Senegal Photo Diary

This time around, visiting Senegal, it felt like a completely different country. The last time I was on a shoot there was almost fifteen months ago and I was in such a different place - it was over the anniversary of Robert's death I was struggling a bit. Everything felt just a little bit hard and a little bit sad. I was ok, but still a bit raw, and looking back I can see how that added a lens to the way I was looking at everything. But last week as I was traveling and shooting I felt so differently, I was much more positive and relaxed - the challenges didn't seem so big.

Senegal in general however, is a more challenging country to work in. For me as a photographer, trying to get the shots I like to get - it's not easy. I'm not sure what it is but while some love the camera, kids especially, other's almost seem to hate it and when I ask for permission for a shot and get a "no" it usually feels like there's a bit of anger behind it. I asked Justice, my local contact, what it was about and as a photographer himself, he said he didn't know - he had never experience that. But what I've discovered is that each photographer's experience of a place is different and that's down to so many factors.

But beyond anything, it's an absolutely stunning country with beautiful people. And I mean beautiful! They're stunning. It always feels safe, relaxed and the golden hour there is one of the most beautiful. Check out the vlog below to see what I mean:

From the Road, a Senegal Travel Diary Pt. 4 Heading Home

This is the last of my travel diaries from Senegal. It's taken me a while to get through posting them all, but I have enjoyed putting them up little by little. It helps to make the memories last. There are a lot of photos to go with this post, some don't really correspond with the story, but I decided to post them anyway.

 

12th February 2016


Meckhe

 

The last few days have flown by in a flurry of villages, interviews and personal stories. We meet so many people, film them and document a few moments from their life to tell a small story that is just a part of a larger picture of change. 

We stop for lunch and Toni Braxton is belting out of the speaker system in the restaurant and it's a struggle not to sing along with over-dramatic hand gestures while eating my pizza. I'm pretty tired from the late nights on my computer, early mornings waking up before the sun, and all day photographing. I'm in danger of losing it in a fit of laughter as one or two of our crew actually do start singing along, using their pizza as a microphone.

We're way of the urban areas now, and you can drive for miles in what feels like the abandoned desert of the Sahal and still suddenly come across a village. I've really enjoyed working out of the city on this trip though, so I'm not sad about the hours spent driving through the sand. The urban areas and markets are such a challenge and I get told off for taking photos with people waving their finger in my face, even when my camera is switched off and hanging by my side. Village life is soft and sleepy, no one is going to run you over when you're not looking for trying to take their photo.

Because our itinerary changes day to day (even hour to hour, some trips are just like that) I'm always unsure if we're going to get some usable stuff each day and we just have to make the most of each location. Some trips have really tight schedules, other trips the schedules get chucked out the window.

It's probably for that reason, or out of sheer desperation, that I find myself at some point sprinting down a highway in the middle of The Sahel salt fields to catch up with a horse that's leaving me far behind in the dust. 

Justice, our local contact, suggests we just sit by the side of the road for a bit and wait for another to come along. It's a long, clear stretch of road and an amazing spot to get some shots with the drone, and we have time on our hands today. The sun hasn't quite risen enough to dry out the soft light of morning and it's almost cool enough to wear a sweater. 

We kill time taking photos of the landscape and each other until another horse comes along, and thanks to the friendly words of Justice the man agrees to let me take his photo. In those moments where there's one and only one shot to get I can sometimes really feel the pressure.
By the end of the day we have a few shots, but really amazing ones and I remind myself that quality is better than quantity and just leave it at that. 

After five days in the field, tomorrow we are returning to Dakar for a day and a bit before our flight home. We've already made plans for our next trip back to Senegal, maybe in the rainy season, and although we don't know when that will be it's clear that The Sahel still had so many stories to tell. I have a feeling I'll be back. 

 

 

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From the Road, a Senegal Travel Diary Pt.3 We All Deserve Peace

Senegal was a hard trip for me, as you may be able to tell from my other travel diaries. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it, but my heart wasn't in it 100% - it was distracted I suppose.

These kind of posts are always hard to publish, and I procrastinate on it for a long time - but something in me, I don't know what, feels like it's important to tell the truth wherever I'm free to. Heaven forbid anyone should read here and despair at the imperfections of their own life in comparison to mine. Some of my life experiences I wouldn't wish on anyone, but because I know we all hide the worst of what we've been through, it makes me feel a bit better to get it out in the open for other people to connect with.

 

11 February 2016


on the road somewhere

 


No one in life is immune to those moments that level everything to the ground. The day your kids are born, the day you lose a loved one - those moments that happen in a second but light your life on fire to clear out the old and make way for new things. Some of them make you feel alive, some of them make you feel broken, all of them are exhausting. 

I miss my stepfather almost every day. Working in Senegal this past week I wish I could call him and tell to him all my troubles and insecurities about the work I do and I know he would understand better than anyone. 

He would tell me funny stories about his years working as a foreign correspondent. He would tell me about his hard times as a journalist covering conflict and the human condition, and he would just get it without me having to explain - after all he set me on this course, and I wouldn't be here in Africa today if it weren't for his advice. 

But I know what he would say today on the anniversary of his death, "this too shall pass". It's probably something he had to tell himself a hundred times, he was always having to say it to me, anyway. 

He was my great leveler. One of them at least. 

I wish he could have listened to his own words at the end of his life when he made the decision to end it on his own terms, but wherever he is now I hope he found the peace he so much needed. No one deserves it more. 

We all deserve peace. 

 

 

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From the Road, a Senegal Travel Diary Pt. 2 Sokone

This is part two of the travel diary I kept when I was working in Senegal last month. To catch up on part one, click here. It's an account of my photography trips overseas, what it's like to work in the field as a photographer, and a few personal thoughts.

 

10th February 2016


Sokone

 

I'm writing this as we sit in a small village in Sokone. There's a meeting going on between all the men left in the village who have not gone to market and I'm waiting for them to finish before I feel like it's ok to start wandering around and taking pictures. 

It's not easy to photograph people here because often they expect payment in exchange for having their photo taken. It's something I've come across in other countries around the world but here it feels like there's a lot less room for negotiation. I wish I had more time to get to know people and make them more comfortable, and I think about those photographers who spend months in one place. There never seems to be enough time. 

I wouldn't mind spending a long time in this village. It's towards the end of the day so the heat is less intense, and there's a tree in flower that's giving off such a beautiful smell. Sitting in the shade I think this would be a really peaceful place to spend more time. 

Anywhere in Senegal would be pretty peaceful to spend more time. In the early morning or even in the evening when the sun isn't so harsh and it's cool enough for long sleeves, everything is still and the light is so clear. This morning we were down photographing by the water and it was so clear in the sunrise, it looked like a completely different place as we drove past it again in the afternoon. 

There is a woman sitting right behind me now, playing with her daughter and they both have the same beautiful smile. I've already asked her if I can take her photo when I met her earlier and she said "no thank you". The scene now in the shade of the tree is just too perfect but I just can't ask again. I'm sad to let the moment go, but really it's between her and her daughter and it just doesn't belong to me. 

I get up and wander over to our truck to let Jeremy, our videographer, know we're getting ready to do an interview. He's flying his drone and the entire village has shown up to see what's going on and watch the kids chase it around. It's complete chaos and pretty funny to watch from the outside, but maybe not so much for Jeremy who's trying to find a safe spot to land it. 

The interview we do in the open air as the sun is setting and it's one of those rare interviews where there is no awkwardness, no hesitation, just a man very passionate and animated as he speaks. 

As the one in charge of these trips and getting the best content we can, these interviews make me breathe a sigh of relief. Even if I can't understand what he's saying I know he's giving us what we need and I'm so thankful for that. 

Jamie does the interviews now. Back when I first started I was photographer, videographer, interviewer, producer, director, and the momentum behind the whole trip. As soon as I could convince anyone to give me some budget and let me bring along some help, I dragged Jamie on a plane from London and gave him the task of talking to people so I could focus on photography and the rest. I've been in his shoes so many times and I knew at first he found it awkward as hell doing these interviews. It really is! Trying to get a good story out of a stranger speaking a different language, it doesn't get much more difficult than that - especially when you're having to work with two translators. But tonight he's really nailing it and I can tell he feels it too. 

Some moments you can capture and others you can't. But I'm so happy to end the day on a good note. And just as we are getting ready to leave for the evening, I manage to capture a moment that makes up for all the ones I felt like I missed on this trip. 

 

 

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From the Road, a Senegal Travel Diary. Pt. 1 Dakar

I’ve never kept a diary when I travel on photography assignments, this is the first time, and reading back through it all I can’t believe how raw it all is. It’s completely different to the kind of travel post I usually write, but it's a lot more real. I hope you like them!

I posted a few photos of Dakar to Instagram that I took on my phone, the rest of these are from the first few days in the field, shooting in a few villages and a school in Sokone.

 

7th February 2016


Dakar

 

I’m writing this on my second night in Senegal, sat in my hotel room and getting ready for an early night before the real work begins. 

We flew in last night, me and two people I work with, and after a full day of flying it was a relief to just fall into bed. We stopped over in Madrid on the way from London to Dakar and those two flights were some of the bumpiest of my life. I’m so terrified of flying that I find myself squeezing my eyes shut and clinging onto the seat in front of me, silently saying to myself “please stop, please stop, please just stop it”. I don’t know when I became so afraid of flying but it always takes a lot out of me. And I often find myself wondering why I pursue a career that requires so much travel! The stress on my body that comes with this fear of flying cannot be healthy.

As it’s Sunday in Senegal we have to wait until work starts up again on Monday to get out of Dakar and into the field. But until then we are left to our own devices - Jamie, Sarah and I. Jamie I travel with often, he writes the stories to go with my photos. I’ve never traveled with Sarah before but I must have said to her at least ten times how nice it is to travel with a girl. Usually it’s just me and a bunch of guys for days on end, which isn’t a big deal really and something I only picked up on last year. 

My first impressions of Dakar are that it’s warm and peaceful, but I suspect it’s more chaotic during the week. We wander down to the ocean, watch a group of men gather to exercise on the beach (something that seems to be quite common here - they do squats for hours!), and have a really nice coffee - a treat you learn to appreciate when you travel a lot. 

After a day of wandering I’m pretty tired and grumpy with myself for making the rookie mistake of wearing flip-flops for too long. My feet are killing me and because I’m tried, the stressful thoughts start to creep in.

I organize these trips, the ideas and the momentum comes from me, so I am entirely responsible for them from start to finish. The pressure is on to get some good stuff (film, photos and case studies), and because we don’t scout our stories first due to lack of time and budget, I always worry about what happens if we show up to the pre-arranged location and there’s just nothing there. What if I go back to London with nothing? What if everything goes wrong and the whole team, five people in total including me, turn to me and say “now what?” - and I don’t have an answer. It’s happened before and I've never not had an answer, but there’s a first time for everything.

We have pizza for dinner and make our way back to the hotel in the dark. I feel like I’ve been trying to make stupid jokes for a while now which is what happens when I get tired around people I don’t know all that well. As we walk the call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque and I’m not sure what it is at first, I’ve never heard a call to prayer like it. There are men outside on the pavement running they’re prayer beads through their fingers or concentrating on their kouran. A few blocks down are some women sat on the pavement, I noticed them earlier in the day but this time I ask our Senegalese contact about them and he says “basically they’re beggars” - a funny choice of words and I can’t tell if he said it that way because there’s more to it, or because English isn’t his first language.

Often sad realities crop up on these trips and usually I can see them in a larger context of a cultural circumstance, but sometimes my mind zeros in on an issue or an individual and I just can’t let it go - like my heart is just learning of this particular injustice of the world for the first time. It seems weird that every sad situation doesn't make me react this way, but some things are easier to accept than others I guess. Over the years I’ve learned that these are the moments that stick with you forever. In the sheer number of people and animals that I meet as I photograph around the world, these are the ones I will always remember and I can list them in my mind.

 

Some photos from the first few hours in Sokone...


A five hour drive from Dakar

 

We get back to the hotel and I shower and try to do some yoga to settle me down. I need to be confident and in charge tomorrow but really I’m just feeling anything but - over the years I've become pretty good at faking it, though I would rather not have to. I try to tell myself I’m just tired, but doing yoga just feels self-indugent and selfish for some reason. I do it anyway though, mostly because I think it’s a good idea and I don’t know what else to do with myself after all the preparations to start work the next day are finished. All my equipment is in order, my camera is taped up, my lenses are clean, my bags are packed...

On the flight over I watched The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about Sebastiao Salgado and it made me feel proud of my work, even if pales in significance to what he did all those years ago. It’s a graphic documentary though, as are his photos covering war, life in refugee camps, environmental disasters - important but brutal work. I can’t get some of those images out of my head. I know that’s what haunts me a bit tonight and I simultaneously feel like it’s ok and normal to be sad about seeing the hardship of others, and angry at myself because my sadness feels petty and small compared to theirs.

The real work hasn’t even begun yet and I’m already feeling it which worries me. If I go to sleep now I can stay in bed for a full eight hours, and maybe try and sleep for all of them.

 

 

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