Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Sunshine woes

A woman planting rice as part of a community agriculture project outside Kamina, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the project increases food security in poor communities, especially for women and children.

Seems like it would be simple. If farmers are working in a field, you just point the ol’ camera and “click.” Then on to the next task. But it seldom works out that way. Why? Farmers tend to put things in the ground, and thus spend a lot of time looking at the ground. The ground is down. The sun is up. Thus the sun is not lighting the farmer’s face. And since photography captures reflected light, if none is reflected, then, well, you don’t have a very good image. When you add dark skin to the equation (I’ve just been in Haiti for two weeks), it gets more complicated, cause the darker the skin the less light that’s reflected. It’s a lot simpler, of course, if it’s early in the morning when the sun is coming in from the side, but that’s hard to achieve in practice. The hardest part of my job is getting my hosts to get me out early. Or late. That first hour (or last hour) of light is frequently magical. In the middle of the day it’s often fatal. . . Here’s an assignment shooting an ag project for UMCOR in the Congo in 2008. It is, of course, predictably, the middle of the day. (All my whining got me nowhere.) It’s also about 150 degrees out. We hiked an hour from the road into a village where people were planting rice in a flooded field. My job was to capture images of them working, but I’ve got black faces looking down in bright light. If I simply shot it without adding light, it wouldn’t work. Their faces would be murky shadows. I could use flash, and sometimes I do, but that’s a skill set that I’m still working on, and it’s hard with flash not to affect the whole frame and thus end up with something that doesn’t quite look right. So a lot of the time in cases like this I use a collapsible reflector. It folds up in a case that hangs off my camera bag. In a situation like this, I whip it out, unfold it, and someone assists me by holding it in such a way that it bounces the sun into the subject’s face. I can clearly see the result, adjust the light, and often end up with a workable image. In this case, the UMCOR staffer who was accompanying me didn’t want to walk out in this muddy field where they were planting rice. He said something about his shoes. So I’m out there on my own. No translator, no reflector holder. I find a woman who’s not scared of the camera, babble something unintelligble in French to put her at ease (and convince her that I am more stupid than a rock), and then try to get down low. In this case, that means kneeling down in the water and mud, trying to keep my camera gear dry, wiping the sweat from my forehead so it won’t drip all over the camera eyepiece, and hold the camera with one hand and the reflector with the other until everything is in place . . . and then the woman moves where she is planting. So I drag myself up and using a complicated set of photographer algorythms, figure out where she’s going to be planting in another 30 seconds, then lower myself gracefully into the muck. If the wind is blowing it makes aiming the reflected light even more fun, cause the reflector has the aerodynamics of a hang glider. Anyway, I did this over and over with her and a few other farmers (e.g., here and here and here), and they were graceful enough to keep working and not put me out of my misery by pushing me over backward in the mud.

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