1 Shot: Just Smile

Today’s photo tip: Sometimes communication comes down to a smile

Something friends often ask is ‘how do you take a photograph and get permission if the person doesn’t speak the same language as you.’ I think it can seem daunting in a foreign country sometimes and I understand where this question comes from but actually the answer is pretty simple. I engage with people by giving them a smile, if appropriate going and shaking their hand or offering them a sign of peace and respect, and then gesture at my camera. Where possible I try to engage in other ways too, if at a market stall I might buy something to eat and build a connection that way, and body language often goes a really long way. I think we sometimes get worried in a new place and forget that people are people are people are people! I for one generally find that if someone smiles at me and comes up to me and shakes my hand I am not likely to feel badly about them, same applies all over the world. In the same way you can sometimes tell just by looking at someone’s body language whether they are in the right frame of mind for you to take a photo of them. The photo below is of a teenage market seller in Debre Sinre in Ethiopia who was selling pots by the side of the main road leading into the market square. I looked over and smiled at her (camera at this point obvious around my neck) and she shyly smiled back. I was able to stroll over to her and capture a few portraits and she smiled throughout. A smile – a small thing but it can make you feel a million dollars!

A smile goes a long way...

1 Shot: Under My Umbrella

Today’s photo tip (from someone who is still learning!): Never be scared to ask for a photo.

This elderly woman was sat under her umbrella in a market in Debre Sinre, Ethiopia looking quite stern. She was a really interesting character though and I thought she would make a wonderful portrait. I decided to bite the bullet in the end and approached her, shook her hand and got chatting. As it turned out she was more than happy to have a photo taken and the stern features dropped away as she posed in style!

Lent Reflection 2: On my Knees in Ethiopia

Last week I was in Ethiopia and had the privilege of visiting a local Orthodox Church in Debre Birhan whilst visiting the country with the NGO I work for (www.mrdf.org.uk). These are my thoughts and reflections as scribbled in my notebook whilst in Ethiopia on what was then the first day of our Lent in the UK:

(Notes from my journal): ‘I walked into the compound of St Selassie Church and as I faced the main building men and women began to part like surf torn between coast and ocean. The men wrapped in dusty cloaks guarding against the frost nibbling at their faces in the early morning light shuffled to the right and the women almost gliding as a shock of white shawls; bodiless ghosts with dark faces peeping out of the thin pale veils wrapped around their heads, moved to the left.

The women spilled towards the large doors at the edge of church. Silent figures shrouded in stark, and amazingly clean, white cotton. There is not enough room in the women’s portion of the church to fit everyone at once so for many minutes we stood outside. I joined the women doing my best to follow social cues whilst at the same time using this alien environment to try to figure out God in a new way for myself. This was a challenge as everything spoken was in Amharic and this was relayed over a crackling speaker positioned at the top of the church facing the male half of the compound. Still, as the women fell forward when the microphone spluttered out a particularly loud instruction, I decided to do the same and found myself face down with my nose pressed against a surprisingly cold stone floor. Initially I peeked nervously out the corner of my eyes. Already being the polar opposite to everyone else in the space (white face peering out of a dark shawl) I did not want to stand out further by doing the wrong thing. As the absolute silence washed over me though, only the constant buzz from the sound system remaining and the gentle noise of one-hundred or so women pressed praying up against my side, I found myself able to think about my faith. How often do we kneel in church in the UK and how often as a Church  do we lay down before God in awe? I became aware how foreign this was to me, not just because I was in a foreign land but because this was a pattern of worship foreign to my body. I felt slightly ashamed when thinking about the number of times I sing worship songs talking about this kind of humility but realising I had never experienced those words in the way I was on that cold stone floor.

When we eventually rose back up again to a seated position I was also struck by how faithful these women are. They wait out in the cold at 6am in order to eventually be able to pass through the church doors. Would I wait outside church to be let in? Would I get up really early in order to go through that wait? Would I then still praise God? Some women were of course doing the things those that only turn up out of habit do; muttering prayers whilst looking elsewhere, one woman was on Facebook on her phone (Facebook REALLY is everywhere!) and one woman had clearly fallen asleep. Most of the women that I saw outside of St Selassie were there celebrating their Lord though with pure joy, absorbed in prayer, reading the Bible or simply sitting in the silence.

As I finally went into the church itself shoes were slung off in one breath and the sign of the cross made in the next. A petite and wizened old woman beckoned me in giving me a toothless grin. The cacophony of noise inside the church was arresting, from the silence outside I entered into a sprawling mess of humanity , all with their eyes fixed on a cross woven into a large curtain. Babies were crying at their mother’s breasts, women were praying loudly and in earnest and a priest stood with his head leaning out from the curtain preaching to the crowd. The room was pungent with incense but also with a mixture of other smells including candle wax, body odour and the smoke from lights extinguished as women floated back and forth in their white shawls. There was no room to sit down as the space was only around four metres wide, I had to slide past numerous feet , bags and babes-in-arms in order to reach a second similar room. I sat at the back of this room next to my new friend and guide. A nun then walked over followed by a priest who carried small metal cups on a silver tray. The priest asked me in perfect English if I knew Christ and would accept Communion with them. I decided I was happy to do this and drank cold water and ate bread whilst praying along with my new brothers and sisters in a different language to their own. An incredibly special experience and one I will not forget easily. People might argue I did not know their theology and perhaps shouldnt have taken Communion but I know that in that room I was experiencing a shared faith and taking that water and bread with followers of Jesus like myself. The rest of my time sat behind a curtain in a small enclave of a massive church was done so in silence.

Upon leaving the church the sun had finally come out and had warmed the earth in only the way an African sun can. The women scattered back towards to streets, kicking on battered shoes and easing out of their shawls, and I reflected that whilst most had been clothed in white cloaks that day, I had been cloaked in blessings.



A Modern Cuppa

To follow up on my post earlier in the week A Traditional Cuppa this is a photo essay that further explains Ethiopia’s relationship with one of the world’s favourite drinks – coffee. In modern and thriving Addis Ababa coffee breaks take on a new meaning. Dotted throughout the capital are little coffee bars, relaxed coffee lounges and minimalist take-away coffee shops. One of the most famous of these establishments is TO.MO.CA which is a family owned coffee‐roasting company  established in 1953 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The company’ name is abbreviated from the ItalianTorrefazione Moderna Café. One of the coffee ‘doctors’ at TO.CO.MA explained to me that they have tried to keep their business as true to its set up in 1953 as possible, the ceilings have not been painted since that date and are stained after many years of smoke and steam blasting them. TO.CO.MA is not a ‘sit-and-relax’ kind of coffee bar, rather it is a place to come in and get your caffine fix before heading back on to the bustling streets. Staff were more than happy to let me take some snaps:

Bright orange uniforms mark out the staff as the scurry back and forth serving customers in the constantly busy coffee bar.

TA.CO.MA uses modern technology but likes to hang on to items from the past as decoration for the store. This beautiful old till sits just behind the main service desk.

A man sits at one of the few tables in TA.CO.MA. The store serves a number of types of coffee for different tastes. I opted for one of the stronger ones 'Bar Type'

The traditional weighing scales hide their new modern replacements. In TA.CO.MA people can buy coffee to take home as well as stop for a drink,

I am not normally a big fan of coffee but love all these beautiful old coffee making machines.

Lent Reflection 1: A Woman’s Work….

‘No one should have to dance backward all of their lives’. 

(Jill Ruckelshaus)

The principle that everyone is entitled to rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” was given voice in Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and yet we know that amongst the world’s poorest you will find more women than men. When I am visiting many of the beautiful countries I go to as part of my work this pattern is clear to see as most households in developing countries remain dependent on agriculture. This means that typically women are reliant on engaging in a demanding combination of unpaid subsistence farming and caring for their extended family. Any outside employment women gain tends to be unofficial and unregulated and this often places them in a position of risk.

Work is defined as meaning ‘exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something’ (dictionary.com) and yet many tasks women of the world perform fall outside of formal employment, and many are unpaid tasks to maintain the home, so they are not recognised as such. In the UK my life is mechanised so that time in the kitchen does not really require me ‘exertion’ or ‘effort’ and yet as I travel I see that my sisters around the world have to go to great efforts just to prepare food or wash clothes. This is work indeed when it includes an hour’s trek to fetch water or an evening rubbing raw hands in order to wear a garment that allows you to feel dignified and clean. All of this is without even adding in the burden of care having children produces.

A woman prepares dinner in her home. Debre Sinre, Ethiopia.

At Lent we think of the things we can give up to glorify God and to be closer to his idea of the way we should live our lives. Something I have decided to give up this year is time – to spend more time in my day focusing on ways I can serve God. As I reflect on a week in Ethiopia I think about how fortunate I am to be a woman in the country I am in. I have the luxury of being able to give up time. What am I really giving up? On most days it is time watching television, or time relaxing in bed…. my global sisters wake up before the sun comes up and work right through to dusk just to fulfil the basics needed to maintain life for themselves and their families. I am privileged indeed.

So today’s Lent thought and prayer is for all those women in the world who work so incredibly hard. You are beautiful.

A Traditional Cuppa

Ethiopia is famous for its coffee and the nation’s favourite drink can be found in many forms, from the traditionally prepared cup to a pot created using the latest machinery. This photo essay shows the process of creating a cup of Ethiopian coffee the traditional way. In Debre Sinre the air can be very cold in the morning as the highland mist subsides and makes way for the sun. A warm cup of coffee created by local coffee-house worker Fantya in a small roadside cafe was just what I needed and she kindly let me photograph her tasty creation:

Fantya roasts the coffee beans and a sensational smell fills the air.

Fantya has to wait for the right moment to remove the beans from the heat. She keeps the coffee beans moving at all times over the embers.

While the beans simmer the water is heated over the flames. The sweet scent of herbs and spices flood the coffee-house.

Fantya then takes the roasted coffee beans and grinds them down into a fine powder.

Drinking coffee is about more than just drinking coffee! The cups are prepared and intoxicating aromas fill the air.

Finally, with the coffee added to the hot water, Fantya pours the drink ready for the guests.

Coffee is served with hot penny stocks .....

..... all that is left to do is nibble on barley, chat with friends and take a sip of the finest Ethiopian coffee. Perfection

Picking Up the Pen

I was always into poetry as a kid. I loved to write, and to write fast. I revelled in the fact that poetry did not have to follow the rules in the same way longer tomes of writing did and I loved the way I could just let my thoughts and feelings spill out over a page without having to be overly measured about full stops, appropriate connectives or other restrictions that felt binding. I used to write just for me, carving out words on a page without a second thought because those words were not scribed for anyone else. Sometimes I would write frenetically and sometimes months would page where my notebook was left gathering dust in my bedroom (these were the days before keyboard replaced pen and paper). The freedom to put pen to paper was mine to hold. I think we forget, as we leave childhood, to create for the sake of what we love. We begin to cherish only what we feel others may also cherish and we lose that freedom to pour our heart out on a page or take our passions by the hand and see where they might lead us.

I haven’t written poetry for a very long time and a few years ago a camera replaced the pen in my hand. I see photography as my new form of free instagram followers poetry and I feel affection for it for many of the same reasons. When we take a photograph we can capture in an instant a story, an emotion, a feeling or an experience without the need for long-winded explanation. When I see a photograph like Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ I can see a volume of meaning in her eyes without her needing to say a word to me. Yet it is so easy for us as photographers, writers, humans walking out our lives, to forget what is most dear to our hearts and to replace it with shallow and trivial worries. In a guest post in 2009 David duChemin spoke of the need to embrace a new kind of photography; “It’s going to lead us to stop talking about the way we create light and start talking about the kind of light we create” and these words are still so relevant now. We spend so much time as photographers focusing on the technical that we miss the whole point of why we do what we do! In a recent post I examined some of the ethics around humanitarian photography and yet when we truly seek to see people as people and places as holding unique value we wouldn’t need ethical discussions as we would treasure the world for what it is.

My photography website catch line is ‘taking beautiful images of a world worth loving’ but I have taken the time in the last few weeks to really ask myself if I believe that or have I reduced my photography down to f-stops, pretty bokeh and white-toothy smiles? A friend asked me a question recently; they asked me what my dream is for my photography. What is my vision? I spun out a thread of words loosely describing dignity and hope. I was not being bold enough. I have since gone back and in the quiet of my room, duvet pulled up around my knees like a child again, I came up with a very different vision.

I want to be brave. I want my images to be more about the content than the creation and I want to spend ten times as long thinking about why I am crafting a photograph than about how I am going to do it. I am covered in a cloak of blessings and I want to extend that cloak to those around me and if I can do that through my craft then I am all the more blessed myself! I want to put the power of the image in the hands of the most down-trodden in the world. I want to serve the poor with my feet, my hands, my actions and where possible with my camera. I will do this in a well-informed way but will never let my head rule over my heart because however contrived it may sound love really is the answer. I will let myself be a child again and stop worrying about empty words others may, or may not, cast on my work. I will not worry about money because God has always provided for me and coins should not dictate our dreams. Most of all, if I was asked that question again, I would say I want to stop putting limits on myself. I think we have the opportunity as a generation to really use all this amazing new technology to carve out a new poem of life, a new rhythm in our world. I want to be a part of that.