They’re not big issues. Some may not be considered new. But these are aspects I have matured while living and working for two years in Kuito, Bie Province (Angola). Though I had already traveled a lot throughout many countries (working in international cooperation for development and public health), this was the first time I’ve been living enough time in the same place to consider it home, thus allowing me to take photographs at a different pace.
In just a couple of weeks I’ll be leaving Angola. These are some of the experiences I have had while taking pictures here that I want to remember.
1. Force yourself to go out and take pictures.
Laziness is your worst enemy. When working from six in the morning to six in the evening, Monday through Friday, the last thing you may want to do on your weekend is to get up early to take advantage of cloudy skies and softened light. It isn’t just laziness. Leaving your comfort zone to go to places you’re not used to (in the beginning), and will never get used to you, can be harsh on a Saturday morning. But it pays off.
In these two years in Angola, I’ve had periods I’ve been going out with the camera every weekend, and others that I’ve just taken the camera out of the bag once in a couple of months. At the end, when you realize you have only two more weeks ahead here, you regret not sacrificing your confort more often.
2. Your reason to be somewhere is much more important than what you’re expecting to photograph there.
There are no breathtaking landscapes near Kuito, nor sightseeing areas designed for tourists, and neither are there ancient tribes dressed in traditional garments. What you usually find when wandering around are few paved streets with low weary buildings, and dozens of neighbourhoods with houses made of mud bricks and metal roofs. Of course there are hundreds of interesting things to photograph, but they are usually hidden, and not just waiting for you in the Lonely Planet guide. Neither will many of your local friends’ or colleagues’ recommendations be as useful as you’d like, as they cannot see their own reality through your eyes. You need to get out and explore, and follow your instincts.
As soon as you discover this, you also become aware of one of your biggest obstacles to take pictures here: your presence is seldom expected and considered spontaneous or natural. Virtually no ex-patriots live far from the city center, and when walking those streets, you may become the main center of attention. The same thing happens in small villages, where only those who live there are usually there. Either you have a motive to be there, or it can be a little weird.
Think of a reason to be there: you’re on your way to a bigger town and stopped to have some rest; you wanted to buy some fruit; you just needed to make sure this is the right road to get somewhere; you live somewhere else in the city and were curious about getting to know this area, as some of your friends and coworkers live here; you’ve been told there were hippopotamus in this region and would like to go see them. Anything. First to convince yourself and build your confidence up, and secondly to help make people confortable while you’re around.
My best days taking pictures in Bie were those when we were searching for hippos (we were told some people had spotted a family over a nearby river, and we tried to follow the pack’s track -unsuccesfully- for a couple of months, from village to village), those days I visited a bombed building to talk to the families living within about how were they doing, and when doing some fruit shopping or having a beer in small villages on our way to some bigger town.
3. Don’t try to go unnoticed. Try to get people bored.
I’m not joking. Seriously. Give it up. You won’t go unnoticed. You’re alien. Everyone is aware of your arrival from a distance. You dress, behave, walk and look around differently. Besides, you’re carrying a camera in your hand. Accept it. Photographing candid situations here is a harsh challenge. Either you won’t feel at ease, or you will be soon surrounded by a mob of little jackiechanesque kids wanting to have their picture taken. There is always the option of hiding a small camera, but you could have problems if detected.
Be boring. Walk around, up and down, until everyone is bored of you and loses their interest about you. Then, and only then, you’ll go unperceived. Of course they see you. But they just don’t care about you being around and taking pictures. Sometimes it happens. And it’s pure gold.
4. Carry the camera in your hand, not in your backpack.
The first picture is always the most difficult one to take. Breaking the ice is absolutely necessary. You’re walking through the market, everyone is looking at you and you feel deeply unconfortable. Of course you want to take pictures. Just not like that.
That’s the perfect moment to take the camera off the bag and carry it with your hand, so that everyone realizes that you have a camera and are planning to use it. You haven’t snapped a picture yet but your intentions are clear, and everyone else’s will be clear soon: those who don’t want to be photographed will make you know it, and vice versa. Some people may already be asking you how much do you ask to take their picture, and a few may even ask you to take a good portrait of them. The situation has turned upside down and there is no more ice to break.
5. Smile, say hello, shake hands and ask anything you’re curious about.
Even better than taking pictures in a place like Kuito or in Bie rural villages is having the opportunity to talk and get to know absolute strangers, long before removing the lens cap. Approaching anyone (even if you have to walk 50 meters in their direction and seem weird) to shake their hand and wish them good morning is the best way to open up. Explain who you are, what are you doing here (having a reason comes important now) and ask them how are they doing. They know you’re a foreigner and that you don’t have the slightest idea of most of important things around here, so don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. If you’re respectful, relaxed and nice, they will probably be patient and willing to talk to you for a while. After a while, taking the camera out becomes much more natural and easy. There is no rush.
Don’t get me wrong. That talking is not just a mere excuse or dirty strategy to shoot fifty pictures. Talking to people will allow you to know and understand many things you’re not able to see by yourself.
6. Understand that, for them, those photos are important.
Most people living right now in rural Angola do not usually upload pictures of their gin-tonics to instagram. Most do not even have a single picture of their family hanging of a wall at home.
In Bie, at least, there seems to be only three types of photographers: a) the teenager, taking pictures of him/herself and their friends in the same pose a famous singer would do; b) the photographer taking and printint 10x15cm pictures in the main square for 3-5$; c) the curious foreigner. None of them are usually to be found in rural areas.
For a lot of people, looking at their pictures on the screen of the camera is really funny, and having the opportunity to get a printed portrait of them and their families, a nice detail that they would really appreciate. Either you take a polaroid with you, or a small printer and enough paper, or go to any local shop to get some photos printed at small sizes to hand them out the next weekend, as soon as you visit their village again.
Those pictures may have a value and a meaning for you, though quite a different one for many others.
7. Be honest.
Some may think you’re an important journalist and that your photos will appear later in magazines or the tv. When they ask you what are those pictures you’re taking for, just be honest. Some will ask you with the hope that they will be in the media, and some, just the opposite, will be afraid of you selling their pictures to be published elsewhere. You could easily give an an answer or a different one, depending on your interests, but we both know that’s not right. However, describing that I upload my pictures to a photoblog in the internet does not usually help to clarify anything. I usually explain that I take these pictures because few people out of Angola know anything about the country, and because, most of all, I like to show my family and friends how is the place I work and live in.
A bunch of other stuff.
Ask for permission and respect people’s timing.
Carry some cash in your pockets. If the people you took pictures of are selling fruit, buy some from them. You could also buy some beers for everyone (including yourself).
Be aware of drunken people. There are many around (especially on weekends) and they may be annoying. If they ask you to take a picture of them, take just one or two, but by every means try to avoid the “confusão“.
Try to find another photographic partner to go take pictures together. Going on your own is sometimes harder. Make sure you two treat people the same way, and that both respect the time and the space of the other.
Do not curate and edit your pictures right now. Give it some time. And then some more.
Get along with those professional photographers selling prints downtown. They make a living of that. Do not take their clients. Say hello when around, and talk to them. Thay can become important allies.
Next time, bring some more pads to clean the camera sensor. Two or three may not be enough for a whole year.
After all this, we barely even snapped a picture. It is enough, though. Some other day, we’ll talk about the important stuff; the content, the photograph, what fills all those megapixels of yours. Ok?