Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Picture of the Week 2012

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December 28, 2012

It’s the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents, when the church remembers the biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, who’d been appointed “King of the Jews” by Rome. Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem in order to fend off losing his power to the newborn Jesus, whose birth had been revealed to him by the Magi. It didn’t work, as Mary and Joseph smuggle Jesus off to Egypt as refugees. But an unknown number of boys were killed by Herod’s soldiers.

The Massacre of the Innocents continues today in many lands. In places like the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile in Sudan, government bombing of civilians continues today as the wealthy and powerful in Khartoum try to preserve their tenuous grip on power by massacring the innocent. Hundreds of thousands continue to flee as refugees into South Sudan, like this child from the Blue Nile whose family fled this year to the Yusuf Batil refugee camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State. Like Jesus, this child’s parents have been forced to flee from their homes in order to save the lives of their children.

December 21, 2012

In these waning days of Advent, when our practice of waiting is stressed to the breaking point by the violent anti-logic of NRA types who think the solution to violence is more violence, I recall those I’ve known who wait patiently. In refugee camps and prisons around the world, in homes torn by abuse and neighborhoods ravaged by intolerance, people wait for the fullness of life that they hope is their birthright, and which Christians believe is promised to all in the Gospels. Such radical love isn’t encouraged by the wealthy, whose power is maintained by the armies and technology of conflict. Thomas Merton acknowledged this in Raids on the Unspeakable: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited.” Welcoming the uninvited one, however, calls for disciplined waiting. So we set a place at the table for Elijah. We breathe more slowly. We sit and listen, not sure for what exactly, but we know it’s not the latest NRA screed.

These women in Mursan, in northern India, are waiting in a train station. Who are they waiting for? I don’t know. Their comfortable practice of waiting, each in her own way, calls on us to sharpen our own waiting skills so that we’ll be aware of the incarnation when it happens.

December 14, 2012

I’m currently wrapping up a month-long reporting trip with a few days in Cambodia, most of it in the boonies, but including a couple of days in Phnom Penh, in part to photograph some demonstrations on Human Rights Day last Monday. I went to two very different demonstrations that morning. The second was a protest by people who’ve been displaced and left homeless by a large development project that filled in the capital city’s largest lake. A sordid tale of corruption in high places and people were rightfully angry, and the encounter between them and the police, who were dispatched to make sure they didn’t take over any public thoroughfares, quickly devolved into a lot of pushing and shoving. The first demonstration, however, had a different tone. Here the police with their shields and batons held back a crowd of informal sector workers, including domestic workers, tuk-tuk drivers, and informal food sellers. The domestic workers, all women, were in the front, and they skillfully engaged the police by, among other things, chanting that the police deserved better salaries. I photographed them offering the police water, fanning officers who were sweating under their riot gear, and, in this case, offering a flower to a reluctant member of the force. He, quite literally, lets down his shield.

The workers here were calling in particular for the Cambodian government to ratify ILO Convention 189, which guarantees the rights of domestic workers.

December 7, 2012

There’s a cartoon I like that shows a photographer who is poorly attired and laden with all sorts of camera gear, thus obviously a true professional, trying to get to the front of a crowd to capture the action. He says, “Excuse me, I’m a photographer,” to which the crowd of people, each equipped with a cell phone or iPad, responds in unison, “So are we.” It’s a scene I’ve dealt with a few times in recent years, and part of me wants to snark, “But I’m a real one…”

On the other hand, I recognize how such widespread access to technology has greatly democratized picture taking. It helps create citizen journalists, which in general is a good thing. But it creates some problems. As I was photographing refugee families in South Sudan recently, the children kept wanting to see the back of my camera, obviously having been afforded that privilege by others. If I rebuffed them, the more brazen kids would grab my camera to try to see for themselves. I usually avoid showing people images on the back LCD, in part because it runs the camera batteries down faster and takes time away from capturing more images. I don’t mean to sound snooty, but I’ve got a job to do. On the other hand, people have a right to see what I’m capturing if they ask me to take a look. And it can be a way of affirming the beauty and dignity of people who often don’t possess a decent image of themselves. It can generate a good bit of giggling and fun when kids take a look at themselves. And, in what always seems to be to be the ultimate gift of selfless hospitality, it usually provokes the person whose image I have captured to thank me for taking their picture. That’s humbling.

This tension doesn’t arise as much when someone else is along who can take pictures and share them. Yesterday in Mindanao, I traveled with Ciony Ayo-Eduarte, the director of UMCOR’s work in the Philippines. She carries a DSLR around in the course of her work, and has produced some good images. She also often carries an iPad, and in one stop in a riverside community where people were recovering from Typhoon Bopha, which had struck just two days before, she started photographing the kids, and then capturing video of them as they horsed around. Then she graciously showed them the result. It’s a magic moment. Humanitarian groups like UMCOR, whose brand includes the phrase Be there. Be hope., offers survivors the normal variety of emergency services, from food to workshops on disaster risk reduction. But there are also small moments like these, when people like Ciony give those who suffer in too many ways a moment to celebrate that they are still alive, still laughing.

November 29, 2012

One of the things I stress in my photography workshops is that the photographer is challenged to take pictures of things we’ve all seen before, but to do it in such a way that we see it freshly, anew. Take the unloading of boxes of relief goods at a church in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, following the tsunami. I was taking photos of the guys doing the unloading but just knew there was no visual magic happening. So I laid down on the grass between two of them and shot upward as they passed the boxes overhead. Any day that I can work laying down on the grass on a tropical island is a good day.

November 22, 2012

I don’t like taking pictures of meetings, which are almost always visually boring. One exception I make is the quadrennial gathering of United Methodists called General Conference. It’s a chance to see a lot of friends and work with Mike DuBose, a photographer colleague who actually knows what he’s doing, and so I’m constantly pestering him with how-to questions, to which he consistently responds with quintessential Southern patience. But when he thinks I’m not looking, he messes with my images in Photoshop to try and fix the myriad defects.

General Conference is also an opportunity for a Catwalk Moment. Here’s one from last spring in Tampa. It wasn’t a very high ceiling, and I was trying to get a shot straight down on some dancers gathering around the communion table in the middle of the hall. There were some beams right below me, so I had to hold the camera way out over the edge, hoping there was no structural defect in the railing. I used Nikon “Live View” mode to see and center the image on the back LCD screen. I popped some flash into the scene to even out the white balance across the image (weird lighting abounds in arenas and convention centers). I think the result is kind of cool.

Over the years I’ve done this several times in different venues. There’s always a moment before walking out on one where I need to stop and insure that there’s nothing that could fall from my body or equipment. Even a pen dropped from such height could cause considerable harm if it reached terminal velocity before crashing into someone’s head. Cameras are always strapped carefully. I double check my lenses are properly seated (getting hit by a three pound lens would make a pen’s impact seem pleasant). Catwalks are always interesting places, filled with techy gadgets and dirty cables, and often feature steep ladders and low beams. In a couple of places, security procedures dictated that I had to be accompanied by a technician to make sure I didn’t hurt myself or someone else. In St Louis’ Edward Jones Dome, a member of the rigging crew had to come with me, and our walk more than 200 feet above the heads of people at the United Methodist Women Assembly included a running commentary on the history of the stadium’s upper reaches, including the spot where a technician had missed a step and fallen to his death. Ahh, the possibilities for alternative tourism abound.

November 15, 2012

Sometimes you just keep following a subject, in case something interesting happens. On this day, I flew on a U.S. Navy Blackhawk helicopter from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. It was a very ecumenical trip: the U.S. military transporting emergency assistance provided by German churches, which was offloaded by Canadian soldiers and turned over to a Haitian organization for distribution to quake survivors. On the trip back, we brought with us some Haitian kids who were being evacuated. After landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, the crew carried the kids away from the aircraft. I shot them walking away from the helicopter, but then hustled after them, because you never know what will happen next. Following on the heels of one crew member, I captured this image of the little boy looking up at the face of the sailor. Lesson: the photo op ain’t over til it’s over.

November 8, 2012

When I posted this image on Facebook a few weeks ago, some people wanted to know if I’d gotten all wet taking it. Not really. It was late in the day and I’d wandered off without a translator or vehicle in the Doro refugee camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State. (These are refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State, where Omar al-Bashir is raining terror from the sky.) As is common for me, I just wandered along seeing what images I could discover. While shooting some women at a well, I had heard a bunch of kids yelling in the distance, and so I started wandering that way. At the same time, the clouds were getting pretty thick and it was threatening to rain. The clouds finally broke open just as I came into sight of the football game. Fortunately, it was in a clearing beside some school “classrooms” – open-aired thatched-roof structures with a few skinny trees for supports. (Like what you see in the background, but with thatch rather than plastic roofing.) I ran the last hundred meters or so to take refuge under the thatch, which stopped most of the rain. A bunch of kids joined me; after all, a kawadja is always good entertainment. A few practiced their English on me, but when one side of the conversation can only say “What is your name?” the dialogue tends to not go very deep. But we laughed a lot, in many ways a simpler language. And, although some of the participants sought shelter with me, the game nonetheless went on, a rousing contest that involved a lot of falling down and sliding through the mud, often helped by a push from another kid. I photographed from just inside the structure, though there was enough splash and leaks that I stopped several times to wipe down my camera and lens and clean the droplets off the front element. The light was really low at this point, because the cloud cover was pretty dense, so the shadow areas are starting to get muddy (the geek term for splotchy shadow areas in photos). I shot a hundred of so images of the game, and I like this image with the partially inflated ball emerging from scrum of players falling over each other. After a while the rain stopped, and as it got dark I slowly wound my way through the refugee huts back to the UN compound where I slept in a blissfully dry tent.

October 30, 2012

Here’s an image from a chemistry class at St Peter’s College for Women in Lahore, Pakistan. It’s a school for poor girls from the countryside, sponsored by the Church of Pakistan. I thought of visiting schools like this in Pakistan when reading about Malala Yousufzai, the courageous 15-year old girl who was shot by the Taliban on October 9, targeted because she dared to demand education for girls. The education of girls and women was a priority from the beginning for Methodist missionaries and others who went to the region in the 19th Century, and schools like St. Peter’s remain as a legacy of that empowerment, no matter how troubling they are to those who want to push girls back in the house, out of sight. May you recover well, Malala.

October 23, 2012

This is Henri Aguilar with his one-year old daughter Genesis in the yard of their home in Chamelecon, a poor neighborhood near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I captured this image on May 2, 2007, during a visit to prepare a story on the church’s work with gangs in Cenral America. Five days later, Henri was assassinated by three masked men who burst into his house. Henri was a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha, but under the guidance of a Catholic program had left the gang and was married, working full time, and heavily involved in parish life. He was an inspiration to others, and to me. I was elsewhere in Latin America when the Maryknoll priest in Chamelecon, Tom Goeckler, wrote me an email to tell me about Henri’s murder. It was one of those moments when I wished photos were magical, that he could pop up out of the photo and once again hug his daughter. Father Tom died two years ago after decades of courageous service to the poor in the U.S. and Central America, especially youth in marginal communities. Henri’s image — such caring for his daughter despite the symbols of death spread across his body — remains a sign of how change is possible, although far too fragile and fleeting.

October 16, 2012

Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. When we see them on exit ramps or city sidewalks, we change lanes, avert our gaze, suddenly remember to check for messages on our smart phones. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they remind us of our own vulnerability. Perhaps we’re afraid of the poor. So we look away.

Fortunately, there are some who insist on seeing the homeless. In 2005, the World Council of Churches asked me to photograph two church-related themes in the U.S. as part of a global look at faith expressions called “Keeping the Faith”, which produced a coffee-table book and a website. One of the two ministries I chose to document was the Church of Mary Magdalene–a congregation of homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle. At the time, my old friend Pat Simpson was pastor of this unique congregation, and hanging out with the women for a few days gave me a valuable glimpse into their joys, challenges, and oftentimes their ordinariness–they weren’t that different from me or most people I knew, but for one reason or another they’d ended up on the streets. Wielding a camera and a recorder was a privilege, because it forced me to overcome society’s encouragement to look away.

A year or so later, I went back to shoot a calendar for the congregation. The idea was that a different homeless woman (in some cases with her kids) would grace each month, and the church would sell the calendars as a fundraiser. So I spent a day in a makeshift portrait studio in a big room at what was then First United Methodist Church in Seattle, and the women came through in 30-minute shifts. I don’t do this kind of work, but we were well paired, as they weren’t used to having their portraits taken, either. So we made it up together, and it was fun. Here’s one of the women. Carol brought her dog and her hand truck that she used to wheel around her worldly possessions.

My favorite image was one of a very pregnant woman, but somehow she slipped away without signing a release form. (Since the church was going to use the images to raise money, we needed to use those.) When we were deciding which 13 images to use (12 months plus one cover image), she was a natural for Ms. December. But the church staff couldn’t locate her to obtain her signature, so we couldn’t use the image. Like many fotogs, I can remember for years afterward photos that I missed capturing for one reason or another. I’ve fortunately had very few that I did manage to capture but couldn’t use. Sorry, I digress…

Opportunities like that calendar, as artificial a tool as it was, are important because they help us overcome our tendency to look away. Other folks are doing similar things, including exploiting the potential of social media to break down the self-imposed visual barriers. For an excellent example, check out the Facebook community called “Homeless in Seattle.” We need to stare into the stranger’s eyes, unafraid, and greet the Lord of Life who comes to us in each one.

October 11, 2012

Sometimes there are a lot of people in a scene, and trying to fit them all in gets complicated. I feel the urge to grab people and start moving them around because the light is better over here, the scene is more balanced if you stand there, etc. And then there are times when it all fits together, naturally, and I can simply relax and be a photographer and not a director, documenting reality rather than creating something else. In this case, Rodrigo Mello, an outreach worker for the Street Children Project in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, is talking with 11-year old Gabriel Acevedo Silva in the doorway of the boy’s home as his mother, Elismar do Nacimiento Acevedo, listens. The mirror on the wall shows the face of another Project staff member, Leonardo Duarte, whose legs you see in the right side of the frame. I couldn’t back up anymore–it was a small room–so I couldn’t fit them all in without the help of the mirror. I like how it all fits together. The bright light coming in the doorway providing the high contrast silhouette of the boy as a focal point and then spilling softly into the rest of the room. The downward look of the chastised Gabriel, the loving but trying to be stern mother, the friendly and encouraging social worker, the ghost of Leonardo hovering nearby. . . Sometimes it all comes together.

October 4, 2012

In response to last week’s photo, I had two people write me to ask why the family of the boy who died didn’t have bed nets to prevent the transmission of malaria. I responded that it’s not that simple.

I’ve had malaria, and it’s no fun. I had a good friend die of malaria. As a result, I’m currently in South Sudan and I’m taking mefloquine every week and I use a bed net every night. Bed nets are an important tool in the fight against malaria. But they’re not the only tool, and campaigns like “Nothing but Nets” really represent the triumph of marketing over epidemiology. By reducing the fight against a complicated disease into one simple slogan works great to raise money and in the process grant smug self-righteousness – give ten bucks and you’ve saved a life, right? – but it misrepresents the comprehensive nature of what we’re fighting against. For example, I spent most of Sunday in the Makpandu refugee camp near the Congo border, where thousands of Congolese who fled from the Lord’s Resistance Army have found safety for the last four years. As I walked around talking with folks and imaging life in the camp, I found several people sick with malaria. I asked a few if they had a net, and a common reply was that, yes, they had received a net, but they had sold it to buy food. One woman told me she’d received a net four years ago, but she had 12 people sleeping under it and before long it was in tatters. No one has been back to offer her a new net since. Nets do work, but unaccompanied by other measures, such as cleaning up stagnant water sources where mosquitoes breed, they are at best a stop gap measure for a while, until the net wears out. Yet few NGOs handing out nets make plans to come back. They’d rather take the show to some new location where they can take pictures of some celebrities handing out nets to poor people. It’s a troubled form of aid at several levels. Fortunately, there are folks who understand that rather than “nothing but nets” it should be “nets and everything else,” and they’re working at comprehensive solutions, the most important of which is ending poverty. Certainly, malaria is one factor that keeps people poor, but it’s also a disease that thrives midst the poor. By working for justice and ending violent conflict, we help empower people to combat malaria on their own–and buy their own bed nets if needed. If we don’t do all that, nets may just add to the problem. Recent studies have raised concern that extensive bed net use, especially if unaccompanied by other measures, may both increase the disease’s resistance to insecticide as well as lower the immunity of affected populations to the parasite.

Taking pictures of people under bed nets is simple. You mainly have to insure that the camera focuses on the person rather than the net, and that your light source doesn’t over-illuminate the net at the sake of the persons underneath. Getting rid of malaria is much harder, and requires thinking beyond paternalistic quick fixes that sell well in sound bites, but which do little to end the suffering caused by a virulent disease.

September 28, 2012
Zacarias Moses carried into hospital in Wau, South Sudan
Zacarias Moses died last night. He was 8 years old. I met him yesterday when I saw his grandmother carry his unconscious body into a hospital in Wau, South Sudan. I followed and photographed Moses, who was suffering from malaria, as the nurses cared for him. After a while, a prolonged series of convulsions stopped when he went into respiratory arrest. The nurses resuscitated him as I stood with his mother and grandmother. When I later left the hospital he was more stable, but still running a high fever and had a heart rate of over 160. During the night he stopped breathing again, but this time they couldn’t save him.

I came back to South Sudan this month because after the euphoria of last year’s independence celebration, the world has moved on to other stories, leaving this small country, struggling with so many challenges, virtually forgotten. Yet many of us believe we need to stay focused here, even more so because South Sudan isn’t being given a chance to develop in peace. Khartoum continues to make people pay for choosing freedom. Even though the two countries agreed yesterday to resume oil production, the Sudanese government continues to bomb along the border, particularly in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile area, and is dropping supplies to anti-government militias inside the country. This is happening at the same time as Khartoum steps up its renewed assaults on civilians in Darfur. As a result, people die, including small malnourished children like Zacarias. He and other victims of aggression deserve a better health care system, and their families deserve a chance to plant food and harvest it, build houses and live in them, in peace and unafraid.

I’m staying in Wau with an international Catholic group that’s helping this new country build its health care system. The community gathers every morning and evening to pray together. Every day they recite together the Magnificat. We Protestants could learn from repeating those words. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. That’s a world where 8-year old children need not die.

September 19, 2012

The rants of crazed Republicans in the United States about the legitimacy of rape has reminded me of the struggle of women in India against a blame-the-victim mentality that still plagues both gender relationships and the attitudes of public security officials, as documented in this recent article. Here’s a billboard from Varanasi I found a few years back. It would be nice if tacky advertising was as far as it went. But on that trip I wrote about dowry violence, and still vividly remember the blistered flesh of a woman in a Methodist hospital in Mathura who’d had her face burned by her in-laws in an “accident” at home. And what Nobel laureate Amartya Sen dubbed the “missing women”–the more than 100 million women in Asia who have been selectively aborted in the womb or killed shortly after birth in order not to “burden” families with a girl child–reminds us that this isn’t just extremist politicians like Aiken and Ryan and their religious backers who push policies that do violence to women. It’s much more insidious. But many in India are fighting back, supporting dowry-free weddings, for example. What are we doing in the U.S.? Perhaps the easiest and most urgent step is to defeat the misogynists at the polls in November.

September 10, 2012

Pressing the shutter button is the easy part of photography. I’m currently in Macedonia, part of a several-nation journey to write about and photograph Roma communities in Europe. Last week I was in Serbia, and one day went to a collection of containers plunked down in the middle of nowhere outside of Belgrade. The metal boxes are home to several dozen Roma families that were recently relocated from the center of the Serbian capital, where their settlement was considered an eyesore and an obstacle to developing modern high rise apartments and high rent retail stores. So the city gave them the containers and a free one-way ride out of town.

Roma have many historical reasons to distrust outsiders, and voyeur photographers are usually chased away. Not surprisingly, when I climbed out of the taxi at the edge of Containerville, some women stared at me. When I started pulling cameras out of my bag, they started shouting, Bezi! Bezi! – “Go away!” Being a sensitive guy, methinks this is gonna be one of those days. Along with Jovana Savic, my translator from Church World Service, I had arranged to meet a woman from a local Roma school who knew many of the families there. When I went and stood by her, people quit yelling at me, but they nonetheless kept giving me the evil eye. Then one of the women realized that she remembered me from when I had visited their urban squatter settlement one cold and snowy day last February. Then another one remembered me. The welcome got a bit warmer. Then I pulled the pièce de résistance out of my bag: some prints of several images I had captured during that earlier visit. In that instant I went from an unwelcome gadje to an old friend, and some of the women who’d been yelling at me to leave were now dragging me to their containers to show me their new home and have me photograph them anew. Soon we were sitting drinking coffee inside one of the containers, talking with a family I’d interviewed at length last winter. They had taken the printed photo I’d given to them and stuck it to the wall of their “living room” with a magnet. (Those interviews will provide material for articles I’ll write about the Roma early next year for Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women.)

After several hours amidst the containers, we went looking for other families, and found them in a even more depressing unofficial settlement nearby. Their small houses built of recycled scrap material made the containers look luxurious by comparison. One family I sought out had been kicked out of the containers because of fighting. Another woman I interviewed at length hadn’t qualified for a container because even though she’d lived in Belgrade for 12 years, she hadn’t established legal residence there, so when the city kicked the Roma out they sent her and her kids to her home village in the south of the country. She worked for two weeks picking crops to earn the bus fare back to Belgrade, where she’s living in what looks like a garbage dump and spends much of her days begging at a nearby McDonalds–it being almost impossible for illiterate Roma women to get jobs in the formal economy. We talked at length about the hopes she has for her daughters.

September 7, 2012

Images of hungry children are commonly used by all sorts of organizations to touch the heart of the viewer and thus convince them to give money to the cause. Churches are pretty adept at the practice, what I disgustingly call “peddling misery.” The antidote, however, isn’t to not take photos of hungry children, not if a photographer is trying to accurately convey the brutal conditions in which many people live. The trick, for lack of a more artful term, is something I was searching for on a trip to Malawi last year. The African country had made some real progress in establishing food security, and the president liked to leverage the claim into fame and fortune. It wasn’t the whole truth, as I described in a blog post from the trip, and my job was to visit some sections of the country hard hit by drought, which contributed to food insecurity, especially during the “hunger season” when farmers wait for the harvest. Indeed, I found hungry people, all striving in one way or another to resolve their problems, many by installing ways of irrigating their crops. Global warming has caused problems for farmers who traditionally have depended on rain, which is much more fickle these days. Yet only 3.5 percent of African crop land is irrigated, compared to 39 percent in South Asia. As a result, 47 percent of children under 5 years old in Malawi are stunted from malnutrition.

I took ample photos of people working on irrigation schemes, but none have the emotional pull of this girl, who’s eating sorghum porridge as she sits in the dirt in Chidyamanga, a village in the south of the country. Sorghum, by the way, is usually what people eat when they’ve run out of corn or other preferable foods. I’ll let you judge if the image buys into the old paternalistic stereotype, or whether there’s something else there besides the flies and the obvious poverty. Perhaps it’s the enjoyment with which she relishes the last bits of porridge. I’m not sure I can pin it down, but I like the image. It also enjoys an uncluttered background, which nicely isolates the subject, and is taken while kneeling low, thus avoiding the top-down colonial look of many photos of hungry children. (Yes, I wrote “colonial,” because having the viewer look down on the hungry child subtly reinforces hierarchical relationships of class, color, and power.)

By the way, in April the old president died, rather unexpectedly, and Joyce Banda, by background a community organizer, was sworn into office. She sold the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 presidential luxury cars, announced a war on corruption, removed a ban on homosexuality, started cracking down on domestic violence, and has tackled the challenge of hunger without the self-serving rhetoric of her predecessor. Unlike President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, who went to Harvard and worked for Citibank, President Banda comes to the post from women’s advocacy, particularly founding women’s micro-credit organizations. Keep an eye on her; she’s someone to watch.

August 28, 2012

It’s back to school time for many children in North America, so this week I’m thinking about people like Mariolette Souffrant, a woman living in a tent city in the Mais Gate neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Here she is one morning helping her son Lucien get dressed for school. The four-year old is a student at the Notre Dame de Petits School, run by the Notre Dame de la Nativite Orthodox Church, part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Look at their home, what reporters generously call a “tent.” There are more than 300,000 Haitians still living in such “temporary” conditions, despite all the money, despite all the aid groups. It’s still a mess. Yet the roots of Haiti’s disaster run deep, much deeper than the 2010 earthquake that destroyed this family’s home. But so too does the resolve of the poor to survive, to offer their children a better life. Amid the heartbreaking poverty of his neighborhood, Lucien goes to school in a clean uniform, his shoes shined. A mother’s love is often more powerful than the worst disaster. As a journalist, I see it all the time, and it helps keep at bay the evil I’m also forced to witness. Mèsi poutèt ou, Madan Mariolette. Etid byen, Lucien..

August 21, 2012

It was one of those interminable hot days in the tropics. I’d eaten a big lunch and was sleepy, yet my local hosts were enthusiastic about showing me another six projects before sunset. I bounced around in the Land Cruiser as they drove me to a couple of projects where people were growing and processing nim, the magic tree whose leaves will do everything, then to a place where women were pressing sunflower seeds for oil, then to a well digging project, and so on. Then they said we were going to visit a project where young people were enrolled in a novel training program combining academic studies with agricultural field work. Sponsored by United Methodist Women, it was on my to-do list in Kamina, a town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I was spending a few days. So we parked the rig and began to walk across some fields. It’s mid afternoon in the tropics, I’m feeling grumpy and thirsty, I haven’t had a good internet connection for hours, and now I gotta walk some more in the sun. And a sun that’s almost straight up in the air, which causes horrible shadows on people’s face, especially those with skin that doesn’t reflect light as much as others. (Photography in inherently racist.)

After an eternity that must have been at least five minutes, we found a bunch of young people out hoeing in the middle of a field. Two young women were off to one side, so I started capturing images of them. Some clouds drifted in front of the sun, miraculously softening the harsh light. One of the women had a baby on her back, which always scores well on the cute scale, so I started shooting some images of her. But the other, a 17-year old named Ngoy Wa Ngoy Euphrasi (for obvious reasons, I had my translator write people’s names down in my notebook), had both this fun hairstyle and a delightful smile. Pretty soon I was shooting just her, and she stopped and stood still, alternately giving me looks that ranged from stern to determined to confident to amused to delighted to almost ROFL. She was a natural actress, and I must have clicked off several dozen frames. For most of them, I had to stand on my tip toes to keep her head well below the horizon, providing a continuous out-of-focus green background. Watching this sweaty, camera-laden muzungu standing on his tip toes in the middle of a field in the middle of Africa may have contributed to her sense of delight. Hey, whatever works.

After a while I felt sorry for everyone else, so spent a while capturing images of them at work as well, but I knew Ngoy was going to look great. And she does. Remember I said I was going to once in a while show examples here of how my images actually get used? This is one such time. This is one of a series of images designed by Emily Miller, the creative ninja for United Methodist Women. She took several of my images (and, inexplicably, a few images by others) and placed one-word adjectives on them. All are from projects or programs related to United Methodist Women, and they flesh out the best of what UMW does around the world. (They’ve been showing up one each day over recent days on the UMW Facebook page.) The one-word descriptor on each image is clean and simple and evocative. In a concession to people like me who are always whining about including captions, Emily added the basics but did it non-intrusively. All in all an effective way to use images. Especially one that was such a gift from the young woman whose image graces it.

August 15, 2012

Photography is about hard work and persistence, but also a bit of luck. Here’s an image from a 2010 assignment in Tamil Nadu, in southern India. I was in the small village of Poonthandalam, photographing some children in a church-sponsored after school tutoring program. It was late in the day, nice light, and interesting subjects. The class took place on the porch of a building, so I could see the animals and carts going by. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some women with stuff on their heads walk by, heading directly toward the setting sun. My brain, whose synapses were working better than usual because of all that spicy Tamil food, immediately sent out the alert. “Photo op! Photo op!” accompanied by that loud claxon like in the movies when a submarine is about to dive. (Eat a lot of curry and tamarind and your body will start making all sorts of strange noises.) So I went running up the road, past the women, who were laughing for some reason, perhaps because this sweaty, camera-laden foreigner was running by them, the sound of a submarine claxon emitting from his ears. Anyway, I got enough in front of them so that I could use the long glass (that’s photographer talk for that heavy 70-200 f2.8 telephoto I carry around), and began to capture images of them walking toward me. What works here is two different factors. One, they’re walking into the setting sun, and if you’ve ever hung out with a photographer for more than one beer, you will have heard of the golden hour, blah, blah, when the sunlight is close to horizontal, so eyeballs emerge from the shadows and the temperature of the light takes on this nice warm character. But also, in this particular frame, the angle of the woman’s arm, echoed in the woman behind her, makes for a nice geometry that gives the image a bit more visual interest. The shallow depth of field keeps your focus on the woman in front, while leaving the second woman in a sort of fuzzy supporting actress role. Four or five clicks, an enthusiastic Nandri – thanks. Some shared smiles. And then back to the kids.

August 7, 2012
June 2012 Response

I’ve always admired the great portrait photographers, people who could get someone to sit in front of them and then capture an image which–in the same fraction of a second–also captures some of that person’s character, or soul, or personality. A good portrait is more than just a collection of pixels representing the outline and contours of someone’s face. It somehow shows them as they really are, not merely as they appear.

This photo is not an example of that. I said I admired the great portraitists, not that I was one. But it’s one of those photos that will do in a pinch. It’s a girl in Mizak, this wonderful little village in the mountains of southern Haiti. On one of my visits there last year, my translator Ulrick Louijeune and I were walking around, just seeing what we could find. By the way, that kind of mindless wandering usually yields the best images, and there’s never enough of it for me. Ulrick is always mystified by how I’ll be walking along and just unexpectedly change directions, at times because I saw something out of the corner of my eye that might make for good pictures, but often just because I had a hunch that something visually fascinating was happening down that path to the left, rather than that path to the right. My hunches usually prove correct, which doesn’t mean that nothing visually compelling was happening on the other path. What it really means, I suppose, it that something visually interesting is happening everywhere, we just need eyes to see it.

But back to the girl. It started raining quite heavily, so Ulrick and I ducked into a little store in the entry to someone’s house. It had a sort of covered porch, and we drank some soda and I captured some images of people walking by in the rain. Then this girl came up a path from the side, and I didn’t see her until it was too late. She was already on the porch, putting down the bundle she had carried on her head in search of a dry place to wait. She leaned up against the wall and looked back at me. Click.

We talked with her a bit, and I took a few more pictures, but it’s that initial one of her looking back–the drops of water prominent on her skin, looking perfectly normal, relaxed, unassuming, and curious–that works for me. We’ve grown so accustomed to photos of people in Haiti looking a certain way–poor or depressed or heroic or whatever–that just a “normal” photo of a person in a bit unguarded of a moment is refreshing. I’ll settle for that as a portrait any day.

She’s also looking at the camera, which is important for some people. For years I worked hard to get people to not look at the camera, because I didn’t want to seem to be there. “Don’t look at me,” I learned to say in several languages. By the way, that’s the exact opposite of what you should say to a little kid who you don’t want to look at you. (I should have been a psychology major!) Anyway, a few years ago Response magazine went through a major remodeling, and Emily Miller, the sharp young graphic designer for United Methodist Women, convinced the magazine staff that the cover always needed to have a person looking at the camera. When I asked why, she launched into some deep psychobabble about engaging the viewer, yadda yadda yadda. I shoot a lot for Response, so I was instructed to start taking pictures of people looking into the lens. Oh, and while you’re at it, please remember to leave room for the masthead. OK. . . So I started learning how to say, “Hey, look over here at the camera . . .”

Seriously, this photography stuff can get complicated. But then every once in a while, while you’re hanging out waiting for the rain to stop, a little girl just walks up to you and makes it easy.

July 31, 2012

This image wraps up my month-long focus on HIV and AIDS, and I chose it because it shows the face of the epidemic: ordinary people. I was in India in 2010 and spent several days photographing HIV-related work for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance around Chennai, including support groups, a church-sponsored clinic, and the daily lives of people living with the virus. Then I got on an overnight train with a Lutheran HIV worker and we went to Andhra Pradesh, where we spent a couple of days documenting the work of the Hope Arpana Positive People Effective Network in the area around Guntur. Located along a main trucking route, these communities were hard hit by HIV, but the Network is doing a great job of empowering people to fight back against stigma and discrimination, to lead full and positive lives, and to educate their neighbors in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Word got out that a photographer was going to be in the office of the Network one day, and dozens of people came to have their photographs taken. At first I resisted this, as I’d normally rather photograph people in their normal settings rather than do some sort of portrait work. But it turned out alright. For several hours, I had a line of people waiting, and I photographed them against a plain blank wall with side light from an open door. We had a lot of fun. There were some signs from a recent demonstration laying around the office, and I often had people hold one of them, in this case one that simply says “HIV/AIDS”.

This is Joji Babu and his wife Kumari, both of whom are HIV positive and members of the Network. They did not yet know the HIV status of their 1-year old daughter, Baby. (With antiretroviral drugs, the transmission of HIV from mother to child is being cut to almost zero–provided the drugs are available.) I like their relaxed and friendly nature. People living with HIV aren’t bad people. They are just like you and me. It’s just a disease.

A techy note: The photography here wasn’t difficult. The complicated part was the need, given the stigma attached to HIV status, for a signed release from anyone pictured and identified as living with the virus. So we had a release prepared, which we translated into Tamil for use around Chennai, and into Telugu for use in Andhra Pradesh. But the blank spaces were supposed to be filled in using English words. On this particular day one of the staff people of the Network filled out the forms, which we carefully numbered and took a reference photo of each subject holding their numbered form, thus insuring that I could match the release form with the right individual. This gets complicated when each person indicates in which media we can and cannot use their image. But it got even more complicated when part way through that day the person filling out the form started filling in the blanks in Telugu, with no English translation. And Telugu script ain’t the same as English. But I didn’t notice this until several weeks later when I was home in Oregon trying to caption the images and note in each embedded caption which particular uses were allowed by each subject. All of a sudden, I was looking at a sheaf of release forms that I couldn’t decipher. So I had to scan them, email them to Chennai, where the Lutheran staffer got on a train back to Andhra Pradesh to get new forms signed (or thumbprinted, if they’re illiterate) with English information included. They scanned these and emailed them back to me. Did somebody say photography was easy?

July 25, 2012

I’m currently covering the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, especially the participation of the faith community. I’ve covered previous IACs in Bangkok, Mexico City, and Vienna. It’s always a whirlwind of activity, with more than 20,000 researchers, care givers, people living with the virus, media, activists, pharma reps, and so on. It’s exciting for a journalist because there are so many fascinating people to interview all in one place–if you can find them in the mob. By the end I’m brain dead. But there are also moments of fun, as people demonstrate how they creatively work with the disease. Some of the AIDS education stuff is downright brilliant. In this case, I photographed a dancing condom, accompanied by a women’s band, at a human rights rally at the 2008 conference in Mexico City.

There are, quite literally, condoms all over the place here, including high fashion constructed from condoms. And this year there are more and more women’s condoms (aka femidoms), featuring a new and improved design. But writing about the response of the religious community, particularly Catholics, gets one onto fragile ground. Most of the Catholics I know doing HIV work in the field have a fairly nuanced view of condoms. It’s simply one tool in a range of resources for prevention. But people are so afraid of the church hierarchy these days that no one wants to talk about it on the record. They’ve got enough problems dealing with flatlined funding, with a resurgence of stigma and hate from conservative evangelical sectors, and with a disinterest in the software of AIDS response given the new fascination with a possible cure or rumored vaccine. On top of that they have to keep their heads down lest someone look down from on high and see something untoward, in which case out they go. Why is the church so messed up when it comes to sex?

July 20, 2012

Although much of the news at this year’s International AIDS Conference, which is about to get underway in Washington, DC, focuses on progress toward finding a vaccine or cure for the disease, those who struggle on the front lines against the pandemic often get ignored. There are hundreds of thousands of home-based caregivers who are the unsung heroes of the AIDS response. They bring basic health care with them as they visit people in their homes, but more importantly they bring support and acceptance. Their visits de-stigmatize the disease and remove the fear and isolation that often accompany it.

It’s often women–usually older women, often grandmothers–who do this work. People like Olipa Mkandawire, who I photographed caring for a man living with AIDS in Matuli, Malawi. She is a volunteer home-based caregiver with the AIDS Program of the Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

Caregivers in Malawi, according to a study by the Huairou Commission, work an average of 8.2 hours per week. Some of them have organized an alliance to pressure the government for better support. But they’ll continue their work whether official support is present or not, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Many carry out their work as part of faith-based organizations, which provide about 40 percent of health services in Malawi.

According to Matilda Maluza, the national health secretary for the Catholic bishops’ conference of Malawi, more than 80 percent of caregivers in her country are women and they’re not adequately compensated for their work. “We are taking advantage of women, who are born to be caregivers. We’re violating the rights of the woman, because she has other roles. I’m a woman, but I also go to work. When I come home I want to sit down and rest. But if I’ve got a number of people to care for, as a woman I’m expected to go care for them. I have to cook and fetch water and firewood, and then I’m expected to care for others. When do I get time to rest? Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you should do everything,” she says. “Men should contribute more, but men tend to only get involved when there is pay involved. It’s time for that to change.”

Father Richard Bauer has had a different experience in Namibia, where he says men surprised him.

“We started training men because we had the idea that a few of them could help convince other men to support the women doing the work, because women caregivers often got in trouble with their male partners. The male partners would say, ‘Why are you doing all that? You should be out in the fields, or at home or caring for kids.’ Our initial idea was to get the men to support the women, but they said, ‘No, we want to do it ourselves.’ We started a couple of pilot programs of men providing home care for men. It was unbelievable. We now have more men on the waiting list to be caregivers than we have a budget to train and supervise them,” he says.

As AIDS becomes a focus of news coverage in the coming days, let’s remember the people–women and men–who selflessly provide care and strength for the journey for those living with the virus.

July 10, 2012

Accompanied by drummers, a young woman dances in the streets of Sathangudi, a rural southern Indian village, to invite residents to a play about HIV and AIDS. She displays the enthusiasm that many young people bring to the task of raising awareness of the virus and how to avoid it. Her group is sponsored by the Center for Research and Rehabilitation of Infants and Females (CRIF), a Madurai-based group which conducts advocacy and education on HIV and AIDS. CRIF receives support from United Methodist Women Mission Giving. This is the third in my month-long series of images which reflect a side of HIV and AIDS we too often don’t see.

July 3, 2012

Part of the story about HIV and AIDS which is not reported enough are those myriad acts of everyday solidarity and advocacy carried out by ordinary people who may not themselves be directly affected by the virus. Here’s a boy in a 7th grade class of the Isaacson Primary School in the Rockville neighborhood of Soweto, South Africa, as he writes a letter to his government’s minister of health asking for easier access to medication for children who are living with HIV. I’d gone to the school on assignment for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance to photograph as the class discussed the issue and wrote letters, and I took the kind of photos you’d expect of kids sitting at desks, writing letters, and of the discussion, which was facilitated by a staff member of the Christian AIDS Bureau for Southern Africa. Solid pics, but nothing dramatically different. It was this image, out of all the photos, taken from directly above Mbali and using f6.3 (1/125 second at ISO 3600) to give me enough depth of field to keep both the text and his facial features in focus, that stood out for me. It captures a small act of solidarity, sure. But it’s nonetheless a challenge to most of us who sit around and do even less.

June 29, 2012

I was recently at a meeting where a church-based AIDS program made a presentation about its work. I was struck by how the photographs that it used had an inordinate number of people who were sick looking, as well as scenes of white people handing things to black people. For many, those images become the face of HIV and AIDS. Problem is, it’s the wrong picture.

I’ve had the privilege of working over several years with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, covering creative and compassionate AIDS-related work around the world, as well as documenting the International AIDS Conference when it met in Bangkok, Mexico City, and Vienna. In mid-July I’ll be in Washington, D.C., to cover the next International AIDS Conference, an event that takes place every two years.

In all of those assignments, whether it was photographing home care givers in Malawi or children doing street theater about HIV prevention in Tamil Nadu, I’ve been struck by the imagination and dedication of people working in the field, as well as the courage of those living with or directly affected by the virus. Most of the former are not white, and most of the later are not black, much less sickly. Indeed, HIV affects all colors and sorts of people. I think many people get that today, and it’s too bad our church communications efforts don’t always reflect that. To do my part, I’m going to pick HIV-related images for all of the Pictures of the Week for July. And since it’s almost July, let’s start now. (Paul make executive decision.)

Here’s an image from the village of Toong-sa-tok in northern Thailand. It’s a class in the Buddhist temple-supported Banhuarin School, where children–wearing their scout uniforms on this day of the week–learn about HIV. Helping teach the class is Srisangwan Punyapeng, an HIV positive woman who works with Jai-Kao-Jai-Rao (the ” Let’s Talk About HIV” Association). Here she helps two boys learn how to properly use a condom.

Some back story: For weeks before this trip I thought the Thai segment was all nailed down, as an expat living in Chiang Mai was arranging where I would go once I got there. But he got sick a couple of days before I arrived, and told me I was on my own. It was too late to cancel that part of the trip, so I went ahead and went, and when I got to Chiang Mai started calling some contacts I hustled up. One said he thought the monk in Toong-sa-tok was doing some interesting AIDS stuff. But he had no phone number or other information. So the next day I hired a bellboy from the hotel as a translator, and hired a cab for the day. We drove a couple of hours to the village, and finally talked to the monk, after sitting cross-legged for hours in a room in the temple. He was skeptical, but I turned on the ol’ interreligious charm, and he invited me back the next day. I came back, this time with a woman from the hotel as a translator (which created some tension with the monks, but we dealt with it), and accompanied the monk as he went around visiting people living with HIV, many of whom participate in an income-generating project the temple sponsors. They have a dance group of children who are affected by HIV, and I had a great time photographing them. Then the monk invited me to accompany him to the school, where he teaches a religion class. And it just happened that Srisangwan Punyapeng and three other women from Jai-Kao-Jai-Rao were there that day (you can be good, but it’s even better to be lucky), and they happily agreed to let me photograph. They had a good time with the kids, which included both girls and boys (and they had female condoms as well). A very factual, scientific, and fun introduction to HIV and AIDS, which is what kids need. Maybe they could do a class for miter-class church leaders…

June 22, 2012

I’m way behind on work, deadlines whizzing by, and am stuck in Pasco, Washington, for a five-day meeting. I’m feeling sorry for myself because I want to participate fully in the meeting, I want to spend time visiting with colleagues, and yet I keep sneaking back to the hotel room to crank out text. So I end up feeling sorry for myself. Which of course makes me less productive, exacerbating my existential crisis. It’s times like this that I need to take a deep breath, and remember people like Nguyen Xuan Cuong, who I photographed a few years back in Ha Trach, Vietnam. He lost his arms to a landmine during what the Vietnamese rightly call the “U.S. War.” He and other amazing people I met on that assignment, people who’d been left physically challenged by their history, simply don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. Despair, methinks, really is a privilege of class. Sigh.

June 13, 2012

The subjects of my images are often unindicted co-conspirators in their creation. Take this image, for example, of some boys scavenging in the municipal garbage dump in Chennai, in the south of India. I met them in a shelter sponsored by a local ecumenical group. I was in Chennai in 2010 shooting images of their excellent HIV and AIDS work, and the staff invited me to come by the shelter early one morning. It’s a place where boys, who otherwise would have to fend for themselves on the mean streets of what the British dubbed Madras, can spend the night in safety, eat a decent meal and take a shower. But when morning comes, they head back out to their daytime jobs, which for most of them is scavenging in the huge municipal dump. I wanted to document that, but inspectors at the dump entrance aren’t very fond of foreign photographers, and the kids said they’d never knowingly let me in. So they put me in the group’s van, where I scrunched down in the back surrounded by boys, and we drove through the front gate and into the middle of the dump. The boys got out and started working, while I photographed them. Soon they’d forgotten about me and were engrossed in the details of their work, including consulting with each other about the value of the individual bits of metal and other scrap that they can sell to recyclers. I had at least 15 minutes to work before a dump official discovered me and requested that I leave. To these boys and so many others who literally conspire with me to make strong and compelling images of their daily lives, many thanks.

June 7, 2012

The few times I’ve found myself trapped in close quarters with marketing professionals, I’ve nonetheless learned a thing or two. Take logos, the visual graphic that “symbolizes” a particular brand. The Nike swoosh, for example. What exactly does it stand for? What does it mean? Marketing gurus would prefer that you answer that question yourself. In other words, a “successful” modern logo isn’t one that corresponds easily and directly to something concrete, but rather provokes its own unique emotional response in each person who views it. And that response is then associated with the logo sponsor, but the connection is more deeply rooted psychologically than a simple acronym or company name.

Photographic images can serve a similar function. Take this photo of Bobana, a 26-year old woman I met years ago in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She lost her hands to an explosion of ordnance during the war. Today she’s a photographer. (This is her second appearance here; for an image of her with her camera, check out the May 24, 2011, Picture of the Week.) She hasn’t let her disability stop her, and she participates actively in a local cooperative of artists who are also survivors of war-related violence.

I photographed Bobana at her home, including images of her photographing some of her friends. I also photographed her lighting and smoking a cigarette, no minor accomplishment with no hands. I had seen these prosthetic arms in her home, but when I asked her about them she said she didn’t like them and hardly ever used them. So when before leaving I asked if I could capture some portrait images of her in the doorway of her home, I had her bring them along, and shot a few images with her holding them. Why? In retrospect I could invent some deep philosophical motivation, but to be honest, I don’t know. I was just trying to imagine (interesting how that’s the same root as image, eh?) different perspectives on her life and personality. Is it accurately exposed and in focus? Ok, let’s move along.

Over time, however, there’s something about this picture which provokes an emotional response. I can’t explain why of the more than 10,000 images in my online photo archive, it’s the one that’s been viewed the most times, easily beating out a mutilated LRA victim. A couple of months ago, Yvette Moore, the editor of response, the magazine of United Methodist Women, chose is as the cover photo for an issue on “extraordinary women.” It fits well. Bobana’s a victim, but even more so she is a survivor, and her gentle toughness and quiet resilience challenge each of us. Which is, of course, exactly what I was thinking of when I pressed the shutter button.

May 30, 2012
Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance

This week I continue the occasional example of showing how an image was used. Here’s a photo from last August. I was in Haiti, covering several things, and I went to the village of Mizak for a few days. While there I shot photos of the Nouvel Etwal, a girls’ dance group that’s part of the multi-faceted ministry in Mizak coordinated by Haitian Artisans for Peace and the local Methodist faith community, and supported by United Methodist Women.

Nouvel Etwal – Haitian Kreyol for “New Stars” – is a dance and creative movement group of 16 girls in Mizak from age 8 to 13. According to Valerie Mossman-Celestin, an organizer of the group, “Nouvel Etwal seeks to empowers girls to be self-confident and creative. The girls learn flexibility, discipline and teamwork, lessons they also need for life. Nouvel Etwal promotes health, well-being and enhanced self-worth. The girls are encouraged to live into a brighter future where girls and women are valued, educated, and have equal opportunity to achieve their potential.”

When Valerie approached me weeks before about capturing images of the girls, I started imagining them dancing on the beach, with the late afternoon sun illuminating them against the deep Caribbean blue sky. Or on a hillside, the early morning sun lighting up their faces, projecting an image of beauty and strength that would provoke a bit of cognitive dissonance for some people who assume Haiti is just about poverty and despair.

It was a great idea. Unfortunately, immediately on the heels of my arrival in Mizak came Hurricane Irene, which at the last moment veered northward, sparing Haiti a direct blow, but mudding up the skies for several days. We carried the assignment off anyway, and made a fun trip to the beach with the girls, some of whom had never gone down the hill from their mountain village to the nearby ocean. I shot stills while my colleague Tim Frakes captured video. It was fun. The photos turned out ok, but not what I’d hoped for.

The next morning, we drug the girls out to a hilltop early, as the sun was just coming up. Well, it didn’t really come up, at least not that we could see through the clouds. We had overcast skies and occasional rain. That didn’t stop the girls. I photographed some of them individually, and then had the group line up across the hillside. A tiny boom box produced a dancing song, and I asked them to dance but keep looking forward into that wonderful dawn sunrise that I had imagined and yet which never materialized, though at times we got some blue sky behind them. So the image works, but the contrast and saturation aren’t quite what I’d hoped for. The girls’ faces are too dark. The charm and promise of the girls, however, more than compensates for my photographic and meteorological ineptitude.

The image was chosen by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance for their yearly report cover, and for a matching poster. The artwork is by Designworks, a firm based in the Lake District of Cumbria, in the UK.

May 23, 2012

Usually I go back a ways in picking each week’s photo, but let’s break the rules this week and use one I captured on Monday, when I was in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. I spent a couple of days documenting the work of Gary and Cindy Moon, who are Korean-American United Methodist missionaries who’ve started an orphanage for HIV positive children. They’ve currently got eight girls, and I shot hundreds of images of them walking, working and playing with the girls. The Moons are doing great work. It’s a ministry of accompaniment, and that means, in this case, being present with 8-year old Play Nata as she waits for the dentist. In many places in the world, that’s a rather tedious experience. In this case, they got her checked in at a huge medical center, and once she got in to see the dentist the care seemed quite good (though Play ended up having to be rather unhappily restrained). But the wait was, well, you can see for yourself. I like the image because some people think that missionaries’ lives are simply filled to the brim with glamorous and exciting cross-cultural adventures. I hate to disabuse anyone of that notion, but serious accompaniment means hanging with people even through the hard times of waiting, of which there are too many.

May 16, 2012

After last week’s image from below, I thought I’d continue the theme. Here’s an image I captured in Gaza, during the physical education class of a girl’s school in the Jabalyia refugee camp. At a time when it remains fashionable in the U.S. to demonize and dehumanize Palestinians, particularly Palestinian Muslims, it’s a visual reminder that they are normal people. One of the gifts of photography is the ease with which it can subvert dominant narratives. Anyway…

For some time the girls had been racing around the school courtyard, with me faithfully capturing their exertions. At the end of the class they formed a big circle holding hands. They then ran together into the middle, laughing as they tightened the circle, and then backed up to make the circle wide once again. Then they repeated the process. Your faithful correspondent, ni lento ni perezoso, jumped into the middle and lay down on the ground, pointing the camera skyward. It was early enough in the morning that the sun wasn’t high and casting horrible shadows on the girls’ eyes, and with the blue sky as background to their hijabs, it worked well. When the girls ran into the frame, I would press that little button that makes magic happen inside the camera. I like this frame best, in part because of the disembodied hands on the right side that keep the photo a bit off balance. By the way, part of why the girls are laughing is that they were trying really hard not to step on me.

May 9, 2012

In 2007 I was shooting in the Darfur region in western Sudan, where government-sponsored violence, what many considered genocide, had killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes into crowded displacement camps in Darfur and across the border in Chad. In any desert region, a well is a point of gathering, of community, indeed of life itself–for without the water it yields there is no way to survive. During this and an earlier visit to Darfur, I had captured hundreds of images of people around wells, mostly women and girls fetching water. Some of those wells served both displaced people and the host communities where they’d been located, even though those two groups represented different sides of the inexact division of the region’s people into Arab and African populations. In those cases, the simple act of digging wells was a contribution toward reconciliation between two groups caught in the government’s divide and conquer policies.

Yet I was still searching for a way to show how a well brought a community together. In a moment of temporary stupidity, in the Khamsadegaig IDP camp, I decided I would climb down into one, and have the community members look down at me. Sounded simple enough.

One of the issues in doing this were the rungs in the wall of the well, allowing people to climb in and out. Made of bent rebar and anchored in the brick walls of the well, they were designed for Darfuris, who, not to be too blunt about it, are a heck of a lot skinnier than me. And the bricks themselves–made in the camp–weren’t the most solid of building materials. So as I peered down into the well, where the surface of the water was about 35 feet down, and wiggled the highest rungs, it seemed a good idea to set up a belay. Trouble was, a search of the immediate area produced no rope. The closest thing we came up with was some nylon webbing that was used to strap the spare tire to the roof rack of the jeep. Since it had been exposed to the UV radiation of the desert for at least several months, I worried it had the breaking strength of fettuccine. But it was all we had. So we backed the jeep up and fastened one end to the bumper, and one end went around my waist. I began climbing gently down the rungs, most of which wiggled rather menacingly as I descended. A couple of them were so loose that I skipped putting any weight on them.

I got down to where my lens could take in the entire opening above. I figured that if worse came to worse, I at least wouldn’t die quickly. I would fall, the webbing would snap, I’d land in the water, thus polluting the major water source for thousands of people, causing an epidemic which would end with people in moonsuits from the CDC flying in. And they’d blame it on me, of course, whether or not I managed to climb out of the well before drowning. With nothing serious to worry about, then, I simply couldn’t figure out why I was shaking.

My left arm was looped around one of the rungs that seemed solid enough to hold me. I used two flashes off camera, gaffer taped together, held in my left hand, with a cord running to the camera in my right hand. I dialed up the flash compensation by a stop or two to illuminate the faces and dumbed down the exposure by one stop in order to keep the sky dark. I leaned out as far as I could to try to get closer to the middle of the shaft.

And then I took a few pictures. Simple. Then I climbed out. Whew.

May 5, 2012

When I heard this week that the hatemongers from Westboro Baptist Church were coming to the United Methodist General Conference in Florida, an event I was covering for the denomination’s news service, I felt caught in a dilemma. I’ve photographed these idiots before, and they are beyond despicable. And yet every time a photographer shows up to shoot one of their activities, it merely feeds their sick egos. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all just ignored them. They very well might go away. On the other hand, their presence is news in itself, and I’m uncomfortable deciding a group doesn’t warrant coverage just because I disagree with them. So I was really torn.

But when they showed up, they were quickly blockaded by a human shield of people from the coalition of progressive groups that hung out in a huge tent across from the convention center. They turned their backs on the homophobic thugs and encouraged people to move along, that there was nothing there to see. I think it worked effectively, and it allowed me to capture images in which no longer was hate speech the focus, but rather the calm demeanor of people who nonviolently resist hatred. I’ll gladly take photos of that any day.

It was also a sort of iconic image for the entire 11-day conference, in which on vote after vote, the forces of exclusion and oppression found majority support. In a plenary debate, an African delegate called gay people names that the interpreter would only translate after apologizing. On the unsuccessful proposal to divest from corporations benefitting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, speakers rewrote history, echoing a blind Zionism and issuing appeals to a jihad against Muslims. And so on, day after day. Although as a visual communicator I only kept one ear tuned to the words being uttered, much of what I heard was ignorant, arrogant, and hateful.

But that’s not the whole picture. Just like the sisters and brothers who turned their backs on the Westboro folks, taking a stand for love and tolerance, so are many in the denomination maintaining their steady vigil in favor of a church that’s truly characterized by open minds, open hearts, and open doors. They stood at the sides of the conference hall, quietly praying for conversion of a church that’s increasingly captive to cultural racism. They sat in the plenary as delegates, speaking when they could a word of hope. They are so many colleagues and friends in so many churches and communities around the globe who work unstintingly for justice. They are our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who only want the freedom to love who they want. They are the poor, who call us all to understand the Gospel as it is incarnated through their lives and struggles. They are the real picture worth taking every day.

April 26, 2012

I found Arbanac Sofija and her 3-year old daughter Caka huddled under a blanket inside their meager home in an unauthorized Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, during a February visit. It was unseasonably cold, and many poor folks were having a hard time, including this family. Besides the cold, Arbanac and her family had just been told they would soon be evicted by city officials to make way for new high-rise office buildings. But they had two blankets, provided to them by Church World Service. You know, the CROP Walk people. CWS is an ecumenical agency that’s funded by things like the CROP Walk and giving from U.S. denominations. There are a few United Methodist cents in every CWS dollar.

I’m at a two-week gathering in Florida where the United Methodist Church is doing what it does every four years: argue about structure, restructure, human sexuality, corporate divestment and a variety of other hot button issues. In the middle of thousands of people talking, it seems easy to lose sight of what this is all about. To me, it’s as simple as this blanket. Where people suffer, we respond with compassion. Where there’s war, we work for justice. The question is how to tell the story of what we do without tripping over the way we tell the story.

General Conference is always a bit of an ego boost for me, in that I get to see my images used in a variety of ways in everything from brochures to giant displays. One here has a two-story image I captured of an African woman, part of a display in an exhibit hall where church agencies try to outdo each other with flashy, compelling displays. Another exhibit allows people to be photographed in front of a green screen and pasted into one of four images I took of people in the “mission field.” But the exhibit I like the most is that of United Methodist Women, for whom I produce a lot of writing and images. Their exhibit, however, features none of that glitz or gimmickry. Instead, in a victory for guerrilla marketing, it’s a roped off, empty area with a sign that says they’ve been working to empower women and children for 143 years, and this time around, rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on a flashy exhibit, they took the money they would have spent and funded scholarships for two women seminary students in Cameroon. Photos of the sign explaining this became an instant social media phenomenon, and members of United Methodist Women are walking around with an extra strut in their stuff. Months from now, no one will remember the flashy displays, but people will still be talking about the non-display. Such an attitude means more program money for what we as a church do well, whether it’s empowering women as change agents in their communities or putting blankets where they’re most needed, like over Arbanac and her daughter.

April 17, 2012

Here’s another example of how an image was used. (Remember I promised in January that every once in a while I’ll show how and where my images get used?) I picked this because when capturing images of people, I try hard to get their face, especially their eyes. That’s usually what makes us interesting. But sometimes, as in this case where I was shooting women working in a rice paddy in Java, a situation where it’s dang hard to get faces because people are bent over and purposefully shading their faces from the sun, I’m left with little else than the rest of their body. So here I’m screwing around with the alignment of the rows, the woman and her shadow, the reflection of the sun behind her, etc. (I’d hate for you to think I ever took a decent photo simply because I got lucky), and come up with an image that, later on when I’m editing, I look at it and say, “Err…” But, what the heck, I process it anyway and stick it in with the rest, in this case a bunch of photos I was shooting for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance as part of a campaign about food security, particularly what international trade policies had done to domestic rice production in Ghana, Honduras and Indonesia.

What’s curious is that sometimes designers love these kind of images, apparently because they’re intriguing without taking over the layout. They can lay their fonts all over the place and the photo doesn’t overwhelm. In this case, a report that was skillfully designed by my friend Gilberto Lontro, it works well. That’s good, because I hate to think I stood out there and got all sweaty and sunburned for nothing.

April 12, 2012

Let’s talk today about dynamic range, the ratio between the maximum and minimum intensities of measurable light. Huh? It’s the continuum from light to dark that we can distinguish with our eyes. Our cameras are not as sensitive as our eyes when it comes to capturing dynamic range, so photographers spend a lot of time trying to either not blow the highlights or not lose the shadows. In either case, you want to avoid losing detail in the two extremes. That makes it difficult to capture images of a scene where there is both very black and very white areas. (Which is why NGOs that buy pure white t-shirts for their staff in Africa frequently earn choice words of scornful reproach from fotogs.)

In 2010 I was shooting in Yei, in what would soon become the country of South Sudan. I had stopped by a Methodist school there to pick up someone, and while I was waiting I saw this woman cooking the lunchtime meal for the school staff. She was inside a dark hut, and the only light coming in was hitting the steam rising from the pot. I had doubts about whether it would work, but I’m always a sucker for a challenge. I captured a few frames, dumbing down the exposure compensation by 1.3 stops in order to keep the white steam from turning into a hole of dead pixels. That also prevented the camera’s computer from lightening up the shadows, which it always wants to do. What makes the image work is that the only light on th


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