Altered Views: Lessons From Africa

For the past several months, I had the honor of traveling to Africa to document various projects for some really outstanding organizations that are performing tireless and devoted work in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. I welcomed these assignments as an offering to alter my lifestyle and challenge my perspectives, but more importantly, I wanted to set aside all other commitments to create imagery that might make a difference to people who are struggling.

Now back home as I reflect upon the past several months, I realize that I am going through reverse cultural shock. What once brought joy to me is altered. I still love meals from Portland’s creative restaurant scene and the idea of wearing a pair of sassy boots, but this trip has made me reach ever so fervently for how we touch the earth…and each other.

My days in Africa were spent in heated debate, exchanging innovative ideas, feeling the shock of human peril, learning about living a truly nomadic lifestyle. and dancing until I collapsed. My heart was so full at times that I had to shut down, fold up, and sit alone in a room to come down from this life high. And sometimes I needed a rest from the effects of my own physical and mental curiosity.

Africa is where we began. Lessons abound from the moment a person steps onto the Motherland. I have many stories to tell, but I will start by highlighting a few of the assignments that sparked a renewal of my mindset.

 

SABAHAR, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I started my journey by working on a fashion shoot for Sabahar, a collective of some of the finest weavers in Ethiopia. Their scarves are woven with super soft traditional Ethiopian cotton and silk spun by silkworms raised on their property. Most importantly, they are devoted to fair employment practices. Their Ethiopian staff are paid a great wage while working in a beautiful and supportive environment. Happy faces were seen throughout the garden-filled compound.

Sabahar

Sabahar

 

TERREWODE, Soroti, Uganda

Returning to Uganda seared my soul. Seeing friends I had met earlier in the year and getting to work more closely with TERREWODE (a reintergration center for fistula survivors) was an educating and heart-touching experience. A team volunteered services to teach goat milk soap-making to villagers and TERREWODE staff, advise on the development of packaging, develop a video about the soap-making process and document the way music, dance and drama are used to educate others about fistula.

Soroti Goat Milk Soap Making

Soroti dance drama music

 

OREGON HEALTH & SCIENCES UNIVERSITY, Portland, Oregon, USA and Mekele, Ethiopia

Some people say that a “silent epidemic” of prolapse conditions are occurring across the globe. Many women suffer from this debilitating healthcare concern while continuing to perform their physically demanding work despite the constant severe pain they experience. Medical staff from Portland joined their expert hands to repair prolapses in many women in the northern Tigray area of Ethiopia. In addition, they trained other Ethiopian medical staff how to perform this life-altering operation.

OHSU Ethiopian Doctors

OHSU Operating Room

 

DIGNITY PERIOD, Mekele, Ethiopia

Who would have thought that lack of education and support for menstruating girls and women would have such a dire effect on so many aspects of a female’s life? Lack of menstrual supplies and running water, coupled with little education about the natural occurrence and importance of menstrual cycles, has a direct correlation with how a girl can stay in school and the effects of self esteem for all women. Freweini Mebrahtu responded to this need and created a factory called Mariam Seba (named after her daughter) that makes reusable sanitary napkins and employs women. Dignity Period provides access to sanitary pads and educates students about a female body’s natural process. They also are in the process of researching latrine and water sources for schools to enable hygienic practices. In addition, they are researching the impact of this intervention on the lives of young school girls.

Watch a short video that uses my still images and video I captured while in Mekele, Ethiopia here.

Dignity Period Hands

Dignity Period Teen Girl

 

THE MEKELE BLIND SCHOOL, Mekele, Ethiopia

I am haunted in a very good and profound way from the way the students and other staff got to know me while I visited The Mekele Blind School. I was petted, nibbled, pinched and truly moved by the students, and learned many new ways of emphasizing one sense over the other. It was astonishing to see the children running freely and holding each other so closely when they were together. If only we all could experience each other more so in this manner. This school is in dire need of many improvements but they march on inspiring within each student the confidence that they can do anything they wish.

Mekele Blind School

Mekele Blind School Young Boy

 

TIGRAY ASSOCIATION ON INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES, Mekele, Ethiopia

Every so often something will shake my foundation and enrage my soul. On this trip, I found out that girls/women with mental illness are often targeted for rape because some men believe these females are unwanted and therefore free from HIV or other diseases. The afflicted female needs to have 24/7 watch over her in fear she might exit the home compound without someone accompanying her. The Tigray Association on Intellectual Disabilities, founded by a sister of an intellectually challenged girl, helps to nurture and provide activities for both women and men, as well as keep them safe.

Mental Illness in Mekele

Mental illness in Ethiopia

 

HOPE ENTERPRISES SCHOOL, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Imagine living in the most desolate of situations at a poverty level that is at the lowest shanty structure level. Someone knocks on your door, and they ask many questions about your children that are living there. After a lengthy interview process, your family has been selected to be a part of the Hope Enterprise School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Your child will be supported from the time they enter school through high school graduation and they will be assisted until they are placed in a job. This is just one of the many remarkable projects that are funded by Hope Enterprises.

Hope Enterprises School

Hope Enterprises School

 

STREET CHILDREN’S BREAKFAST, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I rarely feel the devastation of having great pangs of hunger. I can grab a cracker and know that a meal will be had soon. When I am very hungry, my senses get mixed up and I get irritable. For a young boy faced with living on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a breakfast in the morning can mean he can live a day of staving off hunger and not having to hustle or steal for food. Hope Enterprises feeds street boys bread, banana and milk each morning.

Street Boys Breakfast

Street Boys Breakfast

 

MATERNITY AFRICA, Arusha, Tanzania

Fistula is a devastating condition that affects thousands of women and the families they nurture and support. Dr. Andrew Browning is one of the best fistula surgeons in the world and after working for many years with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Andrew now is based in Arusha, Tanzania where he practices and teaches on a global level. Maternity Africa supports his efforts and is in the process of building a new hospital which will ensure that best practices are in place. They also are firmly devoted to fistula prevention by working with midwives to educate villagers about the dire consequences of obstructed labor.

Tanzania Maternity Africa

Tanzanian Girl Maternity Africa

Fashion In Portland

In July, we completed a two-day shoot featuring nine of Oregon’s top designers and their latest pieces. It was a flurry of models, makeup artists, hair designers, creative directors, videography and many assistants running like mad.

Here is the spread in print for 1859 Magazine, including behind the scenes video interviews with each designer.  It was an honor to meet the designers and see their new designs!

For 1859 Magazine

 

 

 

 

Cheryl Strayed: An Unaltered Image

She breezes into the room, mustering something under her breath I cannot hear.  I watch her every move, each nuance, how she picks something up, the way her eyes flicker when she talks, the flow of her clothes, the curl of her lips as she greets me. She is a raised chalice of charisma, exuding the heart thumping charm of an awkward teenager about to enter the doors of their first school dance.

I can sense that her image is important to her, and that this photo session will not be one where she is not invested in its outcome. It is not her ego that is driving her, it is her anticipation. She knows what is about to happen in her life, how her world will change in a few short months, and there is a hint of desperation in her stance.

Success can be overwhelming, and for someone like Cheryl Strayed who works from her intuition outward, she is trying to brace for the wave that will certainly alter the course of her family.

This was my second time photographing her. The first occasion was when we made her author photograph for her newly released book, Wild. I had met her years before at a party on my street, and as I frequently do when I see someone I would like to photograph, I approached her and asked if I could do so. I never question why I want to photograph someone, i just go for it.

It took a few years before we finally got into the studio, coinciding with the time that she needed her author photo. She was not the easiest person to photograph, as she was difficult to “reveal”…..she held back from letting herself become free before the lens. However, I could see a heat, an intensity that ran so deep, and I took the time to find a way in. I was surprised, because Cheryl is known for her openness and exposure of self in her writing. But the camera can conjure up a whole set of feelings as we place ourselves center stage before the world. I understood this. I found this aspect of her to be utterly endearing, and a purposeful platform from which she could rely upon as she embarks on the notoriety that this book will surely bring to her. A bit of self consciousness and doubt are good antidotes for anyone who is a rising star.

As we got to know each other, she quickly let down her guard, especially when I asked her to scream foul expletives into the air. We collapsed in heaps of laughter as she spewed out word by word, randomly surfacing the most blatant in her mind. Click. I knew which image would make it to the top three, and I was not surprised when she selected it as her favorite for the book jacket. Exuding just the right tinge of sexuality with a splash of backcountry confidence, there she was in front of me: lovely, poised, certain and wild.  I saw the stray hairs that flew about, but I restrained from moving them. This was her, in all of her provocativeness. Let it be. Why alter that reality?

Now I was here to photograph her for the magazine, Poets and Writers. The specs were well defined, from typeset placement to locations to editorial vs portrait styling. I had a grand time with Cheryl in her home, poking into hallways and bedrooms and recessed living areas. My daughter was my assistant on this day, and we both marveled at how she can ignite a conversation with a deliberate focus of her yearning blue eyes, a tilt of her head and a deeply penetrating question.

When it was time to upload images to the magazine, once again, I was faced with a choice regarding how I would edit the images, as I retain rights to make those decisions. There was one photo in particular that was bothersome. During the shoot, I had failed to see a strand of blond hair that was twisted into a pattern that detracted from Cheryl’s face. It looked like a starburst, shot close enough to the camera that made what is referred to as a “hot spot” on the image. Glaringly white, it drew the eye downward toward its center. I agonized over this part of the image, kicking myself for not seeing it so I could have moved it into place where it would not have competed with her facial expression.

As I started to alter it in Photoshop, once again, I halted myself. This is who she is. Just because this is a rising star, photographed for a highly regarded magazine, why should I now foray into something I have long kept at bay in my work: the degradation of an authentic image just for the sake of so called beauty?

I decided to leave the starburst piece of hair intact as a testament to the miracle of photography. At times we capture something we never see while photographing the subject. This is the true delight of making images, when we, the photographers, are startled by something we did not know was present.

This starburst was something I could not have created myself. The more I looked at it, the more I saw how it was a symbol of the truth in Cheryl: although a rising star, the showmanship brilliance rests more upon her shoulders than in her soul. One can see quite quickly that Cheryl Strayed is all about the journey and not the destination.

Her star is shining now, with book tours and interviews and even discussions of larger events that will rock her world. But deep within her soul is where her truth rests, not within her stardom. If one looks past the dazzle of stardom and the bursting success that is now surrounding her, you can reach her soul through one look into her intentional eyes.

Imperfection is, after all, the gateway to sincerity.

 

Copyright 2017 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD