Speaking in hurried tones to a young 24 year old man who pushed his way to the front of the throng of children at our feet… softly he was telling us that “you're exploiting the children”…taking photos of them as they're hungry rushing and running over one another to get a piece of candy” and maybe on one level he may well have been right. Not about the exploitation but the scene did look similar to words on the statue of liberty… “their tired masses yearning to breath free”… there was something in his words that were worth paying attention to…
Never freelancing, we were working with the permission of everyone from the chief of the village to the subjects we were shooting and finally, we were wrapping the set in the late light and should have taken off to our guarded compound. However I took exception to his comments...it made me pause as we had just completed a few hours worth of portrait photography when the children, about as patient as they could stand it, became restless and so scores of them scrambled up next to us in hopes of being first in line to get a little bit of the candy we had on set. They were the same children that showed up the day before but we only had a few pieces so they were told to come back again today for a bit more. In the dust kicked up from the children’s feet, the failing light growing darker, it was clear that we only had a short amount of time left before it went completely dark. Admittedly, I wanted to make him see that he was wrong and even as staff tried to rush him away...I reached out for them to ease up, to let him go. He made a simple “accusation”...made in a simple way and while it didn’t feel like it belonged to me technically...it did however hit a cord in my heart and I wanted to hear what he had to say.
It triggered something inside which made me stand and listen to what he had to say. His voice and words felt sincere and I wanted to prove to him that it wasn’t that simple "to take care of everyone" and so instead of seeking the safety of the land cruiser I pulled him close to me with my hand outstretched in a sign of friendship…hoping that he’d take it of course and yet at the same time I became increasingly aware, from the looks on the faces of those watching from the edges, that all of this intensity could quickly unravel into something dark. Our compound was on the other side of the village and I didn't want my team cut off from the relative safety it provided - we were "on the streets" and we had to be careful...
Suddenly it came over me…to give him the candy. Yes! Give HIM the candy!! Let HIM figure it out…let HIM know what it feels like to not be able to help everyone and in that moment, on the edge of Lake Turkana, I found myself standing in a sea of outstretched hands – completely out of control, I was without a doubt...metaphorically in deep waters.
Yelling over the noise at the top of my voice I strained to give him his options, maybe futile but I became filled with a crystal clear message that I wanted him to understand, wanted him to know that I wasn’t part of “those” which come to town to buy souvenirs, complain and leave as quickly as they came, that I wasn’t here to take advantage of anyone. To the contrary. So I continued to push my point to Felix who was confused at best…obviously this wasn’t what he’d bargained for but “school was in”…for both of us really and we were both going to get something out of this - possibly a micro lesson in development maybe with this 3’ tall huddled mass of children at my feet...“yearning to breath free”…or at the very least to get some coloured starbust dreams from my pocket.
“I mean you’ve got all of the treasure now Felix”...all of the candy – here take it all!!…all of the multi coloured starbust dreams and so you’re the king now….you decide now who gets to eat and who goes home with an empty stomach…!!
Holding my hand up my fingers counted out his options as the “New King” in town.
1. You eat all of the candy yourself keeping your own world fat and happy!
2. You share the 10 pieces you have with your closest friends and just push the rest away by turning your back on them
3. You line everyone up for a bit of fun and a game to let them put their life of hardship on pause…and you throw it into the sky for all to have a chance at the starbust memory and you throw it all towards the sea and watch them run and push and shove each other with squeals of laughter and tears trying to get their hands on a piece of the prize just like children everywhere
So what do you want to do Felix…its all your decision now man…whatch gonna do!??
Not quite what he expected me to do …even defiant, Felix was hopeful that he could maybe do something impossible. He wanted to give a piece of candy to every child standing and jockeying for position in the dust…pushing and shoving, Felix was soon overwhelmed and was being swayed back and forth with the movement of the children’s desire, the candy high up on his chest and I stood back a few feet and watched, myself hopeful that the object lesson I just created on the fly wouldn’t backfire and end up hitting me along side the head in some way that I’d regret…
There was nothing fair about any of this…I looked to the sky…letting them see my intentions and let them go, hurling the purple people eater…the orange mango…the yellow banana rama….the strawberry koolaid…the pink flamingos, all of them a dream for a child in itself and I took aim, and with a pause before the rush, a pause before the outcry…I let them fly…one after the other they left my fingers like a baseball heading for the catchers glove in another world series bout with me as pitcher…
And with that they all ran away screaming and running pushing and shoving down the beach to chase down a dream of brightly coloured candies all lost in a sea of bare feet scurrying to find the prize buried in the beach sand. However they didn’t all go running towards the waters edge. One child…one small young child stood in front of me speaking wildly…her face contorted, her hands motioning for me to give her sibling, held high in her arms…a starbust dream….just one please!
I smiled a congenial smile – shaking my head “that the cupboard was bare, that there wasn’t any left…there was no room at the inn”…for the likes of her and her younger sister. The smiles on my own face gave way to the gravity of it all. Her frown, telling me in a perfect language that she was hungry...making me bow my head that I didnt have enough, not one left to give this little waif of a girl and so for her and her little sister I had nothing to give...nothing
But Felix I said…”what did you learn”…”what lesson did you take for your own today”. I wasn’t trying to be mean. I only had some 17 pieces of candy and the children knew from yesterday that we only had a limited amount of starbust memories…and those old enough understood the game and they accepted this, as we did, but what was the best choice Felix?
He stood in the twilight and looked at me like an expectant student who didn’t study his lessons last night, didn’t have any answers and was called on by the teacher….and so he waited for the lesson to be taught. I asked him “what was the best answer Felix” which is the best choice!? He was silent and as the group of men gathered around me we all wanted to know the answer which would soon slip from my lips
Well Felix, the lesson was that…“All of the choices were bad, all of them sucked Felix…there isn’t anything fair about it”
This...is the good work Felix.
And he smiled…thanked me…acknowledged that I was older than he was (that hurt) and shook his head that he is pained with all of this…that there is never ever enough to go around and never wants to be the one to decide ever again who leaves with a starburst coloured memory, a piece of bread, the grain or flour aid organizations dole out…or who will leave empty handed, forced to endure another day with an empty stomach
In this lesson the teacher was also the student.
It was me that learned the most that starry night aside Lake Turkana, that I also have a role to play out here, to pause from my own world to use my photographic skills to help serious integrity filled organizations raise awareness to issues both simple and complex. I can do this. I have done this and I will continue without abaiting
And maybe, just maybe…the most important part lesson I learned was that they just wanted to dream a dream filled with laughter…filled with smiles and a chance to be part of something fun, of something good, if just for the moments shared running along a distant beach at sunset…laughing with their friends.
The next time I pass this way again, and I will, I’ll have more than enough starburst coloured memories for lots of races for the children along Lake Turkana. The work continues and so does the chance to create good dreams filled with love and with the promise of good things yet to come.
This image portrays the immense burden that women, regardless of tribe, manage each and every day for their families survival and for some it provides a very humble means of income. In Meru, women have to deal with full sized trees instead of the lighter, high desert scrub which is found in the more Northern regions of the country. We guessed this load to have weighed over 90lbs considering that Scott, our resident Marine, couldn't lift the wood off the ground.
She had just walked over 2 miles and was nearing her home just up the road a ways where out of breath, sweating profusely, covered in tree clippings, wearing hand me down shoes and suffering from full blown Aids...she quietly smiled while dropping the burden to the ground and without stopping, without complaint she prepared for another journey to the forest and agreed to let us walk with her a ways.
I've created images for development and relief throughout East Africa for nearly 11 seasons now, applying my advertising skills and cultural insight for good, in producing images that will help support programs, to help them keep going and to help keep the money coming in which enables extremely important work to continue. It's a simple reality that without funding it all grinds to a halt which is particularly frustrating to me, it's personal...given that I meet a myriad of human conditions face to face, in tough places and at times I wish that..."if only they could see what I see"...they would be a foot soldier for life in trying to be part of the solution.
However, this project...The Paradigm Project...is very different from any that I've worked on.
Before I left the states on this latest journey, a series of discussions took place on just how to make this new body of work more effective, more strategic and yet equally intimate and to effectively give it a "signature" look and feel to the photography. Different in so many ways, it still came to life like so much of my work...through hard work and by being sensitive to the images playing out in front of me. A very well known photojournalist friend of mine instructed me long ago to "shoot from my gut"...that this will yield my best work...and he was right. It all took shape that hot afternoon in the back lot of a tumble down local hotel whose owner was serving “fresh goat meat and rice” to desert travelers while a usually unseen and typically humble group of Gabbra women...became part of…became partners with me...in raising awareness to the struggles of women in East Africa’s Kenya.
Straight, pure, devoid of manipulation, Richard Avedon’s timeless work in the "American West" project provided a degree of inspiration to me for which I'm grateful. It provided a role model if you will and helped me think through the best way to bring images of these women to life. On reflection this wasn’t the end of our journey…it was simply the beginning...
In what seemed like ages we were finished. In working through all of the women I noticed that the two youngest were missing and had gone home to eat. Due to their ages, I weighed bothering them for a brief moment yet in the end I sent part of our team to see if they’d return…if we carried their wood loads for them. A few minutes had passed before the Land Cruiser came around the corner with the two girls sitting in the front seat, wood stacked high on the roof rack with neighbors and strangers helping them with their wooden burdens, placing them once again on their backs. I was thankful for their helping us but the best way for me to show my appreciation was to get the images over as quickly as I could. They each stood in front of me…hot, tired and anxious…looking expectant and seeking direction on what to do. However, I deliberately gave them very little direction and although there was a language barrier they quickly seemed to settle into their own distinct look. I played my part and recorded the moments given to me.
As quickly as we started it was over, with everyone coming over to see the instant images of the young girls, passing "old school" Polaroids from hand to hand with all of them suspended and for that one brief moment they forgot about being thirsty or hungry. They laughed out loud together as if they were watching some kind of comedy show that they all understood and well…maybe that’s exactly what they witnessed that day. Regardless, all of the “actors” on both sides of the camera seemed to have enjoyed their moment on stage that day…
Pressure was on and I felt it…literally…sweating enough to cause salt crystals to form at my eyelids. I worked instinctually with the film driven camera system which is so odd these days with everything being digital yet it felt so familiar in my hands after so many years of depending on it and it wasn’t any different today. It came to life even though it was covered with a fine layer of red Kenyan dust with it’s motors emitting a squeal and a whine in trying to keep up with my demands with Polaroid flying everywhere, with directions and names being shouted out - assuming someone was writing it all down while I quietly watched one fragile yet enduring spirit after another take their place in front of me.
Humble with no words spoken and their mouths tightly clenched not really knowing what I expected of them or really what I was doing. They shifted their weight to and fro until I offered up a Polaroid for them to see themselves and like Alice in Wonderland they came alive, realizing that they may have never seen themselves before and never had any attention paid to them like this and for this they stood without complaint…wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Not very different from downtown USA anywhere really.
While the women were still a distance from town, I started to gather our team - breaking away from the gang of women to seek a background for what would be a formal portrait while they still have their loads on their backs. A half mile away, the town offered what seemed to be few choices until a washed out, soft aqua blue green wall caught my eye. As it happens out here, things can unwind quickly so I motioned for my driver to pull around the back of the building to be ready as the women arrive to town, asking him to see if we can get an OK from the owner of the hotel to use the wall.
All of this came together in the next 10 minutes as cases of equipment were thrown from the back of the truck to the ground in the yet still swirling dirt from the lurching land cruiser. Time wasn’t on our side today but with the location selected we started to instinctually set up the film camera system, decide about lighting and the myriad of details that go into making an image…all of which was the easy part. It’s the style of image that I needed to come to grips with and in quick order before the women arrived – assuming that the last thing they’d want to do is stand around in the noon day sun with 50lbs of wood on their back.
With time tightening, there was an old metal framed bed conveniently placed here for us I’m sure and so I pushed it out of the way to serve as our camera cart to get the gear off the ground and also to try and keep an eye on little fingers attracted to bright gleaming metal things as some 50 people began to literally surround my station as if to watch the circus that’s come to town. Well it didn’t take long for us to realize that while we were sorting out an exposure and pulling a Polaroid that well…the women all went home. Without pause, I asked the driver to see if they’d graciously come back as I needed their help one final time that day. Soon the women started to shuffle through the crowd, lumbering and sweating, their backs beginning to protest under the heavy loads they've carried back from the desert and now they stand and circle around me in silence...the smiles the songs and the laughter are all gone now, with heads bowed down they wait for me...
The long dirt track back to Torbi was perfect for a few stoic images of women walking alone in such a vast landscape and so I gathered this ad hoc group together and started to walk with them back to town. Again, working the scenes in front of me, trying very hard not to slow their pace as they were now under a heavy load. However, I found it refreshing that they still had the energy to have a laugh with one another about God only knows what although I assumed that much of it was at my expense, on second thought...I know it was at my expense.
Staying close together they slowly began to sing what could only be a work song with their newly added extra weight swinging back and forth across their backs like pack animals. Their rough hands bleeding at the knuckles from hard contact with unyielding wood…their dark brown skin freshly scratched and etched from wrist to shoulder all the while holding onto rope and the odd yellow plastic container which holds a small measure of cocoa brown colored water to drink on their way back to town. Yet through all of this they sing loud and pure of heart with little indication that they’re hurt or even feel pain anymore. All such emotion is lost in the abyss of communal toil where phrases such as “All for One and One for All” prove to be just lost western words in some movie somewhere.
In this desert wasteland, admittedly home to many of Kenya's proudest nomadic tribes...you'd find little comfort in the pain they feel each and every day from not having enough food to eat or water wells that have run dry. And if the relentless suffering from the elements isn't enough for you then the threat of getting caught in the crossfire of tribal blood feuds - the unending quest for revenge, surely must be. So the sorrows of life come fast, thrown at these desert dwellers by an unfair world and yet maybe the songs sung by the women this day contain wisps of hope that maybe together…together…if only for just one moment we can get through anything...if we just stick together.
The women soon scattered around the high desert and so I divided our photographic coverage up with me going one way and Scott going the other. Without a doubt the women were working hard although it became apparent that they had much smaller loads to carry, much smaller pieces of wood in size and weight to gather and a much shorter distance to walk back home by virtue of their desolated outpost. No city or freeway to navigate nor free roaming elephants to worry about.
Soon they started to bundle the wood, providing me with graphic details of the materials they use such as the heavy ropes and crude axes…Their scarred hands with bejeweled fingers tying and twisting lengths of hemp to secure the load before lifting it to their shoulders. With the muffled groans of people enduring physical labor filling the air, I’m aware to not overspend my welcome. Instead I try to work at the edges quickly without engaging them to try and balance the needs of the project with the need to stay out of the way....not to push them too hard. I’m skilled at making the best images possible at a particular moment yet to be culturally sensitive and constantly aware. I need to know when to lift my camera, when to watch and when to walk away…all while constantly assessing the composition to capture images that mean something…images which aren’t disposable…
I shoot at the edges without my subject paying too much attention to me…knowing I’m there but accepting me in their midst. And when it feels right…feels right…is right…I place myself in their personal space which is where you begin to find the heart of a strong composition. This type of photography is quick yet needs to be accurate. You need to know when to cut and leave so you don’t over work the scene or the subject. I’m not a photojournalist like some of my esteemed colleagues nor am I covering hard news. So I have the luxury of being sensitive to my subject’s needs or they simply, as they do without any hesitation, utter a few unknown words, turn and walk away. You literally have zero control. So to get any image, let alone a good one, can be extremely trying. The celebrated “decisive moment” type of image when elements come together like old friends on a country road are rare and at times just appear out of the blue…almost like gifts from on high…which means you have to remain “dialed in” to your subject