Archives for posts with tag: rwanda

Let me say first that I grew up in Manhattan and lived there till I was about 30-years-old. Which is to say, this look if very familiar. The crossed arms. The look of disdain bordering on anger. And that’s why I’m drawn to this image – I feel at home. I captured this image a little more than a year ago in Rwanda. But, if I’m being completely honest, I feel like I’ve been looking at this image all my life.

Mountain gorillas live in relatively small family groups, and the Rwandan authorities limit the number of tourists who can visit any given gorilla family to eight people per day. And then, for only one hour. Combine that with the fact that, inside Rwanda, there are ten gorilla families that have been habituated to being visited by people, that translates to a maximum of 80 tourists per day visiting gorillas. Hence the need to buy a permit for your selected days months in advance.

I was traveling with friends Larry & Jerri and thanks to Jerri’s experience and marvelous organization skills, we had everything we needed, from gators to protect us from the mud to gloves to protect us from the bramble to the required permits – for two days of gorilla trekking.

The second day is, I hate to say it, better than the first. Everything is new that first day – the adrenaline is running and the hour you get to spend with the gorillas passes as if five minutes. Day Two, things begin to slow down and I had a chance to appreciate the interactions without my heart thumping. I can only imagine what a Day Three or Four must have been like.

On this particular day, we trekked through mud and bramble to visit a popular family of gorillas. Jerri had lobbied hard at the base station to make sure we were the lucky few who would visit this family on this particular day and her efforts paid off.

Three hours trek and we made it to the general area where the gorilla family was foraging. Jerri stood to my left as the last person in a line of six humans clicking away – all within five feet of the gorillas and sometimes closer. A juvenile gorilla climbed up a nimble stalk and as he got to the top, the stalk gave way under the weight of the young gorilla who couldn’t have weighed more than 30-40 pounds.

The stalk broke at the base, the rest of it holding firm, the young gorilla holding on tight at the top. Imagine a 10 foot stick falling to the ground and that’s what happened. Only this stick had a gorilla at the top of it. And this stick fell directly toward Jerri, missing her by not more than a few inches. The result was a juvenile gorilla inches from Jerri’s feet. The two looked at each other, Jerri smiled, and I glanced over at the Silverback. He didn’t seem to be bothered. And just as quick the young gorilla scampered off.

Nearly an hour later, Jerri was crouched down when an even younger gorilla came up behind her and began playing with her straight blond hair. Jerri turned slowly and the two just stared at each other, face to face, maybe three inches apart from one another.

Again, I looked at the Silverback and that’s when I captured this image.

There is so much humanity in this gorilla’s pose. That’s what I love about it.

Or maybe, just maybe, it reminds me of someone I know. My father perhaps. Or myself when I’m having a moment of frustration with my kids. Therapist anyone?

As a photograph, there’s a lot for me to like in here. The framing for starters – nothing is wasted. As a reminder, what you see here is what I saw in the lens. I have taken thousands upon thousands of pictures and can count on one hand the number of images I’ve cropped in post production. In fact, I think there’s really just one. This image is exactly as I framed it in the camera.

There’s just enough bramble in the foreground to help give a sense of the setting and enough head space at the top so we don’t feel jammed in. The eyes grab us and everything begins to fill in around that. I love the turn of the mouth, the crossed arms. And I appreciate the full range of textures of different shades of black and gray.

As a photographer in love with B&W, nothing thrills more than an image which lets you show off the full range of tone and texture. And all of that combined is why I am so drawn to this image.

I was in Rwanda last April with friends Larry and Jerri – we spent 10 days there and it was, in a word, magical. Traveling with them was easy and we all got along quite well. Toward the end of the trip, we found ourselves at the remarkable Nyungwe Forest Lodge for three nights and two days. Arriving at the lodge is as if finding an unexpectedly lush oasis in the desert. The architecture, design and finishes are far beyond anything we anticipated given Rwanda’s recent history and – to this day – struggles with poverty, refugees and the like.

The three of us checked in amidst some confusion amongst the staff who insisted I must be someone named Morris B – even as they stared at my passport. Morris B turned out to be Barry Morris – an Australian ex-Royal Marine with a broken clavicle and a will to not let that get in his way, combined with a tolerance for pain that I both admired and admonished at the same time.

The first morning at the lodge, we were up at 4:30AM for the drive to the dawn trek to see the chimpanzees. The trek was filled with fire ants and Barrie’s cries of clavicle pain induced by a slippery and root-filled trail followed by his insistence, “I’m okay, don’t stop, carry on,” and then finally punctuated by seeing a handful of chimpanzees in the far distance and with the sun rising directly behind them. Translation: no decent chimpanzee photographs.

Given the option to repeat the 4:30AM wake up and return to the trail of the fire ants or do something else the next day, the three of us opted for plan b. We would tour a local tea factory after breakfast and play the rest of the day by ear.

Barrie, the last I heard, stayed fairly well self-medicated for the day. I can’t say as I blame him. He’s one determined man. I heard he went on to trek with the gorillas later in the week – perhaps even more demanding trekking albeit without the 4:30AM start time. A remarkable man, that Morris B.

The tea factory tour was insightful. The tea they produced there looks nothing like any tea I’ve had before. It starts off as leaves, but after going through a range of machines that we watched in action, it ends up as small black dots of, well, tea. It tasted amazing, I’ll say that for the tea. Even my British wife loves it. And so today we’re buying the same Rwandan tea the only way we found possible – through a Chinese importer on Amazon. Globalization is amazing.

After a week that included a library dedication, two gorilla treks, a chimp trek, a tea factory tour and much more – we finally had an unscheduled afternoon. And, for the first time in more than a week, Larry, Jerri and I decided to part company, if only for a few hours.

I had heard that we could get a tour of the local villages and I was determined to go. Larry and Jerri were up for a break from their traveling companion if not a bit of relaxing at the Lodge. And so I headed into town where our driver brought me to a small office. In that office was an older man with a ready smile and bit of English. Just as quickly, our driver was gone and I was working through what the next three hours would look like – and how much it would cost me.

There is a brief and fleeting moment in which I accepted that I just put my safety in the hands of a stranger. It’s a safe bet that the camera equipment on my back was worth more than this man’s life savings. That’s not right nor fair, and it’s nothing to be proud of. It just is. And, I’ll be honest, there’s a nano-second where I’m painfully aware of that, that I recognize the injustice of it, and also my vulnerability should my guide decide he’s had enough.

My guide, Danny, sized me up and saw what was to him an average tourist, probably not up for much more than a cursory walk about. An hour into our village walk, he started to look at me a bit differently. For starters, it began to rain. Afternoon, African downpour rain. I pulled out my rain jacket, slipped on my baseball cap, put the built-in rain cover over my camera bag and kept on walking. It was a bit dicey in spots, and while I’m no mountain man, whatever I did, I was able to convince my guide that I was not his average afternoon fare.

Before the rain began, we happened upon a fisherman plying his trade in a pond. We stopped and with Danny’s help, I asked the fisherman several questions. What fish does he catch? How large are they? Were do the fish come from (it’s a pond)? How does he catch the fish? What do the fish eat? And so on. Danny had a huge smile on his face.

As we proceeded through three different villages, I asked Danny to introduce me to people and, where possible, to see if I could enter people’s homes. I wanted to see how people lived. I wanted to ask questions. Where it made sense and felt comfortable, I wanted to capture images.

Between my footwork on the slippery and, in spots, steep paths and my insistence on meeting people, in asking questions and seeing how the locals lived, Danny warmed up to me. He began pulling at different plants and teaching me their various medicinal purposes. Danny transformed into a fountain of information and folklore. He clearly was enjoying taking me around.

In the third hour of our 2-hour tour, we entered the village seen in the image above. We spoke with the man in the background for 5-10 minutes and I took a couple of pictures of him and Danny together. Everyone is friendly enough – but there’s also a distinct lack of what in the West we would consider posing for pictures. Which, to be fair, is perfectly fine by me. The ubiquitous smile is typically not what I’m after when looking around for a story to tell with my camera.

I captured this moment just as we left the village. There is a lot wrapped up in here. The adult with the young child in the background looking on at me. The slightly older child in the foreground. The scene suggesting a life completely different than our own, perhaps beyond our comprehension, and yet a scene completely at peace with itself.

For me, the story is clear. And, I see that story wrapped in an engaging composition. The boy’s head in the foreground sticks up perfectly into a space made by the outlines of the buildings behind him. He looks into the camera and grabs my attention and pulls my view up and behind him where I then notice his father and brother standing at ease, but also staring directly at us. All of this is perfectly framed by palm fronds and a wooden fence on the right and mud-built homes on the left.

There is depth and complexity in the composition and, when combined with the story, makes for a marvelous and moving image.

I had an incredible 10 days in Rwanda – thanks to Larry and Jerri for inviting me and including me. That took some courage and was, for certain, a leap of faith. This particular image, this afternoon, was but one of a series of remarkable moments and I’m pleased to be able to share it with you.

I had no idea how close we’d actually come to these endangered mountain gorillas. Of course, I had done my research – and the friends I travelled with had done the gorilla trek previously. So I had been told we’d be so close that, at times, we could reach out and touch the gorillas. Not that that’s permitted. Sure, I brought the right lens to shoot up close. But I also brought my zoom lens – I didn’t truly believe how close we’d be. Until we got there.

The trek itself starts months earlier when you buy a permit for a specific day. In our case, we elected to trek and see gorillas for two days back to back. Mountain gorillas live in relatively small family groups, and the Rwandan authorities limit the number of tourists who can visit any given gorilla family to eight people per day. And then, for only one hour.

Combine that with the fact that, inside Rwanda, there are ten gorilla families that have been habituated to being visited by people, that translates to a maximum of 80 tourists per day visiting gorillas. Hence the need to buy a permit for your selected days months in advance.

The actual trekking is not so much hard as it is fraught with minor annoyances. I say minor because in the scheme of suffering and pain, these are indeed trivial. In the moment, however, the legions of red ants that we occasionally needed to wade through and the stinging nettles that jumped out attacked us from time to time seemed anything but trivial. The ants insidiously find their way up your shoe, around your gators, inside the socks that are wrapped around your pants, up your leg and then, just when they find the right spot, they inflict a surprising amount of pain for such a small creature. And the nettles, well, they come at all heights and sizes, sometimes reaching clear across the trail at face-height.

There is also mud. At least when we were there in March, there was a lot of it. So much mud, in fact, that the walking stick we were given at the start of the trek was more than a clever affectation. It was a necessity that still was often not enough to keep us tourists upright.

The trek started easily enough on paths through farmers’ fields. After 20 minutes, we reached a stone wall. Behind the wall was a trench. A handful of thin logs, slippery with rain and moss, were laid over that trench. Here started the adventure. We had to walk across those logs without falling – and once across, we were in the pure, unadulterated jungle. People with experience – and people like me who knew people with experience – donned our thick gardening gloves to better fight off stinging nettles.

We trekked in and around the mud for two hours, climbed 2,000 feet up the side of Mount Bisoke till we reached 10,500 feet where we were told it was time to get our camera gear ready. Our staging area was just a part of the jungle where we were directed to stop. No actual clear area beyond what one of the guides had whacked away with his machete.

Before covering the last 100 yards to the gorillas, we slimmed down to our camera and anything we could carry in our hands. No backpacks. Those are the rules. For me, this meant putting the 70-200mm lens on my camera and cramming the 35-70mm in my pocket. As I mentioned, I had been told how close we’d be. But I didn’t believe it.

Many professional media and wildlife photographers travel with two or more bodies so they can have more than one lens with them and ready to go at all times. There are also lens cases fitted with belt loops so one can traverse like Batman with a utility belt and just reach down and grab whatever you need.

I am, for whatever it’s worth, neither of these photographers. And so, I tucked the smaller lens in my pocket and left the larger lens on my camera. Of course, both lenses are Nikon 2.8 lenses, neither of them small or light.

We left our gear loosely arranged under a tree and marched the last little bit and then, suddenly, and as if out of nowhere… after two hours of wading through mud, fire ants and stinging nettles, there they were – a family of incredible and majestic mountain gorillas.

Needless to say we were close to the animals. Much closer than I had ever imagined, despite having been told quite clearly what to expect. I quickly switched lenses and now had to put my 70-200mm lens in my pocket. Of course it didn’t fit and so I laid it down in a bed of trodden jungle undergrowth.

The gorillas were not more than ten feel away – we’re not permitted to approach them, but they could come as close as they’d like to us. And they did. I shot quickly and tried to overcome the moment of awe. Which I didn’t at first. My brain couldn’t get over where I was quickly enough to permit the seasoned and professional photographer in me take over. The result was that my first few shots were a waste of media space.

Thunder, previously in the distance, grew nearer and it began to rain. An Australian tourist with a point and shoot camera and a free hand and offered to hold my spare lens. That was a huge help, especially as the rain began to pour.

I used a modified ziplock bag to keep my lens and camera dry – and as the rain came down harder and thunder boomed overhead, the gorillas and we hunkered down. We humans brought our arms in tight and hunched our shoulders – and the gorillas did the same. I brought my camera back up and began trying to capture a few images despite the distractions. What you see here, the image of one of the two silverbacks in the Amahoro group pictured above, I shot with 35-70mm lens as rain poured down on all of us.

More thunder and lightening – and then the rain turned to hail. The guides decided to bring us back down to where our gear was stored underneath a tree. I took my 70-200mm lens from the Australian as we scampered as quickly as we dared off an exposed part of the mountainside.

Hail, thunder and lighting continued for ten minutes as we all filed underneath a tree in close quarters, our gear protected by ponchos that had been arranged by the porters when the rain had begun.

Fifteen minutes later, the thunderstorm had passed and we headed back to spend more time with the gorillas. Of course I stowed my 70-200mm lens in my bag to be left in the staging area before we headed back up the mountain. Next, I mentally prepared myself to capture another round of remarkable images of these curious creatures and to do so up close.

There’s so much to love about this particular image. The contrast between the black hair and gray chest. The somewhat resigned and yet altogether determined look on the gorilla’s face. The arms crossed in a look of strength and quiet impatience. The water reflecting in drops off his hair. In so many ways, the gorillas remind us of ourselves, and that’s never more apparent for me than it is in this image. Maybe that’s why I love this image as much as I do.

This image, by the way, is just the beginning. I am diligently editing thousands of additional images and I’m as curious as anyone to see what’s in the shoot and what will end up in the collection. Join me here next month for more gorilla tales, images and – with any luck – a link to my new Rwanda images online.

Until then, I hope you enjoy and get as much out of this image as I do.

When I captured this image on my iPhone two weeks ago in Rwanda, the first thought that ran through my head when I looked at the result was the ubiquitous headline, “Shot on an iPhone 6.” If you live in or have traveled through one of our major cities, you’ve no doubt seen the billboards with one spectacular picture or another with this headline. The idea is as clear as the image – that one can capture incredible photographs, ones worthy of being printed large and plastered on a billboard, with something as small and handy as your iPhone.

For the past several years, Helen and I, through our eponymously named company, Kalisher, have donated to an NGO with money earmarked to build a library and women’s cooperative in a small village in Rwanda. Earlier this year, we asked our friends to chip in as well and the response to that request was great. Many thanks to all who chipped in! Two weeks ago, I attended the ribbon cutting along with friends who had conceived of the library project six years ago. That’s what brought me to Rwanda.

A quick primer for those who have vague recollections of the violence in that country. Rwanda is a small state with 11 million people. The Belgians had occupied Rwanda starting at the turn of the 20th century – at some point during their stay in Rwanda, the Belgians began classifying the Rwandans as belonging to one of two tribes, the Tutsis or the Hutus. By the mid 20th century, the Rwandans bought into the tribalism and occasional violence broke out with the majority Hutus inevitably lashing out agains the minority, ruling class Tutsis.

In 1994, the worst took place. The Hutus rose up as a unified force across the entire country and slaughtered the Tutsis among them. In all, 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days. It is recorded as the fastest mass killing/genocide in the history of mankind.

After order was restored, the country went about making peace with itself. People who committed atrocities were arrested and encouraged to make statements about what happened. Rwanda created many memorial sites that are now government owned and run – as well as a top-notch genocide museum that carefully explains how Rwandan villagers ended up killing their neighbors, friends they had grown up with. The museum also features an intelligent overview of genocides from throughout history and in a wide range of countries. The message is clear: in the hands of the right demagogues, genocide can happen anywhere in any country and in any moment in history.

Today, Rwanda is a country at peace with itself and with the the world. It’s undecidedly poor and agrarian. I have visited many poor countries. But none that I can recall in which the only labor in the fields is human. For all the fertile fields in Rwanda – and they’re everywhere, the entire country is one giant fertile field – in nearly two weeks I saw not a single farm animal used to till the fields. Rwanda is a nation of substance farming and 100% of that farming (at least so far as I could see) is done by hand.

Rwanda is also a nation of children. Many adults were killed in ’94. Many others went to prison afterward. And clearly, some have died in the intervening years. That said, many children were killed in the genocide as well. And, I suspect, some surviving children were left without parents or other relatives to care for them. The result is a bit frightening when one considers the cause, most Rwandans are under the age of 25 and the single largest age group in Rwanda is 0-4. The country is over-run with children.

Which is why it seemed smart to build the library.

A few days after the opening ceremony, we went gorilla trekking. I’ll write more about that in another post. Suffice it to say, we hiked through farmer’s fields and crossed a retaining wall, beyond which was a national park and the protected home of the endangered mountain gorilla. We trekked another two hours, then, once upon the gorillas, pulled out our cameras and got busy. For the trek back to civilization, all of us put our cameras away. In Rwanda, this means handing your camera bag to a porter to carry down the mountain. I’m used to carrying my own gear – and take pride in that. But hiring former poachers so they enjoy in the eco-tourism economy seems the right course of action. Especially when the cost of the porter is less than $10 U.S.

The combination of having left the gorillas and having handed my camera bag to the porter meant that as we transitioned from protected jungle to farmer’s fields, my camera was safely tucked away in my back pack and while not entirely inaccessible, certainly not quickly at the ready. And so, as we walked past this woman harvesting daisies, I reached for the camera I had at hand, my iPhone. I framed the scene with the woman off to the left and snapped the shot.

Two thoughts. One, from a National Geographic photographer I had the pleasure of co-hosting a conference with more than a decade ago in San Francisco. He confided that he always carries a red shirt with him. The reason: he wants someone in red somewhere in his images. Imagine that grand National Geographic landscape of lush green rice paddies, for example… now add just a touch of red in the bottom left corner. And so he carried a shirt to have someone wear as needed. Here I was, and this Rwandan woman with her child wrapped in red amidst a lush field of green and white. It was as if that National Geographic photographer were one step ahead of me – here was his red shirt!

My second thought was hopefully obvious by now. Porters notwithstanding, I needed to have my camera around my neck as I walked through the fields. Leaving the camera tucked away was a mistake I wouldn’t make again on this trip.

As for the daisies… the Rwandans dry them and then use the petals as a natural pesticide.

Here, in a single image, is a piece of the story I saw in Rwanda. Lush fields tended by hand – no machines, no animals. And children everywhere. And shot on my iPhone 6. Wonderful!