It took some time to come home again. And, although I’m physically here, I don’t know if I’ve arrived completely yet. Sure I’ve already done some nice gigs, completely different from what I’ve done in Africa. I’ve done a benefit festival, a concert of Jacqueline Govaert in Paradiso and a "living room festival" of comedians and musicians in one of the greatest neighbourhoods in town. But my trip is constantly there. The stories I’ve heard, the things I’ve seen are present every day.
One of the reasons for that is that I have to turn nearly six weeks of experiences, stories and photos into an exhibition of about 10 to 15 pictures. Creating an exhibition is a serious job. I already figured this out when I prepared an exhibition early this year in a museum. In what order do you exhibit your work? How do you make sure the flow is right, so people will stroll through your pictures without any hiccups? What size do you print your pictures? Do you print them on paper and frame them, or do you use panels? Besides these though questions, the most difficult thing is killing your darlings. There’s always less space then you actually need for the amount of pictures you picked out. And apparently there’s even more decisions to be made….
During my trip I’ve already mentioned my constant battle between black and white photography and colour. At a certain moment I made a clear choice. And, when I look at my pictures individually, there’s a lot of them that I love to see in colour. The vivid greens of the bush, the eye catching colours of the African dresses. Some pictures even don’t really work in monochrome. One of these is the picture that we are already using as the press picture for the exhibition.
But a lot of the pictures have the same colour spectrum. Lots of greens and lots of brown (from the sand and dirt). It works great for each photo individually.
In the past week I’ve spend some moments with Clare, a gay activist in Uganda. She invited me to her good-bye party, as she’s moving because of safety reasons. Her compound, even though protected by a high wall with barbwire on top and a steel gate, was broken into several times. “It’s only a matter of time before they break through the bars in front of the windows and enter the house”, she said,”I’ll just have to move.”
The morning before I met Clare for the second time, I was watching "the Butler", a movie about the racial history of America. After seeing it, I realised humanity is a very stubborn student. Basically what happened in the United States in the 20th century isn’t that much different than what is happening right now here in Uganda. Only here it’s the gay community that is being suppressed. Februari this year the president even signed into law the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act. Luckily the law, criminalising being gay, was ruled invalid by the constitutional court only three weeks ago.
Still, the Ugandan gay community is far from being free and many gays and lesbians therefor don’t come out but instead hide their sexuality. Something I understand very well after reading some of the hate mails and fb messages Clare receives. Being out in a country like Uganda, means that you try to avoid public places and when you do go there, you ware a hat, shades and you try to keep a low profile. It means you’re constantly at risk of being bullied or even being targeted with violence. Clare and I visited the church that she used to go to. We couldn’t go in as they told her she wasn’t welcome anymore. I was even forced by police to delete some of the pictures I took at the entrance.
I guess Uganda, and many countries in the world, have a long way to go when it comes down to accepting people for who they are. Whether it’s a colour issue, a gender issue or a matter of sexual preference, the world seems to be far from acceptance. Meeting Clare and seeing how she fights for her rights and the rights of gay and lesbian people in Uganda, was very inspirational.
Patrick used to be one of the many street children roaming the streets of one of the slums in Kampala. He used to be high on a mixture of glue and kerosine sniffed out of a plastic bottle or from a piece of rags and he would sleep on the street in some corner, trying to hide from the wind. But years later, he got out. An American women walked by, days before she would head back to the US, and she gave him the opportunity to leave the streets and sort out his life.
Now years later I’m meeting Patrick at the old taxi park, one of the slums in central Kampala. He’s there for an outreach, helping 60 to 90 children that live there. All of them high, all of them in torn clothes and all of them with cuts and bruises everywhere. He tries to be here twice a week, giving the children some attention, cook a (small) meal for them and have Andrew, a befriended nurse, take care of the wounds that most of the children have.
As I’m walking around, the area doesn’t feel that safe. I trust that Patrick knows what he’s doing. Some of the kids grab my hand and put it over there shoulder, or they put my hand on their heads. All they seam to want is some love and attention. Though no money is even asked once, I still find my prejudice self clinging on to my bag as if it’s my only possession in the world. Something I feel embarrassed about when I, later that day, return home and discover that some loose change and some paper money that I accidentally left in my pocket, is still there. Sure, I guess that if I would have crossed this part of town on my own, things might have been different. But that’s something I’ll never know and I’m not planning to find out.
Being there, being with these kids, was confronting and heartwarming at the same time. When two kids of only 8 or 9 years old start to fight over a bottle of glue, that is confronting. As is the cuts, wounds and scars that mark their faces and bodies. But seeing them enjoy the little food they get and seeing them being grateful for the medical care they receive is heartwarming. That said, it was hard to walk away after three hours, knowing that these kids are high only because in that way, they don’t feel the cold of the night and the hunger won’t keep them from falling asleep.
You can see all the photos at my Flickr page
For the past three weeks my house consisted of a small plastic container room behind the safe walls of Bedouine Hotel and Restaurant in Juba South Sudan. The room is not to bad and the bed is actually pretty good. We all share the bathrooms and showers, but it’s certainly doable. And even though breakfast really sucks and internet only works when it wants to, $85 a night is good value in this outrageous expensive city.
Opposite my hotel there is another wall. It’s been there since April, when the mayor or one of the other high civil servants of Juba, decided that the graveyard needed a wall around it. I’m not sure if that is the actual reason and I’ll probably will never know. What I do know is that on that same graveyard there is a refugee camp situated with an estimate of about 800 people living there. The camp used to be next to the Nile, but they were forced to move when developers started to build on the grounds they stayed before. So they moved to the cemetery.
Living between the graves, these people have close to nothing. When I visited yesterday afternoon, the chief asked me to come back the next morning. It wasn’t a good time as everybody was drunk. People wouldn’t accept me taking pictures, and he couldn’t guarantee my safety. While walking out I witnessed some prime example of domestic violence and a couple of (drunk) women showed me their children who had open wounds from burns as the kitchen here consist of open fire. The things I saw in that brief 45 minutes kept me up all night.
As agreed, I showed up this morning once more to sit down with the chief and some elders - men and women- to talk. They told me about moving from the Nile, the building of the wall - shutting them out from the rest of Juba- and them living in mud with no help whatsoever. It’s rainy season now and, as they don’t get any canvas or other utilities to fix the leaks in their “houses” most of them are almost as wet from the inside as they are from the outside. He looked me straight in they eyes when he asked me if I’d been to a community living on a cemetery before. I had to fight my tears and as I’m writing this in the safety of my little dry plastic container I can let them run freely.
Walking through the camp with the chief, I could see how these people suffer. The surreal pictures of people living between these graves had such an impact on me. All of a sudden the chief walked away from me… I watched where he was going and saw a little girl sitting in behind one of the huts, puking her guts out. He tried to comfort her and help her as much as he could. “Suffering of malaria”, was all he could say before we moved on as if nothing happened.
The only help they now get is from CCC, a foundation supporting orphans and street children, children that are victims of sexual violence and girls who are at risk of sexual exploitation. This foundation is responsible for sending some of the children in the ST Mary Camp to school and helps some of the families by letting them work in the compound garden. They also give the community some food packages. As the CCC compound and the schools are near the cemetery, the chief told me about his concern of them being moved away again.This would mean they would have to take the kids out of school and losing some valuable possibilities to do a little work.
Being here made me humble. It made me realise nobody should be living like this. Completely chocked up, I explained him the only thing I personally could do, was to tell their story and show the world how these people live…
I’ve been in South Sudan for about two and a half weeks now. By now I can admit that my intentions and expectations to come here might have been set somewhat high. It might be cultural, it might be because I’m a man or it might be because I didn’t find the right contacts… whatever the reason might be, getting the stories of sexual violence in a country at war is something I haven’t managed to do. Let alone that I thought I would find a way to document this particular issue with pictures.
First of all, taking pictures here - even just in general- is though. People don’t like it, police officers and soldiers prohibit it and walking around with your camera around your shoulder just isn’t a very wise idea. To get into the IDP camps (Internal Displaced People camps), you need permission from high placed civil servants or authority and you’ll only get it by writing down your intentions, sit down and explain who you are and where you’re from and hopefully get a written approval after that. Besides that you’ll need somebody to guide you there when you do get in. This might sound not to bad, but know that appointments are relative and time is something that can be bend. Yesterday I waited for 6,5 hours. Only to find out that three of the four appointments that I had, didn’t show up. Also, offering your services or asking for help at any NGO’s turns out to be difficult as well. They seem to all be to busy with whatever they are doing. So, for now in these two and a half weeks, I’ve visited two IDP camps. Which I did with the help of PAX ( the organisation that has helped me to get here in the first place) and a local foundation called Voice for Change that works together with PAX. And I went out and took a risk by heading for the empty villages I mentioned in my previous blogs.
During these visits I’ve heard stories about rape, but never directly from the victims. And of course I made photos of women that live in unbearable situations, but I have no idea if they actually were victims of sexual violence. These stories are so sensitive and there is so much shame for the horror these women have been through, the stories are just told as if they were stories they heard or experiences of people they once knew. The personal experiences of which they did tell me, had to do with gender based violence, which also is a huge problem here. Men verbally abusing their wives or hitting them because there isn’t enough food, the kids are crying or because they are just plain drunk when returning to their wives and family.
So just to be clear: The women in these pictures, to my knowledge, have not been victims of rape or sexual violence or indicated such in any way. They did consent in their photo being taken and I did have conversations about gender based violence with some of them.
It’s a bizar thing to hear these stories which are most likely only half of the picture and quite likely highly attenuated. At the same time I could feel the pain and suffering of these women, way more than their stories could ever tell me. These women often lost their husbands in war or they are still fighting far away from their family. Some of the men do live in the camp as well, but they are just out all day. These women don’t go to far out of the camp when they search for firewood and they go together with either their kids or their friends to get water. All to create some sort of security, so they won’t be attacked while away from the relative safety that the IDP camps they live in, tries to offer.
At the same time they help each other when they suffer from flashbacks of their time in the village they fled from. They help gathering the family to create an intervention when one of the men comes home drunk every night. I could still feel some sort of hope, some sort of survival instinct, a deep urge to cope and make the best of it despite their situation.
All I can do here is see what is happening. I’ve lost any understanding and I feel very helpless. When coming back to my hotel, it’s unreal to just order some food and a coke. It’s unreal to notice that the TV is on in every hotel or restaurant, showing CNN or any other news broadcaster covering war and terror around the world. It’s almost like they found a way to put their own war, misery and dispair into perspective by looking at a world being on fire.
I’ve given myself a though if not impossible project, of which I’m not certain I can even come close to explaining what I’ve really seen and felt. All I know is that now I know… not in words, not even in pictures, but definitely by the way just being here made me feel.
Just to be clear one more time: The women in these pictures, to my knowledge, have not been victims of rape or sexual violence or indicated such in any way. They did consent in their photo being taken and I did have conversations about gender based violence with some of them.
Upon request I’m writing a short sequel on my previous post. This time with some of the photos in black and white. It’s strange to see what it does. For me both are nice pictures, I’d like to think both are beautiful, but both bring up a complete different story. Which to me is quite logical as I had two different feelings struggling there when I walked around. On the one hand the eerie feeling of the short history that burdens this place… Black & White enhances this, the drama, the emptiness… On the other hand the resilience of the people that return to their houses and, even with the little means they have, try to continue their previous live or start a new one. Because of this feeling of duality, I have to admit it’s hard for me to choose whether to go for color or black and white. I guess it depends on which story you want to tell. Fortunately in this case I don’t really want to tell a story except for how this morning and afternoon made me feel. I guess I’ve done just that by not writing one, but two blogs on the same pictures.
You can see my final choice on my flickr page!
Just to be clear one more time: The women in these pictures, to my knowledge, have not been victims of gender based violence or indicated such in any way. I haven’t spoke to them about this nor did I ask, as this wasn’t the time nor the place and I didn’t have a proper translator with me.
As I’m not yet getting the contacts I want/need, to work on the reportage I had planned. I’ve been sitting around a lot the past week. I’ve been in Juba for the past seven days and had numerous meetings and appointments with people that might be able to help me but I haven’t come far just yet. I did learn some new quotes like: “In Africa waiting is an activity” or ” You westerners all have watches, but us… we have the time”. They’re insightful and I learn a lot from them, but nothing has happened just yet. Of course I’ll keep on trying and it taking this long, was something to expect when picking a topic that is as delicate as gender based violence. But today I got tired of staying in the surroundings I’ve stayed in all this time. I needed to get out.
Luckily a friend I met here offered to drive me to the desolate villages on the outskirts of Juba. The ones that are left empty after the fights of December last year, the ones that have been broken down, looted and burned out.
Slowly some people are returning though, and a few even never left. It’s kind of eerie to walk around on these grounds and I was glad my companion could speak some arabic so we could have some communication with the few people we met and the soldiers that stopped us along the way.
It’s strange for me to be this careful when doing my job. Always ask permission, never walk around with the camera out of the bag, basically making sure that you are as inconspicuous as possible. A though job being 1.90 m, full of tattoos and white. As a consequence of this, most pictures I’ve taken up till now are posed or people are very aware I’m there. I didn’t tell them how to sit or stand, but people just tend to pose when you ask them if you can take their photo.
Also it’s a strange revelation to notice that, up to now, I struggle with the choice of monochrome or color. I’ve always been and still am a huge fan of black & white. But these surroundings, despite the horrific history, just scream to use color.
Well, at least I’ve been able to do a little bit of what I came here for. And like I said, I’ll keep on going to try and get the story on sexual violence that I came for. For now, I’ll just settle and take in the stories and surroundings that I encounter.
Just to be clear: The women in these pictures, to my knowledge, have not been victims of gender based violence or indicated such in any way. I haven’t spoke to them about this nor did I ask, as this wasn’t the time nor the place and I didn’t have a proper translator with me.
South Sudan is anything but what I expected. Tobe honest, I was expecting a country in conflict and don’t get me wrong, it is! But here in Juba there’s not that much that really reminds you on a daily basis. Sure there’s soldiers on the streets. And yes when arranging my photography permit, which took ages, I was specifically told not to photograph anything military or important for infrastructure (like bridges). But so far that’s about it.
Because it’s my first time photographing in a conflict area, I was kind of nervous getting here. First days I waited for the driver of PAX (the organisation that arranged for me to come here) to pick me up from the hotel and bring me to wherever I needed to go. Also because the subject I’m covering is quite though - sexual violence against women and girls - it all just takes time and must be done very carefully. So up till now it has been just talking, attend some meetings and trying to find the right people that can help me move on with the project.
As it is Saturday today, not much is happening. And because of the end of Ramadan, Monday till Wednesday will be a public holiday as well. So today I decided it was time to check out the town on my own. I just don’t want to spend all day in my hotel. Like I said, it wasn’t at all as dangerous as I made it up in my mind. Sure you have to be careful and use your common sense, but where wouldn’t you?
Apparently, just around the corner of my hotel, there is this little neighbourhood where they have a pool table outside. A great way to make new friends! The first game I lost by miles, but then I figured out how to play a South Sudanese pool table (very small balls and pockets, crooked cues and a table made of sandpaper) and so I actually won the second game and suddenly had myself a new crew of friends.
Photographically it was interesting to see that the close ups worked perfect in black and white (as I intended). But looking back, I was happy that I shot them with the M to convert them later. Because for me the “group photo” worked so much better in colour. But, I’ll let you decide.
Any way, hopefully tonight I’ll hear a bit more about my project and the possibilities to meet some women in the IDP camp here in Juba. Luckily a lot of the NGOs working in Juba, and I tell you there are many, will still work during the national holiday. So I’ll just enjoy this weekend for what it is and I’m already looking forward to visit some new contacts monday. I’ll close of with a photo I made at the market, just because I thought she was beautiful the way she sat there. And yes… this one also had to be in color!
It has been a while… It’s getting harder to write about stuff when, in my own perception, not much is happening…. yet!
At this moment, there are things happening. My trip to South Sudan en Uganda is about to commence, only five more days before take off. It’s unreal how much preparation this trip has asked and still is taking. Because of the conflict situation there, things are different for insurance, there’s a security protocol you have to know, different visa’s to obtain etc etc. I truly believe that this is a lot to take in, because it’s the first time I’m flying into conflict territory. I haven’t felt so excited/anxious going on a photography trip for a long time.
PAX for peace is the organisation that is helping me out a lot. With preparation, getting there and with having some reliable people over there that I can depend on and that will help me with my project. Besides working on the Serous Request project “sexual violence in conflict area”, I’ll also be doing some work for PAX, documenting some of the work they do over there.
Yesterday I was at Transcontinenta, getting some extra memory cards and extra batteries and they helped me out with a sweet 24mm Summilux lens to take with me as well for this trip. I hope to put this one in good use. Of course I’ll be mainly working in monochrome again, but I’ll probably will use the M and EVF2 combination a lot. As the 24 mm Summilux has a slightly wider angle than my optical viewfinder can show me, this is probably the best way to have the most control over my framing.
I also had a long talk with Femke and Ilse who just came back from South Susan. Their company is shooting a documentary there and they had some valuable tips and contacts for me. One of the things that surprised me a lot is the fact they explained to me that bringing a small camera, could this time actually be a con instead of a pro. Because of the small camera you’ll have to work harder for them to take you seriously as a journalist. Which is less practical in an area where people want to tell their story so it can get out. ( in any other situation I love the fact that people think I’m just a tourist, it gives me the freedom to walk around and just go for it.) Any way, it’s going to be interesting to see how that works out.
All in all, I’ve prepared as much as I can and I’m ready as I’ll ever be. I am looking forward having a very interesting month with beautiful photos to take and powerful stories to listen to and then tell.
Thanks for sticking around!
At the end of this year, The Red Cross and one of the biggest radio stations in The Netherlands, organise a huge fund raising event called Serious Request. Their goal this year is to raise money for girls and women who were victims of sexual violence in conflict areas.
Last year I got the request of a gallery in Haarlem to exhibit from October till December of this year. Only a week after this news, I heard Serious Request would be hosted in my own town. Of course these to separate events needed to be combined and so I’ll be going on a mission again somewhere next month to make a reportage for the fund raising event. So preparation has started! All photos that will be exhibited in the gallery will be auctioned for Serious Request.
Besides all that I’ve also found a printing company in Haarlem that will support the cause. Printing company Damen will print little packages of 10 postcards that will be sold for €10. All profits of course will go to The Red Cross. I’m also talking to some other people and companies to see if we can come up with more ideas to raise as much money as we can.
Keep you posted!