Published May 15, 2012
It begins on an elevator, as we ascend through a government building to pick up our press passes. I suppose part of the beauty of photographing with a phone is that you can start working before you’re issued a press pass.
For each project I photograph, there is always one image that makes everything click in my brain; one image that makes me realize what the story or theme is. In this case, the epiphany was that there need not always be a theme. Often my work as a photojournalist seems surprisingly, even dangerously, predetermined. We know the story we have been sent to cover, and we edit ourselves to tell that story even as we shoot. In this case, for example, I was in Ivory Coast to dig deeper into a conflict whose conclusion I had witnessed one year before – and the cocoa trade that feeds it, and uncertain steps being taken to resolve it. Subconsciously or not, I looked for photos that told that story.
And so it seemed that the other photos I was making simultaneously – on a silly phone with a silly “app” – began to feel more honest in their experiential nature. Sometimes we shoot without a theme. I notice the man on the elevator, the symmetry of the men around him and their reflections, the row of lights above his head. The picture is interesting in its mundane-ness, and therein lies the truth. Africa can be the place of extremes that we in the West see so often. Inundated with images of incredible poverty, we also occasionally see vast wealth. But Africa can be familiar. It can also – thankfully – be boring.
In this context, everything becomes important. The blur of a man in a bookstore, the row of young men lined up to read the daily paper. One morning, with an egg sandwich in one hand and a phone in the other, I snap a photo of a young Guinean girl walking through curtains. Her parents own the breakfast joint we frequent. Two hours and ten minutes later, a man wipes the snot from a young boy’s face. I can’t understand his language but I know what is being said: “This visitor is photographing you. Look your best.”
As we line up waiting for the UN to return the refugees to their homes, I’m torn. Which to photograph, the sad faces peering through the windows – so reminiscent of the forlorn images I’ve come to expect from this corner of the world – or the men standing, laughing, poring over DVDs for sale, deciding which Hollywood film they will purchase with the UN readjustment allowance they have been given. Which shoot-em-up blockbuster should be the first that they watch after they get back to their village and rebuild their homes.
It’s jarring. Sometimes I don’t think we let it jar us enough. We find the palatable in these situations. Refugees, we think, should be heavy with the terrible burden of all they’ve seen, weary with the miles they’ve walked to flee this place – not smiling and posing with the foreigner who appears with a camera.
I’m wandering in a village that was only recently destroyed. Burning through rolls of film to make evidence that the conflict may not yet be over – and then four young men come by laughing, and they stand with their arms crossed in the shade of a tree, and they make a camera motion with their hands. Snap snap snap. Later I scrawl into a notebook, "We may never understand this place."
I’m wandering in a shopping mall, a plantation, a border crossing, a harbor, an airport terminal. As a photographer, it seems to exist all for me to point at and snap. But it’s not for me. It’s Africa, everyday.
Peter and Austin will be continuing to live blog this project during their travels at EverydayAfrica.tumblr.com