Tag Archives: Villagers

Making the most of travel photography

The RPS (Royal Photographic Society) included an article I wrote in its Travel Group Travelogue Newsletter after I chatted to some members about my photography. While I haven’t made as many overseas trips to support non-profit organisations as I would like, I do have plans for more. It is an incredibly rewarding aspect of travel photography so I’ve reproduced the article here, with some different images.

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Rewarding Travel Photography

When I retired early from a stressful career with an international energy company I decided to re-engage with my creative side, develop my photography and to travel in a way that allowed me to get to know other cultures. Although I enjoyed these photographic adventures I still felt a lack of purpose and I wondered: “why am I making these images” and more importantly, “why am I here at all”?

Life has a way of solving such dilemmas. When a friend contacted me in 2009 to talk about her charity Testigo Africa, a project to bring clean drinking water to a Masai village, I immediately said “If you need a photographer, just ask me”. She did and a month later I was in Arusha, Tanzania. Tracey wanted images to help her fundraising efforts; the area had suffered a terrible drought and water was scarce, livestock dying and food hard find. It was my first really close encounter with another culture and I was very inexperienced but the warm welcome and friendliness made it a pleasure. The warriors slaughtered and cooked a goat we had paid for and the women prepared vegetables. They sat apart to eat but we were treated as honorary men. We drank tea in mud huts, met Masai of all ages, enjoyed the Masai adumu (dance) and watched the women making beautiful beaded jewellery. Iwas able to capture it all.

Tracey started the charity to help the women who walked miles every day to collect water, leaving them little time to do anything else. I returned with Tracey in 2012 for the inauguration of the water supply and to photograph her wedding to Emanuel, a Masai who has become part of her team. They have since established a football academy and a perma-culture project in many villages. Women can now grow enough food to sell in addition to feeding their families.

One of the many rewarding aspects of my second visit was sharing prints from the first trip and noticing how much the women had blossomed with good nutrition and less stressful lives. My images were used in a variety of ways by Testigo: calendars, video presentations, exhibitions and greetings cards. It was a privilege to be involved.

My appetite whetted, I joined a volunteer trip in 2011 with a charity helping prevent human trafficking in the villages of Northern Thailand. We travelled with the director, essentially funding his journey, to isolated villages where he works with village heads to change ingrained attitudes and traditions. The hill tribes comprise immigrants from Myanmar, China and Laos who have for generations lived a frugal existence unacknowledged by Thai authorities. Life is hard and gangs offering loans to families are repaid by the children working in the fields, factories and brothels. The charity approaches the problem with re-education rather than disapproval as the practices have continued for generations. We stayed with families, often sleeping in their beds, ate with them and through our guide were able to get to know them a little. I found it a very difficult trip emotionally, but felt some satisfaction when the charity used many of my images on their website.

Later in 2012 I travelled to Cape Town with Momenta Workshops to work with non-profit organisation James House, which supports the township of Mandela Park. An introduction to photojournalism, I was put in touch with James House and had daily critiques of my plans and images from the Momenta expert. I had to develop my own resources, work independently and I learned a lot. Two hundred and fifty fully processed images, which were used in their annual report, had to be completed before I left. I also developed a personal project called the “Little Chair” involving clients and staff of James House.

Medellin in Colombia is next for me, to attend another Momenta Workshop. I hope to be paired with a non-profit supporting women, to improve my Spanish and further develop my skills. To enrich the experience I always include side trips; going on safari, attending festivals and finding additional opportunities for travel photography. I cannot recommend non-profit work highly enough. It’s humbling, rewarding, often challenging and a unique way to connect to the world through your camera lens.

Website: lauramorganphotography.co.uk

Facebook Page: facebook.com/pages/Laura-Morgan-Photography/146565008692998

Laura’s Advice:
• Find a cause you feel passionate about and be clear about your motives for volunteering.
• Research non-profit organisations carefully and either contact them directly or look for a company that supports such trips (see links below).
• Understand the organisation’s expectations, most likely they will want images that reflect their success in helping people, not heart-breaking images of illness or poverty.
• Be open, genuine and positive and really connect with the people you meet!

Momenta workshops: www.momentaworkshops.com highly recommended.

Photographers Without Borders: www.photographerswithoutborders.org No personal experience but has been recommended to me.

Kaya Volunteer: www.kayavolunteer.com – helpful for a first time volunteer but doesn’t specialise in photography.

Project Exposure: www.projectexposure.org – I do not have personal experience of this organisation.

Photovoice: www.photovoice.org – participatory photo projects.

 

Project South Africa 2013 Rural Life, Oltepesi, Longido (8)

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand

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Villagers in Oltepesi look at photos from 2009

Villagers in Oltepesi look at photos from 2009

Water, water everywhere (well almost!)

Last year I attended the inauguration of one of the water supplies successfully developed by Testigo Africa in Oltapesi, Tanzania. It was a privilege and pleasure to be part of the celebration, having seen for myself the impact of the drought three years earlier.  I travelled with Tracey Sawyer (the Director of the charity), her soon-to-be husband Emanuel plus her family from Australia. We stayed at the simple but very hospitable Tembo Guesthouse in Longido and it was a fantastic opportunity to see the changes Testigo Africa had helped implement since my previous visit.

Impact of the drought in 2009

Impact of the drought in 2009

We travelled to the site in a four-wheel drive, packed to the gunnels with Masai villagers of all shapes, sizes and ages – I wasn’t sure we’d manage to navigate the rutted, dusty route loaded down as we were, but Tracey’s latest acquisition “Old Red” was more than equal to the task. As we drew up near the water tank, and what seemed like dozens of villagers piled out of the jeep, we realised that a group of warriors had gathered to dance (the Adumu) in celebration. It’s awe inspiring to watch these tall, slim and extremely fit men jump so high – each taking turns as the others chant, laugh and joke with each other. Everyone has a go – even Tracey’s dad, who gamely tries to emulate the height of the warriors. The women watch too, then later perform their own dance – equally energetic – full of giggles and shy glances to the audience.

There follows many (many!) speeches, each translated into English, Swahili and Masai to ensure that everyone understands. It’s mainly (of course) the men who talk … yet both charities involved in this project are led by women and one of the main drivers for providing the water supply is to help the women here. It is they who walk miles every day to ensure their families have water – they bear the brunt of drought and the lack of clean, fresh water – so I’m delighted to see two of the women come forward and express their gratitude to Testigo Africa. Namnyak speaks of the close friendship she has with Tracey, developed during her years of involvement with Longido, and explains how much the water supply means to her and the other women. It’s very moving.

Then, as no Masai celebration would be complete without the ritual slaughter and roasting of a goat or two, we follow the men to a clearing where various parts of goat are being roasted over open fires. Soft drinks are shared round and everyone tucks in, although the Masai women are not invited to this part of the ceremony. I manage to politely nibble at some of the offerings but freshly slaughtered meat is fairly tough and I’m not that sure what the pieces of offal are …!

As foreigners, we don’t count as women and are allowed to eat with the men. It’s a very different experience being a woman in this part of the world and not one I’d care for. The women however are strong and determined, the backbone of their families and it’s good to know that the fundraising efforts of charities like Testigo can ease their load, even a little.

Celebrations at Oltapesi, Tanzania.

Celebrations at Oltapesi, Tanzania. Clockwise from top: the women sit near the tank during the speeches; the warriors perform the Adumu, soft drinks all round; a view of the speeches; Tracey and Emanuel in front of the pump house.

Winter blues …

It’s winter, I’ve been hibernating and definitely not travelling with my camera. In fact I haven’t used my camera since my trip to Thailand. I feel vaguely guilty, as though I’m ignoring an old friend. But I know that inspiration and motivation will come at just the right time. Experience has taught me not to force it.

However, I’ve lots of photographs waiting for attention and some of those emerged from hiding today. They include images from a wander through the village of Longido in Tanzania in June last year and a visit to the village school there. The children were clamouring for our attention … partly for the balloons and lollipops but mainly to have their photos taken, with the usual proviso of seeing the shots immediately!

The photographs remind me of warmth and sunshine. The tentative green shoots in my garden means spring is coming soon. I sense a need to rummage for my camera …

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I’m a photographer, not an activist … Part II

Okay – so maybe I will tell you more about trafficking, let’s face it, not everyone is going to follow the links to learn more. It’s shocking and upsetting and it’s happening everywhere in the world, there are workers trapped in enforced servitude in chicken farms in the UK for goodness sake. But that’s another story. My experience was in the remote hill tribe villages of Northern Thailand. In this case it’s all about culturally ingrained ways of living that have little to do with the lucrative sex industry in Bangkok (although for many, that’s where it might lead).

While there are indeed gangs of dangerous traffickers that swoop in and abduct children and adults and force them to work in all kinds of industry from rice-picking to prostitution, polishing gems to domestic slavery (or some similar cliched image), there is also a much more subtly corrupting root cause: families.

Poor families without a means to change their circumstances, whose only asset is their children.

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TL: outside the brothel in the village centre. TR and BL: young village girls playing, none of them are in school. BR: young boys abandoned by their parents have been taken in by their grandfather.

You can’t and we didn’t judge these lovely people as we were welcomed into their homes. The tribes people, Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Yao and Lisu for example, are mainly migrants from China, living on subsistence farming in an area more and more depleted of natural resources. They are illegal immigrants, unlikely to achieve Thai citizenship and not entitled to education or help from the kingdom.

Over generations it has been the cultural norm to “monetise” those assets, as happens in other parts of both the developed and third-world countries. So why am I focusing on these people … the small children you see above? Because I met them. There is a personal connection, small and tenuous for sure, but it’s there. I played with them (cue silly photograph of me on a bike) and watched them play as children do, unselfconsciously and with joy. They have no idea what their future holds.

Me on bikeBut we do. Most of the young girls will work in the village brothel. It’s just another house in the village, no red light or dancing girls. It’s an ordinary house where the men of the village have sex with young women. Sadly, younger and younger girls are desirable. The boys are more likely to work in the fields, picking rice for hours on end. Some of the girls we met pick maize. We spoke to the girl on the far right (below); she was intelligent and funny but without the opportunity to go to school she and her sisters have a bleak future.

Some of the girls do end up in the big city. They return home smelling of perfume, with pretty clothes and money to feed the family … but not from “selling handbags”. The younger girls long to follow in their “glamorous” footsteps and so it goes on. One girl, home to visit the family, spoke English and told us she had an Aussie “boyfriend” whom she believed was going to marry her … her family was so proud and showed us a photo. I don’t hold out much hope to be honest.

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Sisters, having cooked breakfast, are heading off to pick maize.

And it’s sometimes worse, if that’s even possible; families may obtain a loan from traffickers and the children work it off. This can take years, if ever. And here it’s even seedier; promises are made of jobs and opportunities for the kids … but the reality is more often slave labour, imprisonment, rape and beatings.

Hard to imagine this situation? Think of your eight year-old child, out playing in the snow today or dashing around on her bike in summer, carefree and joyous. Just like the kids I met in Thailand. But despite complaining about school (all kids do!) she has a future and even in our uncertain economic climate, can you imagine selling her to traffickers?

No, I bet you can’t. But you’ve never had to. You haven’t lived in a family where this has happened generation after generation. Where the culture accepts it as the norm. Where there a few other choices. And sadly, where evil traffickers can take advantage.

The hill tribes are not bad people but they are victims of circumstance. The only way to change things is to offer alternatives … and that is what charities like COSA are trying to do. It’s a softly, softly approach of re-education. It’s not about judging. In COSA’s case it’s been about saving only a few girls, but surely that is better that than none at all. It’s meant some villages are aware of the dangers and are looking for other options for their children.

Small steps, but stepping forward nonetheless.

 

Save

Save

I’m a photographer, not an activist, but …

There are far too many injustices in our world. It’s overwhelming if you really think about it, even more so if you start to wonder what you can do. First comes impotence: “it’s too big an issue”“I can’t make a difference”“other people are better equipped”. Then perhaps a sense of guilt creeps in: ”I’ve got so much – surely I can (should?) do something?” But life intervenes and we move on, safe in the knowledge that others are sorting out the world. Or maybe that’s just me; after all I’m a photographer, not an activist. Nevertheless, those nagging thoughts prevail:isn’t there something I can do?”

So last year I joined the Human Trafficking Photography Expedition to Promote Social Change. I wasn’t sure what to expect, what we’d do and how I’d feel – but I was excited about an opportunity to develop my photography and learn more about a cause I feel strongly about (those nagging thoughts remember?)

I was a little apprehensive; would we encounter dangerous traffickers and see tragic and seedy sights? Would we even be allowed to take photographs? Would we cause more hassle than help? What in fact would we be doing? So many questions, most of which were not answered through my initial research or during our induction. In fact the reality was much more prosaic. We visited hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand and we encountered nothing but friendliness and warm hospitality. Five of us in a four-wheel drive, or with our guides and curious villagers in a truck, moved between the villages in relative (if bumpy!) comfort. We did trek one day and there was a lot of walking with cameras – but all in all it wasn’t physically arduous. I was both disappointed and relieved. Our accommodation was very basic: other people’s mattresses, sharing beds and extremely simple (but always clean) toilet and washing facilities. Not five-star but considerably better than I’d expected.

So what does this have to do with human trafficking, slave labour and the sex industry? At the time it was confusing. Where was the evidence? What was the issue? These were lovely, kind people. Gorgeous, fun-loving children. Poor but proud villagers eking out a living in remote areas. Nothing nasty or frightening here?

But as the trip progressed we learned that poverty and lack of citizenship was far more insidious that it might appear. This post isn’t to explain the issue of trafficking in Northern Thailand; there are links below that do that more eloquently. But it’s with hindsight, processing the photographs and trying to figure out how I can tell this story, that I feel such sadness. It was truly delightful meeting these children, playing with them and taking and sharing photographs, but pretty photographs hide a stark reality and a vulnerability that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I’m still struggling with a way forward (after all, isn’t there something I can do?) …

Links for more information about the issue:

http://www.cosasia.org/wherewework2010.htm

http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/thailand.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking_in_Thailand

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This baby girl’s mother is a teenager working in the village brothel. It’s likely to be her future too. She may be even be a “lucky” one who makes it to Bangkok or Pattaya to earn even more money for the family …

Giggling and happy now, in a few years they will probably be working in the village brothel, helping support their families.

Giggling and happy now – such gorgeous little girls! But in future it’s possible their extremely poor parents may solicit loans from traffickers who promise the girls good jobs and opportunities in the city … that future most likely to be enforced labour and / or prostitution.

Not at school. May never be educated. Guess what her options are?

Not at school. May never be educated. Guess what her options are?

A broken heart …

We visited this old lady in Ban Kuhn Suay as Mickey, our photographer guide, wanted to see how she was faring. On his previous visit with MOSAIC (Medical Outreach and Social Aid in Communities, run by COSA) he’d asked how her health was and she’d sadly told him “her heart was broken”. The reason? She had no family supporting her and lived completely alone. She was extremely happy to have visitors and posed for photos with a warm, betel stained smile.

Her fate is not unique to the villages of Northern Thailand of course, elderly people all over the world struggle on without the support of their families. Some are fortunate to live in countries with social welfare or have communities or charitable organisations that can provide care.

Meeting her, spending some time, taking photographs and moving on certainly isn’t going to help, I am very aware of that. But she certainly touched our hearts. It was another reminder of the importance of cherishing the opportunities one has and to make the most of life. Important to remember that the next time I complain about the weather or some other minor inconvenience!

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A better life?

S and her mother contemplate a brighter future for the younger woman.  At seventeen and already a mother herself, she lives in a small village in Northern Thailand.  Her baby was taken from her by the father, as is common with unmarried girls like S. She had been a sex worker but now her sole occupation is looking after her mother. I suspect her mother is capable of looking after herself, she certainly isn’t that old, but she has come to rely on S entirely.

They live in extremely impoverished circumstances: a hut furnished with two sleeping mattresses and cooking utensils. Nothing else. The bamboo creaks and gives spectacularly as we gingerly step inside. S shows us her birth certificate, the first, essential document she’ll need if she applies for Thai citizenship. Like most of the villagers, she is a descendent of immigrants with no rights to education or recognition by the Thai government. She is hopeful that an organisation like COSA can help her find work and become a citizen. With virtually no education her options are limited but vocational training could provide her with skills to work as a domestic or in the hospitality industry.

The greatest challenge may be her mother; can she conceive of a better future for her? Will she let her go …..

Contemplating a better future ...

Contemplating a better future …

Chop it all off please …

Walking through Huay Muang before breakfast we came across “outdoor hairdressing”; an elderly lady was about to have what looked like many years of hair growth chopped off with a massive pair of kitchen scissors.  She had been wearing what looked like a traditional Akha woven hat and was vigorously scratching her head as the hairdresser cut open her ponytail.  I can only assume that many years of having the hair tied up inside her hat had caused a scalp disorder or even an infestation as she looked extremely uncomfortable.  We stood and watched with the small group of women who had gathered nearby, having asked permission to take photographs.  The hairdresser (and I use the term loosely) combed out her long grey hair, which came down to her waist, and lopped it off to chin length.  Another woman gathered the hair in a plastic bag.  Having combed out the new style, her hair was again put in a (tiny this time) ponytail and she wandered off happily.

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Framing done ….

Testigo Africa images to be exhibited in December.

The power of the iPad …

I’m not one to promote Apple technology for the sake of it, but I do plan to take my iPad on all future travel photography trips.  We all enjoy photographing local people on our travels – to ruminate over when we get home, to bore our friends with snaps and slideshows and even to write our blogs (!!)  But how often do we consider the subjects of our shots – the people we “take” photographs of?

As I travel with my camera I appreciate more and more that the photograph must be a mutual exploration – a joy for the person being photographed as well as for the photographer.  I’m not ruling out candid shots, they will always have their place in travel and documentary photography, but when you’re up close and personal – get up thereget close and personal!  Engage with the people you meet – talk to them!  Use signs and gestures if you have no common tongue and please, at a minimum, learn how to say hello, please and thank you

What I learned from Kerryn on our recent trip to Tanzania is the power of sharing the pictures in situ.  You can show people the back of the camera (never very satisfactory since it’s so small) but showing them some shots you take on the iPad (even shoot some for for them alone with your iPad – they won’t be as good as your SLR shots – but they’re not necessarily for you).  Or if you are staying for a while, load the shots from camera to iPad and then share.

It’s a different experience for many people in less developed parts of the world.  Most have access to mobiles – basic ones at best – and they may not access to have TV.  An iPad and what it can do is a revelation.  Kerryn videoed Doug singing and clapping with the kids in the Oltepesi boma and played it back to them .. to their absolute delight.  It was replayed again and again and again … !

There was such joy for everyone in those moments.  So go on … engage and share next time you travel with your camera …..