Wednesday, October 25, 2006

We're leaving for Rakai, an area in southern Uganda, very shortly. There we're each assigned a family to follow around for a few days. They live in dwellings somewhat like this one (w/o the front yard, I understand). Most of the group will be returning Sunday.

At this point, I may be traveling on to refugee camps near the Rwanda/Congo border to shoot with a colleague here for Right to Play, an organization educating the youth about aids, immunizations, and other concerns through games and sports. I went with Brian yesterday to shoot a group here in Kampala. Very eye-opening! However, shooting action isn't quite my forte, so I'm a bit hesitant about the project.

The Batwa Pygmies is a project I'm still hoping will come through. The videographer Brian (different from photo Brian above) will meet with them today and get the rest of the information for me since I will be away. If he is able to contact me with the final arrangements, then I may try to meet up with him instead.

Our first critique was last night. The work among our group is truly impressive! I feel privileged to be a part of such a thoughtful body of work.

I may not have internet contact for at least a week, so this will be my last post for awhile. I will take good notes, though, and fill you in when I return!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The ugly American is alive and well.

Tuesday things began to happen. I finally caught up with a group called the Human Rights Network-Uganda (HURINET_U), an umbrella NGO for human rights groups of various concerns. One of their groups works with the Batwa Pygmies and is in need of some photography and video to make their plight known to the world.

I went to the meeting with a video workshop participant named Brian. It was at Hurinet offices just outside of Kampala, about a 20 minute cab ride from the hotel. There we met with a human rights lawyer on internship from Zimbabwe (Rangoo), Muhammad (HURINET's national coordinator), and Patrick (their Advocacy, Info, and Research officer). It was a closed door meeting in Muhammad's office, quite formal as it turned out. These are African businessmen with serious work.

Considering a few harrowing moments, the meeting went well. The frustrating part was the lack of professionalism that came across on our part. Brian and I were just walking into the meeting when a call came that another video student would be joining us. Over half of the meeting had passed when the person arrived in a loud and disruptive manner. Immediately he/she (I'm just going to use the incorrect "they"!) began asking questions we had already covered. The Africans working with their underprivileged have come across as calm but intense when they speak of their country's issues. So the interruption was jarring to say the least.

The horrifying part came shortly thereafter. Weather in Uganda has been beautiful. Windows are left open, breezes and sounds of local life gently ebb and flow into the rooms. One of those sounds was the call to prayer from the neighborhood's mosque. To those of us in the meeting, it registered imperceptibly, except perhaps for the inner prayers each of us with faith most likely lifted. Well, except our newest arrival. The person threw their hands up overhead, interrupting Muhammad (yes, ironic), saying in their loud voice, "I'm sorry, but everyone is acting like they don't hear that noise. WHAT is that?"

My advice if you are traveling to an unknown land, read about it before you arrive. Learn about its people, customs, religion. In the US oftentimes our tolerance of every religion leads to knowledge and respect for none. In most of the world, religion is beautifully woven into the fabric of everyday life. And while it's impossible to learn everything about a place, certainly if you find yourself in an unknown situation, quietly ask a fellow traveler (at an appropriate time), or a native of the area with whom you've already established a rapport. (And ask in a gentle way, as the person who explains that noise to you may be named Muhammad). I know this is common sense... or so I thought. As Americans we are extremely isolated geographically and oftentimes culturally. It is our ignorance and the way we often reveal it that makes us the ugly American.

I mean, if everyone else in the room seemed nonplussed, why would one DO that?

I share this on the one hand to vent my frustration and embarrassment. On the other to put my fellow travelers on notice! ;-)

Monday, October 23, 2006

I leaned into the boda-boda driver as close as I could without giving the wrong impression. It was much warmer that way, and he was certainly keeping me drier. A week ago, I never quite pictured myself careening around potholes on suburban Africa's dirt roads on the back of a mini bike, in the rain, without a jacket.

Somehow, I know that's not going to be the last not-previously-pictured situation I will find myself in.

Actually, my first days here were pretty usual for a visit to a new country. Although my first morning I threw open the curtains only to be face to face with the largest bird I've seen outside of a zoo. The Marabou Stork is actually a common city dweller here. The best birder I know tells me it "enjoys cities and rubbish dumps." Two thoughts: 1. enjoys? 2. cities AND dumps?

Friday was errand day. Track down a simm card, find an ATM that actually takes my card (they all take Visa, but I've only found one so far that takes MC), meet new people, eat and nap. Dan came in that night, so I met with him and brought him up to speed on all I knew at that point. Okay, that was a brief overview, here are a few more details:

At breakfast I eavesdropped on enough conversations to finally discern who were the other workshop participants. The admin organizer of the group (Kirsten) and the head of the video group (Bill) invited me to go into the city for the simm cards and atms. Bill and I both had MC atm cards so both of us had difficulty getting funds). A second trip in the afternoon and we were set. We celebrated by having my first local meal.

Bill was here last year, so he knew some places to eat and selected a more "upscale" buffet. I'm not sure what the "upscale" part was, but it was definitely a cultural experience.

I ate a kind of banana mash (not sweet), some kind of root vegetable, a mixed rice/grain dish, a cubed beef dish, and a brownish sauce tasting like very earthy peanut butter. I by-passed on the fish (not finding much meat among the scales), the chicken, and the cabbage (for a salad-avoider like me, imagine my disappointment on the general advice of not eating anything uncooked except peeled fruits).

That night at dinner, I took it easy with a pot of tea and a semi-sweet kind of cupcake called "Queen cake."

Since Friday, culinary adventures have been less exciting. Except maybe for Saturday's skewered meat from the roadside. I think I'd try anything freshly grilled on a stick that smelled good and remotely resembled familiar meat.

Saturday I abandoned Dan (who had to catch up with the group, settle in and combat jet lag) to go to Jinga with Bill, Kirsten, and Dennis (our local guide/driver/helper guy). Jinga is where the source of the Nile is, and another really pretty spot with amazing rapids converging from three different areas. There I met my first Africa friends (as pictured). I was crouched on the edge of the rapids, quietly taking them in with my camera when these three girls came down to "my area" laughing. One came up and took my arm. At first I thought they wanted to sell me something. But through broken english (and physical contact) it became apparent they wanted a picture with me. One girl wanted one by herself. Then the others did, too. Then there had to be group shots. Bill took some for me with my camera.

The other surreal Saturday moment was later at the Source of the Nile: Imagine pondering the serene lake and gently flowing outwaters with Aerosmith in the background. Such is sightseeing on University graduation day.

On our way back, we stopped at a roadside market so Dennis could pick up some things for his brother. We braved the crowds of hawkers to find our lunch (previously mentioned). I felt like a movie star trying to slip out of the car with the paparazzi obscured by so many varieties of stick meat, fruit, and vegetables impeding my progress. Thankfully a van pulled up and the sellers scurried off to the fresh visitors.

Sunday was our first day of class. We covered a lot of material, then set out to a local market to start shooting pics. OVERWHELMING. Cries of "mazungo" and "photo me" everywhere. (And I have no idea how to spell mazungo, but that's how it sounds. It means "white person"). The women were much less receptive to having their photos taken, while a lot of the men were eager to ham it up in front of the lens. Some little boys were trying to touch the lens, a woman pulled on my pant-leg wanting payment for taking another's photo... you get the idea. We've learned that some photographers have had the bad practice of paying for photos, so now many people expect payment. Which wouldn't be a bad thing, but it really inhibits getting natural images. Of course, in my opinion, sending 15 white people with cameras into an African market doesn't help things. It was really a great relief when all of us sped back to the hotel Hell's Angels-like with our herd of boda-bodas.

I think I've met my match in this workshop. We are swamped from the time we get up until 11pm or midnight. New information, sights, sounds, smells inundating us. I have so many conflicting feelings. I don't have a long-term project yet. And I may not get one. Monday was Eid (the end of Ramadan) which most everyone celebrated so we didn't get calls back from our various contacts. I will try again this morning.

So, for our first day in the field they sent me along with two other women to take some images for Connect Africa, a 2-year-old NGO started by a woman from Boston. (Located just outside Kampala). Her goal is to help orphaned children get a decent education. They are building a small apartment complex to rent out so the NGO can become self-sustaining. Once completed and filled, they project they will be able to help about 150 students. Along with the students, they provide micro-financing to local women widowed by AIDS. So, we visited 3 schools, a woman raising pigs, and a woman raising chickens. It was tough going with 2 other photographers. First, I think it overwhelmed our subjects. Secondly, to some extent I felt I was in their way as I know I didn't get some shots I would have liked to. But, we thought they would split us up instead of taking us all to the same places together.

All told yesterday we must have walked over 5 miles. Definitely more walking than shooting. We walked in hot sun. We walked in pouring rain. At one point, we did take boda-bodas which helped (hence my opening paragraph). Boda-bodas are the preferred method of quick transport. Around Kampala they generally cost 1,000 shgs a trip, which is about sixty cents. They get their name because they used to take people from border to border during the war or something like that.

We never stopped for lunch, and made it back to Kampala just in time for our 6pm presentation from World Vision on expectations of photojournalists. With dinner still some three hours away, I hid in a corner and wolfed down a granola bar before too many students arrived. It was 10pm before I even saw my room, and that was just to drop things off, peel my muddy shoes off my feet, make a pot of tea to go and head up to the room where we review and critique each other's work.

In some sadistic, crazy way... I'm really liking this. I think. I mean, I haven't had a chance to shoot much yet. There are a lot of moral dilemmas regarding who and what we're shooting, and I'm still frustrated at not catching up with the people who have projects I'd like to follow. But the pace, the energy, and the compassion filling the country: both in the aid workers as well as the people of Uganda... it's invigorating. And even out in the field, we're not abandoned. Thatcher Cook, our workshop leader, is the most approachable instructor I've ever had. His passion for both photography and teaching is infectious, and he is the best example of balancing ethics and professionalism I've seen. He has vast experience in the field of photojournalism, telling his stories in that delicate way that's not bragging at all but instructive and useful.

Thursday all of us leave for Rakai. A remote area where we will each be assigned a family to follow for a few days. Really, all of this is preparation for that experience.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Photos: Top to Bottom: 1. Just before leaving, with Melissa and Zach. 2. Even the cloud formations over Africa were amazing. 3 & 4. My room!

Greetings from Kampala! I landed around 9:15 tonight, so I haven’t seen much yet. The drive from Entebbe to K. was along a very nice road with sporadic shops, markets, and eateries lining it. It seemed people were walking or bicycling everywhere.

My room is very simple but clean. There’s a small kitchenette w/ sink, stove, fridge and nice dishes with a teapot (yay!) So I can drink lots of tea and think about cooking food. I have “high” speed internet, though, while it may be high, the frequency with which it kicks off and on kind of puts me back at modem speeds.

Dan missed his Chicago connection, so he won’t be in until Friday night. Hopefully I can find out key info for him before he gets here... things like ATMs that work (the one at the airport wouldn’t take my bank card), where to get a simm card, and a small market with basics like milk for my earl grey tea (that’s for you, Damon ;-) and sugar. That should about stock my kitchen!

I haven’t met anyone yet. I’ve been laying out my gear, hanging up my clothes on the handmade wire hangers, and configuring my bag as a sort of dresser (which is the one thing lacking).

The best part of my room is the mosquito net for the bed. How fun is that? I doubt it’s really necessary here in Kampala, but my philosophy is if your hotel room has a mosquito net, you should use it. It’s kind of like camping... or playing 1001 nights... or something. When I was little, I used to play safari at my grandmothers, wearing some old white hat with netting then skulking around the yard hiding from pygmies and lions. This mosquito net brought it all back. Wonderful!

My trip here took about 40 hours. That includes layovers, check-ins, etc. Paul met me at the airport for my 6-hour Dubai break. I hadn’t seen him in a year, so it was really great having my tea with his cappucino over pastries. Just like old times! He gave me a wonderful pep-talk on inspired photography and capturing people. I hope I make him proud.

On my flight to Entebbe, I sat with a guy (biologist) who’s lived here for 3 years. He gave me important information like the best atm’s, the best mobile service, and truly fascinating facts on tse-tse flies: their size (about and inch and a half), their bites (which really hurt b/c they bite to the bone — something about evolving to pierce the hide of rhinoceroses), mosquito repellent doesn’t repel them, and they like the color blue (because they think anything blue IS a rhinoceros), . Wonderful. I only brought a few clothes, and most of them are blue.

You know, a fly that’s an inch and a half shouldn’t have the name tse-tse. It sounds too small and cute to be messing with rhinoceroses.

Aside from the fly drama, my long trip gave me a lot of time to think about how and why I ended up here. I owe thanks to dear friends who’ve encouraged and supported me. Most of all, though, to my graces-three who all convinced me to follow through and to Dave for always encouraging my independence and believing in my work. Without the unflagging support of all four, I would not be here.

I know once I’ve experienced working with the groups here, I will want to come back or participate in similar projects elsewhere. Travelling so much often gives me pause about what defines me. I’m not home enough to really experience community within my town. Technology and the nature of freelance has enabled me to have quality interactions with my girls, but... I guess I’m hoping that at the end, I will have learned quite a bit about not just photography, humanity, and the business of helping... but about myself as well.

Breakfast at the hotel is at 8 tomorrow, and it’s already 1am. So off to bed! Tomorrow is going to be very..... exciting. I think. I hope. I’m pretty confident I will at least meet some participants...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Next week, I will be in Kampala, mingling with "real" photographers all meeting for the first time. Well, some of them anyway. I will already know one of the best photographers there: an amazing architectural photographer whom I work with in the states quite often, a mentor in travel photography, and a great friend... Dan Ham. ( )

Last year in one of many conversations with him on great photojournalist projects, websites, and the like, I mentioned the Uganda workshop I had discovered on the Maine Photographic Workshop site. His curiosity was piqued, and he signed up. After months of thinking and praying and thinking and scheduling, I decided to sign up as well. At first, I was waitlisted as the slots had filled up. It was quite a surprise when I got the call saying a space had opened up. I had one night to decide.

Dan's going was a big factor in Dave's support and in my decision. With the tenuous political situation, and the unknown areas we would be working in, having Dan along just seemed comforting somehow. (I've promised to resist the urge to art direct his shots :-) Besides, anytime I feel lost, I know I can go to him and get some sage advice on the sly!

For now though, I'm consumed with the horrors of packing: airline weight restrictions, which of my shoes are truly sensible, and how many pairs of pants should I pack. I know our friend Fabien would tell me to bring a pair of sandals and a pair of hiking shoes with two outfits. Good advice which I may follow, except I'll throw in sneakers, two more outfits or maybe three... Will I really find time for laundry?

Did I mention I'm currently on a shoot in Atlanta? (With Dan, Marc and Damon). I arrive home late Monday night and leave less than 24-hours later for Uganda.

Aside from the logistical mayhem, I've been trying to hone my area of focus while I'm there. Thatcher Cooke, our project coordinator, has secured an opportunity for me to work with micro-credit organizations. These groups lend small amounts of money to women, enabling them to embark on businesses that will help them achieve economic independence. In many instances, these are women whose children have died from aids and left several grandchildren to be cared for. Another project will be following a family in the community of Rakai. It's the location where the first AIDS case in the world was identified. It's population has borne the most devastation from the disease. I'm not sure exactly what the assignment will be, but nonetheless, it is certain to be challenging. Wherever I find myself, I hope to capture the positive results of relief efforts. If people can see that aid actually brings results, then individuals and governments may be incited to continue, even increase, their support for these programs.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Five days and counting until I board an Emirates airplane headed to Uganda.

Maine Photographic Workshops offers a program there focusing on working with NGOs (non-government aid organizations), specifically developing story ideas and capturing images that will help these groups share their missions with the world.

So, early on 18 October I will be on my way for the 2-3 week workshop. A layover in Dubai will follow with my friend and photographer, Paul Thuysbaert, where we may have a short photoshoot at the JW Marriott. (The Uganda trip has taken a financial commitment, so any additional projects I can do along the way will help!). I will be returning home on 13 Nov.

For me, this is an amazing opportunity to explore a challenging area of photography within an organized environment. It will be a stark contrast to the hotel work from which I make a living; an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people struggling each day to literally survive. And I will be snatched out of my comfort zone and dropped into completely unfamiliar customs, language, food, surroundings — how can I not but learn and grow as person from such an experience?

So, stay tuned. Check in from time to time to see how the plans are going. I look forward to reading your comments. Helpful things like the warning signs of crazed hippos, hand sanitizer brands that really do work, and optimistic survival stories of visits to Africa that did not require Immodium products... these thoughts are certainly welcome along with good wishes, assurances of prayer, and general travel tips.

Should anyone know of a particular NGO based in Kampala, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with them and include them in part of my work.

Once I’m there, I'll try very hard to be organized enough to post quick entries with photos to give an idea of what I’m working on in a vibrant and hopeful part of sub-Saharan Africa.