I’m in Myanmar most of this month, leading a National Geographic Photo Expedition and photographing for an NGO. It’s fascinating—I’ve been coming here since 2007 and the country is rapidly changing. I’ll write more about that about in a future post. One thing that hasn’t changed is that in Myanmar, just as in other places, you must often improvise to make good pictures.
Actually, you could make the case that photojournalism is largely about improvising and problem solving. At least, that’s what we photojournalists seem to spend most of our days doing. We find the stories, secure access to people and places, work out logistics; only then do we make pictures. When shooting an assignment, the problems we face depend on the needs of the client for whom we’re making the pictures.
With documentary photography, often the biggest problem is to deliver a publishable memorial picture without influencing the situation. When I began my newspaper career the documentary approach was very influential. You couldn’t move the furniture; you couldn’t tell the subject what to do or where to stand. Artificial lighting was suspect. The idea was to make pictures was with minimal intrusion.
I didn’t quite buy that approach. I always carried a small flash and I’d bounce the light from any available surface to add a bit more needed illumination. I liked what the eminent photojournalist, Eugene Smith said: “My attitude towards available light is that I use whatever light is available.”
These days, much of my work is for magazines and nonprofit organizations. Whether the need is a documentary-style image or something more illustrative, I have to produce the best possible picture that accurately tells the story and I’ll use whatever lighting I can to solve problems.
I had a Smithsonian magazine assignment on breeding cattle for the consumer meat market that was all about improvision. I was told that much of the work would take place in a barn. I anticipated I would have to light the situation to get the necessary pictures
I am not what you’d call a heavy lighter. I prefer to work with whatever ambient sources available— daylight, florescent, incandescent, sodium vapor–and use Speed lights placed strategically around the subject to create emphasis. My lighting kit is four SB-800s, a couple of softboxes and umbrellas, Omini-Bounce domes and a few light stands.
For the Smithsonian job, I flew to Dallas, then drove four hours northwest to a small cattle ranching community. After a quick scout of the ranch, I realized that four Speedlights wouldn’t be enough. I’d imagined the barn to be a wooden structure with light filtering in through doors and windows. In reality it was a huge construction shed, with high ceilings, metal walls and no windows.
Maybe daylight would help. The barn had two large double doors opening to the outside and an overcast sky would give me some nice soft light. Unfortunately the day was bright and sunny, and the open doors admitted a glaring shaft of daylight that cut right across the work area, creating a situation that was impossible to balance with the dark interior.
I ran tests for my original plan to mix Speedlights with the barn’s dim sodium vapor lights, but I wasn’t getting results that I liked and my four Speedlights didn’t have the power to replace the sodium vapor lights.
Well, if the lights won’t suit the original plan, I’d change the plan and work on a smaller scale to get the photos I needed. The cattle would be herded through a series of pens and gates, ending up in a chute that closed like a large clamp around the animals and immobilized them while they were branded and ultrasounds were performed on inseminated females to check the health of their fetuses. I’d photograph the animals while they were in the chutes; that way I’d limit the area I had to light.
I hung two speed lights upside down over the chute to backlight the animals. The branding irons were cooled with dry ice and the lights emphasized bursts of steam released by the irons as they touched the animals. Away from the scene I set a third light with an OmniBounce on top, on a stand to light up the area where the branding equipment was placed. I held the fourth SB-800 in my hand, off camera, to light up the cowboy doing the work. This Speedlight triggered the other three SB-800s, as all were set for wireless remote. The situation was a bit tricky since the cowboys naturally wore cowboy hats that shadowed their faces, and I had to continually move my handheld strobe to illuminate them.
This setup gave me a good picture of the activity, but the background remained dark. I wanted more of a sense of the place, and providing that required more light than I had with me. I asked the ranch manager, “You wouldn’t happen to have any floodlights?”
Luck was with me. The ranch had a couple of large commercial flood, the kind often used for night road construction. I placed one of them behind the chute area, bounced one of its heads off the ceiling to light the background and aimed its other head at the back of the chute to provide just enough rim lighting to make the images interesting. It wasn’t the slickest lighting job, but I liked the drama the floods gave the scene.
I had to guess at my exposures for the floods, but with digital I was able to see the scene immediately and make necessary adjustments to exposure and white balances to handle the mix of flash, glaring daylight, overhead sodium vapor and halogen floodlights that comprised my improvised “available” light
For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.
Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.
Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them. I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.
An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture. With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer. Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.
I had to check my ego at the door. For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me. When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions. Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer. I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given. So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.
I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.
The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel. The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.
Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories. When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive. Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.
I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane. Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda. As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.
Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.
I’m on my way to lead an amazing Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic. With a major snow and ice storm coming up from the south, I feel lucky to be escaping to a warm and beautiful location. While I’m traveling I’ll be uploading a few historical columns I wrote for Nikon Magazine before that publication folded a few months ago.
Here are my other expeditions and classes for this this year:
An additional Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic on November 11-13, 2014. If you’re interested in improving your photography, this amazing country provides a great place to hone your skills. http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts
Over the Christmas and New Years holidays I will be leading a photo expedition to Antarctica, again for National Geographic. I’ll do two expeditions back to back: Dec. 18-Dec. 31, 2014 and Dec. 28. 2014 to Jan. 10, 2015. This will fulfill my dream of visiting Antarctica. I can’t believe that I will be able to spend the holidays in such an amazing place. We will celebrate on ice!! http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/antarctica-cruise/experts
If you’re a college student interested in going to Vietnam and Myanmar and get six college credits at the same time, you should sign up for a travel abroad course that I am teaching for George Mason University called “Visualizing the Post Conflict World, Vietnam and Myanmar.” As a student you’ll participate through experiential learning, interacting with families and communities while traveling through a post war environment. You’ll do a multi-media project for your final grade. I am the academic director for this four-week program, which is sponsored by George Mason University. It’ll be an amazing experience. Travel is May 22 to June 18, 2014. GMU Center For Global Education: Visualizing a Post Conflict World http://globaled.gmu.edu/programs/facultyled/summerstudy/south-east-asia.html
George Washington University will again offer my two-week photojournalism class for high schoolers as a key feature of their pre-college summer program. I created this program nine years ago and have had a great time teaching it, learning as much from my students as I hope they learn from me. Photojournalism: Media in Focus introduces students to photojournalism in the DC area, giving them the opportunity to sharpen their photography skills while producing an exhibit and a class photo booklet. The class is scheduled from July 13 to July 25, 2014. https://precollege.gwu.edu/photojournalism-media-focus
The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.
The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.
It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.
The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.
Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.
My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.
Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army. With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.
Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world. It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?
Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”
It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.
So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met? The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.
Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.
Three years ago I traveled through southern Sudan. I arrived in July, five months before an election that would establish the new country of South Sudan.
Catholic Relief Services, who maintained a steady presence in the region during a half century of violent engagements, sent me to Sudan. The last Sudanese civil war lasted from 1983 to 2005. Nearly 2.5 million people were killed and over 4 million were displaced. With this violent history it took great faith to believe that peace could be achieved.
My photographic mission was both simple and complicated. I was to photograph peace.
On the surface this seemed straightforward. In my opinion, peace meant living without fear. Women could go to wells for water without fear of being brutalized, children could go to school with confidence and farmers could work their fields without being attacked or killed. In other words I was to photograph normal life.
But in a region shadowed by years of warfare, tribal distrust and hatred, life was not so easy.
As a journalist who has photographed post-conflict situations for many years, my view of situations like southern Sudan was a bit jaded. Societies emerging from conflicts often do so by taking baby steps, only to often stumble backward when larger steps are attempted.
But towards the end of my journey through southern Sudan, I met a man whose overwhelming sense of hope helped me to see that so long as there is hope there is also opportunity for goodness to prevail.
Meeting Paulstino Jada was a chance encounter.
Accompanied by CRS members I had navigated through a swamp of muddy roads before reaching the village of Palotaka to document a health program. On the way I stopped at a church run decades ago by Italian priests. I was intrigued to encounter what had once been an elegant building—now badly deteriorated—in this remote corner of the country. I had to go iA visitor looked inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict had scarred the building.
Soon the church’s manager—the catechist—a thin man in worn clothes, arrived with the key. This was Paulstino Jada. There are probably many people like Jada—unsung individuals who keep communities together and live their lives as best they can under unbearable circumstances. Known only to their families and neighbors, they will never win a peace prize, appear on Oprah Winfrey or be interviewed by the New York Times. Yet what they do defines our humanity.
As Jada showed me through the church, I could feel a powerful energy surrounding this man. I asked him about his life.
He had grown up in the village and attended the church when it was still grand. Then the conflict started. During Sudan’s civil war the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan terrorist group taking advantage of the conflict’s chaos captured him. He was tortured but remained prayerful. Jada said the LRA eventually asked him to be their spiritual leader but he refused. Finally escaping, Jada returned to his village, where he served the church and tried to keep the congregation together.
I’m not sure how much of Jada’s account was fact and how much was fiction, but at least he believed it and that belief sustained him as the church began deteriorating around him. Jada said that other enemies had tried to drop bombs on the church six different times, but all of them missed. When the bombings started Jada told the congregation to stay inside the church and God would protect them. Later, villagers showed me nearby depressions where the bombs supposedly landed.
Jada said that when the Italian priests left a priest from Magwi, a town four to five hours away, was assigned to the congregation. Yet with nearly impassable roads and travel limited by continual conflicts, his visits were few. Years would pass, Jada said, without seeing the priest from Magwi.
I asked Jada why he continued to manage the church without any financial support. His response was simple. As the church’s catechist he felt it was his responsibility to keep the congregation going, preserving hope that the Church leaders in Juba would eventually send a full time priest to them. Jada hoped that the forthcoming elections would accelerate their decision.
I was impressed with his perseverance in this difficult situation but I think it was his hope that moved me the most. Even as we spoke a part of the church’s ceiling fell to the floor about forty feet from us. If it had fallen on us or on the people around the church kneeling in prayer we could have been badly hurt. Perhaps there is some truth about the power of hope.
As a journalist my own profession is in decline. Many of my friends have lost their jobs. Freelance work is decreasing. Sometimes I lose hope and fall into a dark well of despair. But meeting someone like Mr. Jada brings perspective to such concerns. Jada thinks that keeping hope alive will make change happen. Is that naive? Perhaps, but then, what’s wrong with naiveté? That doesn’t make his story any less powerful, at least to me.
My life is not comparable to Jada’s. He lives on the edge. Each day he struggles to feed his family, to collect clean water for them to drink, to keep them safe from the political unrest all around them.
I won’t starve if I don’t get another assignment. I may need to change my profession or rethink my strategy, but my situation is not life threatening. As a privileged individual who can move freely and live without constant fear of physical harm, I feel it is my duty to pass on the sense of hope and perseverance that Jada conveyed to me. Telling his story is a small way to repay his gift of inspiration.
As a journalist it’s easy to get wrapped up in chaos—the big pictures of conflict, poverty and despair. Yet within those big pictures, individual dramas of great power and meaning can be witnessed. One has only to be still for a moment to see people like Mr. Jada.
South Sudan did become a country. People optimistically celebrated the birth of this newly formed nation. Sadly conflict continues there. I often wonder if we humans are hard wired to solve our differences with violence. It takes great faith and courage to meet an adversary face to face without a weapon in hand. Most people are not that brave.
Three years after my time in south Sudan I wonder if Mr. Jada and his small congregation still wait for a priest to arrive. Has he kept the bright flame of hope alive during this long time of darkness? I hope that his light will never burn out.
I’ve watched as the recent antics of our endlessly bickering Congress nearly drove the country over a cliff. Putting aside the political differences—which will always be there—this whole sad business made we wonder what has happened to qualities like friendship and loyalty, but especially for concern about those who are outside of one’s immediate group.
If the behavior of our government is any guide, we seem to be having a lot of trouble seeing another person’s point of view. We don’t seem to be able to connect very well.
We’re bombarded with messages about how networks and gadgets will help us better connect and communicate—as long as we do so in less than 140 characters. Yet most of what is touted as communication in this manner seems to me like noise—brief and banal distractions, that perhaps erode the time needed to make deep and meaningful connections with other people.
This matters to me because connecting seems to be part of my DNA.
As a photographer I’ve spent most of my life traveling around the world, meeting strangers and establishing connections with them to tell a story. As a wife and mom, when I return home, I plunge back into the lives of my family. I meet my friends for lunch or coffee. As a freelancer, I try to touch base with colleagues and editors (who increasingly seem to be reachable only by text, email, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform two kids in a Silicon Valley garage are still dreaming about—anything to avoid talking on the phone.)
Yet for me, connecting is all about talking—really listening to what someone has to say over a period of time. That seems to me that catalyst that can move a relationship from “connection” to “friend.” I take my friends seriously. As I get older, I realized that I’ve had friends for as long as I’ve been alive, whether from my childhood, college years, post-college volunteer work, or my newspaper days at the Virginian Pilot Newspaper.
This year I visited Scotland and reconnected with old friends who I had met on an archeology dig years ago when I was still in college. I now measure my friendships in decades, not years.
My great regret is not keeping in touch with more of the many wonderful folks I’ve met along the way. Whether or not I’ve felt an assignment succeeded has to do with the quality of the pictures I bring back of course. But mostly I’ve felt that success has to do with whom I’ve met and whether or not I was able to make connections with anyone. My biggest thrill is being invited to someone’s home for dinner. When that happens I feel like I’ve hit the social jackpot.
Over the past decade, the editorial photography business that I once imagined that I’d retire from from has been changing rapidly. Editors are being downsized or seeing the handwriting on the wall and departing on their own. Media companies no longer find value in maintaining staff photographers or experienced photo editors. Everyone is a contractor now. Few editors with whom I worked over the past two decades are still employed where I first met them.
So I wasn’t really surprised when Nikon World editor Barry Tannenbaum called me last week to let me know that I had written my last column for him. Nikon was shutting down their premier trade magazine. Phone cameras were eating up their small camera market and the company had to make cuts.
What did surprise me my reaction.
It didn’t trouble me too much that I lost my regular column-writing gig due to downsizing. Instead, I was filled with sadness that I had lost a friend. This may sound strange, since I’ve never actually met Barry. I don’t even know what he looks like.
Yet whenever a column was due, we’d chat on the phone, talking through what I could write about. Then the call would evolve into our thoughts on world events, observations about the photography industry, life in general and even my concerns of trying to raise good children in this crazy world. Stuff that friends talk about. Barry, an editor from the old school, knew that talking often leads to new ideas. Our conversations about one column frequently gave birth to another. Conversation is a creative and productive tool. Sadly, not many editors make time for that anymore.
Once my conversation with Barry ended I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next column was due. Twice each year I could count on him calling and telling me, “Karen, it’s time for the next column.”
Our professional relationship may have ended, but I hope to keep those wonderful chats with Barry going—that we stay connected. As a way to remind me of that, I’m reprinting one of my (now historical) Nikon columns called “Diplomatic Relations” from winter 2013. I’ll reprint others from time to time.
The first time I visited Sierra Leone I got arrested. If I’d been covering conflict or a corrupt government, I might have expected that result, but I was there to document the work of a Centers for Disease Control medical team. My coverage was part of a National Geographic assignment on viruses, and the CDC team was combating an outbreak of Lassa fever, the close cousin of the Ebola virus.
Sierra Leone’s civil war had already begun, but the CDC team was confident of their safety. I covered them treating patients and analyzing disease carriers, like mice, but I also needed scenic pictures to set the story’s location. Accompanied by two team members, I boarded one of the team’s trucks, which featured the Lassa fever logo, a large outline of a mouse, and we headed into the countryside so I could photograph the surrounding land and villages. There were checkpoints on the road every mile or two, but they were no problem—the guards saw the logo and waved us through. Then at one checkpoint I saw a lovely mountain, and one of the staff members said I should photograph it. My instincts, which I’ve since learned to listen to very carefully, told me that taking pictures near a checkpoint was not a good idea, but being young and inexperienced, I thought that being a photographer meant never being afraid to take a picture.
So I raised my camera, and within moments I was looking down the surprisingly large barrel of an AK-47 pointed at me by a very young soldier who was yelling at me and my CDC companions. He herded us into the front seat of our truck, then climbed into the back, still pointing his weapon at us. We drove to a police compound. I knew this was a very unstable situation; people, including Americans, had already been randomly shot and killed. The soldier ordered the CDC staffers inside; I was told to stay in the truck. For two hours I could hear periodic shouting from inside the building. Finally the police commander arrived and we were allowed to leave.
We drove back to the CDC compound in silence, aware of how lucky we had been. Last year, 20 years after that incident, I returned to Sierra Leone when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offered an assignment to photograph their maternal health, food and education programs. CRS had operated in Sierra Leone for 50 years and was one of the few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that didn’t abandon the country when it deteriorated into war.
The war ended in 2002, leaving 50,000 dead and thousands more maimed. I was happy to take the assignment; I wanted to see how the country had changed. Twenty years ago, well-armed men inspected my bags at the airport. One suggested I might share some money with him. I said, indignantly, “Bribery is illegal in Sierra Leone.” He laughed, but waved me through. On the 2012 trip, I had CRS’s photo editor with me, and when we landed, the customs people immediately started hustling him for money. Well, I thought, some things can be slow to change.
The country was on a massive roadbuilding spree, yet few of the roads were finished. We drove mainly on dirt roads in various stages of construction. We traveled east to Kenema, the town where I’d worked on my first visit. I saw Chinese and Korean crews, grading and paving roads to connect the larger towns and the mines that dotted the countryside. There was an air of chaos around the projects. Traffic often swarmed alongside the road machinery, carving deep ruts in the carefully graded roadbeds, delaying paving efforts. Runoff from the roadwork spilled into ponds and wetlands, turning water to red mud. The new roads and power lines rarely reached the many small villages we visited.
The people in those villages live on very little. They grow rice that’s eaten with green leaf vegetables cooked in palm oil. If they’re lucky they’ll have fish; sometimes a chicken is killed. If electricity is available, it’s a luxury that few can afford. Almost no one has running water. Some villages have pumps to draw water from wells, but most villagers walk miles to get a bucket of water that probably is not safe to drink by western standards.
Yet despite their tragic past and intense poverty, most Sierra Leoneans are amazingly friendly to strangers. In each village I felt welcome. Of course, I was working with a respected NGO that had proven itself to the people by not leaving the country when the political situation became dangerous, but I remembered that same warmth from 20 years earlier. While friendliness is a gift for a photographer, gifts often come at a price.
When the villagers learned of the CRS team arriving to photograph a program, everyone wanted to be part of the scene, and at almost every location I encountered friendly chaos. Groups of people moved towards me, seeking my camera’s attention.
If I shifted to the right, the group shifted with me. Without intervention, every photo I shot would have shown 20 people or more crowded in front of my lens. My job was to get good pictures, but I didn’t want to insult anyone. Whether to a village, a clinic or a project, access depends on good relationships developed by the hosting organization with the community leaders. It’s extremely important to keep that relationship going.
I photographed an innovative program bringing in traditional birth attendants to assist and take the pressure off the nurse, who was juggling multiple responsibilities.
The program provides income to the attendants, who in turn encourage women in their communities to visit the clinic. I envisioned warm, loving pictures of a kindly birth attendant working with the nurse and helping women who had just given birth. When I arrived, the nurse was there—and so were all 12 of the birth attendants in the program. They all wanted to participate, trying to crowd into every situation that I photographed.
At one point four of them converged on a woman who was having labor pains. Surrounding her, they stayed focused on my camera, smiling at me as they walked her to the birthing room. To manage the situation, I divided the dozen into smaller groups and asked each to do different tasks in different parts of the clinic. Eventually, with patience, smiles and an enormous number of group shots, I got my work done.
This kind of experience is not unusual when working with NGOs. The challenge is to deal with a chaotic situation while preserving good relations and staying focused on making the good pictures that will show off the programs to donors and others interested in the good work being done; to be not only a photographer, but something of a diplomat as well.