Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Background basics

Women at work in the Namokora camp for internally displaced persons in northern Uganda. (Paul Jeffrey)

Backgrounds are important. I remember reading about one famous street photographer in Paris who would search for an interesting wall or street, then find a sidewalk café where he would sit all day, drinking wine, as he waited for someone to come by that would provide just the right foreground element to make the picture work. I very seldom do that (though if anyone has an assignment for me in Paris, please speak up), but I have learned to keep an eye out for backgrounds that make a photo sing rather than just hum. In this case, I was photographing a woman winnowing rice in the Namokora camp for people internally displaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another woman walking nearby who was on her way home from working the fields, hoe on her shoulder. I positioned myself so she would pass in the background of my photo. I focused the camera on the woman in front but narrowed the aperture a bit to give me a better depth of field, and waited for the magic alignment of the stars, err, the women. Although the front woman is backlit, the sunlight shining through the plastic basin helps make the photo more complex, with a subtle hint of blueberries and chocolate. (Oh, sorry, that’s the wine I can’t quit thinking about drinking in Paris.) The result is a much more dynamic photo that causes the eye to move around more. That’s a good thing. Not surprisingly, this image has been used a lot.

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