People in Context?

really enjoying witnessing your development as a photographer Cate…and was pondering the notion of “cranking up the ISO and decreasing aperture to put the bird in context”….wondering what the increase in “ISO” and decrease in “aperture” are, when i’m attempting to soften and see others fully in their contexts…hmmmm…..

My friend Joanna made this comment on one of my early posts in this blog.  So far I’ve mostly posted about the birding and traveling parts of my life, not the photography part.  Maybe because I see myself as a pretty lousy photographer at this point, learning some things, capturing a few moments of real composition, but struggling to do anything that feels really powerful.  (And especially right now struggling with getting the right exposure — a current mental block).  I feel like my young niece, who is a talented artist, but has a deeply critical eye when it doesn’t turn out how she imagined it might.

But I did start thinking about the tension that Joanna pointed out, what kind of comfort level I have with this idea of seeing “through” the camera.  It does put you into a very different position, having a camera.  I really notice it in Africa, for example, where people are so attuned to being seen as objects, get quite irritable when they see a big camera.  “They think you’ll sell the photos and they want money too,” someone explained to me. Which of course makes sense.  But it’s still a frustrating ambivalence.

When I’m in Uganda, I itch to take photographs in our local market, but am so reluctant — people get angry if you take pictures of them without asking — and asking sometimes means paying, and I haven’t worked out yet what I feel about that.  Most often, though, having a camera leads to mugging, and posing, and not getting the shots that I wanted in the first place.  In the market in Kasese, there are about 20 or so people who have little stalls where they sew clothing.  They use old fashioned treadle machines, no electricity, and they sit outside their stalls in the tiny alleyways, large colourful umbrellas as awnings from the sun.  Gaunt old men with bony raddled fingers, plump focused women.  In some ways, I notice them, mentally frame them, because I’m carrying my camera, look at them much more closely, have a kind of visual taste sensation of the colour, shapes, presence.   In this sense, the camera gives *more* context — I pause and notice in new ways.

And inversely, as J suggests, it also distances — I have more of a response to the old man with his yellow umbrella and weathered machine because I’m wondering if I can photograph him; I’m not just taking him in as part of the market and moving on.  But I’m also rolled over with frustration because I know I can’t photograph him, I know that holding my camera establishes me as someone to be wary of, to be in opposition to, right from the beginning.

So I end up trying to shoot without looking at all (pretending I’m adjusting the camera in my lap) and end up with boring shots like this.

Or trying to shoot a rooster pecking into fatness on the ground, obviously purchased by the stall owners for Christmas.

No real sense of the market itself.

When I went to Rwanda last December, the photo-tension was much more profound.  The most intense experience of my life (I blogged about it here) was visiting Murambi, a genocide memorial that comprises nothing but preserved bodies laid out in the classrooms where they were slain.  No photos allowed.  As a story, it sits loudly on my tongue; but I’m not sure I looked more closely because I couldn’t take photos.  I ached to be able to carry some of it with me, felt like everyone must see it.  Something was missing because I couldn’t document it, couldn’t put it into my own context of pausing and really seeing.  Probably would have looked more closely, in fact, instead of shying away, if I’d had to think through how to capture these terrible figures, shadowed and lit erratically.

On the way back from Murambi, I stopped to take a scenic shot of one of the thousands of green hills, and was accosted by people on the road insisting I had to pay them, couldn’t even shoot a photo of their goats.  I recognize the sense of exposure, exploitation, carry it as a paradox.  Find it disturbing that safari trips often include a visit to a school — yes, in one sense, I want people to see Africa as about people, not just animals — and at the same time, how would we feel if busloads of Japanese tourists regularly pulled up at Toronto daycares to take photos and pet our kids?  In this sense, the camera poses a question — whose territory?  Whose context?  What does it mean to be observed and documented?

On that same trip, I visited the home village of one of our families.  I left the social worker with the kids’ mom to do an interview in private.  I walked around the village, trying to see with my camera, did a couple of distant shots.

Subsistence agriculture in action.

Kids in a doorway far away.

Up close, these kids became the essence of mugging — no pretense at all of capturing an unposed scene.  But unposed joy emerged.

(As usual, click to enlarge).

In the morning in the village, my camera became a kind of luring talisman, attracting first two or three kids (the wary ones from the doorway), then six, then a dozen, then 20.  Pushing against me to take their photos, then giggling and cheering when I showed them the shots in the display.

You can see in that one that the littlest one kept getting shoved around by the others.  Some of the wee ones had bigger kids to look after them…

And others got completely shoved around, a blur of pushing kids all wanting to see their own faces.

I can’t pretend to understand anything but some thin sketches of the context of these kids, in this village on a hillside almost at the Congolese border, where loss and violence are woven into people’s lives, where the oldest kid in our program had to saturate his mother’s thumb with ink so she could mark the paper we needed her to sign.

It was intense for me, this connection to the kids, looking closely at their faces, capturing them, and at the same time, feeling a little pushed around, a little bowled over, by their energy, the sticky crusty dirty little hot mob.

Being called “teacher” by this little girl, one of the only English words they knew, a history of colonialism writ in that one word she could apply to a white woman.

Mostly the kids were calling me mzungu (white person), and finally I told them that my name wasn’t mzungu, it was Cate.  When I told them it was time to stop taking photos, they pushed closer to me, started chanting my name. My camera and me, on a hillside near Virunga, where Diane Fossey lived with her gorillas, surrounded by a dozen or so Rwandan children chanting CATE CATE CATE CATE.

The entire story of me with these children was written through my lens, my attempt to see them reflected back in their desire to see themselves. Somewhere along the way, that desire changes into understandable wariness.

In J’s comment, I know she was pointing out that the technical side of photography seems to form a membrane between seeing people in context, experiencing them, and having to pause and think through a tool.  Of course in some ways that’s true — and I don’t think my photos I took in that village are particularly good, really, and they’re certainly not technically good.  But all of the complexities of photography — aperture, depth of field, exposure, ISO, shutter speed — do gradually become instinct.  Or at least that’s what I have to believe.  I think it’s like driving a stick shift — at first you have to think about what gear you’re supposed to be in, and then it just happens. Photography is a bit more complex than that, and there is of course this esoteric question of eye and composition — and as I alluded to earlier, I’ve been struggling lately with exposure because it hasn’t become an instinct yet.  But people in context?  I create much more space for that with my camera in hand than I do without.  I notice more, I think more about what I’m seeing, and it forms a line to relationship.

Without my camera, I would have looked blankly at this village of kids, tried to connect, had no means. When I when back into our family’s house when the interview was done, our driver came in with a flower for me.  “It’s from the kids,” he said.  “They said, ‘tell that mzungu we love her.'”




2 thoughts on “People in Context?

  1. Nice. Interesting how a camera is sometimes BETWEEN you and others and sometimes is the CONNECTION between you and others.

    I always end up feeling a bit awkward when holding camera and never achieve any kind of natural look to either my photos or the subjects.

  2. Wonderful Cate. Feel like I got a new dose of your Ugandan and Rwandan experiences through these camera-reflections… Thanks for the heart-connection that comes through so beautifully in your writing, and for ‘riffing’ off of my comment so creatively:)

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