I was standing in the middle of a dried up riverbed in Swaziland, sweating. The terrain was unpredictable, and wanting to be prepared for every possibility meant that I was layered in thick jeans and heavy boots with a backpack full of cameras. I walked with two women and an infant for a little over a mile to reach this ghost of a riverbed because it was the closest place to get water. Cows with skin draped on their skeletal frames wandered aimlessly across our path, hoping to find green fields to graze. There was one large black puddle in the middle of the cowpie-dotted sand. The water had no shades or hues or gradients, just opaque blackness.
One of the women walked over to the puddle and used a bowl to sift through the water. I watched her attempt to separate the bugs and shiny films so she could get the best black water to take back to her family. As she filled her bucket, two of the cows began to drink from the puddle; one began to defecate in it. I was on my knees in the sand and cow pies, trying to get a reflection shot of this woman gathering water. All I managed to think was: “This is a strong image.”
My job is to tell the stories of people who need help; of lives that are in crisis. As a documentary photographer currently working with Thirst Project, I look at the world through a viewfinder in order to capture moments that I can use to recount a compelling narrative. This occupation makes it easy to separate myself from my subjects and their experiences – my charge, after all, is to create great content. Oftentimes, it is only during post production that I realize the depth of what I have witnessed.
In the last 12 years that I have worked in this profession, I have often contemplated the purpose of a photograph. Not that long ago, it was to share memories with people close to you; now, we share memories with the whole world very impersonally. With every photo we post to social media, we hope for more likes, more followers and more attention. Content is unstoppable. I once read that worldwide, people take about 380 billion photos every year. Thanks to the abundance of affordable cameras and phones and apps, anyone can be a photographer or videographer
But are we really seeing and experiencing a place when we are so focused on how we might broadcast it?
Last December, I traveled to Swaziland with a great group of people ranging in age, profession and interests. They were all intent on trying to interact in real ways while simultaneously capturing everything through some form of camera. There was a huge disconnect. It is more important now than ever to step back and really focus on what is actually, authentically happening in front of our lenses and our screens.
In my line of work, I have to be especially mindful of how I document people and places. Turning crisis into content can be dangerous because it impacts how we react and respond to the most pressing issues of our time. What if we always keep crisis far enough away to take its picture? Our documenting of tragedy for shock value or likes and followers can be the goal, or the goal can be to empower people toward positive change; to inspire folks to step in front of the lens and into the crisis.
I want to capture the most human moments and to do that, I have to set down my camera and be a human in the moment. I have to see people without the barrier of a lens in order to really understand who they are. Putting my camera away is my way of introducing myself and making an effort to appreciate the common humanity between us. When I do this, it inspires my work and pushes me to tell even stronger stories. I don’t always do a great job of it, but I want the intention to be on the forefront of my mind, and of everyone’s mind, moving forward.
On my last trip to Swaziland just a couple weeks ago, there was a moment where I set down my camera and forgot all about the pressures of documenting; I was headed to another contaminated water source with local community members and decided to ask three elderly women and the local chief what songs they liked to sing. As we walked the dry, dusty roads they sang a song they knew in English:
“I’m a new creation.
I’m a brand new man.
All things have passed away,
I’m born again.
More than the conqueror,
That’s what I am.
I’m a new creation,
A brand new man.”
It was a human moment that connected us, and that connection rejuvenated my desire to be in Swaziland and to be a part of Thirst Project. It reminded me why I started to do this work in the first place. It’s not about likes and followers; in fact, it’s not about me at all. The community members may need my help in telling their story, but I need their help to ground me, to make me take a step back and pause.