Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Angola classroom

In Uamba, in the northern Angolan province of Uige, former UNITA soldiers and their families begin the demobilization process in 2002. In this photo, children of former rebels struggle to learn in a makeshift school. More than 300,000 UNITA fighters and family members lived in 36 such camps around the country. UNITA disintegrated and the country's long civil war came to an abrupt end after the death of US-backed UNITA commander Jonas Savimbi.. (Paul Jeffrey)

Two weeks ago I mentioned the premise in quantum theory that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. This is especially true when a sweaty photographer tries to capture images of a whole room full of kids. Some of them will inevitably stare at the camera. Since documentary photojournalism strives for images that make it appear as if the photographer wasn’t there and somehow magically managed to capture a photo from the middle of the action, the temptation is, in a case like this, to tell the kids “not to look” at the photographer. But as anyone knows who has spent more than two minutes around children, telling that to kids will produce a bunch of kids who inevitably look directly at the photographer. Even better is to give them a positive instruction, such as, in a case like this, telling them to look at the teacher. That tends to produce better results, though you’re likely to then see kids looking a bit too hard at the teacher. Even better is to spend the time sitting there, letting the kids get used to you until they simply forget you’re there. It’s a practice of presence, somewhat pastoral in nature, and probably good for the soul. It’s also a luxury in that sometimes getting to the place to capture the photos takes up the whole day, and you don’t have many minutes to capture the money shot. And, not surprisingly, there’s usually one kid who breaks discipline and sneaks a peek at the camera. As you can see above.

Getting to where I need to be is the most difficult part of my job. Once there, all I have to do is press a button on a black box, and all sorts of digital voodoo inside that box will yield an arrangement of pixels that makes me look good. Or not.

This image was captured in 2002 in Uamba, in the northern Angolan province of Uige. As I explained in last week’s picture, I had gone to Angola after the death of Jonas Savimbi pushed the country into a quick peace process, which meant that thousands of former UNITA rebels and their families began a demobilization process in specific quartering areas. In this image, taken in one of those special areas, the children of former rebels struggle to learn in a bombed-out school classroom.

Getting to a similar quartering area in Moxico province produced some vivid memories for me. We drove for several hours along a rural road where deminers had finished their work only two days before. Angola was plagued by land mines, and I had spent a couple of evenings in Luena drinking with British deminers, listening as they regaled me with tales of incredible technological evil, such as South African landmines with optical triggers–specifically designed not to blow up until exposed to sunlight–thus killing not normal soldiers but rather the sappers tasked with detecting and removing the land mines.

So I was one of the first people to enter that quartering area from the outside, driving in a Lutheran World Federation jeep along the demined road. But it had been carefully explained to us that just the narrow roadbed had been demined, nothing else. So under no circumstances could we venture out of the ruts on the road. Even passing an oncoming vehicle on the narrow route was a risk. But there was an additional element of risk to manage: I had the runs. We had to keep stopping every few minutes for my body to rid itself of some rather inconvenient fecal material. Now I’ve had diarrhea enough times to know I probably won’t die from it, and when I have a job to do I’ve learned to carry on bravely. But that day we were on a road where wandering off the track in search of privacy could have brought a whole new meaning to the term “explosive diarrhea.” So I just did what I had to do, in front of God and everybody, and somehow we all survived. When I see photos like this from that trip, however, to this day my stomach starts to feel a little queasy.

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