The Long and Winding Road

To me it doesn't matter much whether you're black or white, male or female, rich or poor: becoming a photographer is no easy task. Beyond the glamour and excitement of living a roaming and freelance lifestyle, the journey is all too often painful, thankless, heartbreaking..

This blog is a discussion of my journey as I develop my career within this industry. As well as discussing what I am currently up to, I'll write about some of the things that I wish I'd known when I was getting started.

Hopefully this may provide a short-cut around some of the obstacles that could have taken me months or even years to work around and understand, as well as give a realistic insight into the highs and lows of the day-to-day life of a documentary photographer.

Creating Opportunity

A view over the channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Western Uganda.

A view over the channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Western Uganda.

The past week has been great. I’ve been shooting a ton and have been pretty much constantly on the move since leaving Nairobi. I’m currently in Western Uganda which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The countryside landscape is an inexhaustible, endless cascade of hills, forests and villages painted with the deepest, lush hues of green, blue, black...

Dreamy reality came to a halt yesterday however when I reached the boarder to DRC. This trip was a pretty impromptu one and as such, I hadn't thought about every stage of the journey in great detail. It only just occurred to me the day before that I hadn't actually sent off for a visa in advance to get myself into DRC. Having crossed over from Kenya to Uganda by simply paying for one on the boarder I thought I'd just do the same when I reached the next boarder. Of course with DRC they're a little tighter with entry and you need to apply for a visa at your embassy and receive an invitation before you decide to waltz in. So when the boarder control wouldn't dance I was turned right around. But not before losing ten dollars to a guy at immigration for a reason I still haven't quite gotten my head around. I don't speak French very well. I'm an idiot.

So yeah I've fucked up and I have just under a week before I need to start turning back to Nairobi so I can catch a flight out to Ethiopia. 

However despite my slip-up yesterday, I’d say the trip has been a fairly good success so far. I’d set out to capture the communities and people surrounding the Trans-African Highway and have had some good luck in running into new people who want to show me around and take me to some of the spots that I may not otherwise have found on my own.

I want to talk about a couple of these run-ins and how I’ve used them to my advantage in providing me with a decent photo opportunity. Of course everyone works differently when it comes to shooting a photo story so this isn’t the secret formula to creating one successfully. This is just how I do things. Maybe someone out there might be able to make use of the info and adapt it to their own personality, shooting style and goals etc.

So being a white westerner can be a bit of a curse when shooting in Africa. Given the option, I’d sooner be a fly on the wall and simply have a chance to frame up a shot and shoot without being noticed. Since I’m in rural Africa however, that simply isn’t possible.

Often being the only white guy in a village or town (in the past few days at least), I’ll be spotted from a mile off and have every other set of eyes on me as I walk through the street. Moreover anyone that might not have noticed me will be alerted by the cries of ‘mzungu, mzungu!’ from any child within eyeshot of me. It can be incredibly irritating when you just want to be left alone and ignored and makes getting out a camera impossible without someone staring directly down the lens at you.

With that said, over the past days I’ve found that all the attention has really helped me out.

Kenyans and Ugandans are painfully friendly and inviting. They show genuine care, interest and affection towards people that you don’t see in many other parts of the world. As a result, when I’m passing through and going through countless greetings and handshakes and waves, I’ll often be called over. ‘I want to greet you!’ is a phrase that I often hear.

While it may be tempting to continue on my way since the attention can certainly be exhausting, I’ll always take them up on their offer.

Many exchanges will be short, sometimes awkward, sometimes clumsy, sometimes rabbling and time consuming, however there are others where I’ll simply take an immediate liking to someone and decide to stick around for a bit.

I was in Nakuru a few days ago. I’d just organized a camping spot for the night but was a little bummed out since the site was a little rough around the edges and it was already getting dark. I’d made a decision that I was going to spend the evening writing and editing on my computer at the campsite’s bar. Since the food didn’t look particularly special there, I headed out to find something quick and cheap elsewhere.

It wasn’t long before I found myself in Nakuru’s ‘Ghetto’ (apparently named Flamingo Phase II) and was called over to someone. The guy, Jeremiah, was around my age and I could smell the spirit on his breath as I was shaking his hand. He wasn’t too far gone and his English was good. It turned out he’d studied for a several years in Malaysia. We had a couple of things to say about the day’s politics in America and before I knew it he was leading me around town. We stopped off to pick up 200mls of vodka. We had a couple of shots.

Since I’d explained to him I was a photographer he’d become hell-bent on having everyone stop and pose for me as we were walking around. He kept at the vodka.

We spent the next couple of hours wandering around alleys and streets in this ghetto. Save for the mix of tungsten and halogen in the sparingly spaced street lamps, the night was black.

As he continued to drink he’d ask me with a greater frequency whether I wasn’t a member of MI5 who’d come to kidnap him. I couldn’t get to the bottom of what it was that he knew or had done that would be of such interest to her majesty, but as the arc of his swagger became more pronounced I decided to call it a night.

While the ending of our encounter may not have been particularly smooth, the fact that this guy had taken it upon himself to lead me around the slum for a couple of hours while I shot meant that I ended up with a few selects that I wouldn’t have even tried for before. While this area was clearly not particularly dangerous, having a local with me certainly gave me the confidence to take out my camera and stop to take the time to line up a shot rather than sheepishly blurting out a frame in the hope that I’d get it in one.

Another thing I’ve been heavily reliant on is bars.

Aside from the space it provides for quiet contemplation as I ask myself why it is that I’m still not even earning enough money to start paying back my student loan, the place is a great spot to strike up a conversation. Moreover they’re great because they give you an excuse just to sit and be in a space in close proximity to local people for as long a period as you need.

Just yesterday I’d found myself in this town, Ishaka in the South-West of Uganda. Despite sitting at the connecting point of three highways, the place feels a little remote. I’ve had a difficult time finding a wifi connection out here and there’s little sign that many people pass through who aren’t from the area (turns out my initial impression was wrong however and that there’s actually a university here).

It was stiflingly hot when I arrived at around three in the afternoon and I was trying to figure out what my plan was after I’d checked into my guesthouse.

I just started walking. I wanted to get off the main highroad so I started wandering into the allure of the surrounding countryside.

About an hour into my walk I was called over by bunch of guys who’d started drinking too early into the afternoon (I see a pattern emerging). I sat with them. This turned out to be one of the more pointless exchanges so I quickly parted. No less than 30 seconds down the road, however, I heard the click of a pool ball. I’m a fan of the game so I figured it might be worth stopping by at the bar from where the noise had come.

I put down some money for a game and proved my worth to the guys around the table as I won my first two.

Instead of taking my third game I offered it up to someone else, excusing myself saying that I was a photographer and wanted to take a couple of pictures in the place while the light was good. By this point everyone at the place was used to my presence so I was free to shoot without restraint.

I’ve been going through the shots this morning and honestly can’t make up my mind about selects – there are too many of them.

Had the pool table not been there and had I not been interested in taking photos in this bar, it’s still easy enough to get people comfortable with you in a place like this. Once you’ve exchanged a few smiles and mentioned Man United or Chelsea (I’m not even a football fan) then conversation with the right person will often shape the rest of your evening. In two other encounters I’ve had at bars on this trip I’ve had guys sort me out with accommodation, show me around their city, sort me out with a Ugandan SIM card – it goes on.

Of course, it’s not always the case that you’ll be in a place where the locals and people around you will take so much interest in you. If you’re a shooting a project close to home or in a place where you blend in, you’ll most likely have to work a little more to get talking to people if that’s your intention. I think the message to take from this post is to be mindful that opportunities to shoot or to integrate with people when you are an outsider have the potential arise from anywhere. However as easy as they can be to find, they can be just as easily forgone if you don’t make the decision to put yourself in a position where they can become fruitful.