"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Sunday, February 16, 2014

an outsider

Yesterday during the Photo Scholar class I'm helping teach at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I made a presentation about photographing as an "outsider." Below you can read what I had to say and see a few of the pictures I shared.

When I went to Uganda for the first time in 2006, I was as much of an outsider as I could possibly be. Here I was in one of the poorest countries in the world, surrounded by Christian and Muslim people with very dark skin who spoke little or no English. Poor sanitation and disease are rampant in Uganda, and in this one African country alone, there are 2.5 million orphans.

I am a white, Jewish girl from a comfortable middle class family, raised in Kentucky. I’ve never truly been hungry. I’ve always known where I would lay my head at night. I’ve had access to clean water, good medical care and a loving, supportive family my whole entire life.

On day one of the two-week long photography workshop I was taking, our teacher gathered us for an orientation meeting. I was still hung over with jetlag from the long flight, and I was nervous about being in Africa and being with a group of 15 photographers I’d never met before. After a brief presentation, he told us all to go down to the curb in front of the hotel. Within a few minutes, he had rounded up 15 motorcycle taxis, and he instructed us each to hop on one. My heart was racing. No helmets, no idea where we were going and no introduction to the very black man around whose waist I had suddenly wrapped my arms.

Thatcher, my teacher, totally in his element

me: terrified but excited

We flew through the streets of Kampala, weaving our way around cars and pedestrians. I quickly realized the next two weeks was going to be the most exhilarating experience I’d ever had. I decided right then, on the back of that motorcycle, that I was going to dive into Uganda head first and as fully as possible. Why else venture so far from home?

Our teacher took us to a huge outdoor market and told us to go in and make pictures - that we should return to our motorcycles in half an hour. The market was wall-to-wall people – a sea of bodies pressing against each other. The sounds and the smells were overwhelming. I was terrified, and I was thrilled beyond belief. As soon as I started making my way through the crowd, my camera poised for action, people started calling out “Muzuungu! Muzuungu!” I was such an outsider I didn’t even know what the word meant (slang for white person I found out later). I managed to shoot a few pictures, but mostly I was overcome with the realization that - other than my classmates, who had been swallowed up by the teeming crowd in a matter of minutes, I was the only Caucasian in sight.

How does one even begin to make images of a place and a group of people that are miles beyond her understanding? And why should she even try? How could I possibly begin to tell the stories of the people around me? But wasn’t that the reason I had come to Africa in the first place?

Of course, I couldn’t really tell anyone’s story that day. All I could do was tell my own: my trepidation, my curiosity, my eagerness and my excitement definitely showed through in the pictures I made that day (unfortunately all of those pictures except one very small digital file were lost when my laptop was stolen a few days later).

I think the whole point of the assignment was to make us dig deep and consider what we, as photographers, were really made of. How willing were we to step outside our comfort zones?  If we were willing stretch ourselves, how would we navigate that new terrain, and what kind of pictures would we ultimately want to make?

The next day, I went to a boxing gym to make pictures. Rather than hang on the sidelines, I got right in the middle of the action, making it clear I was there because I was a serious artist and that I was highly respectful of the men and women training there. There was a lot of joking around, too. I had recently been doing some kick boxing back home, and I showed them some of my moves. I think that made them feel more comfortable having me there. I just kept it honest and respectful and loose and fun.

A couple days later, we boarded a rickety old bus headed for the southwestern part of the country. After a daylong drive, we arrived at a very small, rural village where no one spoke English. Each of us was assigned to a family, with whom we would spend the next three days. My family consisted of Margaret and her several young children, nieces and nephews. She farmed a small piece of land behind their mud hut.

 So, we couldn’t communicate with one another verbally – only nods and smiles and a lot of pointing. The first thing I realized was that it was best to leave my camera in its bag until we all figured out a way to feel comfortable around each other. Remarkable things started to happen once I just let myself BE with them… sharing a meal, kicking a beat up old soccer ball around with the kids, walking with them to the water hole, meeting and greeting the family goat. We all opened ourselves to each other, because we were curious (these kids were not accustomed to seeing a Muzuungu) and well, we eventually figured out we were all just regular old human beings.

When I did bring out my camera, they were fascinated by it. The novelty wore off after a bit, though, and then they didn’t pay much attention to it. I was able to make pictures without the kids hamming it up or even feeling self-conscious because it was clear that I was truly interested in what they were doing at any given moment.

I tried not to let my camera come between us as we forged our relationships. And because I was not a threatening presence, the family went about its business – eventually forgetting I was even shooting pictures. (Examples of this work are few, because most of those, too, were stolen along with my laptop.)

My next overwhelming assignment was to do an extended body of work at one particular NGO. Mine was St. Mary Kevin Orphanage Motherhood, a place I innocently entered one day thinking I’d just take some pictures and leave. Little did I know this would be a place I would return to year after year. It has taken time and patience to gain the full trust of the people there. I am still an outsider, but maybe not quite as much as I was in 2006.

These first two pictures reveal the mistrust that was evident on some of the kids’ faces. Who could blame them? But as the days went by, and we began to know one another, I was able to make pictures that were less about me being a voyeur and more about me being an image-maker and a storyteller.

So here are my tips for you to consider as you make your own outsider photographs:

- Don’t greet your subjects with your camera. Greet them with your hand extended.
- Do what you can to make them feel comfortable around you.
- Be respectful. Treat your subjects with dignity.
- Establish some kind of rapport before you even start shooting.
- Let your subjects know somehow that you are in this together; it’s a dance, a collaboration of sorts.
- Understand that nothing will change the fact that you are an outsider.
- Realize that because of that context, your pictures will take on an importance and meaning of their own. So embrace it.
- Remember that while you are telling their story, you are also telling your own.

In the end, the stories I’m telling are all from an outsider’s point of view. How could they be anything else? The challenges inherent in making images so far removed from my own reality have taught me a lot about a different culture, and in turn… a lot about myself.  The fact that these are outsider photos, and nothing I can do will really ever change that, ultimately helps define what this body of work is all about.

My two cents. For what it's worth.


Anonymous said...

This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts AND your wonderful photos, Gloria.

Elaine said...

Having just taken the Istanbul workshop with Thatcher, this resonates!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Just wow!
- JR

Paul Matzner said...

really valuable life lessons, not just for photographers. Your images show the restraint of wanting to take pictures right away. better to be patient and establish a rapport.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading your blog, thanks Gloria!

Unknown said...

beautifully said, and wonderful storytelling through your photos! I, too, was in Uganda with Thatcher and had many of the same experiences and feelings you so eloquently wrote about. Now I understand why Thatch wants us to meet!

Stevan said...

Wonderful storytelling! Thatcher is the best!