As I start this post it’s 2AM on a Friday night. I’ve opted to stay in, distracted – or dare I confess lost in editing photos from my recent trip through Zambia. I’ve got a half empty glass of 15 year old Scotch and find myself deeply effected by the faces staring back at me from the screen. Outside my 4th story window I can hear the sound of Danes diving headlong into the usual revelry and mayhem that marks a a carefree Friday evening here in Copenhagen. It’s an odd contrast to the scenes which slowly work their way across my computer screen.
It’s a strange thing really. These photos, some of them strangely personal each tell a story. Some may convey elements of that story more powerfully than others but each (at least when they’re in focus) is potent and resonates with me. True, there’s the added impact knowing I was there and because of that I can recall bits and pieces of the context they were taken in, but those are only abstract, fragmented shards.
These were photos taken in passing. Some were quite literally snapped out of the window of a moving car. Others such as those of young Zambian village children clowning for the camera were more personal and came with handshakes and exchanged smiles. Even in these cases though I was still in a transient state. In a few minutes, an hour, a day or two I’d be moving on once again to the next town, the next experience, and the next photo. This transient and disconnected sense was magnified in part by the language barrier. Though Zambia is technically an English speaking nation the children and adults in the villages where I took many of these shots only speak their local regional language, which in this case was Bemba. Culture also plays a large role and unfortunately so does race. As one of the only white people many of the children and some of the adults had ever met I was a novelty. Something exotic. Something interesting, but also something different….a curiosity. It bridged some gaps by drawing them to me, but created others steeped in generations of racially bound class warfare, and the simpler and more innocent challenges that come with early interactions with people who seem somewhat alien and different from us.
Still, as I think back on my time in Zambia language and race were not really the barrier. Sure, it was a great excuse and granted it’s difficult to get someone’s name or a piece of their story from a moving car…but I wasn’t always in a car. No, quite often I was there in the midst of a boiling group of Zambian youths eager for the excitement of interacting with a mzungu – a white man – and excited for the opportunity to see their photo on the camera after I had fired off a quick shot. Yet despite their openness, warmth, and glowing smiles I can only tell you a few names. I can’t tell you much about their stories, or almost nothing about their dreams. I can’t even tell you how old they were and tragically it’s quite possible that several of the wonderful, glorious people I met will die before the year winds to a close.
This was driven home recently by the following sorrowful message which my brother (who is a Peace Corps health volunteer and who we stayed with for several days) posted to facebook. It hit me hard because it brought to mind so many of the wonderful children I had met during our visit. The update noted,
“Well, Zambia wins the day again. 2 year old admitted to the clinic, who I saw this morning died this afternoon.
Dehydration from malaria infection that was treated too late. Another life claimed by poor transport and delay.”
This message came crashing home again tonight as I came to a photo of a young child. David (my brother) had just finished showing us the spot along the local stream where water is collected. We were walking back towards his hut when we came upon a small boy. He was shy, dressed in a yellow hoodie, jeans and nice shoes. In his hand he held a tattered piece of folded paper. As we approach he smiled and waved. We smiled, and waved saying “allo!” the local variation of hello. My brother leaned down and gently took the piece of tattered paper the child held. It turned out it was his health report card. Basically a chart to document his weight and nutrition over time. With a quick glance and a gesture he explained that though the child was doing much better now he was an orphan that had been taken in, and that when he was younger had suffered severe malnutrition and been terribly underweight which had stunted his growth. At the age of 2 this young child had already suffered more than most westerners do in 20 years and yet there he stood sheepishly smiling at us with a childish grin. It’s almost impossible to know as an outsider but I hope that based on the state and quality of what he was wearing (eg: the mere fact that he had shoes on), that he’s found a family to take care of him who can afford to get him the food and safe drinking water he needs. Ultimately though, it’s impossible to know – and I can’t help fear that the two year old David wrote about might have been him.
A few photos later I sat staring at another shot. This one was of a young child squatting in the dirt beside the road. In the photo he’s in a tattered beige shirt, black shorts and sitting sideways in profile. His right arm is resting on his knee and his left is lifted to his mouth chewing on something filthy. What it might be given the dirty field he’s perched in the midst of, I dare not guess. There’s what’s likely dried snot on his cheek, and what looks like a fly resting just below his left eye. His gaze is piercing. Powerful. The whites of his eyes clearly visible as he looks my way, face partially obscured by his hand. The photo echoes hints of Kevin Carter’s crushing photo of a starving young child collapsed in a field and being stalked by a vulture in the midst of S. Sudan. Carter’s photo rocked the world, but ultimately also embodied the suffering he had seen which eventually led to his suicide. Luckily the child in my photo and the photo itself is far less dire. Still, the photo resonates elements of that same bleakness and despair. The air of tragedy that goes with it embodies the sense of injustice and internal tragedy that accompanies seeing young children facing profound threats, challenges and harm. With this in mind and in light of the daily tragedies which mark life in many of these villages I find myself torn. On the one hand I know it has the power to resonate with people….to convey the risk and tragedy of deaths like that of the two year old David wrote about. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel it is also slightly disingenuous, insincere and a disservice to the wonderful Zambians I met to focus and convey almost exclusively these types of images.
You see, there were other moments – moments that I’m frustrated with myself for not capturing. These were wonderful moments which showed these same children at their very best. These were the moments which were profoundly inspiring. The moments when these kids would scrub away the caked on dust, set aside the tattered shirts and torn pants they had been wearing, and don their school outfits. Dressed in their school finery, these kids will sometimes walk for miles without complaint all for the chance to attend somewhere between 1 to 3 hours of school….if, that is, the teacher decides to show up to class. There’s a beauty to the way they carry themselves and their eagerness to learn. There is a pride and dignity which is part of what makes the Zambians I met so wonderful. It’s also a side of life in rural, impoverished Africa which you don’t usually get the chance to see when clicking through photos or reading reports from westerners discussing their visits.
At the end of the day it bothers me that I don’t know each person’s name or more about their story. It’s an odd feeling to know that even if I tried to seek out information about them, there’s no way I could find it. I also wonder how they would feel and respond to the way I’ve captured and conveyed them. Would they appreciate it? Enjoy it? Be angered? Embarrassed? I suppose what I’m really asking myself is, “how honest is this photo?”. Then there’s the what if side of it. What if I did learn their name, their story, and we spent days, weeks, or months together? At a certain level I’m not sure that’s an emotional weight I’m willing to bear and i’m still not sure if that’s a fact I am content to accept or if it’s something that shames me slightly. Then again perhaps despite it all it is the interaction or the moment itself which is what is valuable and important. I suppose in some ways it really is just enough to be there and to capture a moment which can be shared. At the end of the day though, there’s also a certain responsibility to be honest to the moment that comes with taking those photos. It’s a responsibility which isn’t widely discussed – oh, sure people talk about model release forms and the how to cover their ass in case they want to sell or publish the photo – but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something beyond that. Something far less certain. I suppose I haven’t really answered any questions with this post but perhaps, just perhaps, it will help you to better understand my photos, travel photography, and I hope your own experience as a photographer abroad.
If you’ve got any insights, reflections, or personal thoughts to share – I’d love to hear your take. For my part, the Scotch has run out and if I dally much longer I’ll be nose to nose with the rising sun.
You can read David’s blogs from Zambia at DavidBerger.net.