In a break from our regular programming, may I direct you over to the SEAWL home-page where you’ll find my recent contribution discussing the pathological need Expat Aid Workers have to one-up each other on exotic travel tales…
With all this talk about t-shirts going on, a friend of mine sent me a link to this article discussing the distribution of Superbowl t-shirts. The anecdotes about inappropriate t-shirt messages brought a definite giggle- hesitation about human dignity aside:
Those wearing the tees are either unaware of or unconcerned by the meaning of the English messages they bear. It’s not uncommon to see a man wearing a T-shirt boasting ‘World’s Best Grandma,’ or a young girl wearing a shirt lamenting ‘Stripping ruined my life.’ I’ve seen an old woman in ‘I Love AC/DC,’ an indigenous grandmother with a shirt bragging, “My boyfriend is hotter than yours,” and another disclosing that ‘My boyfriend is out of town.’
Sometimes, the message can be downright subversive. Once in Costa Rica, a friend and I were waiting for a bus when a group of tough-looking teenagers approached and gave us a hard look. But the leader of the pack was wearing a T-shirt that read: ‘I’m not a bitch, I just suffer from permanent PMS.’ I didn’t know whether to hand him my wallet or a Motrin.
They also reminded me of another story.
Some years ago I was travelling independantly in West Africa, and towards the end of my journey had to hitch a ride in a vegetable van from Mauritania into Morocco-governed Western Sahara. The border crossing from the Mauritanian side was a ways into the desert wasteland from Nouadhibou, itself one of the most derelict little outposts I’ve ever had the misfortune of travelling through. The squalor of urban Mauritania is matched by few other places I’ve spent time.
The border crossing was little more than a hut at the edge of a vehicle track in the dirt. Some bored and seedy-looking guards checked passports for a while, and the few travellers (mostly local transporters) loitered around their vehicles, taking the chance for a leg-stretch. The northward route was less plied than the southbound, and compared to the Moroccans who (we were later to learn) maintained a large built-up and well-run complex on their side of no-man’s land, was downright shoddy.
No-man’s land itself was a stretch of desert that took the better part of an hour to navigate, and was laid with landmines. We were advised to find drivers who ply the route regularly. Travelers in their own four-wheel drivers have been killed hitting mines.
My companions and I, already uncomfortable from the travel atop pungent wooden crates, dismounted from the cramped van while we waited for permission to leave Mauritania. It was characteristically hot, the sky scorched white and featureless, and the landscape dull and gravelly. Quiet. Wind-tussled. Not much activity. Sergio Leone would have liked it.
Beside the guard’s shack loitered a scruffy local man. Maybe forty-five, scrawny, with wiry hair and teeth that jutted out, he was grinning and chatting, smoking a cigarette and engaging with anybody who came past. I assume he was either related to one of the guards, or simply too much trouble to send away again. But as an ambassador welcoming people to the conservative Islamic Republic of Mauritania, he couldn’t have been more incongrously suited. Looking him up and down, we all shared a quiet smirk, for the lettering emblazoned on his bright yellow t-shirt enquired confidently of travellers, “Fancy a Quickie?”
Portraiture is something I’ve increasingly aspired to as a photographer. I love a good landscape- in fact, my landscape shots are often what people seem to enjoy in my shots. Portraiture is a different skill-set though. While light changes over a landscape in such a way that you may only have a few minutes to get the shot you want, the challenge of portraiture is even greater- you may have just fractions of a second to capture the image that you have in your mind’s eye. On top of that, a really good portrait often communicates far more power and emotion to the viewer than any landscape; it’s the human element that makes it special.
The basic rules all apply, of course. You want to think about composition (the rule of thirds is a pretty reliable starting point), colour (one of the joys of travel photography are the different colour palettes you can find in both the natural and urban environments) and lighting (shooting in the tropics presents visceral challenges with regards to fierce overhead lighting, washed-out skies and high-contrast backdrops, but dust and moisture can enrich late afternoon sunlight to make it magical).
I’m sharing some specific pointers I’d like to suggest for taking a decent travel photograph. They’re not exhaustive, nor are they unique to travel portraiture, but I reckon if you can nail these, you’re well on your way to capturing the sort of image you’ll want to bring home and share with friends and family when your adventures come to a temporary halt. (I’ll leave it to you guys to decide whether these shots fit the title or not…)
Note: All these photos were taken on a 3-day field visit in rural Niger in September this year.
1. Create a Connection
This is true with any portrait. I find the most powerful portraits are those where the subject is looking straight down the camera lens. It can feel (as a viewer) as though the person is looking straight out of the photograph at you. To achieve this, you generally need some sort of relationship with the person whose picture you’re taking. It might only be a momentary one- a glance in the street- or you may have asked the person to pose for you.
In travel photography you’re often communicating across language barriers, but respect is universal, so always put it into action. Just pulling out a camera and shooting willy-nilly is a sure way to upset people. I rarely take a photo where I haven’t signalled my camera (usually pointed upwards) and waited for an inviting smile or nod, or made eye-contact with the person and waited for them to acknowledge me in some way. If I sense hesitation or hostility, I smile and move on. Even asking in a foreign language, people usually get the idea of what you’re wanting and can communicate a reply.
While in photojournalism there’s a power and pathos that comes with shots of human suffering or deep emotion, I find the photos that people go back to tend to be ones where the subject is joyful. People are naturally drawn to beauty. With that in mind, have fun. Laugh with the person you’re shooting, give them a big smile, turn it into a game. That won’t work in all cultures: for many, having a photo taken is a serious business and they want to look their formal best. Kids, on the other hand, usually love it, and in many African countries they’re overjoyed when someone points a lens at them.
Earlier I’d asked this girl if I could take her picture, to which she’d agreed, and I got a really sweet little shot of her smiling shyly while clinging to the trunk of a tree. A few minutes later she came back to me with a cheeky smirk asking me if I’d take another photo, and when I raised my camera she giggled. I speak no Hausa and she spoke no French, but as you can see, the communication worked just fine.
2. Consider your Background
When you’re taking a portrait, the person is your main point of focus, but they exist in a context. In fact this is the major difference between travel (and candid) portraiture versus studio portraiture. With the latter, you control the background ahead of time. With the former, you need to manage it on the fly- itself a challenge that can be both satisfying and heart-breaking.
Background can become a part of your visual narrative, or it can distract from it, so think about the effect you want. Environmental portraits frame people in a shot with items that contribute to telling that person’s story. A merchant in a fruit stall, for example, may be best photographed standing with all her colourful pineapples sharply in focus. For this you probably want to use a wider-angle lens (not too wide, as wide angles distort images and can stretch facial features unnaturally) and a reasonably small aperture (f/8 and higher, light-depending). Again, the joy of travel portraiture is that backgrounds are often exotic and full of interest.
On the other hand, a child on a busy street may get lost in the clutter if you don’t defocus your background. Use a mid-range telephoto lens and open the aperture wide to get a really shallow depth of field, which naturally throws the background out of focus. Just make sure your point of focus is spot-on, or you may end up with a fuzzy subject too.
If the background is unremarkable you probably want to use this technique too. In the photo at the top of this page, the background was burning white sand- totally uninteresting and threatening to wash out the photo- so blurring it into white made the most sense. This has advantages (declutter and an element of the abstract) but also disadvantages (the photo is placeless and has no context).
In this first photo, I chose to use a really shallow depth of field as the background was fairly dull, and I wanted the farmer to stand out. Using a small f-stop number (f/1.8) also means that the part of the shot that is in focus is REALLY sharp. The blurred green trees give just enough information to let you know you’re in the countryside, but don’t pull the eye away from the man’s wrinkled face.
In this next shot, the girl is standing against the wall, so both she and the wall are in focus. The wall is painted with a map of Africa. Although the girl herself doesn’t stand out quite so much from the background, the colours and textures are pleasing to the eye, and the map itself tells a story and gives the girl a context which (in my opinion) adds something unique to the photograph that might have been lost had she been against an empty or blurred background.
In this third shot, the boy is in focus while everything forward of and beyond him starts to blur out. There’s just enough detail, however, to give him a context- the cows, the harness and the water containers, as well as the rural backdrop. Because he alone is in focus he still holds the viewer’s eye, but there are other elements in the image that contribute to telling the viewer something about who he is and what he does. Note: You could argue that this photo would have benefitted from a broader depth-of-field (something around f/4) to keep the cows sharp but still blur the background, and I’d accept that criticism, although I also like how isolated the boy is from everything around him; you can see just how precise the depth is by looking at how much of the yoke, front-to-back, is actually in focus before it blurs out.
3. Be Ready for the Right Moment
Facial expressions are fleeting, as are connections. If you’re in a place where you think you might see something interesting, have your camera out and switched on, with the right lens fitted, the correct mode selected, and your eyes scanning. You might be looking for a gesture, an emotion, or a fleeting glimpse of eye-contact. People may be moving. Think about your shutter-speed- will you be able to freeze motion given the light available to you? And think too about point number one and the importance of communication and respect; even in a crowded place, have you made eye-contact with the people you’re wanting to photograph, or made sure they’re comfortable with the camera? Stand-off lenses are all very well, but as a photographer you need to be asking yourself these ethical questions.
In both of these photos, these kids made eye-contact with me for just a few seconds where they were caught in a crowd of others. The children there had been watching me for some while and I’d been looking back at them and smiling, and noting those that smiled back at me and at the camera. I already had the aperture opened up so that when my opportunity came I knew I’d be able to isolate whichever children gave me a moment to photograph, and these two did.
4. Go for the Eyes
If there’s a cardinal rule in portrait photography, it’s this one. Eyes are all about moment and connection. They communicate emotion to the viewer, and a simple glance of a couple of degrees off-lens can make the difference between a missed opportunity and a wow moment. This is particularly true of close-ups.
For eyes, think about placement; rule of thirds is usually the way forwards here, so try and get one eye onto that sweet-spot at the intersection of the thirds-lines. An eye-line straight down the barrel is usually what I go for, and almost all of the portraits I’ve loved have involved that sort of eye contact. If using shallow depth of field, ensure that the eye itself is the point of focus. It’s all too easy to accidentally focus on the forehead or the tip of the nose, and even with a really strong facial expression, you’ll lose some of the punch of the image.
These two shots were both taken at a school in Niger (one inside the classroom and one outside), and they are both among some of my favourite portraits of all time.
5. Tell a Story
This is optional, but the difference between a techncially good photo, and a photo which makes people sit up and take notice, is that with the latter, they’re experiencing something new. The beauty of travel photography is that there’s always a story to be told, something new to see, something that’s exotic to the viewer back home, so try and think of what that story might be. A facet of daily life, a curious setting, some exotic produce, or just an unusual face that communicates a sense of place or time- it can be any number of things. Put this together with capturing the right moment and working on your background, and you’ll have a photograph that will really help you remember a place.
In this photo, I managed to combine moment, background, eye-contact and connection, and the setting was such that I’ve been able to capture a little slice of existence in this rural African village. Girls in Niger, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are the ones mostly tasked with collecting water- even quite young girls like this one. Here, I love the colour, the bright light, her expression, and the pouring of the water all framed crisply against a blurred backdrop of other women and girls waiting at the well behind her (and again, contrast this with the image at the top of the page which has no background).
Travel photography- and portraiture- is a personal thing, and it’s up to you as the photographer to decide what you want to remember, and how. Really, if you take a photo, and it reminds you of something special, and you’re proud of it, that’s all that matters. I wish you all the best of luck out there, and most of all, I encourage you to have fun. If you’re not enjoying yourself with you camera, seriously, what’s the point?
In true Global Nomad style, friend Mads, who is currently spending 9 months travelling around Latin America, managed to show up in Antigua the same week I was there, so we took a little time to wander round the town with our cameras. Random meandering brought us through the local market and to the bus depot. While hardly a premier tourist destination in itself (save for those entering and exiting the town via public bus), the combination of dark skies, shoddy foreground, and bright colours on the bodies of the buses themselves, all made for a creative and alternative photographic diversion.
It’s fun to see how buses get treated in different parts of the world. Highly functional in the west, in poorer countries they are a capital investment of the highest order for middle-sized businessmen, and can be highly lucrative once a service and line can be well established. They are both a source of blessing (income), and a magnet for all kinds of superstition and fear given their propensity to crash in many of these places, with high fatality rates associated.
My first real exposure to the world of colourful buses was in Nairobi in 2001. Their minibuses are called ’Matatus’ (a derivative of the kiswahili word for ‘three’- ‘tatu’- after the original cost of a fare, three shillings. Tatu itself has its roots in the Arabic word for three, ‘thalaatha’, Kiswahili being a trade language derived from a mix of Arabic and the traditional Bantu group of languages spoken along the east African coastline). Matatus were a gloriously offensive expression of Kenyan street culture- painted in gaudy hues, airbrushed densely enough that the chassis could rust away and the thing would still hold together, and with a sound-system that ensured you didn’t just hear the Matatus coming, you actually felt them.
As in most places in the developing world, the fact that the Matatus were primarily Nissan and Toyota minivans didn’t stop their conductors cramming sixteen or eighteen people inside as a matter of course- four to a row, hips jammed together in the dense, sweaty interior, produce and babies and all, while the subwoofer vibrated your ribcage with an intensity that could pop a chicken’s skull. Competition for routes was severe- at times leading to violent confrontation- and negotiating the roads near a bus-stop was always a gauntlet to run. Driving was horrendous, however. The drivers were ramped on miraa (the local variant of the herbal chew khat, that comes over by the truckload from Somalia), helping them stay awake despite fatigue, and creating a false sense of invincibility that would have them overtaking at high speed on blind corners, with routinely predictable results.
With soaring fatalities, the new Kenyan government under Kibaki pushed through a set of gutsy reforms a few years after I was there, forcing the industry to be regulated. Routes were formalized, paint-jobs were replaced with a ubiquitous yellow stripe, sound-systems were limited to certain decibels, and speed-governors were installed on motors. This was, ultimately, a good thing, as the number of lives lost to reckless driving fell substantially. However I have to say that in my opinion, a little of the soul of Nairobi was also stripped away in the process, and in a city that needs all the help it can get to present a positive face, I felt it lost a little.
Kenya’s not alone in the colourful bus stakes however. Juddering through Colombo’s steamy streets during last year’s monsoon in two-stroke tuk-tuks, I can vividly recall the searing stench of diesel exhaust from the oversized, windowless Lanka Ashok Leyland buses, with hyper-real murals airbrushed front, back and sides. Sitting in the passenger seat of the rickshaw, my head would barely reach the top of the rear tyre of the beasts while the enourmous engine rattled behind its panels just inches from my ear in the claustrophobic rush-hour. Peering up at rows of resigned brown faces peering back down at me, I occasionally wondered whether the driver even knew we were down there, worrying at what was keeping us from being turned into a thin slick sheet of crushed aluminium.
For an altogether different approach to public buses, the Jeepneys of the Philippines are hard to go past. Like the bastard child of a 1940s army jeep and a decrepit stretched limo, these ply the streets of Manila in airbrushed hordes. Images of Hollywood starlets, soaring eagles, or religious montages cry out for attention off the sides of the awkward vehicles, rows of people crammed inside in the dense heat. The windowless sides provide what little circulation can be created in the crawling metropolis traffic, a mixed blessing in air so polluted you can pretty much see it.
Almost certainly my favourite to look at, however, are the trucks and, specifically, buses of Pakistan. Taking frivolous decoration to new heights of sheer gaudiness, the transports are wrapped in fabrics, mirrors, tassles and shiny things in all manner of colours and styles. Fringes hang from windshields until they seem to obscure the view. Swirling hues scream from the chassis to be noticed. Airhorns, seeming ripped from oil supertankers, announce the arrival and imminent departure of services. Loud Sindhi music blares from speakers while Urdu variants of Bollywood cinema flashes across a tiny television screen mounted at the front of the aisle. They are truly marvellous creatures to watch coming down the road- and if I ever make it back to Pakistan with my camera I’ll do my best to capture some.
For now, however, this series of photos are all from the jaunt through the Antigua bus depot, and I’ll have to leave your imagination to fill in the images that I can only suggest with words. But I thoroughly enjoyed this shoot, and a chance to explore a little of another nation’s culture, as expressed through the medium of public transport.
*So this clearly isn’t a bus. But it kind of fit into the vehicular category I’ve been exploring. And I liked the angle and curves on this old VW Beetle that was parked at an Antigua roadside. The Spanish word for car, ‘coche’ is actually from the same place we get for the English ‘coach’, synonymous with bus, so it kind of works. A hark back to the day when the word ‘coach’ refered to a range of horse-drawn carriages which early automobiles mirrored in form and function.
**Mads in Antigua, with a colourful fairground stall as a backdrop. The fairground backed right onto the bus depot (see the ferris wheel in one of the earlier shots above) and was colourful and in use, but very run down.
One of the things I like about Melbourne is that it’s a creative, artsy sort of city. There’s always lots on, and in the city centre there’s lots of space given over to different displays of creativity. Love it or hate it, the highly acclaimed, debated and controversial Federation Square, smack in the heart of the CBD, is a perfect case in point, with its jagged, almost broken architectural lines, post-modern functionality, and use of both open and closed space to house and promote artistic expression. Love it or hate it, it makes a statement.
One of the things I like about being a photographer is being able to grab my gear, go for a walk, and explore different aspects of the visual world we live in. On Sunday I was inspired to explore the colour and character of a little of this creativity that Melbourne exudes. Not by design; it just happened that way. Went for a walk, found some colour, and started snapping.
This installation is on the north bank of the Yarra a five minute walk from Federation Pier. I’ve no idea what it is. In all honesty (and I share my opinion as a non-artist, and one who has little knowledge or appreciation for contemporary sculpture) I think it’s quite hideous, both the structure itself and the detailing on it. Not to disrespect the work that goes into it or the vision that others (the artist included) clearly had. However, what I do love about it is the splash of colour and the way its smooth round forms contrast with the angled skyline of central Melbourne. The almost artificial lighting that appears here is actually a result of the feathery clouds that drifted over the city, causing some areas to be strongly lit and others to be more softly illuminated.
Just behind this amorphous blob is a large ferris wheel. It’s no competitor for the London Eye (although there is one such folly currently being deconstructed in Melbourne’s docklands), but it’s a cute, colourful little thing, and against the cloudy sky the cool weekend delivered, I enjoyed the shapes and contrast as they appeared through the viewfinder.
Around the back of Fed Square I found this cute little block of land, aptly named the Urban Garden. Its purpose and presence speaks for itself, but I again enjoyed the combination of colour contrasts, and the notion of the ‘soft space’ of the grass being compared with the ‘hard space’ of the paved square (at the top of the steps at back). In true postmodern style, the designer has juxtaposed hard lines (the cube-like green squares on the grass) with the soft context to further confuse our notions of green space in the city. Or at least that’s my Geographer’s read of it. Like most of what I write, it’s perfectly possible I’m just making it all up.
Fed Square itself is a curious tangle of creative lines that serve no great purpose other than to entertain the eye and usurp an assumed sense of architectural value. While the corrugated tin roof here harks back to the ubiquitous and utilitarian functionality of galvanized roof sheeting that is found across rural and suburban Australia, it is equally as superfluous here as the jumble of ‘support’ beams, and is more a playful nod to Australia’s architectural traditions in the midst of a contemporary installation. Hard to photograph well, I thoroughly enjoy the flight of imagination that went into creating Federation Square, and personally thinks it adds reams to Australia’s cultural capital and the flavour of the city centre.
As a Kiwi it’s pretty hard for me to get too teary about Australia Day. Don’t get me wrong. I love an excuse for a good barbie and a few cold ones on a summer’s afternoon with mates in the back yard. And Australia has been a good home-base for me these past seven years (on and off). I’ve made some spectacular friends, think Melbourne’s a brilliant city to live in, and have a lot of fond memories of being here.
None the less, hailing from Aotearoa, I can’t help recalling my heritage which insists that I support just two teams: New Zealand, and anybody playing Australia.
However, in the vein of good sportsmanship (and let’s face it, for all the cross-Tasman vibes, we’re all good sports about it) I share the following clip which a friend of mine passed on to me some months ago and which came back to mind last night. If you’re an Australian, or just happen to know one, I hope you find this video as amusing as I do.
Happy Australia Day!
1. This clip is actually taken from an Australian TV series called the Gruen Transfer, which uses creative panels to produce entertaining material to support and demonstrate theory and practice in advertising and marketing. The second clip (my favourite) is actually a spoof of a well-known New Zealand tourism commercial.
2. [Nerd Alert] If you pause the clip at 1:03, where the text says “0% Infantry” and shows a man walking in the mountains, that clip is in fact not shot in New Zealand, but shot in the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. The mountain is Annapurna South, and if you don’t believe me, check out the second photo on my profile page and compare the mountain behind me with the mountain on the screen.
Yeah, I’m a total mountain geek…
About a year ago now (how time flies) I spent three weeks vacation in South East Asia. A few days I spent down on Railay Beach, in southern Thailand. I love Thailand- the beautiful lushness of the landscape, the warmth and courtesy of its people, the intense balance of flavours in its cuisine, and the clashing diversity of life in its capital Bangkok.
The scenery around Ao Nang is spectacular. Railay is a peninsula but inaccessible from the mainland except by powered longtail boat, courtesy of a series of steep karst limestone hills hundreds of feet high which plunge with dramatic certainty straight down into the warm lapping seas. A mecca for climbers the world over, vast rockfaces hang above green-blue water, dripping with stalagtites. Tiny outcropping islands- made famous by and subsequently epynomous with James Bond following the release of The Man With the Golden Gun- stand like abandoned collonades amidst the currents, pocked with caves and begging exploration.
This was my second trip to the south of Thailand, but my first to the western side of Thailand’s south. My first trip, back in 2002, took me to Koh Samet, a little further off the farang cattle track and frequented by Thais on weekend trips from Bangkok. Koh Samet was overall a pleasant experience, during which I lived in a tree-house for five dollars a night. The island was laid back and relaxing, and the low point was being vomitted on by a kitten which had decided to share my mattress one night at four a.m.
Amazingly I showed enough self-control not to hurl said kitten from the tree-house.
I was less enchanted by Railay Beach and Ao Nang. While the landscape was far more beautiful on the whole, the establishment of western tourism has left an ugly scar- not just in the hordes of blotchy white westerners who throng on the beaches, but in the attitudes of the Thais themselves. In vast contrast to the courteous attitude you find in Bangkok, or the warmth and generosity you find in the north, I found the people I ran into around Ao Nang to be brusque, uninterested and generally lacking in any charm, typified by the bellboy who tried to sell me weed within two minutes of my arriving at our hotel.
However getting away from the crowds and onto the water (‘away’ assuming you could avoid being run down by a longtail), you could find some space to enjoy the landscape, so one morning Pam, Lori and I grabbed some kayaks and took ourselves for a paddle up the coast. We weren’t by any stretch of the imagination the only ones doing so, but it was nice to get intimate with the cliffs and caves of the little islands, and enjoy a slightly different vibe. The scenery was magnificent even if the light didn’t lend itself to photography (a little on the contrasty side with the reflections on the sea), and to see how Railay looks in more dramatic light, you’ll have to click here.
All up, I wouldn’t go back to the southern beaches unless I happened to be in-country for something else and some friends were going down for a few days. While you’d be hard-pressed to find more exciting beachside scenery, the vibe and over-the-top tourist presence left me feeling a little flat. Compared to the peaceful hill-country around Chiang Rai, the frenetic pace and colours of Bangkok or the chilled-out stylings of Mae Hong Son, Ao Nang was a damp squib, and I think Thailand- and indeed South East Asia- has far more to offer than this particular corner of the peninsula.
The second post in a series I initially wrote while living and working in the West African nation of Niger in 2005/6.
Christmas in the Sahara
Niamey just before Christmas was, in its own way, not very Christmassy. It is very hard to get excited about trees draped with shiny plastic and fat men in red suits when perched on the edge of the biggest sandpit in the world (though then again the Aussies seem to manage it okay I suppose…) And yet it did have its own charm. The fairy lights strung up on the Total gas station glowed Bonne Annee 2006 in mishapen curves, and in the smokey, dust-filled air, car headlights and streetlamps cast an ethereal glow, like a cold winter’s fog in south-east England. If you stand still and concentrate hard, it almost feels atmospheric, and for a brief moment, you get a little nostalgic. Then you realise that it’s getting hard to breath, and it’s still 30 degrees at 8pm, and the muzzazin starts yelling his call to prayer down a nearby microphone, and Christmas flees.
We went to Agadez, because really there was nothing else to do over Christmas in Niger.
A friend and colleague raised a challenging question today. In much of our work providing humanitarian assistance, we work in areas with various levels of political or social restriction or repression. She refered to a recent assessment mission to help rural communities affected by the war-fighting currently taking place in the valleys of northern Pakistan. A team was sent into a community to identify what the people’s key needs were, and because the needs for men and women differ (and because men do not known what women need, which is patently reflected in many different areas of life around the world), the team wanted to speak specifically to the women of the community. (This is standard practice). Because these areas are highly conservative and it is inappropriate for men and women to mix, and because there is a mistrust of foreigners, this portion of the assessment team was made up entirely of women, and Urdu-speaking Pakistani women at that. Upon arriving in the community and requesting to speak to the women there, the village elders (all men) forbade the women staff from speaking to the women of the community, and informed the team that they were not welcome to return- the implication being that if the women staff came back to that community, they would be at risk.
The implication of this in emergencies is several-fold. First off, it means that women don’t get their needs properly assessed and met. That would cause enough problems even in a country like Australia, if only the men were consulted on a family’s needs (aw, yeah, we’ll take a slab of VB and some snags for the barbie, thanks). In conservative rural Pakistan, where issues of women’s health and wellbeing are largely taboo, it can leave women and girls lacking essential support. Secondly, it reflects a general oppression of women within society. I’m not having a go at different cultures, and certainly not at different religious worldviews, but this habit of secluding and isolating women is not just some quaint overprotective foible- it relates to controlling women as posessions, and as a second tier of people who do not receive the same freedoms and rights as men do- in contravention of all manner of international statements on human rights and gender equity.
My colleague’s question was, and I’ll quote directly from her here:
“whether there is a point where humanitarian aid workers should refuse to provide aid unless x, y and z happen. What happens when the humanitarian imperative conflicts with broader issues of justice? Do we help people who themselves are cutting off part of their own community from getting appropriate assistance?”
This may read as a somewhat shocking question. It smacks of tied aid. It also smacks of a neo-missionary worldview where assistance is only given to those who ‘convert’ to a human-rights-centred worldview in which all people are equal.
But it needs to be asked.
I give another example. In another country suffering from a war-driven humanitarian crisis, people displaced by fighting have ended up in relief camps. The government, ostensibly fearful that there might be rebels hiding in the displaced population, has sealed the camps with military guards and won’t let people out. They are also frightened that if aid workers go into the camps, they might hear from the displaced people that war-crimes or human rights abuses took place during the conflict, which would make them look bad, so they stop a lot of the aid workers from getting in, and restrict their movement so that they can dump aid supplies, but they can’t do assessments or talk to displaced people.
The same question got asked. Do aid workers, by delivering aid under these conditions, actually undermine their ethical position as ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’? Do they betray the people they are supposed to be helping by implicitly supporting the government’s [internationally illegal] position by effectively locking up a swathe of their own citizens in glorified concentration camps?
The two examples are at opposite ends of the response scale, but they highlight the same issues.
If we give assistance into a situation with an unacceptable level of injustice such as this, do we make ourselves complicit in that injustice? Do we effectively support it?
If we do deliver aid in these situations, can will it be used effectively?
Do we compromise our neutrality and impartiality in doing so?
But if we withhold aid, what will the humanitarian consequences be? Will people die? Will we be responsible for that, or are the perpetrators of injustice to blame?
By withholding aid, are we actually making ourselves part of the politics of the situation, and in fact are compromising our neutrality and impartiality anyway? Can we ever truly be neutral? Does the fact that, as NGOs, we engage in public advocacy make us politically biased entities to begin with?
And if we try and change the situation, will the people we want to help suffer more? How can we know, with so much insecurity and paucity of information in these situations? How are we supposed to know what decisions to make at all?
I don’t have any easy answers. Placing restrictions on aid is, as my friend observed in her message, the start of a slippery slope. It begs the question under what circumstances of injustice you start placing the restrictions, and who decides, and using what benchmark?
One thing that does have to be recognized, is that as humanitarian operatives, no matter what we try and say on the outside, we are agents of social change. Cultures change, societies change. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the observer affects that which they observe. Although it was devised in the field of particle physics, it’s never truer than in sociology and anthropology. Simply by being present, we aid workers will alter a culture and a society.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some things that are simply wrong, and which should be acknowledged as such around the world. Treating women as though they are on a lower tier than men is one of them. Female genital mutilation, the practice of cutting the sexual organs of girls which still happens in some countries, is another. Leaving unwanted infants out in the open to die of exposure is a third. Discriminating against people because of their gender, race or political views, yet another. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out a pretty comprehensive list of other things which most of the world, from vastly different ethnic, religious, historical and national backgrounds, have all signed and agreed to.
So our question then, as aid workers, is how do we respond in an ethically appropriate manner when we meet these things in the field. Do we ignore them in the name of service provision, and risk compromising our ethical purity and possibly reinforcing a bankrupt system? Or do we make them an issue, shooting down our neutrality and stepping in deliberately as agents of social change- but with what agenda, and what right?
If you have opinions on any of this, I’d love to hear from you. And while a few of you who read this blog are humanitarian workers yourselves (and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts), plenty of you are not and I’d value your perspective as well.
An ongoing discussion…
Note: Courtesy of my Blog Guru Jan, I have now worked out how to re-include links to the bigger-sized photos, so if you click the images you’ll be able to see ‘em all in much more detail, if that’s your thang. Though please don’t download them for commercial use without talking to me first (not that they’re in top quality JPEG).
I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post recently that I’m not much of a city person. I still think that stands. I’m happiest when I’m in the great outdoors (and the outdoors doesn’t get a whole lot greater than in Nepal). That said, a bunch of cities do make it onto my list of places I don’t mind spending time, and for all its faults (and not getting a mention in my previous post) Kathmandu is one of them.
On the surface, Kathmandu doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s a congested, sprawling city with no discernable pattern to its road networks, and far too many people on motorbikes and in decrepit little cars to make the streets a fun place to spend time. On top of that, it’s a chronically poor place. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia (usually competing for bottom place with Bangladesh), and at last tally stood at 145th out of 179 countries worldwide on the Human Development Index. That puts it slightly better off than countries like Sudan (146) and Haiti (148), but below nations such as Mauritania (140) and Burma (135). It’s dirty, and the air-pollution that gets trapped by cool air in the valley bottom gives rise both to chronic chest infections and eye- and sinus- irritation, as well as frequently obscuring any view of the mountains that ring the city.
But I lucked out. The flight landed mid-afternoon on a clear blue-sky day in mid-November. The sun was strong but the air was mild- mid-twenties perhaps- and before people were even off the rolling stairways and onto the apron, they were blocking the Airbus’ exits snapping lame [sorry, but it's true] shots of white-capped Himalayan peaks, partially obscured by the air-traffic control tower [...].
There’s no way around the traffic, of course. Kathmandu was virtually carless as late as the early fifties (for a fascinating insight into what was a deeply isolated kingdom, read Maurice Herzog’s fabulous account of the 1950 ascent of Annapurna, unsurprisingly entitled “Annapurna“), and so the sprawl and the old-town has a distinct higgledy-piggledy feel, with steep narrow streets navigating gullies and valleys, and ramshackle brick apartment-blocks leaning unconvincingly into oddly-angled and gridlocked intersections. Headed to the hotel, and the driver navigated shaded back-alleys where monkeys scattered from the garbage they were scavenging. We slowed at a complicated confluence of roads and watched in sickly slow-motion as a taxi glided serenely into an unsuspecting motorcyclist who was sent sprawling across the asphalt. Unhurt (and uncharacteristically wearing a helmet), the rider picked himself up, walked up to the cab window, and firmly and deliberately punched the cab-driver in the jaw before retrieving his mount and driving back into the flow.
For me the most interesting portion of the city (and I admit I didn’t venture too far afield) was the bustling hub of Thamel- the old town. Connaisseurs of Kathmandu, and those who had the opportunity to visit the country in the seventies or eighties (when, tragically, I was otherwise indisposed) will probably scoff at this comment, and for a good reason. Once a historic district surrounding centuries-old temples and oozing with character, Thamel is now the Vegas of South Asia, a network of narrow winding streets overhung with top-heavy buildings looking for an excuse to crumble, and hung with as much neon and tourist sign-boarding as their architecture can support. The narrow strip of sky between the congested three- and four-storey shop-house blocks is a tangled web of wires and cables. There are restaurants and cafes and backpacker hostels and hotels and shops selling pashmina textiles and outdoors gear and backpacks and souvenirs and paintings and handicrafts… pretty much every square inch of available real-estate revolves around the backpacker industry. And it really is horrendous.
Perhaps this is what makes it interesting. It’s a tremendous clash of civilisations. On the one hand the clutter and artchitectural chaos of what was once a bustling Hindu city in the foothills of the world’s highest mountain range, full of charm and character. On the other, capitalism in all its merry mirth, run amok among the rambling side-streets and gaping shamelessly from every darkened stoop and entranceway. Down the muddy footpaths, rickshaw runners and tiger-balm touts mingle with gore-tex clad Europeans and scraggly western travellers on some gap-year kick (often looking far less washed than the impoverished children in grubby clothes sitting on their concrete doorsteps where they empty onto the street).
I enjoy the life and vibrance of the place. People who talk about ‘genuine’ and ‘culture’ and how Western capitalist intervention has ruined the world are frankly up themselves. I mean, sure, in many ways it has. It’d be lovely for us to be able to enjoy the way these people lived traditionally and soak vicariously in their experiences, preserved pristine forever. Lovely, and a tad patronizing, no? Cultures change. Sure, I’d love to be able to brag that I was here before everybody else was. But I wasn’t. And Thamel’s fun. At night-time the streets blaze with neon and hum with music tumbling from a hundred different eateries. I was told there are quite literally thousands of travel agencies set up in the area. During the day you can’t go fifty paces without being offered a ride in a rickshaw, a pot of stinging-hot tiger-balm, or a surreptitious baggie of hashish. Young backpackers wear an expression of studied absence, as if to say “I refuse to see other white people”. Insence drifts thickly from shrines in shopfronts and mingles with the smell of rotting vegetables from alleyways and sidestreets. It’s colourful, and life and energy hangs from the place in thick, tangible folds.
A little walk away from the commercial hub- which is really just half a dozen criss-crossing streets over a couple of square kms- and the exploring becomes fun. Once you get away from the touts, the Nepalis are graciously accomodating, and strangely the white faces start to thin out. The noise in the narrow architectural canyons becomes a little quieter. The air is damp and cool. Life bustles. People rinse out stainless-steel cookware on front steps and empty grey waste-water straight into ditches at the side of the road. Motorbikes, horns blaring, carve a path between pedestrians and work their way around handcarts being pulled by young men and often boys. The odd sacred cow meanders along in search of food-scraps lying in heaps in dim corners, unmolested. Little temples are dotted about in alcoves, statues draped in yellow marigolds, purple clouds of incense almost overpowering as you walk past, while offerings of what I guess must be paan stain the stonework in visceral blood-like stains.
I wander down an alleyway that turns into a corridor. It is so dark I can barely see where my feet land, and I have to stoop my head to avoid banging it on the roof. When I emerge a few seconds later, I am in some courtyard deep within the tangled array of buildings and passageways. Families are gathered in corners, eating and washing and living their lives. I smile and wave awkwardly, realising I have blundered into their privacy, and they smile and giggle and wave back in a manner far more gracious than I would have done, had some tourist waltzed into my living room (and as has happened to some of my fellow students while studying at Cambridge University when they failed to lock their doors while stepping out for a short break…).
One of the aspects of the culture I enjoyed most was the respect towards animals, a refreshing change from the often vicious habits of people in Africa, where donkeys and dogs seem to bear the brunt for being the only creatures consistently in a lower station than humans, and are reminded of the fact with vigour. While I am usually leery of dogs in third world countries (and having had my own fair share of trouble), the dogs throughout Nepal were healthy, friendly and contended things, with furry coats and feathery tails. They reminded me of my own parents’ dogs, Zac and Zena, who as Tibetan Terriers and therefore Himalayan dogs themselves are no doubt distant cousins.
An enduring image I have while walking the streets of Thamel is of a little girl, a teeny little thing who was still probably as old as four or five, with straight black hair tied in two tails on either side of her head and a grubby brown face. She emerged from her front door straight onto the street, and there on her doorstep she found herself nose-to-nose with a happy-looking mutt, its tail held high in curiosity. For a moment they stood their looking at each other in the morning sunlight, and then the dog’s tongue loped out and smeared itself across the girl’s face in a gesture of tail-wagging affection, and the girl chortled happily and wiped the slobber off with the back of her sleeve. It was a simple image, but one which spoke tomes of the gentle spirit that Nepal tries hard to embody- political turmoil notwithstanding.
The tourist-sites interest me a little less. I cruised through the historic Durbar Square (the one on the edge of Thamel) in half an hour, enjoying the architecture, but like the cultural heathen that I am, eschewing both guide-books and tour-guides in favour of exploring the nooks and crannies myself. Likewise Swayanbhunath (the Monkey Temple) is a bit of a grotty place, jammed with tourists, although well worth the visit not so much for the monkies (wretched, diseased and bad-tempered little animals, wherever in the world I go) but for that fantastic staircase (a must-do for trekkers getting themselves ready for a walk in the real mountains) and for the fantastic views of the city on a clear day. Watching airplanes slip past the crest of the towering foothills, and the angle of the sunbeams gradually flatten until the sun is lost below the distant horizon, is all rather spectacular.
All up, I’ll take Pokhara and the hills any day over Kathmandu, but as cities go, it’s a pretty intriguing one, full of life in all its unfettered and unsanitary glory. When the air is clear (and I confess we had a string of really beautiful days, so we were lucky) it is quite simply thrilling to look out and see the world’s highest mountain peaks looming just a few dozen miles away, saw-toothed and impending above the charming ramshackle sprawl. Nepal, as I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, was a place I had been trying to get to for more than a decade, and when I finally did, it still exceeded my expectations.
Go before you die.
See my other posts on Nepal here: