On our journey into Pokot two weekends back, I was called to fill a particular role for the first time: that of official photographer. It was my duty to move about and take pictures of the tribal people as we delivered bags of cabbage and maize flour to them, as we bought and shared goats and cows and camels. These pictures would then be included in messages to all those sponsors who had made the donations possible.
Like I wrote, this was my first time in the role, and it felt odd. My favorite photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans, and their most renowned pictures are candid shots of life in progress. To the best of my abilities, I have tried to imitate their approach and create something reminiscent of them. Being an official photographer seems to run counter to this. I tried to remain on the periphery but was invited in. Chiefs would move their people out of the way so that I could have a better shot of the main action. People no longer shirked from my lens. They knew I was there. They knew by my presence that this was an event, something worth recording and sharing. They wanted to be a part of it.
It was not exactly unpleasant. I am far from a forceful person and probably would have never been close enough to capture the men pouring out buckets of flour into the bags of the waiting without the aid of those in charge. I don't think this work was necessarily antithetical to that of my favorites either. Much of their best was part of a long, intense process. They embedded themselves in their communities until the people were no longer self-conscious about their cameras. The people came to accept and expect that they would take pictures. The Famine Feed and Survival programs have been going on for years. By this point, the Pokot expect photographers at them. I just benefited from all those who came before me and prepared them.
But there is an important distinction here between my work and theirs that does bother me on a personal level. Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz and Evans earned their positions within the community through long stays. They had become members of the communities in their own way. In the parlance of sociologists, they were insiders. I just showed up in Pokot in a truck one hot July afternoon. In no way could I have been confused as a member of the tribe. What concerns me still more is that the camera may have pushed me farther still into the margins. I was just the observer and recorder. They would tolerate me for this time but could not accept me.
While I must accept that there are very real limitations to how much I will ever be accepted over the course of these brief, monthly visits, I do hope for something a little deeper than photographer/photographed to emerge during the coming year.
2 years ago