I’ve been working with Sasa Designs by the Deaf for almost two years now doing their product and catalog photography. This weekend I had the pleasure of heading to Lamu, Kenya with the team to shoot the Spring/Summer collection. Here’s a few shots that weren’t apart of the work.
Today many journalists in Nairobi protested outside the Egyptian embassy for the release of journalists being held without charge in Egypt. Help us keep the hashtag #FreeAJStaff going as pressure is applied to get these guys out of prison. Here’s a couple photos…
And then night comes. When all your dreams float above the bed and drift across low ceilings like a cloud of maybe-one-day’s. What a shapeshifter your mind is.
“I didn’t mean to get so lost,” You tell your dreams, apologizing for your lack of attentiveness to their calling.
“I just thought you could fend for yourself for awhile. I thought I would take a stab at forbearance for a change. You know. Mix things up a little?”
But then slighted were your attempts at greatness — of becoming the person you set out to find. Oh what a person you used to fight to become.
Now there is no space for such theories in the day. All the things you dare not touch. Because real people live in real life. Because there are buses to catch and appointments to be kept. And the sun, like a giant spotlight of gaping proportions, points out all your flaws before the crowd even knows your name. Who can breathe when a spotlight is on them, let alone think beyond the sweat of their brow. No, daytime is no place for dreams.
But you are small, and the night reminds you of this too, though you do not suffocate under the gasp of darkness.
Here you remember what things you told yourself under a distant cloak of night.
Here the breezeless air mixed with utter silence forces you to think beyond.
Here you are being called to face the face of fear.
And then you remember that fear is what kept you down for so long to begin with.
And then you remember what fear looks like, how little girth it has.
And then you remember that you were a champion once, slaying dragons in distant lands.
And then you remember waking to blood on your hands; the death of fear
And then you remember life.
You have lived a few dreams. Time to dream and live another.
I started to write a “2013 in Review” post a few days ago. It was entirely too overwhelming so I decided to color instead.
2013 was the best year. And 2013 was a shit year.
In April 2013, I published and sold out of my first book and had my first gallery showing.
I sold my car to buy a plane ticket and moved back to Kenya with a couple hundred bucks to my name, my camera and my laptop. I had three months to find enough work to pay for an extension on my flight. Otherwise it was do or die.
I was anxious, nervous, and excited. The fear of failure and the desperate need to prove I could make it yanked the covers off my bed every morning and threw cold water on my face.
After moving back to Kenya I finally got accepted into the Eddie Adams Workshop in New York. Worked for several major NGO’s and was commissioned by an international news agency for a photo story. I traveled to 13 states and Washington D.C. as well as four countries.
So my career has taken off. Money isn’t so tight anymore. I’m not as worried about “making it” as I was six months ago.
But the reality is, as high as 2013 took my career is as low as it took my soul.
I’ve lost touch with many friends and don’t know how to reconcile that. Time multiplied by distance is a hard obstacle to overcome. I’ve been a horrible friend to many. And a great friend to a few. Something I’m learning to be okay with… that I can’t be everything to everyone, no matter how much I love them or want to be. But man does it blow.
Also, my heart was broken, specifically speaking, twice. The first I still haven’t recovered from. And there has been so much death, though I think that is more a product of age than it can be blamed on 2013 distinctively. And Westgate. Which I still get slightly quezzy at the mention of.
And I care less. About life in general. But also about what people think. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. 2013 was a blur. Of people and places. A constant whirlwind, one where the only moments of silence were blanketed in flashes of the realization that I was more lost than ever.
Somehow, in the middle of all this, photography has gone from my gift to the world, to more of a means to an end. Hear me correctly, I do love photography. But it’s lost the ability to save anyone, including myself, and that is something that I still don’t know what to do with. Though maybe that is exactly what photography is supposed to be — a tool to save, rather than having the power to save in and of itself.
Instead of showing my best photos from the year, or one photo from each assignment as I had planned… I will only share one.
This image and it’s context is changing me. Maybe 2014 will be able to explain a little more but for now I will just be thankful that 2013 is over and a new year is full of new dreams to be dreamed and chased.
This is my fourth time to South Sudan within the last year. I’ve traveled to four of the ten states over a span of two and half months. Somehow it feels like home, in the way that any place could ever feel like home. The smell of fresh bread and blistering heat.
This project has been different than any other I’ve worked on. We’ve spent almost two weeks training 40 children on how to videotape and act in their own dramas. All day. Every day. 40 children that I can’t communicate with directly. And yet love abounds.
The first day, with cocked heads, they observed my patterns. Pointed at my lip rings. But only from afar. They said my name with hesitancy. Whispers surrounded me.
Each day they inched closer.
Now they scream my name, a glorious chorus in the mornings when I greet them. They have pulled at my arm hair. Asked me to remove my lip rings. I’ve given them secret glances at my shoulder tattoos. They’ve held my hand. Let me hold them. Taught me small doses of Arabic.
Now instead of “Kawaja!” they yell, “Christena!”
It’s nice to be known. To be comfortable. Nice to have someone saying my name instead of my skin color.
Asben David is the only one that can speak any English on a communicable level. The rest dabble with their words. David, 14, rests his head on my shoulder during shootings. He hates it when I rub his head but desperately loves any other affection. He’s always hungry.
The one I have named Small Baby, I still can’t pronounce her name. Her nickname has caught on with delight among the other children. She has a horrible consistent cough that runs in the background of our recordings. We told her. Now she walks very far away to cough and then silently comes back. I adore her.
Insaf. She’s the popular girl. Everyone wants her attention and she’s the best actor we have. Sometimes she cops an attitude and though I have no idea what she’s saying, I make a goofy face at her or pinch her arm and she laughs. I hope she grows up to be someone amazing.
Mandela, who knows he’s the famous one, traded me his blue and white beaded bracelet for the 9/11 Memorial rubber wristband I got in New York during my recent trip there. I tried explaining what it meant and where it came from, but it was an impossible undertaking. I tried to tell him that my country was attacked, just like his. That even in America we have problems. He just smiled. I haven’t taken his bracelet off since.
This is the second year I’ve spent thanksgiving in South Sudan. Both times I’ve been lucky enough to have chicken for dinner, though it’s hardly a replacement for the comforts of family.
I miss my family. Always.
But I’m thankful to be here. Thankful to have work. Thankful to be doing something that even on my bad days I still love and believe in.
Recently I prayed for joy. A deep-seated joy that bubbles over into other peoples auras. Something that has been amiss for a while.
I can’t say these children are the source of joy, but they have sparked something in me that needed to be lit. It’s hard to think I’ll probably never see them again. But I have resolved myself to being a transient and this is one price that must be paid for such a life. The goings and comings never get easier, but maybe the joy in between can grow.
Maybe they will believe in themselves a little more. Maybe they won’t be afraid of the future. Maybe they will follow their dreams. I hope they turn out to be people who chose education over alcohol. Ones who become leaders when they return home to Sudan.
So back to Nairobi I go, taking with me one bracelet, many photographs, and the hope of a fuller life with more joy.
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name” -Jeremiah 15:16
The anticipation that built in the days preceding the workshop completely overwhelmed me. There were business cards and flyers to be made. Names and faces of speakers to be memorized. Fellow students to meet. The chilly New York City air burned in my lungs. It was my first time to NYC, and the city welcomed me home with open arms. I was tired and hungry and needed rest, but Lady Liberty was offering so much more than that.
The drive to the farm was filled with buzzing introductions and excited observations. I was delighted to see upstate New York in all it’s simplistic splendor gliding by outside the bus window.
After checking in to the hotel, we gathered our cameras and boarded the buses, like a gaggle of school children eagerly awaiting the first day of class after a long, hot, boring summer break.
When we reached the farm, we ascended up the hill like an army of dutiful worker ants to be greeted by a swarm of cheering black team helper bees. They hooped and hollered for what seemed like ages. We could hear the pride in their screams. Stacy Clarkson and Molly Riley each greeted me with a giant hug. I felt like a soldier coming home from war.
John White was one of the first speakers. That man reached deep into my soul and made me believe again in the power of photojournalism. The power to give those who have been reduced to a whisper the chance to scream.
A few quotes from his presentation:
“You are going out there for those who can’t go there.”
“I love spreading my wings. I love living my dreams.”
“My allegiance is to something greater than the organization. My allegiance is to humanity… I’m not doing it for me, and I know that I don’t have forever to do it.”
I met him, briefly at some point during the weekend. He’s a humble man and was always in a well worn suit. I desperately wanted to pull him aside and chirp into his ear for awhile, but the best I could manage was a handshake.
Not just any handshake, though. A John White handshake. He held my gaze, hypnotizing me as he said “It’s really, really, great to meet you Christena.” He simply held my hand there as his eyes reached inside and saw me. I felt violated at first, I wasn’t sure if I could handle his intensity. But then I realized how delighted I was to have someone notice me so sincerely. “It’s really great to meet you too Mr. White. I love your work.”
Afterward he fluttered away down the hill.
Eugene Richards made a surprise appearance to the workshop. I had seen him speak earlier in the year and so when he walked up to the hotel with his wife I about lost it. You would have thought the newest up and coming pop star had just walked by me. At the behest of some friends standing near by, I sheepishly followed him in to the check-in counter. I made a fool of myself but he and his wife were gracious.
A little while later I caught them in the bar as they were heading to bed. His wife gave me a hug and he planted a grandpa kiss smack on my cheek. I immediately updated my facebook status.
After his presentation the next morning I talked with him briefly and scored another pop kiss. It was dreamy.
Here few other quotes from people’s talks:
“You should not want to be Eddie Adams, you are unique” Walter Anderson
“Great photographs touch the soul and broaden the mind” Gerd Ludwig
“When you’re forced outside your comfort zone, that’s when good things happen.” Stephen Wilks
“You are not going to stop a war, but you can tell people your vision.” Rodrigo Abd
“Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is when we shoot what we wanted to get.” Peter Yang
“Maybe I didn’t change the world, but it changed me.” Jodi Cobb
“I am embedded with the people.” Zalmai
“You are the platform for the people.” Deanne Fitzmaurice
Deanne Fitzmaurice gave me an amazing hour of her time to look through my work, listen to my woes and guide me on the steps forward. She told me to “build small stories inside the bigger project. Think of it like a book with chapters.” Something clicked with that. Like building a video project in sequences. Long-term photo essays have always been a challenge for me because they often lack direction, and, well, a story. Though she had many other great things to say, this was a pivotal point for me.
Mary-Anne Golon did a review which ended up being more of a tutorial on how to apply for grants and funding of personal projects or to work with NGO’s. She beamed over a few photos which gave me a calm confidence.
Elizabeth Krist did another of my reviews. She, in a very sweet Krist-like way metaphorically gave me a “keep trying kid” slug on the shoulder. I didn’t feel defeated, just overwhelmed.
Caroline Couig did an edit.
“Make people want to give a shit. These photos don’t do that.”
I met Nick Ut the first night of the workshop at the hotel bar. I figured this would be the best place to find a lot of people more focused on friendships than networking. He was sitting with a group and they all waved me over so I pulled up a chair and sat down. He offered me some nuts.
I don’t really know what we talked about, but I was honestly just happy to sit with him. At his feet, if you will. One of the most influential photographers out there had just offered me nuts and I was delighted to partake with him.
We had many of the same quiet interactions throughout the weekend. One morning I stood with him next to the pond while he took pictures of the autumn leaves reflecting off the water. He showed me every picture, delighted, as if this, too, were a masterpiece. I nodded in agreement, in awe of his genuine love of photography that hasn’t waivered.
Towards the end of the weekend there was a Native American ceremony for the photographers that died in the Vietnam war. It was breathlessly poignant and desperately hard to describe the splendor of being apart of something with such rich history in this tight knit community. Patriotism swelled within my chest at the thought of belonging to something so magnificent.
I watched as Nick placed a sunflower on the stone tablet with the name of his brother who had died. I broke. I thought of how beautiful it was that he had carried his brother’s torch for so long. Tears streamed down my face as balloons were released into the air.
Suddenly all the pieces started to come together and Carrie Niland stepped aside with me to let me voice my countless epiphanies. I felt like I belonged somewhere, to something. I belonged to a group of transient soul-searching artists who were just as self-conscious as me. I felt an understanding that I had long been searching for. I realized how much my skin color affects my shooting in Africa. How bitter I had been that the Africa of my youth was not the Africa I now knew. I wanted to see people the way John White did. And love photography with Nick Ut’s passion. I knew what walls had to be broken down. I understood that I needed more of a community to surround me. I finally knew what to work on and was delighted to have a way forward.
Chad McNally with Nikon poured into my soul that night. He, too, talked through all these things with me and helped breath hope back into my lungs. Hope that these challenges could be overcome and that I could still become the photographer and person I want to be. He loved me well.
Everyone has asked to see the images I shot at the workshop. I’m sadly horrified at them. Our assignment was to only shoot on a 50mm lens. Sounds awesome, except when you’re shooting in a square box of a barbershop. Hardest thing ever. I was so uncomfortable the whole time and not in a good way.
Josh Ritchie pulled me aside after my first shoot and told me that he could see fear in my images. This further resounded with me later and I wondered if this was what is wrong with all my work. Fear. Fear?
But I am afraid. Afraid that people will think I’m too invasive. That they will want something in return for my pictures. That they will think I’m using them. And this fear, turns out, stems from the fact that I’m also afraid those things might be true. What if I am just using people to make a good photograph. What if I don’t really care about them?
And at some point, for some period of time this has become true. I realized that I didn’t care about the people I was shooting anymore. I was too jaded by Africa to connect with my subjects. And so I became afraid of them. And myself.
What a horrible thing to conclude.
During the student shows on the last night of the workshop, each team presents their material from the weekend. I thought everyone did an amazing job… until I saw mine. It was so bad. Four days of no sleep and the exhilaration wearing off, I could start to feel tears forming. I was so embarrassed to have this work being shown to a room full of fantastic photojournalists.
After the presentations Ben Lowy pulled me aside, wrapped a brotherly arm around me and let me lose it. He was brilliant and never once talked down to me for being upset. He said the weekend and the assignment is designed to stretch you to your limits, and if you haven’t reached that peak and fallen off, then there was no point in coming there.
I realized, again, that I was far too caught up in what others think of my work. After having a complete breakdown about how horrible my photographs were, I went on to win an award of an assignment with the LA Times. I just laughed inside at how ridiculous I was being.
After the awards we headed up the hill to a giant bonfire. 30 years earlier you would have thought we were hosting a mini-Woodstock. Singing “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” with Mary-Anne Golon was epic. A warmness and peace washed over me and I decided just to revel in it.
There are many other stories to tell. Friendships formed. Things to be worked on.
It’s already been almost two months since the workshop and there have been many highs and lows between here and there but I will forever be changed because of this experience and will always have something to look back on when I wonder why I do what I do.
Every student has a different experience there. It’s impossible for them all to be the same. But mine was undeniably more than I could have ever asked or hoped for.
Cheers to EAW Class of XXVI and thank you to Alyssa Adams, Mirjam Evers, and all of the black team for carrying on the torch this year.
As seen in the September 23rd edition of the Texarkana Gazette:
The last time we talked, she was giving me dating advice. She told me that hers is a love story unlike any other and that I should be patient for the right guy to fall hopelessly in love with me—not the other way around.
Salons and barbershops are second only to bars (and therapists) in solving the trickiest of life’s situations. And Selinah Kioko definitely ranks with the plethora of bartenders and therapists I’ve poured out my problems to over the years.
“We’ve known each other most of our lives,” she told me in between ripping layers of hot wax and hair from my legs. “So just be patient. Love takes time.”
Selinah works at Westgate shopping mall, some 10 minutes away from my fourth-floor apartment on the outskirts of Nairobi city center. Saturday morning, my roommate had an appointment with her and I was planning to accompany and get some work done at one of the cafés on the ground floor.
“We were supposed to be there,” I thought as I fired off a frantic text to Selinah on Saturday afternoon. “Please tell me you are okay?”
“Am okay but scared sooo much! We are now hostages!” She replied a few moments later. I told her what little I could think of—stay calm and be smart. Not that anything one says in such situations will hold weight in someone else’s mind.
“We were supposed to be there.” The phrase keeps circling, even now, to the middle of my head, where one’s heart and soul meet, where the weight of the world sits.
“The only reason we didn’t go is because my roommate has malaria and canceled the appointment? Really?” I play back the butterfly effect over and over again. All the “whys” and “why nots” tumble over each other.
Sunday afternoon, I appeared on Selinah’s doorstep, chocolate and tea in hand, and enveloped her with what peace I could muster.
“Then I heard the bang,” she recalled to me from the safety of her apartment. “It was too loud. … My head was just spinning. Then there were gun shots.”
For around five hours, she was trapped inside the salon she works at in Westgate shopping mall while a group of al-Shabab terrorists took control of the building. She escaped with others from the shop when police canvassed the second floor and escorted them to safety. Today, the death toll is 68 and still climbing.
“After some time, they started shooting again … shooting, shooting … so then people started peeping outside (the shop). … They looked and then we saw three guys. At that time, one was not dead, because he was moving his feet a little bit.”
She continued to recount to me, story after story, of colleagues who were injured, of what other people heard the attackers say.
“You can’t really be happy, because you’re seeing people dead,” She said after giving thanks for still being alive. “You’re imagining, ‘I could have been one of them. What is so special with me?’ And that’s what I kept on asking myself. … It could have been my kids asking where is my mom. It could have been my husband wondering where is my wife.”
“We were supposed to be there, you know,” I tell her, sheepishly bowing my head. “Who knew you could be thankful for malaria?”
Before meeting with Selinah, I went into town to donate blood. The streets were eerily empty, even for a Sunday morning. I was alone with my thoughts until I reached the Kencom bus stage, where a makeshift blood donation center had been set up by Kenya Red Cross. People were already lined up by the hundreds ready to give. I took my place in line. We were supposed to be there.
A media outlet called and asked me to head to Westgate and camp out the rest of the day for coverage, but I told them I can’t. Not this time. “It’s just too close to home,” I told them. “Physically and metaphorically.” With six tattoos and an equal number of piercings, one would think I don’t mind being pricked with needles. I hate it. But it’s nothing compared to the price many others have paid the last few days. It’s all I have to give. So I did.
Maybe it was just dizziness, or maybe it was one of those truly profound moments in life, but when I stood up after donating, I was shocked to see people by the thousands surrounding me. Pamoja. Together. As one.
After the post-election violence that swept Kenya like a plague in 2007-08, truly something beautiful has come from this whole situation—I watched as tribal lines not just blurred but completely disappeared.
In the same way that terrorist attacks brought America together in 2001, the same will be said of Kenya after this. I wasn’t there on Saturday, but I could have been. And with this knowledge comes the great responsibility to once again rise up and make every moment of the rest of my life count for something. My blood and prayers go out to all those personally affected by this horrible tragedy. May we all learn to live and learn to love.
These days there aren’t enough words in my head to filter through opinions. So I stopped creating them. And stopped listening to them.
I stopped comparing things here to things there. And vise versa.
I’ve learned that the key is not to think of yourself as different from others. Not to see them as different than you. If you do, you’ll come to hate them for making you feel guilty for that difference.
I’ve learned that the key is to stop thinking so damn much. And to smile. Even when I’m tired. To slow down long enough to notice people’s itching tongue, poised, waiting to be listened to.
But I suppose that’s all any of us ever really want. The knowledge that we have been heard and understood. To rest.
So for now, I just… don’t have anything left to say?
Maybe that’s why I need a camera and a pen. To use one when the other is lacking.
location: Yida/Juba/Yei – South Sudan
“The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
Death has been circling the last few days.
Last week I was reminded that tomorrow is the one year anniversary of my sweet friend Mary’s passing. This time last year I was making several trips a week across town to sit with her during her final days, as cancer did what cancer does.
It was the first time I had seen death. First time I had to watch it coming. And for the past year I have continued to see Mary’s face and am reminded of her vigor for life often.
After she passed, I remember being stunned to realize that I was almost exactly half her age. The question burned at the edges of my mind that if I only had as much time left as I’d spent, what would I do with it?
25 years is an incredibly long time to make a difference in the world.
25 years is an incredibly short time to figure out who the hell you are.
A friend of a friend died this week in a plane crash in the Aberdare mountain range. She consoled that if he were going to choose how to die, that would be the way. Yet he would be distraught that there were other people in the plane with him.
I hope when I die, I go down doing something I care about. Something that gave me life. Something that gave life to others.
Kidd Kraddick, Dallas/Fort Worth based morning talk show host died this weekend. I can’t say that I ever felt personally connected to him, but he was a constant in my life for the better part of a decade. He was a friend to anyone who had a brutal morning commute.
What I remember most about him is that he was always finding ways to help people. He would partner with different charities and foundations and give hope to his listeners that maybe, just maybe, there was a way out.
One of the street boys that my roommates work with died this weekend. It’s not my story to tell, but it’s a story that would make your head spin in circles and question many things.
I read somewhere recently that Millennials think we have all the time in the world. That we’ve been groomed to think the roller coaster is purely for fun and there’s no way we’ll ever get tossed off the ride (que bad Texas Giant joke)
So my mind is puzzling, more so than usual, on how to Love and be Loved. On how to make the biggest impact today. On how to let go of the negativity that creeps in; that enslaves me to false principles of doubt and defeat.
From the windows of our apartment on the backside of town, I often watch Nairobi carry on about its day. Men with pushcarts struggle through the street below, passing women selling vegetables. People sort through trash on the ever-growing heap across the river.
“Whoever does not love abides in death.” -Apostle John
Somehow death isn’t as painful as it used to be. I think the more I learn to accept that it’s the ugliest part of life, everything in comparison becomes brighter.
Somehow knowing that it will find all of us. Knowing there is no chance it will pass you over. Makes it easier to swallow.
And to live everyday, with this knowledge driving the motivation to present a more pure representation of Love, makes life a little easier to live.
If you had asked me a few years ago if I was a “kid person,” my typical response would consist of a crinkled nose and a sinking head bow and a haphazard, “not really my thing” would follow.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve purposely avoided them but I probably have. Only one of my close friends in Nairobi (who also happens to have been my fourth grade teacher) has a child. However, her daughter, Joccoa, always seems to make everything seem okay in the world when I’m with her. In fact my room is decorated with pictures she has drawn for me over the past year and a half.
She was the first to really strike me of the wisdom children have. The simplicity in her love.
In February I spent several days on an assignment with deaf children in Eastern Kenya. They, too, further deepened the admiration in my heart for the innocence of youth. They seemed to want nothing in return for their love other than love.
For the past week I have been working in Uganda with an international organization called One Hope. Their focus is to reach the children of the world with the truth from the Bible.
This has translated to basically an entire week surrounded by children. And what an incredible week it’s been. One filled with hearty smiles and bright laughter.
I can’t say there’s any one thing I’ve taken from this trip other than this: Faith and Love are far more simple than we make it out to be.