I always have my camera ready when I’m being driven around in a car or on the back of a motorbike. You never know what events might unfold in front of you.
Triptych of boys fighting. Rangpur, Bangladesh 2013
Occasionally the light is so beautiful it dictates what you photograph. When I arrived at this market several miles outside of Janakpur in Nepal, I was photographing a woman for American Leprosy Missions. As I was finishing off the shoot I realised that the light coming through the tree at the other side of the market was beckoning…
I’ve just arrived back in London, fresh from my journey through Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It’s been a hectic 14 weeks, working pretty non-stop photographing leprosy. However in my last week in Yangon I did get some time to relax, and take a break from all the photographing by… well, photographing.
I started wandering around the area where I was staying – rather pleasingly named the Insein Road – and indulging in a bit of street photography, but with my rather slow and low quality smartphone. It was rather joyous being free from the ties of subject matter and simply finding colours and shapes in the everyday. So here’s a small edit from that last week on the Insein Road.
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So, I’m finally beginning to go through work from Nepal and Bangladesh, while I’m at the end of my stay in Myanmar. I tend to shoot a lot whether I’m with the subjects of my assignment or at the end of a 9-hour drive on the way back from seeing them… like this shot was. I leaned over the guy next to me and stuck my camera out the window of the car. He was used to it by this time.
My favourite photographs are the ones that have plenty of details and lots going on.
Recently I was walking along the riverside in Richmond, looking for such a photograph. It was about 29°C, and for once no-one seemed to feel the need to wrap themselves around their smart phone.
Click on the picture to see a larger version.
I spent all of yesterday in Cardiff taking part in a photomarathon. Just a bit of fun really… however it did get me photographing on the streets for 10 hours and and I managed to get a few shots off aside of the project. Here are some of my favourites.
I think with a lot of these it’s worth looking at the details, so do click on the photos to view them larger.
I photographed leprosy in a few places in Mumbai, and though I still have yet to edit my general photographs of leprosy in Mumbai, I’ve put up photos I took in Datturnagar which is in Trombay, a suburb of Mumbai. That was very much one of the more positive stories I got from India.
Meanwhile, as I work on the edit of the rest of my India photos I thought I’d post some of my general shots from Mumbai. I loved that city. It’s packed with people, but loses none of that soul and intimacy that is so much easier to find in India than back in the Western World. It is also a haven for making great photographs, and whether I was walking through tight backstreets, cruising in a rickshaw or hanging out of a packed train I had a ball capturing life around me.
Here are a few of my favourites.
Well it’s been another varied week or so here in Lomé. Like I finished in my last post, I’ve continued rolling with the punches and taking the daily frustrations as part of life and so learned to accept them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there though, and I don’t feel I’ve got coherent photo essay, let alone a complete set of photos for Raymond’s street children organisation. I’ve been photographing around the area in part, but I haven’t yet accomplished anything special image-wise – something that is naturally very important to me in progressing as a photographer.
Raymond still feels peaky from the malaria – we just had a sprite together at “Obama Bar” at the end of his road, which he promptly filled with salt to help with his fever. Having tasted salt water before, I had no real inclining to ruin the cool sweetness on my panting tongue, surprisingly dry in the humidity. It sounded like a useful hangover cure or something to down just before you go to bed after a night out – a hangover preventative by purging the system perhaps? But when in Africa… it tasted like sprite with a strong aftertaste of salt. Don’t bother.
Raymond has been disappearing every now and then, trying to organise anything from UNICODES meetings to baby Robin’s naming ceremony. Meanwhile when I’ve not been out photographing I’ve been passing my time reading the last few books I brought with me (I must admit, I never actually thought I’d be reading ‘Ships of Mercy’ by Don Stephens), watching Prison Break in French over Vivienne’s shoulder, and answering emails from home and friends; some bringing upsetting news, some asking for photographic services on my return, even some wanting advice about belief in God (God help them if they’re asking me).
I’ve found that in keeping those western elements in my life I sadly haven’t been able to truly get to know Lomé. I can’t seem to let go of them for more than a day at a time. But it’s those times when they’re not present – visiting Raymond’s sister for lunch, playing goalvi football (4-a-side teams using miniature goals) with Dodzi (one of the day volunteers, currently a law student), popping out to the woman on the corner to get water sachets (because of my yovo stomach) while chatting with Raymond about his childhood on the streets, eating fresh pineapple skilfully diced up into a black plastic bag by a woman ambling along the street with them on her head, walking along the beach and through Adidogome and various market places, chatting to Dodzi’s brother before realising he’s deaf and the other elements of life here where I don’t feel the need to compensate with American TV programmes, or facebook, or even this blog. Here’s a few of those moments taken with my western camera…
So these last few days have been a last ditch attempt to get photographs for Raymond’s street children project. Part of the problem has been getting natural shots. People are very suspicious of cameras – perhaps more so than back home – and I found out yesterday that in Togo you are in fact not allowed to photograph anyone in public without their permission. Oops. I’m still not sure how I can verify this. Anyone know? This is very different from UK laws; which is how the paparazzi get away with everything. It’s always helpful to find this out at the end of a project about the life on the city streets…
Monday night was an odd one. Plenty of times in the past three or so months I have been to the big market that stretches towards the port from the Palm Beach hotel. However I have never been there after dark, and the transformation from the bright, bustling bodies and businesses of the day time is a stark contrast to the eerie (yet unempty) shadows, filled by the occasional argument, sleeping bodies in doorways, young girls crouching in the nearest puddle to relieve themselves etc.
The plan was to photograph some street children at 5pm that a journalist friend of Raymond’s had agreed to take us too, but his phone ran out of battery, so at 6.15 so to cut a long story short we found ourselves wandering back through the market, as dusk began to steal away the beautiful golden African sun. A short, mama selling fresh, silver foot-long fish called out to me: “Yovo, o fon yureah?” (excuse the spelling if you speak Ewe). “Eee, mefon dadanye. Ocho o fon yureah?” I replied, widening the beaming smile underneath the childhood-etched voodoo scores on her cheeks. She shouted out to the other women in the stalls next to her, revelling in this white man that responded in her native tongue. I stopped. “Donna vegbe vidividi” – “I speak a little Ewe”.
Raymond immediately saw this as an opportunity, taking over from my limited lingual abilities to explain who I was, that I had worked for Mercy Ships, and that I was now working for/with him to photograph children that live on the streets. I have met very few people in Lomé that don’t know of the Africa Mercy, and one of the women’s sister-in-law had had both of her eyes successfully operated on a few months ago.
Raymond talked excitedly with them. They were very helpful, explaining the problem of children sleeping on the streets in the evening. Of course it’s not just the children; many of the adult street vendors come to the city on Sunday night, sell their produce throughout the week until Friday, then go back home at the weekend. Unable to afford the daily commute, they sleep on the streets, occasionally under mosquito nets if they have one. Their children help during the holidays, and some are too valuable on the stall to afford school after holidays are over… mainly the girls.
We were told to come back around 9ish that evening, when people would start settling down to sleep. Raymond arranged for a policeman friend of his to meet us in town, for a bit of extra security, and we munched on spicy bean, tomato, avocado, onion and potato salad sandwiches made freshly (trying not to look at everything been stuffed in the baguette by bare hands) to order on the street.
So at around 8pm I stood on the same street looking at a very different scene. Rubbish was strewn everywhere, the last few vendors packing up under the orange cast from the concrete lamps parked sparsely at long intervals. Raymond went round the corner to ‘prepare the field’. By this time I had given up questioning his method, it only prolonged the inevitable. So I waited with Martin the policeman, attempting to try out my French and Ewe. In trying to search for the word ‘flag’ he showed me a photo on his phone of a flag – I noticed with amusement that he had to skip past about 10 photos of naked white women and a photo of Christ on the cross to get to it.
I was very much aware of the eyes of those passing being planted on this yovo with a £3000 camera in the bag he gripped tightly to his chest. A nearby boy was cleaning out the dust from a pile of handbags. “Madeo photoa?” I asked. He stared at me, unresponsive (so much for my vegbe pronunciation). A group of passing youths stopped at the sight of my camera. They asked me something in French I could only guess at. Then “you take his photo, you dash him something” they said. “Ah no, I don’t give money” I tried to explain. Five minutes of poor communication ensued where I learned that they were in fact Nigerian. Mentioning that I travelled through Niger, Kwara and Kogi state there for 5 weeks last year did the world of good, and suddenly I was their best friend. For the next half hour or so we talked about Nigeria, football (well we listed clubs) and taking them back to England with me. It’s never entirely a joke when they mention the latter to you.
Meanwhile Raymond had come back and was chatting to a security guard who was looking after the surrounding area. At first he wasn’t too pleased at me photographing so I stopped, but Raymond once again turned the situation round to his favour, and he was soon showing us the areas where people slept. It wasn’t hard to find. Walking down the street perpendicular to ours for about 100 metres I must have passed 50 or so people sleeping outdoors. Maybe 5 or so were lucky enough to have mosquito nets.
Walking around the block I was glad for the protection of Jules the security guard and Martin the policeman. Without them I would almost have certainly got mugged, quite possibly worse. When you walk through the market during the day you don’t really look at the buildings behind the stalls, but now they rose out of the loom, creating darkness below the faint glow of the clouds.
The woozy whiff of weed ran in ribbons across the air, creeping out of some dark corner. We approached the distant glow of a meth lamp lighting up a street vendor’s delicacy of meats. The night ended nibbling on a bit of slow-cooked pepper-dusted beef. I declined (unusually for me and food) the stuffed large intestines.
Yesterday was not quite so surreal. We had planned to photograph at a street children’s charity at 9am, at 2pm meet up with Jules again to photograph the same places we saw last night in day time, and at 4pm meet with the girls from the beach.
Not one of those things actually happened.
Well we went to the charity – Terre des Hommes – run by a helpful Frenchman called Gerôme, who did point out that as well not knowing we were coming, there are of course many child-protection policies in place, so photographing the children – only a few of whom stay at their facility – at a moment’s notice is not really possible, and they weren’t in fact street children anyway, but abused children in need of mental healthcare. So that didn’t quite go to plan. However he did put us in contact with a man called Souleman who works with former street kids, and is running a rehearsal (of some sort) at 5pm that we could go to.
Jules wasn’t at the home number he’d given Raymond, and when we went to meet the beach girls by the independence building, they weren’t there. So a good few more hours of the day were taken up migrating through the streets with Raymond.
Luckily Gerôme had come up trumps and at Nyekonakpoe, I gave my index finger a good exercise photographing (mainly former) street children rehearsing their traditional African drumming and dancing performance set. The breakneck rhythm and sheer volume of the percussive sounds was enough to energise even the weariest of souls. The exhilarating dancing was gone about with certain menace and fierce pride in what they were doing, every part of their bodies streaming with sweat and throats hardened to the hoarseness from years of experience.
Souleman, who is now 28 started living on the streets at the age of 10 after his father died. He befriended mainly wood carvers, his father having been one, who helped him find money by giving wood carvings to him to sell. He soon became skilled himself, and over 10 years the money he earned from selling these crafts helped him get off the streets. With the money he’d saved up he wanted to go travelling to Europe, but was swindled by men claiming to sell visas. So he moved in with his grandmother. Feeling empathy for many of the street children, he employed a few at his workshop and let them eat at his grandmothers, soon letting them sleep on the floor there as well. Soon 15 children were staying there.
The children were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Unfortunately this meant that often they would stay out all night and sleep at work the next morning. Souleman decided to encourage drumming sessions in the evening. This way they would be tired, sleep all night and be awake for work the next morning. Except many of the children turned out to be very talented at drumming and dancing, so Souleman sent them to get properly trained by a professional. Soon they were performing at events and functions all over Lomé allowing Souleman to build up various shops and workshops in different places. The money collated from them and the performances was shared with all the kids and youths involved.
About 100 people have been through his organisation Amagan, and about 30 youths are currently employed by him. They no longer have a place to shelter, but many of them can afford to rent, and the few that can’t sleep in the workshop/bar/training area where these photos were taken. Amagan has never had any financial sponsorship. In all honesty I’m quite in awe of Souleman, having built up his organisation pretty much from scratch without outside help in a city where he found himself living on the streets at the age of 10. It’s a dog-eat-dog world on the streets, and it is only the smartest that survive.
I’ve got less than a week until I leave now. I’m off to Sokode tomorrow morning – a town up towards northern Togo where there’s a leprosy settlement run by catholic sisters. I haven’t been able to contact them, but hopefully I’ll have two days there to continue my ongoing leprosy project. No doubt I’ll see; it will be nice to be able to get out of the city at least.
On Sunday 15th the Africa Mercy left port for the sail to South Africa where it will spend the rest of the year in dock suffering ship repairs of one sort or another. I had originally planned on going to Liberia or Niger to photograph more leprosy in these next three weeks. However, I wasn’t able to get a response from the contacts I had in Liberia, and the TLM (Leprosy Mission) reps I knew of in Niger were all going on leave from the 16th. Naturally.
So I had a choice – pay an extra $500 plus £300 for three weeks additional ship fees and a flight home from Durban which lets me spend extra time to work on various photo projects in the office I’ve called home while crossing the equator on a Danish ferry-turned-hospital ship designed for journeys of no more than a few hours. Or stay in Lomé as a guest at the house of one of the day volunteers who I’d only just met, but who runs a charity that aims to help the street children of Lomé which I could photograph for. As much as I was burning to sail for three weeks and spend that little extra time with friends I know I may not see for a long time, I decided the opportunity to get to know Lomé as well as photograph for a local charity was too much to pass up.
One of the Mercy Ships longest serving volunteers waves goodbye for the last time.
The gangway is lifted up – the point of no return (for me at least).
So I waved goodbye to the Africa Mercy. It was a strange moment waving goodbye to 100 beaming, colourful, familiar faces, some of whom it was very painful to say goodbye to. The port seemed bleak and empty without the blue and white branded hulk. I didn’t feel as though I was saying hello to a new adventure, just saying goodbye to the last one. It was like a huge vacuum had just been created in my life, ripping away all sense of comfort and routine that I had settled into over the past three months.
However I told myself I’d soon be experiencing what it is really like to live in an African capital city, away from luxuries like air conditioning and a dining hall with boiling water on tap. It would do me good.
There were about 12 or so of us left behind, many of whom were staying at the Team House (a rented complex where inland MS volunteers had been staying), one staying at a hotel for a week and myself who was meeting up with Raymond the day volunteer to go and stay with him, his wife, his puppy, and as it turned out his baby girl who was born the night before. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d come at the wrong time. As I write this I unfortunately still have that feeling…
However, Raymond had insisted I stay with him. I believe it’s quite a nice house for this area of Lomé. Raymond has a spare room and his wife had already made my bed the week before the boat left by all accounts. He’s provided a mosquito net and curtain-come-sheet, but it’s so hot and humid that I need no more. The bathroom is two tiny cubicles – one with a toilet (I’ll spare details of cleanliness), and the other a tap with a bucket. It’s very cramped, and I don’t even mind that I’m washing out of a bucket. Trouble is I’m the only that uses toilet paper, the soap smells dodgy (I foolishly left my shower gel on the ship) and it doesn’t let in light, or have a working bulb.
For the first two nights his wife Vivienne and the baby stayed in hospital. His puppy, Joli was a month and old and very cute. It was nice to have a timid and totally clueless ball of dusty African fur to scratch and pay a bit of attention to for the first day. It stopped after that because the dog disappeared right before a day of solid rain. I’m guessing there’s 10 inches of lifeless pup-meat lying somewhere in the sewer ditch that runs past the back of the house, right outside my bedroom window. On top of this, calls from the hospital kept coming through that Raymond had to go and buy drugs for his wife and the baby, who had a fever for the first few days – a worrying time for any child in the developing world.
I made friends with quite a few day volunteers in my time with Mercy Ships. These are men and women from Togo who are paid expenses and a small (but not bad for Togo) wage to work on board the Africa Mercy in various positions in various departments, mainly as translators, but also as deck hands, cleaners, galley crew etc.
I will eventually post a blog about the day volunteers leaving party. It was a sombre time for most of them, who are going back to a life with no jobs. The same is for Raymond. He has his charity, UNICODES which was set up in 1999, but got all the official paperwork done in 2007. I’ll explain more about it in a few weeks, hopefully after I’ve taken some photos that describe what they do – essentially they are aiming to combat the problem of youth on the streets, many of whom have no home and are forced to resort to illegal activities like stealing and prostitution. He is hoping that UNICEF will fund the work the charity is doing and will allow him, as president, a small wage. He has a program written up, along with a number of staff that are willing to be trained and a comprehensive (apparently) budget. This will start next year if he gets funding.
Meanwhile, I went to and fro on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday trying to get a visa extension sorted (successfully thank goodness), having to get a new charger for my laptop to replace the one that didn’t work except for the occasions when it sent off sparks, and trying to figure out what it is that Raymond actually wants me to do for the charity.
I’d already offered to cover expenses for my stay, Raymond asked for some money up front to cover the next two weeks at least. This would cover all travel by zimi-jean (motorbike) as well as my portion of the food that I’d be eating with the family.
On the first night when it was just myself and Raymond, he showed me how to cook a gumbo (okra) and fish soup with Akumé (the pap similar in consistency to fufu, but with flour added as well). That lasted a few days until his wife and mother-in-law returned. The mother-in-law (which she was introduced to me as – I call her grandma) is a very sweet old lady, and between her and Vivienne, the food has been absolutely delicious. They haven’t so far cooked me anything that I haven’t loved. No ‘problems’ yet either (famous last words).
Looking out of my room one evening.
The baby under her mosquito net.
The baby, who has been named Robin (after Robin Harper if you’re reading this!) has hardly made a sound, except for when grandma was throwing her up in the air and catching her. Upside down.
Raymond at a UNICODES meeting in his house.
Those first few days were incredibly frustrating, but that gets easier once you realise Africa requires endless patience (I thought I’d vaguely learned this over the past three months when going off ship with Mercy Ships). I can safely say now that Mercy Ships perform miracles with what they are able to coordinate and achieve with the countries they work in. It’s still frustrating, but I’ve since learned just to roll with it.
I have been out on only two trips to photograph around town since I’ve been here, which has been disheartening, I must admit. I’d got the impression from Raymond on the ship that he’d already organised all the different places and people to photograph. However, this is Africa, and it’s never that simple. It seems that in these next few weeks we should work to build up a relationship with children to gain their trust before photographing them. I couldn’t agree more – I’d just assumed that Raymond had already done that with some of the children. In all fairness, it’s been hard to gauge all the facts about what the charity has done without appearing to be an interrogator. Raymond seems to have a lot of last minute meetings (political, church, family, anything…) that either overrun, or don’t start on time (usually both), that coincide with when we were supposed to go out and photograph, so I’ve been out twice to photograph street children. Once with Joseph, a friend of Raymond’s who is quite timid, and submissive (as Raymond put it), but who owns a zimi. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to understand at all what I was supposed to be photographing (a general mystery it seems…) so I did my old bit of street photography through the market.
A naked mad man who some Mercy Shippers maybe recognize from the streets.
Muslim’s wash their feet before worship.
I went out the next day with Raymond, and got talking to a few street kids on the beach, finally getting one or two decent photos that could possible relevant to this project (whatever it turns out to be!). I won’t post them now, but here’s a few along the beach…
I was hoping to meet them again today to get to know them a bit better and gather some information as to the sort of lives they lead. They were for the most part very friendly and eager to be photographed. I will say one thing for Raymond, as I’m sure anyone who knew him on the Africa Mercy could vouch for: he is an excellent talker and gets along extremely well with children. If I knew that we could go out for 5 hours a day to meet and photograph children (as I had naively thought it might be) each day for two weeks, I’d be confident of creating a coherent and interesting photo essay about the street life of a child in Lomé. Maybe coming events will surprise me. I’m sure I will get an interesting series of photos that show life in Lomé, but it would be nice to make sure I go beyond that and actually get photos that a struggling local charity like UNICODES could use to improve its image – make it look that little bit more professional.
In all honesty, I do love it when we hop on a zimi and zip through town; the wind dusting my beard and blowing my hair into a jedwardesque hairstyle. I’ve travelled on zimi’s quite a lot in Lomé and I’ve only ever come across one that had working dials on the dashboard. It was also spotlessly clean. However that same guy had also angled both of his mirrors so he could see his face from both sides, and not behind him. Maybe that doesn’t matter too much, as most of the others didn’t seem to have mirrors on their zimis anyway. There’s something very liberating about hopping on the back of a motorbike and zipping in and out of traffic, experiencing the sights and smells of Togo. It is one thing I know I’ll miss about Togo.
It is exciting going out when the African rain hits. You wade through miniature street rapids and after the downfall the mud roads have changed; the meandering grooves that plague the taxi drivers and make life more fun for the zimi drivers deepen and form little ox-bows in the street. And in some areas the stench of human waste thickens in your nostrils until you simply accept that you can’t do anything about it. It helps squeeze the squeamish out of you.
I’m ashamed to say I have not made nearly as much effort with getting to grips with French as I should have. Having translators around has spoilt me. However I’m trying to learn as much Ewe (the local language) as I can – Raymond’s teaching me but I’m not the best learner. Bizarrely though he’s been taking me to a free Chinese language course in town for two hours day. I asked why we are going, to which Raymond grinned ‘because it is what I want very much to learn!’. Obviously.
So myself, Raymond, and two others can count (extremely slowly) to nine hundred and ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine in Chinese, as well as say the basics; how are you, I’m fine/have a body with no health etc.
Vivienne speaks a little bit of English, but Raymond is really the only person around that can translate for me and I can have a decent discussion with. He has a lot of energy and a good heart. Unfortunately on Saturday, when he was supposed to be at a political party meeting we got a call from him saying that the mild malaria he thought he’d had for the past two days had got much worse and he was in hospital.
Vivienne and I left straight away, leaving grandma and the baby behind. When we got there, Raymond was on a dirty table-bed, with no doctor in sight. He had tears in his eyes and was no longer able to talk or even open his mouth, and he kept pointing at his heart. What really makes me angry, and is the icing on the cake of why I’ve written this post is that his wife was given a prescription and told to go and buy the prescribed drugs for him, as well as glass slides and a tube to take a blood sample. If his wife had not been around, or if they didn’t live in Lomé there would be no one who could have got him any pain killers, or medication or anything.
Everything here is just so bloody inefficient.
I have given my last bit of cash on me (about $20 worth of CFA) to his wife that will hopefully cover the drugs. I did not hesitate in lending/giving money for his medication (as I’m sure any person in my position would have), but at the same time part of me didn’t want to – because what would happen if I wasn’t in Togo staying with Raymond? Would his wife have stood and watched him suffer pain until it went away, or perhaps it is not worth thinking about. I am thankful that I’m privileged to be in the tiny top percentile of the world that has as much money as I do, even if it does not seem that much to me. I am a white westerner. And the fact is that I am in Togo, I am staying with Raymond and I will do what I can to help without being too foolish.
Even speaking to those from the states on board the Africa Mercy I realise how lucky the UK is to have the NHS. I’ve had a number of operations in my time, and I’m sure if my parents had had to pay for them life wouldn’t have quite been the same. I don’t think I’m being overdramatic.
It turned out that it was malaria, and the IV medication, thankfully did help. He’s still resting, but feeling much better. I’m sure if it was me that got malaria I would not have recovered so quickly.
I’m experiencing the real Togo, and in this past week family life has been as colourful and chaotic as i could have imagined it. I am learning that the life of a local in Lomé is about enduring constant frustration, pain and crises, while learning that the best way is to just roll with it, trying to enjoy the occasional carefree feelings of freedom, and balance a careful mix of not planning ahead with planning too many things at the same time (not planning ahead seems to work better I think). And I am extremely thankful for where I come from, and where I will be returning to in 17 days. I am glad though that I chose to stay in Lomé and not sail. I’m sure I would be enjoying the sail thoroughly, but my desire is to live Africa, not the 51st state of America.
Meanwhile I can only hope things improve while I’m here, for Raymond, his family, myself and this slowly evolving project.
If you could spare any thoughts or prayers for Raymond and his family it would be greatly appreciated by them. Thanks, Tom