Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Running away

A displaced boy does a handstand in a camp outside Zalingei, in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. (Paul Jeffrey)

Children can be a pain in the butt. They are such adorable little creatures, unless you’re tasked with photographing in a refugee camp. Don’t get me wrong, here, I’m talking about kids who are like me when I was a kid: obnoxious. (Some would suggest it’s a trait I have yet to outgrow.)

Let me explain. In refugee camps, you usually have a whole lot of people thrown together in tight surroundings. Although the U.N. and a plethora of NGOs make a valiant effort to provide schooling and other safe spaces for children, kids have a lot of time on their hands. And there’s not a lot to do, frankly. So when a foreign photographer comes wandering through, the alert goes out, and kids gather to trail along as if one were the Pied Piper rather than some sweaty, underpaid documentary photographer. That kids attach themselves to visitors explains why so many non-photographer visitors come back with so many pictures of those adorable kids mugging for the camera, and not much else. But the role of the documentary photographer isn’t to just shoot a scrum of little tykes climbing over each other to grin into the lens barrel. It’s to show life in the camp, daily life, normal life, as if the photographer weren’t there. That’s not possible, theoretically speaking, given the premise in quantum theory that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.

But we try, self-delusional as the task requires. One of the best solutions is to get there really early, while the little ones are still asleep, if you can navigate the myriad security restrictions that tend to limit your access to the middle of the day, when the light is horrible. But if you can get there early, you’ll find it’s usually the mothers who get up first and occupy themselves with domestic chores that can be photographed in that wonderful early morning light. But as the sun rises, so do the kids, and soon the word is out that there’s a kawadja or mzungu in the vicinity, and they come prepared to stick to me as if I were a kid magnet. So to do my job I’ve got to figure out how to liberate myself from the scrum of kids. Every time I want to take a photo, they start jumping into the frame, undoubtedly because they think they are cute. At least that’s what I thought when I was their age. Pleading with them seldom works. Asking a camp leader seldom works, either because they just shrug their shoulders and say that controlling the kids is an impossible task, or they grab a stick and start beating the little darlings, which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Sometimes I’ll work out a dance routine where they have to imitate my moves, and I’ll duck walk or moon walk or Elvis walk along a path, with a group of 50 kids tagging along behind copying my every move. Such discipline at least keeps them behind me so I can shoot whatever I find in front of me. In really dusty environments, even that won’t work well because all those little feet raise an impressive cloud of dust. I’ve often told the kids I wanted a group photo, then given one camera to my translator and while he or she started taking photos of them, I would sneak off. That usually gives me about a minute to work before I’m rediscovered. A few times I’ve convinced them to all sit down on the ground around me, and as long as they all remain sitting, I will dance for them, which for some reason they find amusing. When I spy something I want to photograph, like women walking by carrying water on their heads, I’ll quickly pull up my long lens and quickly capture a few frames before the kids in that direction stand up to block my view.

In desperation, I’ve even had to run for it. The photo above was captured in 2005 in a refugee camp outside Zalingei, in Sudan’s Darfur region. I had grown frustrated with the horde of kids and finally broke into a run, weaving through the warren of mud huts, camera in hand, hoping to discover something worth photographing. The kids were running after me, yelling and screaming, obviously enjoying whatever game this was. After a minute or so I came into a space between some huts where a boy was walking on his hands with considerable expertise. It was a moment of simple joy in a vast expanse of human despair. The synapses clicked in my brain, I skidded to a stop and raised the camera to my eye and started shooting. The first couple of frames were not quite focused, but the third frame did the trick. What I always remember, however, when I see this image, is that I cropped it slightly on the right side, partly to move the boy’s body closer to where the rule of thirds wants it to be, but mostly to remove the shadow of a boy’s outstretched hand, a boy who was running as fast as he could to get into the frame. The next frame shows his head and shoulders emerging from the side of the photo, a huge grin on his face as he flies into my field of view. Too late, kiddo, I got here first.

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