I recently returned from a 60-day trip in Ghana, West Africa, where I worked as a reporting intern for a nationally circulated Ghanaian newspaper, The Daily Guide. I’ve finally had some time to sift through and edit most of the photographs I took throughout my stay, both as part of my internship and for my own personal photographic pursuits.
Being behind the lens in Ghana was the single most challenging experience I have had as a photographer thus far. I’ll address the obvious first: I’m white. This was the first time in my life in which I have not only been a minority, but also (and most of the time) the only white person in the room. It was eye-opening, and often in ways I did not expect. For the sake of this post, I’ll call attention to the facets of being white as it pertains to photography, but note that the range of emotions and feelings I experienced reach far beyond that.
For one thing, I could not, under nearly any circumstance, go unnoticed. I stuck out like a big, pale, sore thumb. No one was ever hostile toward me, mainly curious and friendly. However, my passion for picture-taking manifests in my practice of street and candid photography. In other words, it is usually my goal to not be seen. This posed a huge challenge to the work I wanted to create, because I could barely walk down the street without people dropping everything they were doing to stare at me or say hello. Let alone wander about while looking through a viewfinder.
Whenever I had my camera, one of two scenarios typically ensued. Often when seeing my camera, people (especially children) would approach me and ask to have their picture taken. Of course, I did not mind at all, and many of the photos are quite amusing. However, a group of teens posing with their silliest faces isn’t exactly the candid approach I had in mind. In the off-chance I got my camera up to my face before my subject realized, they nearly always noticed after I snapped the photo. Ghanaians don’t typically appreciate photographs being taken without their permission…and I don’t blame them, given how African countries are portrayed in Western media (more on this later). Usually I could mitigate the situation by speaking a phrase I memorized in the local language—Me pese me twa wo foto. Meaning, I want to snap your picture. This would often break the ice, as the locals always found it quite amusing when I would attempt to speak Twi. However, I was always hesitant because I was very aware of what people may be thinking of a white girl taking their picture.
The other clear challenge, as I previously mentioned was addressing the stereotype of African countries as portrayed in photographs and other media forms. This was really hard for me because what I saw with my eyes, I struggled to communicate through my lens. I saw a nation of warm, friendly and generous people wanting to progress and move forward as a unified and modern society. I saw a country with a harmonious blend of old and new, of traditional culture and western influences, of innovation and respect. But most noticeably, I saw ordinary and beautiful life. What I wished to convey was that life goes on, time moves, and people are comfortable in this particular and unique country that happens to be on a continent Western media try to homogenize, and exploit for pity and a sense of helplessness.
This was ultimately a learning experience for me as a growing photographer. I learned how to feel comfortable in a strange place, even when my instinct is to feel anything but. And I learned to communicate with people who may be thinking I don’t have their best interests in mind.
(All photographs taken on a Canon AE-1 with Kodak Portra 400 in May-July 2014).