Our stateside homebase chief Alicia Conway (she keeps the site alive and running smoothly while we’re on the road) writes about the issues with “taking” photos while traveling through Mombasa. See portraits from the day in this gallery.
A few days into the trip, I was determined to get over my fear of photographing people. While this long-standing trepidation did not stem from the fact that this was my first experience in a developing country and as a true ethnic minority, these factors did help to magnify it for the first few days in Kenya.
A self-proclaimed “people day” on our second day in Mombasa resulted in what was simultaneously my best and worst photography day. I found some of my strongest photos hidden in the snaking alleyways of Mombasa’s Old Town. Much to my chagrin, I also found one of my biggest weaknesses.
The best part happened as most great moments do, without realization. I was wandering nearly by myself – Thushan and Mike were a few blocks behind – past the ornately carved doors of Old Town. I came upon a group of men, one of whom would later force himself upon us as a tour guide, near a now-decrepit fish market. They asked where I was from and I suggested they guess, as people had thus far yet to guess America. After one of them shouted a very self-assured “Israel!” I could not contain my laughter. A jovial conversation developed, ending with one of my favorite portraits from the entire trip.
I had moved up ahead of the guys because I was finding it very difficult to get into a photographic groove with Thushan and I lifting up our cameras simultaneously all morning. I wanted to see what I could see for myself. Each step brought me farther away from my travel companions, graciously jolting me out of my comfort zone as well.
From where did the discomfort come? Not where you might think. I was not scared to wander alone in Kenya because I am a woman or because I am white. Instead, I was on edge because of the self-imposed pressure of “people day”.
By nature, I am overly concerned with what others are thinking. It is important to clarify that I am not saying “about me”. When I stumble into someone else’s orbit, I am always wondering if it has offset them in some way. Long story short: this does not bode all that well, journalistically speaking. Getting the story – in my case, the photo – is much easier if one is at least partially aloof. Thushan has this down to a science. That is not meant to be an insult. A slight sense of detachment is an attribute perfectly suited to his line of work; one I would wager is directly related to his success.
My inability to disconnect leads directly to the not-great part of the day. While poised to take a photo of a street scene, a teenager with what must have been an entire bag of chips on his shoulder shouted at me. “It’s not fair, sister. It is not fair. This is not London. You are not on safari. These are not animals to be photographing.” With that, he rounded the corner and was gone, most likely without any concept of what he had left in his wake.
Had I been in my element, I would most likely just have chuckled and replied with an ever-so-slightly sarcastic comeback. But, he was right. This was not Boston (or London, for that matter). I had yet to press down the camera’s shutter, and suddenly felt very exposed myself. Then, in the middle of the beautifully dark and sunny dust-filled streets of Old Town, the strangest thing happened … I cried.
Truth be told, crying is not really the word for what went down. Uncontrollable sobbing would be a more valid description. Not wanting to be seen, I stepped off into a shadow-filled corner. Thushan, having seen and heard what had unfolded, followed and offered, “Just try to ignore it.” Yes, sweet detachment. I bit my lip in an attempt to disconnect from the incident, but the tears kept flowing, leaving a trail of clean down my otherwise dust caked face. Our officially unofficial tour guide was unsure how to handle this unhinged white girl. As we walked on, I was still trying unsuccessfully to shake my shakiness when we passed three women selling small boxes of fresh red rose petals. Our guide picked up a box and brought it to my nose while smiling and saying, “Smell. Nice, yes? Do not be sad.”
A few more twists and turns through the lanes of Old Town and I was able to elude my lack of self-control. With composure on my side, it did not take long to realize why this young man’s words affected me so much. The not-so-deep-down truth was simple: I had asked myself several times what the heck we were really doing on this trip. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we were doing Kenya a solid; we were spreading the word that the country is safe. We were there to tell you, friends and fellow travelers, to make haste and go on safari to this amazing country.
But at street level, who’s to say that this punk kid didn’t have me pegged? What were we actually giving to these people we were taking photographs from?
On the plane to Kenya (translation: too late), we read that the perfect thing to bring to the country is a Polaroid camera. Since a large number of Kenyans have never seen a picture of themselves, it sounded like the perfect small token of gratitude. Most importantly, there would be some giving involved.
Alas, we could not find a store in Nairobi that sold the famous instant camera. But, we did try the next best thing. We were able to share a bit of instant gratification with those we photographed thanks to the wonder of digitality. We showed each subject what he looked like on the 2-inch screens on the back of our cameras. Likewise, we have promised to send prints to those who requested them.
At the end of the day, I was laughing at my own tears from the morning. Maybe next time the realization will come to me more instantaneously, the shutter will fire, and I’ll get the photo. Then again, would that really be a good thing?
This entry was posted on Thursday, April 3rd, 2008 and is filed under exploring. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.