7:45 am, 28 degrees, Thanksgiving morning, 5K run. I was the designated photographer as three of my children dragged me out of bed to take pictures of them running. Annual tradition. Most all of my family converged on our home for Thanksgiving. With so many people staying in our home, there hasn’t been much sleeping going on. I stayed up way too late. I was tired. I was cold. Then, the sun came up. The light hit the mountain tops and I thought about all the places I have been in the world this year, how many frequent flyer miles I have accrued, how many Marriott points I have, and, I was glad. Glad to be home. Home where the cold November mornings chill my breath. Home where the sun shines more often than not and the summer sun shines late and long. Home where my pillow fits my head and my bed has an indentation just my size. Home where my children come for Sunday dinners. Home where the sun rises over the Wasatch mountains to the east and Lone Peak Mountain lies north. Home, where I’m never lost and always loved. For these things and more I give thanks.
They say Africa changes you. If you’ve been to Africa, spent time there, visited the people, you will understand. I’ve been to Africa four times. This was my first time in Lubumbashi. I was surprised. My own stereotypes were both reinforced and shattered. In Lubumbashi, a fragile peace hung over the city as oppressive as the heat and humidity, infusing a cultural angst almost as heavy . I was the outsider. I was different. The children called me “Muzungu”, white face, not a compliment. They smiled and laughed, not with me. My camera lens brought them running, surrounding me, dancing, playing and posing. In their eyes I saw joy, and innocence. The adults looked on, skeptical, questioning, challenging. Their eyes were reserved, hooded, holding back, keeping their stories from me. Many turned away. Some shouted insults. Those that did not were watching to see what I would do with their likeness. I took their pictures. I took them with me. I took them in, a part of me. I will not forget. In their African eyes I will never be the same.
A few nights ago, we were just wrapping a shoot on the campus of Brigham Young University. It had been raining in the valley most of the afternoon and snow had been falling in the higher elevations. Just before the sun set, it dropped below the storm and lit up the mountain. I had just come out of one of the buildings to this scene. I wished I had a better vantage point, a better view. I find, often, that the challenge is not to find a better view, but to see the world where I am in interesting ways. The light changed, the sun dropped below the horizon, it’s brilliance faded. Yet, in that moment I marveled at the beauty. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to take a picture, for the light didn’t last.
From a distance, Alex looks interesting. The closer you get, the harder it is to see. It can be beautiful, in a flowering African Thorn Bush kind of way. The flowers are pretty–sort of. The thorns can do some real damage. Among the thorns in Alex, there is an energy, growing, changing. In spite of the harshness of conditions, there was a softness in the faces of people. Not all were willing to let me take their picture. Some approached with angry words. Others turned away or hid. But, for those who stood their ground or gave permission, I could see a light, hard light perhaps, in their eyes. The noon-day sun did not make for the best photographs. However, in the hard light of the noon-day sun, when I put on my sunglasses, I could see hope.
It was noon and the sun was directly overhead. Hot. And Humid. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The hard light cast hard shadows. Appropriate–in Alex, life is hard. One of the poorest urban areas in South Africa, Alexandra Township is part of Johannesburg and is home to nearly 200,000 souls. Many do not have running water, or proper sanitation. Many live in informal shacks made of corrugated metal or cinderblock brick. Unemployment is high. Drugs are rampant and gangs compete with law for control. When I entered Alex to take pictures, I stood out dramatically–white on black, with hard shadows. The harsh light was not what I would have chosen for good pictures. Nevertheless, the time of day was a metaphor for life in Alex–harsh and hard. In this post I wanted to show some of the conditions inside. Partial understanding comes through knowing. Tomorrow I’ll show their faces.
The heat was oppressive. The air was heavy, barely breathable for one not used to the nearly 100% humidity. I was given 5 minutes to take pictures on the banks of the Congo River, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The Policeman who accompanied me, told me where I could point my camera. If he listened closely, he could hear the shutter click. After three clicks I had to move on.
About a half-hour drive outside of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a little village called Bande. They grow avocados and fruit and sell them by the roadside to survive. We stopped for a visit. The children immediately surrounded us. They spoke Swahili and French. I spoke neither. With help, we asked the village Elder for permission to take this photo. He smiled and nodded agreement. I thought, for a moment, that the one woman in the shot was the mother. Not so. She is the older sister. The women of the village would not come out of their termite-clay-brick huts. The three men in the shot were the older brother, the uncle and the neighbor. The Elder also would not be in the shot. He was standing beside me looking at my view finder. With a small purchase, you can make friends for life in Bande Village.
Built in 1951 as part of the Orland Power Station serving Johannesburg, South Africa from the South West Township of Soweto, the Soweto Towers have become one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. The power plant was decommissioned in 1998 after 56 years of service. Now, the towers are used for art, and advertising. One tower serves as a giant billboard. The other tower contains the largest mural painting in South Africa. But, even cooler than the art, is the action. You can bungee jump or base jump from a platform bridge between the Two Towers.
It was late afternoon and the sun was setting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We stopped briefly at Lubumbashi River and were immediately surrounded by children. They posed for our pictures and asked us for money. They played and sang and danced. It was joyful and fun. This young boy was in the middle of a rather thorough mud bath when we arrived. I’m not sure what the optimum amount of time for a proper exfoliating mud bath is, but this boy seems to have it figured out. If you want smooth skin, come to the DRC and stop by Lubumbashi River just about any afternoon. Someone will surely teach you the secrets of smooth, smooth skin.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the province of Lubumbashi is known for mining. Copper is king in the Congo and Lubumbashi leads the way. The locals are proud of their mines. They are also proud of their mountain (wait, I didn’t know there were mountains in the DRC).There aren’t–well, maybe just one. Perhaps because the Congo is flat, the Congolese people built their own mountain out of tailings, residue, slag, and not so environmentally friendly stuff that copper mines produce. Lubumbashi mountain (I’m not sure that if an Englishman went up, it would still be a mountain) has become a symbol of the province. It certainly dominates the landscape. In a strange sort of African way, the people are proud of their mountain and all it represents, including the economic impact and the environmental damage the mines appear to be doing. So, if you want to build a mountain, invest in mines. Or, come to the DRC, they have plenty of mountain making stuff to go around.