in Silver Spring, MD, and working in the city. It was simply a way to share their photos. They both favored photographs of flora, which were abundant at spots such as the Wheaton Regional Park, the National Botanical Gardens and the National Arboretum. They later evolved into covering political protests, which are abundant in the nation’s capital.

Cesar says they were such familiar fixtures on the protest scene that they often got access to limited access places because the authorities thought they were members of the press corp.

The Bumpy Road to Nicaragua .
With the retirement that Dan had been planning for some 32 years coming closer to reality, Dan and Cesar were contemplating where they would live in their life post-work.  

They had met Dr. David Belt through their church in Kansas City, MO. David’s distant relative is Thomas Belt, a famed miner, naturalist and biologist from England. In 1874 Thomas published a book entitled The Naturalist in Nicaragua. Wikepedia, the free online encyclopedia, says this of the book: “This study, a leading masterpiece of natural history narrative, also contains innovative views on climatological phenomena and many observations on the habits and characteristics of tropical animal life--for example, on their devices of protective coloration.”

David had been involved in Pastors for Peace and had come to Nicaragua in the 1980s. He shared his passion for the country with fellow church members. David also introduced Dan and Cesar to Reverend Grant Gallup, who runs a guest house in Managua for people performing mission/humanitarian work in Nicaragua. Through Grant Dan and Cesar met Dorothy Granada, one of the founders of The Maria Ortiz Women’s Clinic, a women’s and children’s health clinic in Mulukukú, nearly smack dab in the middle of Nicaragua in the Region Autonoma Atlantico Norte (RAAN).

Their interest in Nicaragua and the work being done here piqued, Dan and Cesar came to Nicaragua for two weeks in August of 1995 with 11 other members of the Trinity United Methodist Church. They spent four days in Managua and the rest of the time in Mulukukú.

“Back in those days it took 13 hours in the back of a truck to get from Managua to Mulukukú,” Dan recalls. Now they can get from their home in San Juan del Sur to Mulukukú in eight hours.

One of their first photographic experiences in Nicaragua came when they got off the plane at the airport (the international airport in Managua has subsequently undergone a huge renovation). They deplaned on the tarmac, something Cesar had never done before.  He wanted to preserve the scene through a photograph but was quickly told by the military presence that this was forbidden.

“I thought, ‘He has the gun, so I won’t take any more photos’,” Cesar says.

Dan and Cesar had seen the historical information and photos of Nicaragua that David had shared and had an appreciation of what to expect in Nicaragua in terms of the terrain and hardships before they came here. But when they got to Mulukukú, living with a host family and witnessing Dorothy’s work with the clinic, well, they simply weren’t prepared.

“That made such an impression on us,” Dan says introspectively. “I think we were all a little bit overwhelmed by the poverty and by the difference Dorothy was making. And we saw that we, too, could make a difference through Dorothy.”

Cesar said he was unaccustomed to the poverty that he witnessed in Mulukukú. After all, he came from a middle class upbringing. His mother was a schoolteacher. Since she had summers off and his father’s ministerial duties gave him five weeks off a year, each summer the family would get into the station wagon and go on family vacations; they’ve traveled to 48 southern United States.

In Mulukukú, community members went to the well to fetch water early in the morning to beat the later heat. One of Cesar’s most remembered photos of this period is a photograph of a young girl, forlornly dressed, carrying her bucket from the well. She has a piece of cloth wrapped around the handle of the bucket so as not to be cut by the weight of the bucket full of well water. It is a frank visual reminder of the disparity he has witnessed.

A picture that stands out in Dan’s mind is one he took his second or third time in Nicaragua, a portrait of a boy which he later enlarged to 11 x 14 inches, framed and hung on a wall. To a casual observer, it’s probably just a picture of a boy. But Dan can see the shirt the boy’s wearing that has been torn and sewn together several times, the scars on his young face.

“I think we need to let people who live in other parts of the world know that there’s a whole world out there that’s different from what they know,” he says.

When they returned to the U.S. after their virgin trek, Dan and Cesar had no plans to return to Nicaragua, although all that they experienced here would remain engraved on their minds. They reflected on their experiences with the other 11 members of the church delegation; they have all stayed in touch since that trip.

In 1996, David brought another delegation to Nicaragua, but this was too close in time to Dan and Cesar’s first trip, so they didn’t come back. Until February of 1997, that is. They returned to Mulukukú and returned to Nicaragua at least once a year each year afterward. It was at this time that Nicaragua became a contender for their retirement.

In 2000, Grant had recommended that Dan and Cesar meet Chris Berry and Jean Brugger who were involved in a then-nascent Pelican Eyes…Piedras y Olas and Fundación A. Jean Brugger. The foundation is aimed at providing educational opportunities and vocational training for people in the area. In prior trips to Nicaragua, Dan and Cesar has made day trips to Granada and Matagalpa and to see other projects they had supported, such as the orphanage in San Marcos. But they had never been to San Juan del Sur. They came in March of 2000 and it was windy and hot. They got sandblasted at the beach. It was not a particularly weather-welcoming time of year in San Juan del Sur, but Dan and Cesar learned about Chris’s and Jean’s work. And they found their retirement home.

Dan retired December 31, 2004 and they moved into a rented house in San Juan del Sur less than two months later.

Fairy Tale Life. 
“It was almost like a fairy tale,” Cesar says of living in San Juan del Sur. After living in their rental house, they moved to a house at Pelican Eyes owned by dentist and University of Missouri at Kansas City Professor Dr. Greg Houston. Greg leads a team of dental students from Cesar’s alma mater that comes to Nicaragua to provide free dental care.

Nicaragua has provided a rich canvas for Dan and Cesar’s photographs. On the web site, there are galleries such as aerial photos of the Pacific coast, the recent panga fishing tournament, food, and community events. Both Dan and Cesar additionally have separate web sites featuring their favorite photographs. Dan’s, at, has galleries such as Living in Nicaragua 2007, Flowers and Blossoms of Nicaragua, Restaurants & Bars in Nicaragua, Surfing in Nicaragua 2007 and My Most Colorful Favorites.

Cesar’s site,, features galleries such as Monica’s Baby (Monica is a monkey), Exhibition Volleyball Game, International Beach Cleanup and Central America Independence Day 2007. All photos are available for sale and all are copyrighted. They recently started selling ads on the popular web site, as well. The galleries are a visual feast of the life that is served up in Nicaragua.

“We take a lot more photographs than we ever did before,” Dan says. “When I was younger I liked to think each picture I took was somehow special. I would look at it and self-critique it. I still do that. I actually think I’m more critical of my work now than I used to be.”

When asked what he’s searching for when he looks through the lens of a camera, Cesar replies, “I think I’m looking for a story. And I wonder if I take a picture and show it to somebody else will they see the same story I did?”

Dan and Cesar use their creative genius to continue to support worthwhile community projects, as well. They continue to visit Mulukukú and help Dorothy each year. Cesar also creates her newsletter. They document the work being provided by the dental delegation. Their photographs graced the cover story of this magazine, Nicaragua Living, for its premiere issue. They are frequent contributors to Del Sur newsletter in San Juan del Sur. Their photographs have also appeared in newspapers such as La Prensa, the Nica Times, The Wall Street Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle. They shot the cover of Moon's Guide to Living Abroad in Nicaragua.

Cesar says his favorite shots are those of people caught unobserved, particularly while using his zoom lens. Dan, on the other hand, enjoys action shots and therefore is partial to photographing surfing, bull riding, and baseball, for instance. He is also fond of the emotional impact of photographing children – their innocence and sadly, often their poverty.

In addition to their photography, Cesar also works part-time for Pelican Eyes, managing the web site and providing graphic design services.

“We didn’t know what our niche was going to be,” Cesar says as he looks back over their journey to Nicaragua. “We never thought we’d be the photographers of San Juan del Sur.”

Dan adds, “Part of retirement is trying to make your life meaningful.”

Treat yourself to a visual feast of photographs at Dan and Cesar’s web sites 

Fundación A. Jean Brugger

Folk dancers
La Cara del
Children of
              Lodge on the Rio San Juan
Cathedral in
Turtle at
              Playa La Flor