Monday, August 31, 2009

Fisherman, Malecon, Havana, Cuba, 2008

So here I am, on the Malecon walking around like yet another tourist with a camera.

The clouds have rolled in, the winds have picked up. It's the end of the day, without my friend guiding me since one week ago, having decided mutually to end our working relationship of four or so years.

So here I am without a translator walking around with a camera. The idea is to gain eye contact with a subject and then gauge their interest. Just then a man fishing on a wall gives me a smile. I decide to sit down next to him and begin a conversation. He has caught nothing today and has decided to head back home early, the waves are a bit harsh.

I ask him for his portrait and he allows me. His fishing equipment is in his hands, as can be seen in the portrait. Today he lacks anything to place on the hook. We talk for about twenty minutes and then go our separate ways. This is a most gentle and serene man.

Tree, Field, East, Cuba, 2008

At times the work is difficult. On this visit to the eastern part of Cuba, the relationship between me and my friends is strained. They are photographers as well. Before my visit this year, we exchanged ideas and made plans to drive to the most eastern part of the island.

We had a deal, the car and transportation would be taken care of by me, as well as the film. They would arrange contacts in each city and arrange our photography as well, in addition to helping out with the driving.

As we head out of Havana, my friends tell me that they have never driven before. In addition, as we arrive at each city, their contacts are nowhere to be found. Agitation soon finds its way to the conversations, especially from my end. These are photographers after all, friends as a matter of fact. They out of all people, in my mind, needed to understand the importance of our time, precious little time.

Now and then, we take a break from the tension and stop by the side of the road for some landscape images. This is one of them, to the right of the road. It seems appropriate that faces are distant from me during this time, landscapes find their way to my lens.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Collecting the Film, Washington, 2009

Just came back from Washington, D.C. with the film from my latest visit to Lebanon. There are those that will question the use of film today?

There are others that will wonder as to the distance traveled for a good lab?

There are still others that wonder about the underlying value of the work?

Upon my return and seeing this single image, all would be worth it if just for this image.

She is an Arab living in Lebanon, with her home in Syria. She and her sisters work in the fields of Lebanon picking vegetables for less than $2 per day, for perhaps ten to twelve hours. When she returns home, a different kind of work begins.

Her work never ends.

So to drive twelve hours means infinitely less than what she goes through on a daily basis. The above questions fade away as her image comes into view.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Question of Why, Nirvanavan Foundation, India, 2008

Why should she allow us her portrait? What have we done for her to allow us this privilege?

Why has the world forgotten about her, used her older sisters to satisfy a primitive desire?

Why is prostitution her only choice, making a mockery of the word 'choice' even?

Does she have a reason to smile, a reason to dream of a better world?

Nirvanavan Foundation is working on all of the above. They are now in her village. A teacher from another town has come to provide lessons, books have been provided by generous people.

A little by little the world is becoming less hostile.

Perhaps she will give us a second portrait later this year. We will wait and see.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Baba, New Delhi, 2006

This man is left with another family by his own when he is five years old, in order to find a home for him and to provide an occupation. He serves his host family and becomes an integral part of it through his seventy years of service. As the head of the family tells me over dinner one night, 'Baba used to serve the family and now the family serves him.'

His name is Baba, meaning 'father.' He is treated as such and much more.

When photographing at a school in New Delhi, my eyes catch this most quiet man opening and closing the gate to the school, helping the teachers with their tasks now and then, giving the school an air of tradition. When asked to be photographed, he follows me without question to the street outside of the school. We find a white wall and then make his portrait as the sun strikes his face.

He has just met me and yet, in public and on the street, allows himself to be photographed without a single hint of discomfort, putting me at ease.

Two families watch as the portrait is made and then volunteer to have their portraits made. One portrait usually leads to another, such is the social nature of the work.

Student, MACODEF, Kenya, 2007

Today we go back to the school to photograph the smaller children. They have been waiting since we photographed the older ones one week ago. We arrive as the sun rises and they are dressed in their sweaters, just like the girl above this text.

They stand on a chair and I climb down into a ditch, giving me a perspective from below. One by one, they take their place in front of the camera, their names are written down by the good people of MACODEF as they do so.

They have little problem with staring into the direction of the sun. Some of them walk slowly to the chair, some walk faster, all of them take their tiny shoes/sandals off before stepping up onto the chair.

We finish and they run back into their classrooms, then the noise just fades away, being replaced by the sounds of learning, sweet sounds.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Living with HIV/AIDS, Woman, Western Kenya, 2007

So today the good people of MACODEF take me to a small house where about thirty women and a few men have gathered in anticipation of our visit. They come from different households and backgrounds but share one variable, living with HIV/AIDS.

While we usually arrive and set up the equipment shortly thereafter, this time around we sit down and listen to the stories of each person, one at a time. Here are thirty or so adults, with their children around them, telling a complete stranger the story of how they contracted the virus, of how they remember their spouses as the sources of this transmission and of how their children live with the thought of losing their remaining parent.

Some of the stories are translated, some are left in their language to be heard without translation.

There is a feeling of victory, of jubilation. These women see their tribulations as opportunities rather than obstacles. They have formed a group and through this unity have forged a way forward.

We step outside and make their portraits, first with their children and then on their own. They stand proud, just like the girl above, her mother living with HIV/AIDS and her father having passed away from HIV/AIDS. This is her story.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Islamic School, Dakar, Senegal, 2006

We disagree in the street for a few minutes, my guides and I. They tell me we must move on, people are talking. I tell them that the people in front of us want us to stay, to make their pictures. A man from the building behind us walks out and has a talk with one of the guides, he invites us into the building.

It happens to be an Islamic school. The negotiations begin and, as with the other schools, the people in charge want to see some form of payment before portraits are made. I remind them that my photography is made without monetary payment and I also remind them that they invited us into the school.

They talk it over for a few minutes and then decide to allow us to do our work. They are quite kind, show us the classrooms, show us the desks that are being made by hand in a courtyard, show us the plans for expansion and for growth.

We quickly arrange a place inside the courtyard, there is a white wall and the sun is setting quickly behind the wall of the courtyard. Portraits are made and made quickly. From a disagreement in the street to a quiet place inside a building, one never knows what will happen next.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Boy, Pigeons, Lebanon, 2009

He walks over with two pigeons, asks for his picture to be made. His two sisters watch while we take a minute to do so, even though it's the girls' turn to be photographed. He has come all this way with two pigeons after all. Later on in the week, he seems to have changed. Instead of holding pigeons, he is holding stones. For some reason, a reason that nobody seems to want to tell me, he is raising his voice and telling me to leave. The older boys take his words less seriously and tell me to continue with my work, even though we're doing it in front of his family's tent.

It's times like these when decisions are hard to come by. Do I listen to the local people, continue with my work and consider his words as they do? Or do I pack up and move on?

After we finish, we sit down for the usual three cups of tea. Tonight they inform me that it is considered rude to stop at one cup, two cups of tea being the minimum. The young boy is still lingering, since we are being served tea in front of his family's home. He is visibly upset.

After the tea, a few others want their pictures made and, while the sun is almost set, there is still some light behind the tent next to the tall grasses. We have some fun and make some spontaneous portraits. As we walk back and toward the street, I see him sitting down, with his face still upset.

I take a chance, kneel down and talk directly to him. I tell him to forgive me for upsetting him, to be happy with the photography and to let me make his picture. To my surprise, this smallest of attention makes him blush, smile and get up for his picture. His sisters laugh and it all ends well.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lebanon, August 14, 2009

On this day, the last of the photographs are given to the people. There is much commotion, much anticipation. They love the colors, since all of my portraits from before have been traditional black and white prints.

The excitement translates to a wonderful afternoon session.

The girls get ready, wash their faces, comb their hair, put their best clothes on, sometimes swapping pieces with their friends, putting flowers behind their ears.

In the past, the parents would pay little attention to the photography, allowing their children to be photographed as they were found that day. This has changed over the years, especially in light of the fact that the photographs are being delivered in color and only a few days after the photography, rather than the next year.

We photograph from noon until the sun sets today, going from inside the tents to outside under the glorious sun. At the end, one young girl named Maryam walks back with me to the road, in between the tents. She smiles as we walk, her father being the person responsible for this small area. He has treated me like a brother since the day we met over twelve years ago.

I tell her that she is my sister, my daughter.

She tells me, with that same smile, that I am her father, her uncle and her brother.

This is how my time in Lebanon ends, as the sun sets behind the mountains.

Her portrait can be seen above, with that same smile.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lebanon, August 12, 2009

Two small camps are on the schedule today.

Arriving at the first, their pictures from last week are handed out. The effect is immediate and they ask to be photographed right away. The equipment is arranged and, as expected, Fatouma becomes shy on her second day of photography.

This happens every single year, she allows herself to be photographed the first day, like last week, and then pushes others to do so until she is the last one, then she refuses.

Today is the same.

We decide to move to the next camp, a stone's throw from this one. The residents call us to walk over and we do so without hesitation. One young girl is ready and others run to do the same. By the time the camera is arranged, something sad yet familiar happens, two men approach and begin with their questions. The sadness for me is something other than their questions, it is the tone behind the questions.

One man insists that he has seen my work on television and has seen me selling the pictures for a profit. Without going into much detail, my answers are less measured and more emotional, a formula that needs refinement in the future but gets my point across for the moment. Rather than correct the man, he is left with the thought that the day will come when he will answer for his judgments of my work. This seems to please the younger ones listening.

However, time has run out without a single negative exposed and this leaves them sad at the same time. It is times like these when my patience for this craft is tested. Another day will come.

Lebanon, August 10, 2009

Going back to the site of the very first portrait is on today’s agenda. While it is only a few hundred meters from the first camp this year, it has been a few years since they have seen me.

Getting out of the car and knowing that three hours are ahead without a ride back is a bit daunting at first. Then the people begin to recognize me, begin to remember their portraits. They are inviting from the first moment and continue to be so. They want to see portraits from other countries and I do so through my small albums.

They recognize their relative from another camp, their uncle and their cousin. Once again, it makes the photography that much easier. We set a small chair for the children and begin with the small boys, then the small girls, allowing the older girls to come along. The women sit around and watch, with smiles. They arrange the children and make sure that everyone is cooperative. In this camp, the women are quite progressive and active, even accepting my offer to photograph them.

The mood is easy and calm. Men walk by smiling, never saying anything negative. They just allow us to continue without pause. We finish much earlier than sunset and have time to drink tea together, three cups actually. We make casual portraits together, and then my ride arrives. Just as it was twelve years ago, this camp shows me the meaning of hospitality.

Lebanon, August 7, 2009

August 7, 2009

Now with two spots finished this week, it’s time to head further out. This is a place about twenty minutes away from the center of town, also in the Bekaa Valley. It’s a small town with a Mosque, the people being Sunni Muslims. They are also Arabs, some Bedouin, that have settled in Lebanon over the years and have gained papers as Lebanese.

On Monday, the Sheikh approved of the photography and asked for a pack of Marlboro in return. While this is outside of my usual practice, it seemed like a small request.

I return today with two packs of cigarettes, with him expecting only one and really wanting more. This is clear when he asks: ‘Only one pack?’

He smiles when he sees the second.

A spot is easy to find, a white wall with the sun hitting it nicely. So many kids come and soon it becomes evident that the adults would rather watch than help with anything. A few portraits are made and then chaos erupts, with everyone wanting their portrait first. It gets louder until an older woman comes out telling us to leave, even with the Sheikh’s permission to stay. Seeing that she fails to move me in front of the Sheikh, she decides to make the children leave, an easy task for her and her tough tone.

We walk away and find another spot, across the street. Then the same thing happens, but with another Sheikh. He comes out with a bunch of ropes and starts swinging at the children. They run away, some laughing and some scared. It seems that the Sheikhs of the area have different opinions.

We walk to an open field, only to have the children get even louder. This time, it’s enough for me. My gear is packed and I head out to find a taxi. It saddens me to see some of the quieter girls walk away with sad faces; it saddens me even more to know that nothing can be done.

We walk to the road for a taxi. Then one of the girls stops by with her father, asking me to go to their home. I do and end up finding a safe spot. Some of the girls come back, with some new ones also. We have half an hour and do the best that we can. The most important accomplishment is that all the girls are now smiling. That’s enough for me.

I pack up the gear and stand by the road for a taxi, none drive by my spot. After about thirty minutes, the sun sets and I begin to worry. This is an out of the way town. Just then, two younger men stop the car, offer a ride, telling me that they saw me earlier having a hard time. It’s a chance but I get in. They take me to town, they accept nothing from me in the form of payment, they offer to take me even further, they offer their help in the future, they make up for all of the adults back in that small town, another good ending to a tough day.
Halim Ina Photography

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lebanon, August 6, 2009

It’s time to visit Fatouma’s extended family. She lives a bit further away, in the Bekaa Valley. Her family is also Bedouin in origin, ones that have gained papers and have become Lebanese as well over time. Last year, the photography was difficult. My hope for this year is that time has changed people’s perspectives.

The first good sign is that Fatouma offers to be photographed first, a rarity. She is a shy girl and usually continues with her chores even when seeing me with her family in front of the home. This year, she tells me that she has a special outfit and that she wants to be dressed nicely for her portrait. It’s a little early and we decide to visit a small camp next door first. Fatouma’s older brother comes along to help, ending up sitting on the side watching the photography unfold. For him, this is a camp that is more foreign than for me, even though it is adjacent to his home.

We arrive and, just as expected, the men have failed to prepare the children for their portraits, especially the girls and the younger women. When they received the portraits on Monday, they promised to do so, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill after receiving the pictures. We have our work cut out for us and start talking to the girls, getting about half a dozen to gather for their portraits. They are a brave lot, with about a dozen men and a dozen younger boys standing around waiting for their turn.

We pick a white tent and make their portraits first, then walk over to a green tent for their color ones, in a smaller format. All of the girls are led by me and by their hand, to show them my support and to help them along with their portraits, most of them laughing all the way to the green tent because of this older man walking them by the hand.

After about an hour, we decide to head back to Fatouma’s home. While a couple of the men show us support, a few others lack the same, with certain remarks and expressions. They hear my displeasure at this response and my promise to bring the children’s portraits regardless. Only with this action will they realize hopefully that this work is for the benefit of the subjects, nobody else.

We walk back to Fatouma’s home and she is waiting, in her beautiful sweater, brown like her skin and her eyes. We find a spot away from the road and enjoy the making of her portrait; she ends up asking for ten portraits, thinking that each roll is a portrait. I oblige happily. The sky is the background and the mountains of Lebanon the landscape around us. It’s a wonderful ending to a difficult day.
Halim Ina Photography

Lebanon, August 5, 2009

Photography in Lebanon begins on this day, in one of the first Bedouin camps visited by me over twelve years ago. There is much energy, much anticipation since having received the prints just two days ago. They are also aware that this year they will receive their photographs next week, all are very happy at this prospect, rather than waiting an entire year for their portraits.

We begin by walking to the back of the camp, away from the road and near tall grasses. Some have never seen me before, many have. We set up a small chair and begin. The boys are allowed first this time, making it a bit easier actually. They are very cooperative, and help with the photography when it’s time for the girls.

Many of the girls have seen me before, some from last year and a few from over seven years ago. They look too young to remember me but they certainly do. One small boy remembers his portrait from behind his family’s tent, over seven years ago. He is about eleven years old maybe. Having photographed here for over a decade gives me a sense of time that few places can offer.

We finish with some color portraits, something they are all looking forward to receiving next week. The girls are amazing, knowing that men are looking at them, they ignore everyone around them and concentrate on the camera with laser precision, changing outfits over a span of about an hour or so. It’s a revelation, even after a decade.
Halim Ina Photography

Lebanon, August 3, 2009

Today is a productive day. The photographs are taken to four camps, handed to all the people photographed without a single portrait missing. The girls are handed larger black and white prints while the boys and men are given smaller color prints. Everyone is happy and asks when they will be photographed again. It seems that the stage is set for this year’s sessions.

The older men, as usual, ask for something. One asks for a pack of Marlboro, others ask for picture frames. One woman asks for money. I give her two choices: pictures or money. Everyone around here answers for her: pictures.

We will see what happens.

Many of the children remember my name, a good sign usually. The ones that refused their portrait last year will hopefully allow it this year.

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