Zambian Village Life – Friday Travel Photo

Faces of Zambia

This photo was taken along the Zambia/DRC border in Luapula Provice, northern Zambia. Connecting with my brother who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in the region we stopped at another volunteer’s village for lunch. As we got acquainted, listened to her amazing stories and were introduced to her neighbors and the local village kids life casually went on around us. It was a beautiful opportunity to observe and experience a taste of Zambian village life. The Zambians were incredibly warm, hospitable, and incredibly respectful. The children were curious, shy, and always beaming brilliant smiles.

While there is no doubt that they lack many of the common niceties we enjoy – running water, electricity and all the creature comforts that go with it – they had a lust for life, and a richness that most of us are sorely missing.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 55-250mm lens.

A Photographer’s Late Night Musings

Zambia's Children

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.

Obama Tshirt in Zambia

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.

Photo by David Berger

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.

 

Trip Update: Off to Africa and Back Through Europe

David on an Elephant in Zambia

Ack! Where’s this week’s Ask Alex?  In light of my impending departure early next week I’ve opted to swap out this week’s Q&A with a quick update about what I’ll be doing for the next month and a half.  Needless to say, I’m super excited about the upcoming trip though you probably haven’t heard me talk about it much here on the site.

On July 3rd I’ll be throwing an odd assortment of stuff into my backpack before setting off for London where I’ll be re-connecting with my folks.  It has been just under a year since I left Arizona and moved to Denmark and this will be the first time we’ve been able to see each other since my move.  After connecting in London we’ll jump a long flight on Emirates down to Dubai where we’ve scheduled an extended layover. After all, it would be a shame to pass through the famous (infamous?) city without pausing to see what all the talk is about and to take a peak at the Burj.  After a bit over a day and a half in the city we’ll re-board our flight and continue the 2nd 7 hour leg (ouch) to Lusaka, Zambia. Wait, Zambia?  Yep! Zambia!

Why Zambia?  Well, as it turned out my brother and I decided to make it really easy on our folks.  Out of the blue we both decided to head abroad for two years.  For me it was a 2 year Masters Degree here in Denmark.  For my little brother, David (pictured on the Elephant), it was a 2 year commission in the US Peace Corps.  Happy but hard news for any parent, right?  To make matters worse we both left within 3 days of each other….and haven’t been home since.  As it turned out David got deployed to Zambia where he has been assigned as a health volunteer in the country’s far north, just outside of Mansa along the border with the Congo. For those of you who are about as familiar with Africa as I was before his deployment, it’s actually a pretty good gig.  Unlike many of the countries in the region (here’s looking at you Congo) Zambia has experienced relatively competent management and been largely peaceful since the Brits pulled out a few decades ago.

Now that he’s a year into his 2 year commitment he finally has some time to explore.  So, instead of letting him wander around aimlessly, we’ve decided to get the band back together and to make him play tour guide.  After all, who better to introduce us to things like dehydrated caterpillars, termites, and other local culinary delights?  We will be in Zambia between July 8th and August 3rd.  During that time we’ll be visiting Victoria Falls (which is the last of the big three for me, I’ve already done Niagra and Iguazu), jumping into Botswana for a mini safari, seeing his village, wandering about aimlessly and doing a world class photo safari with Shenton Safaris and when I say world class, I mean it!  It’s going to be our first time in Africa and I’m incredibly excited.  It will also be my first trip that far off the traditional grid.  About the most  rural trip I’ve done previously was to parts of Guatemala, but we still had two niceties which will be lacking during parts of the Zambia leg of our trip – running water and electricity. Oh, and flushing toilets.  I’m already practicing my squats.  No small feat for my 6’4″ (193), 200 pound build.  I’ve already decided I need to do FAR more yoga.

On August 2nd we’ll be forced to undergo a tear-filled goodbye as we leave David behind and let him get back to work.  The folks and I will just be getting warmed up, however, as we’ll head straight from Zambia to Prague, across to Berlin and then up to Edinburgh by the 11th of August.  Once there I’ve signed the folks up for a 6-day backpacker themed tour which will see the three of us in a small 16 person bus wandering our way through the Scottish Highlands, over to the Isle of Skye (with a stop at the Old Man of Storr), past a few ancient standing stones, and then up and across to the outer Hebrideas to explore the Isles of Harris and Lewis. Don’t worry, we’ll likely also pause at the Tullibardine Distillery for a wee bit of Scotch.

By August 20th I’ll be back in Copenhagen and furiously working on getting photos and posts written to share the adventure with you all.  In the meantime, however, I’ll be posting updates where possible to the VirtualWayfarer Facebook Page and my twitter account.  I’ve also scheduled a number of fantastic posts about Italy and Turkey to keep you busy in the meantime!   You can also learn more about what my brother is doing in Africa and his past adventures and observations on his blog DavidBerger.net.

It’s going to be quite the adventure and a startling contrast between incredible cultures and completely opposite climates.  I can’t wait and look forward to sharing it with you all!  Also, keep in mind that later this year (in October), I’ll be following this trip up with another to Churchill, Manitoba to partake in a 3 day polar bear watching tundra excursion thanks to the Canadian Tourism Board.

Lot of amazing adventures and stories to share with you over the following few months.  As always, I treasure your feedback and the time you take to following the blog.  If you have a special request, question or some advice to share please don’t hesitate to let me know!

Cheers!

-Alex