Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dasanech Girl, In Another Life, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

There are times when it seems people have met me before. Such is this little girl. On this hot day, so many others struggle with the camera. She on the other hand stands like she has known me in another life, in another world. These are the times when my confidence in humanity is strengthened. These times occur in distant lands and in neighborhoods minutes away. Just last night, such happens again. 

When a dear sister from my past takes a chance and shows herself again in my life, even after more than a dozen years, she shows me the meaning of humanity. When she displays her trust in the midst of madness, she offers to me a glimpse of what is possible. Whether the time involved is a dozen years or a few minutes, the feeling is the same: this person knows me. The portrait above is of a girl that has known me for only a few minutes. Her ease with the camera however mirrors the ease that occurs last night despite twelve years of separation; they both feel natural. 

 People ask: 'why photography?' 

The image above answers this question for me. Here is a medium that allows me to connect with someone from another land, from another time and from another culture. The experience is almost out-of-body. The photographer stands behind the camera, the subject a few meters away. People are all over the place, noises threaten the calm. In the middle of this and from a distance, a 'tunnel' forms between the photographer and the subject, simulating the eye of a storm. Everything outside seems like chaos. However, inside this space, calm reigns and the subject speaks vividly to the photographer without hesitation. In the middle of chaos, twelve years disappear last night.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Arbore Boy, Another Very Hot Day, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

With strands of a giraffe around his neck, this young boy stands above. This is our second day with this tribe, the first one being almost two weeks ago. During the first day, the photography was very difficult due to both the sun and my stomach. Much of that photography was done from a distance and with me standing under the shade of a home. This time around, the tribe sits under the tree and I am happily under the sun. The boys are photographed first today and then the girls. 

This is my last day in the Lower Omo Valley. The boys start off by standing on the bumper of the truck and then standing a few feet in front of me on the ground. Since this is our second time, the women are laughing and the men smiling. While we do still negotiate the terms of the photography, it seems easier this time. We have a history with them, albeit a short one; they know that our word is good. A few woman and one man from another tribe stop by and want their photographs made. 

They belong to the Hamar Community. Since we missed our chance to do so earlier in the week, this seems like happenstance. In retrospect, this is a sad afternoon. From the first roll of the girls to the end of the session, the shutter of the lens malfunctions and all images are ruined. The silver lining in the session is that it is the last day. This just gives me another reason to return to Ethiopia, to return to the Arbore Community and to photograph a most exquisite set of girls. Their images will be made, this is my hope. The one above speaks to that hope.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mursi Man, Mago National Park, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia, March, 2010

He sits under the tree, silent the entire time, while others negotiate on his behalf. The confidence this man displays is without parallel in my experience. He and his tribe are the reason men are photographed more so on this trip. He belongs to the Mursi Community, lives in the Mago National Park of Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley. As noted in a previous post, his community's population is estimated at 10,000. They are pastoralists in nature but prefer a sedentary life. 

Most from this community are illiterate and speak the language of their tribe. While some have converted to Christianity, most practice Animism, a belief that spirits exist in animals, plants and inanimate objects. At an early age, the girls from this tribe begin the process of wearing lip plates, as well as plates in the ears. Contrary to some myths, the reason for such is esthetic, for the purposes of beauty and to attract a future husband. At the same time as the lip expansion, the lower front teeth are removed, thus enhancing the beauty sought after by the women in this community. 

While others step forth quickly to have their portraits made in exchange for a humble living, this man prefers to watch. Only when called on by me several times does he, with a smile, come forth for his portrait. He has seen hundreds of tourists and has seen this before, but humors me with his time. Direction he does without, preferring to change poses every other negative or so. His expressions are those of an old friend, one that knows me and has met me before. My hope is that we meet again, very soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

East African Girl, Church, MACODEF, Kisumu, Kenya, March, 2007

Only ten hours stand between this moment and the negatives from Ethiopia. In the morning and for the first time since my return from East Africa, the images exposed will be in my hands. Until then, a thought or two about another time in this part of the world. One fine day, we arrive at a church near a school. The walls of the church are a brilliant white with the sun striking them perfectly. 

We decide to visit a home until the sun is in the right place. We are received kindly, offered something to drink and watch the girls as they play in the field next to the home. After an hour or so, people start coming around. We set a small table to the right of the camera and ask the people to stand in line to the left. People are cordial to each other, calm throughout. As more people come by, they take their places in line. At the end of the session, about six girls remain; she is one of them. 

Six or so negatives are exposed, one of them displayed above. In all of them, her expression never waivers. At times, the combination of a human face, an emotion and a piece of clothing come together flawlessly; this is one of those times. After the portrait is made, I turn to the person writing names down and tell him: she is the most perfect child. Looking surprised, he nonetheless smiles in agreement.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Early in the Morning, Student, Humana People to People, Rajasthan, India, November 20, 2009

In a previous posting, this morning is described. It will suffice to note that the morning was most difficult due to a general lack of cooperation from everyone excluding the students. This portrait is an example of a child lacking the support of her community, her teacher. Everyone seems interested in the scene, men standing around having their tea served to them, women unable to do more than stand at a distance for reasons beyond their control, a teacher that seems more interested in the end of the session rather than the substance. The girls are lined up to my right, with a volunteer from Humana writing names down in a notebook. 

The teacher, rather than speaking to the girls before their turns, wears a sullen frown and pushes the girls around, her mannerisms rough and sudden. The girls, before our arrival, had on their own made a few patterns on the floor to welcome our team this morning. One of the patterns can be seen behind this little girl. They were looking forward to this morning and the sadness on their faces is clearly evident. After a few girls, I decide to end the session, feeling it very difficult to make portraits of girls unable to smile, without a single source of support. Confusion takes hold of the people around us. They wonder why the camera is being put away. 

After a few minutes, we agree to continue but only if the teacher goes home. By this time, the sun has risen and we walk around the village in search of another spot. We find it, in the shade of a small courtyard. There we make portraits with smiles, portraits of happiness rather than sadness. This young girl, along with her friends, attend a Humana People to People India school for three years. At the end of these three years, she is to join a government school for the remainder of her education. 

The design of the Humana school is to bridge the distance between illiteracy and formal training. Her attendance at this school is an accomplishment, in light of the local economic reality. While the family loses a helping hand at home or a pair of hands in the field, they gain eyes that can read and hands that can write; a combination that will perhaps one day break the economic chains that prevent her family from making a better world for themselves.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How a Smile Brightens the World, Student, Humana People to People, Rajasthan, India, November 19, 2009

Looking back, it seemed only logical to solicit smiles from children. At the time however, making portraits of children in difficult circumstances meant to me making portraits of children without smiles. It seemed the way of the world to me, to someone privileged with opportunities beyond the scope of these children. Time and time again however, these children would prove to me otherwise. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of smiles later, it seems natural to smile as well as to frown. So she stands before us above, with a smile for the sake of a smile. Many people will ask: What is so special about a child's smile? Some facts come to mind. 'According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there is an estimated 165 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 whom are actively involved in child labor.'
Foreign Policy Association

'In India the federal police say that around 1.2 million children are believed to be involved in prostitution. A CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation ) statement said that studies and surveys sponsored by the ministry of women and child development estimated that about 40% of all India's prostitutes are children.'

'Nearly half of Asia's 1.3 billion children live in poverty, denied basic needs. India has the largest number of poor children in Asia, with 80% of its 400m young severely deprived.'
Plan, Child Aid Organization

Regardless of circumstances,whether the child lives a privileged life or serves families with privileged lives, all children face danger, hardship and the cruelties of the world. A smile is the first sign of hope.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Man, Service Station, North Road, Gambia, Summer, 2006

Earlier in this blog is a portrait of his friend, another man from Mauritania. Rather than in his land, this portrait is made on the side of a road in Gambia. On our second day in this country, we stop for gasoline and see him sitting along with his friend, an older man. We are heading West in the direction of the capital Banjul for a few days of photography. 

They politely ask for our help and, seeing an opportunity, we agree to do so in exchange for their portraits. They agree nicely and walk over to the western wall of the service station. It's early in the morning and the sun is to their backs, behind the building. They sit down on a raised cement step, with a white wall as a backdrop. 

He comes from a land where there are deep divisions, between black and white, between Arab and African. In his country, almost 20% live as slaves, true slaves with masters. He is in Gambia searching for work, looking for a way to support his family.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Young Student, Humana People to People, Rajasthan, India, November 17, 2009

The notes on this roll of film tell me that this is the second exposure on roll number 18. This time around, instead of working only under the beautiful sun, we decide to take advantage of the less popular times of the day. In this way, we are able to visit all of the schools. We arrive at this village in the middle of the day with the sun above us. We find a wall with some shade, have the girls sit to our right and ask for a small stool. Two 'volunteers' stand behind me with a reflector. 

The girl in this portrait attends a Humana school, one that is designed to provide a bridge between illiteracy and a government education. Perhaps thirty girls in each village are provided an opportunity to learn for three years, at which point the idea is for them to join the mainstream educational system. The State of Rajasthan, while seeing a tremendous increase in female literacy, is still perhaps 20% lower than the international average according to many estimates. With respect to female literacy, the case for improvement is even greater, often seeing girls at a 15% disadvantage. At the end of colonial rule, the State of Rajasthan had the lowest literacy rate among Indian States, with a rate near 18%. 

While the British tripled literacy rates during their rule of this nation, when India won its independence, its literacy rate was little more than 12%. In sixty years, this state has more than tripled its literacy rate. In contrast, the State of Kerala, at times termed socialist, has the highest literacy rate, with one district named Ernakulum reaching a perfect literacy rate for the first time in India. The above is written to highlight a few variables that seem to correlate well in many studies with the level of education achieved. 

In comparison to the less literate States, life expectancy for females in the State of Kerala is ten years greater than for those living in the States with the lowest literacy rates. In addition, the State of Kerala has an infant mortality rate of 1o per 1,000 in comparision to over 60 per 1,000 in the least literate State of Bihar. Furthermore, the birth rate per 1,ooo people in Kerala is about 17, while the birth rate per 1,000 in the least literate States nears 30. According to many sources including Wikepedia, over one third of the world's illiterate population is Indian. According to these same sources, based on population growth patterns and historical advances in literacy, the majority of the world's illiterates may call India their home in less than 10 years. While many might look down on nations like China and Iran and Burma, one point that is rarely spoken is that these three nations have youth literacy rates that are 10% to 15% higher than the same in India; all three have rates above 95%. 

As a side note, a nation like Cuba has a youth literacy rate of 99.8% in comparison to a rate of 96.6% in the United States as of 2004 according to estimates. Even more dramatic is the same comparison in 1980, with Cuba boasting a rate of 98.3% and the United States standing by its system of producing a rate of 91.9%. While these numbers may shed uneven light on these regions, they have given me immense insight into the needs of these parts of the world, often times correlating in an accurate manner with my experiences. This young student smiles, even laughs out loud; she is learning, she is joining children like her from around the world to end the cycle of illiteracy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

In the Midst of Prostitution, Rajasthan, India, November 6, 2009

In the midst of Prostitution, this portrait is made. Behind her is a building with a dirty, white wall. The negative is exposed to take advantage of such, erasing any remnant of her surroundings and allowing her to shine without limitations. This is her second portrait today; she has changed into a darker shirt, combed her hair and returned with a wide grin. 

There are those that question my requests many times. 

Why do you ask them to change their blouse? Why do you insist on darker colors? What if they have nothing other than what they are wearing? What if they like what they are wearing? 

 My answer to them is her smile. Asking her to be involved in her portrait respects her; including her in a wardrobe decision allows her to make that decision rather than be 'found' on the street. Proposing darker colors allows her features to dominate the portrait rather than be dominated by visually strong elements. Most of the children in my work will never see a photographic studio, will never have their portrait made. This is a chance to play, an opportunity to experiment with colors, fabrics and expressions of personal preferences. When asked, many girls waiting in line will then exchange fabrics, pieces of clothing. Giggling dominates along with smiles. 

My experience in the field has taught me that children take wonderfully to such inclusion, are happy to know that the photographer wants to make a nice portrait for them, is interested in making neat their blouse and brushing nicely their hair away from their face. Over and over again, when viewing footage of the sessions, the subjects can be seen giggling as my clumsy hands brush their hair behind their ears or correct the position of their necklaces. The portrait above is her second in two years. Nirvanavan Foundation has proposed a school in her village and has moved forward with the plan. Let's hope that her future is different from her community's past.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Young Student, Humana People to People, Rajasthan, India, November 15, 2009

In a previous entry, a story was told about this young girl's village.

On this day, a visit to a former village turned into a most difficult affair. Without going into detail at this time, it will suffice to note that this village now lacks a school funded by the foundation. The mood has changed and cooperation is lacking. In the middle of it all, she stands with a bravery rare in any environment. 

To her left, boys are making noises. To her right, a few older boys have gathered, some are helpful while some are more obstructive. She returns for her portrait, remembering last year's visit with a smile. She stands in front of me on a chair for over five minutes. Men stop by asking us to stop, boys walk behind her trying to get in the frame of the camera. 

She ignores all of them and stands tall. The writing on this roll of film tells me that this portrait is the sixth exposure on the sixteenth roll of film today. My hope is to return this year and find her once again.