Monthly Archives: October 2013

Sleeping in a hammock in South Sudan

My choices are to sleep in a concrete room that’s been collecting heat all day, or set up my hammock. I always prefer the hammock. It’s cooler, cleaner, and more comfortable. Plus, the Africans always laugh at me when I set it up, and are amazed when I don’t fall on the ground.



The five of us safely made it to Kenya! We arrived at the guest house, and it’s awesome to see the two youngest members of our group taking it all in. I listened to one of them on the phone marveling at how there are no lines in the road, and people just drive wherever they want. I can only smile, because they haven’t seen anything yet, but I won’t say anything. They’ll find out on their own. We have a night and a morning to relax before the final (flight) leg of our journey. After that, it’ll be the back of a truck or a buda buda. (see previous blog post)

My Formula for Being Overwhelmed.

We’ll be here soon.

This weekend I shot a wedding on friday, another today, and tomorrow I leave for South Sudan. I’m currently backing up all memory cards to two locations so I can use the cards again on my trip, and re-charging batteries. I board the first plane in about 15 hours. I just stopped home where my wife was crying. This is my official formula for being overwhelmed.  But you know what?  God’s grace is sufficient. I know I’m being obedient to His will, and my wife does too. It doesn’t make it easier to leave, but it does give me certainty in my purpose. Tomorrow the adventure begins.

To finish on a lighter note, I’m going to quote from the movie Mystery Men.  “We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she ordered the lobster!”

The beautiful people of South Sudan

Where Time Touches Eternity

It’s wednesday, and there are only four days until I leave for South Sudan again. I’ve moved out of my malaise, and am now excited about the trip. I have part of my things packed, and will take care of the rest tomorrow.

man in Sudan
Don’t let fear of the future ruin both the present and your impact on eternity.

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis this week, specifically The Screwtape Letters. There is such a tremendous amount of poignant observation of the human condition written in such a small text, and some of it is applicable to the common condition that links those in the west with those in South Sudan. That condition is how we see and respond to the past, present, and future.

I’m going to quote some of C.S. Lewis’s work, paraphrasing where needed so as to not have to explain the entire work to those who have not read it.

“The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which God has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present- either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks in the present pleasure.”

“The human nature, however, makes all our passions point toward the Future, and inflames hope and fear. Also, thoughts of the future turn our minds to unrealities. In a word, the Future is, or all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time- for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence nearly all the schemes and vices of men are rooted in the Future, on the very core of temporality.”

So what does all this mean for us, and what am I talking about anyway?  So I think about the future. So what?

I used to be in the financial services business, and one thing that I was taught that helped me understand why people do what they do is this: “People are primarily driven by fear and greed.”  Now there may be different recipes for this two ingredient pie depending on your taste, but the effect is the same. People tend to make poor decisions based on those two things, either by the wanton lust to satisfy their temporal desires, or by the fear of what might happen tomorrow (or twenty years from now), if I don’t gather everything within arms reach, whether I’m entitled to it or not.

In America we work at a job we don’t want to do for an employer we don’t like for financial security and comfort in retirement, when our bodies are mostly used up, (ironically on the afore mentioned job). It’s what makes the CEO think he’s worth 380 times the salary of his average employee. Get what I can now, because tomorrow will certainly have more trouble.

If on the other hand, we lived more simply, had less financial fear, and did what we actually enjoyed, our lives would be much richer, and we’d be far happier. The old adage is “Work at what you really enjoy, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” We insist we don’t have the time or resources to do either the things we ought to do, or the things even that we want to do. We go to meetings for the sake of going to meetings, or to impress someone who in the lens of eternity we have no obligation or business trying to impress. We live our lives in desperation and fear, not because the present is bad, but because the future might be if we don’t continue the relentless schedule we’ve placed ourselves on.

In South Sudan it’s the same thing, only the flavor is different. They gather what they don’t need and steal their neighbor’s cattle not because they don’t have food today, but because they might not have it in the morning if they don’t steal those cattle.

Out of riches and abject poverty, the result is the same, and the human heart is the same. The ancient text of Proverbs 30 tells us that this is nothing new, and centers our attitude back to where it should be.

Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

This is counter to human nature, and it is only by the Spirit of God that this conclusion moves past the academic and into the core of our own spirit.

Juba, South Sudan is like an old-west town, full of people striving for the future.

The weight of leaving.

It’s a week until I leave again for South Sudan. Tonight my thoughts are a bit rambling. I had some of my family over this evening, because this is the last chance I will have to see a lot of them until I get back. A sort of melancholy  often follows me now, knowing the weight of what is before me, and knowing that I’ll be leaving my wife and kids for two weeks with very little contact. 

Children paddle a dugout canoe in the village of Panwel, South Sudan.

Though it hurts, this is a good thing for me and probably a good thing for them as well. Sometimes I don’t realize what I have until I step back for a while. Only then can I reassess and re-sort everything that’s important to me. All the nuances of faith, family, work, business in general, hobbies; these are all brought into perfect clarity, and in the end the dross is skimmed from the top, and the things that are left; the things that I still find myself praying and thinking about when I’m in South Sudan, these are the things that are the fine gold that are worth having.  That client that’s been irritating me, or that issue at home; these things fall by the wayside as the permanence of the relationships I build with my wife and kids and the work to make the world a little less evil rise to the top. It’s funny, but when I’m in South Sudan, I’m always eager to get home, but when I’m home, I can’t wait to get back to South Sudan. This week it will become even more real as I pack.

I’ll stop here, lest I find myself rambling further. Needless to say, though, I will miss my family, though I know that the example I give my kids is worth it. 

Shooting Video in the Field

Today was my first saturday off in about two and a half months. I spent part of it getting a typhoid shot I didn’t know I needed. Oh well.  Eight days and I leave for South Sudan.  My posts will probably get shorter after I leave and deal mainly with what’s currently going on in as real time as is possible. I’ll also be uploading pictures when internet allows.

My passion is still photography, but I also shoot video. Especially with the kind of missions work I’m doing, it’s really necessary to have moving pictures as well as stills, because while some stories can be told with a single image, others can’t.  I’ve done videos on previous trips, and I’ll post a link to the previous finished video after this paragraph. However, video is an entirely different skill set than still photography, and although some things transfer over, such as composition and lighting, adding the element of time changes things.

Another issue to deal with is sound, which obviously I don’t need to deal with in still photography. I’ll probably talk about that another day. The thing I want to deal with today though is taking a stable image.  With still photography, you just need to have a fast enough shutter speed. This doesn’t work in video for obvious reasons. You can’t simply hold the camera steady enough, especially if you’re walking. In parts of the above video this is quite obvious, but I did the best with what I had. This time I want to be able to take some epic video.

The limitation is in the equipment I can carry. With my weight limit at 35 pounds for clothing, shelter, backpack, some food, and all my camera equipment. That doesn’t leave much for extras. So with that, I built a steady-cam out of equipment I was already bringing. But let me back up. The reason it’s nearly impossible to shoot steady video is because there is nothing stable to hold the camera in place. Furthermore, the lighter the camera, the more shake, because it has less inertia. The options to take care of this are to mount the camera to something rigid, such as a tripod, or to use something that will counteract the jarring motion of the camera if you’re holding it. This is what a steady-cam does. By using counterweights, it keeps the camera from making sudden, jarring motions.

So what do you do if you have a severe weight limit on your equipment?  You use your camera, a monopod, and two empty water bottles, (which can be filled in the field.)  I personally use a giottos monopod with latching locks rather than twist locks. It’s bulletproof even if it gets dirty, and it rises to a height taller than myself.  I also have a giottos ball head which has fluid action, so if I want to actually use the monopod as a monopod, I can take smooth, panning video. For my counterweights, I use two camelback water bottles. The reason I use these is because they have a loop in the hard plastic lid that fits on the bottom of the monopod if I first remove the rubber foot from the monopod and then put it back on after the water bottles are attached. Following are a few pictures of the setup. I apologize for the picture of the whole rig. I didn’t take it. It’s quite out of focus, and just as a side, I have pictures of me from all over the world where I’m out of focus for the same reason. The monopod, ball head, and water bottles cost somewhere around $200.

The whole setup.
A closeup of how the water bottles are attached.

The other thing about the loops on the camelback water bottles is that they hold the weight out to the side a bit, which is more effective for counteracting twisting motion. By having the weights on the bottom of a monopod, you are able to balance the weight of your camera by extending or compressing the length of the monopod rather than adding or reducing weight.  I tried this out over the last couple of days, and it is very effective at taking shake out of your videos. Also, if I need to quickly use the monopod, I can just slide the water bottles up, and plant the base of the monopod on the ground. If I want to go back to using it as a steady-cam, all I have to do is lift it up and the bottles slide back down. I will probably post a couple video clips in a subsequent blog.

The ball head I’m using. It’s built extremely well, and has fluid action for panning.

Staying out of trouble.

There are lots of ways to get yourself into trouble in Africa, and particularly in South Sudan, especially if you’re carrying a camera. God has watched over me in all situations, so I am blessed to be able to tell you a lot of these things from personal experience without anything bad having happened. Just as a side, all photos can be clicked for a larger view.


First of all, as in any undeveloped country, don’t drink the water. You would think this goes without saying, but some people still do, though it may not be intentional. If you’re taking a shower, don’t let water run into your mouth. This is the first way people drink untreated water unintentionally. The second is if there is ice available, it’s usually made with untreated water and can make you as sick as water straight out of the river.

Secondly, don’t eat any raw fruit or vegetables that have not been peeled. You really have no idea what’s been on it, and it’s a quick way to pick up a parasite.

When you’re taking pictures, be aware of what’s going on around you, as well as what you’re taking pictures of. Don’t ever take pictures of the military or police unless you have their permission, and even then maybe not. Furthermore, and what you might not think of, is don’t take pictures of infrastructure, especially in a country that’s at war. They may think you’re a spy and you’ll find yourself either arrested or shot.  Also, be aware of the political situation going on. Elections can be more dangerous times to be in an unstable country.

Election posters in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013.

If you can spend some time in a village and get to know people, it’s much easier to take pictures and get the kind of results you are looking for. If you’re just passing through and are taking pictures, there’s a general lack of trust and you might find yourself in a precarious situation, even if you technically have the rights to take photos. If you find yourself in this situation, a smile and being friendly will get you out of the situation most times rather than being combative. Offer to delete the picture if it comes down to it. If however, the people aren’t truly upset about having their picture taken but are trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain, well, that’s another story and I’m not going to give advice on that.

Infrared photo taken from the top of a water tower in Juba, South Sudan

Blending into the surroundings is easier than you might think.  I’ve climbed a water tower before with a long lens. People see you go up, but after a while, they forget about you. People generally don’t look up when they’re going about their daily business, and it’s a way to get truly candid shots.

Now we get more into the nitty gritty. Always, and I mean always, be aware of your surroundings. Trouble doesn’t usually just show up out of nowhere. There’s usually some kind of warning beforehand, and it’s always easier to get out of a tricky situation if you avoided it altogether than to extricate yourself later.

spent 50 caliber bullets littered the road in this spot.

Don’t follow regular patterns. If you do, and someone intends you harm, you’ve made yourself a target of opportunity because they know where you’ll be at what time.

Don’t pick up anything if you don’t know what it is. South Sudan is full of mines and unexploded ordinance.  Even if an area has been declared free of mines, stick to where there is obvious traffic.  Also, if you see a line of rocks with paint on them, the white side of the rock means the area has been checked for mines and cleared, the red side of the rock has not. Stay on the white side.

An unexploded mortar in a minefield.

Finally, don’t travel at night. And if you must travel, make sure you can stay within sight of other vehicles if at all possible. Again, most situations can be avoided if you don’t make yourself a target of opportunity.  I hope this was helpful.


The people of Africa

You can travel the world, and there are some truly incredible landscapes to see, but ultimately what makes a place worth seeing is the people. Take a landscape shot and it might be a great shot, but add a person to it and the human element makes it even better. Africa has some truly outstanding people watching. They’re still engaged, still human. They’re not all staring at their phones. The joys and the heartaches of life are worn into every crease of their faces, and every one tells a story. I’m keeping this short today, to let the pictures tell the story for themselves. So here are some of my favorite people pictures from Kenya and South Sudan. These are the ones you’re not going to get on the tour. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger view. Please enjoy.

A pastor weeps and prays in Torit, South Sudan
The eyes of a Maasai child.


Curiosity as the Kawaja (white man) arrives.


elderly woman, southern Sudan
The face of decades of conflict worn into the face of an old woman in South Sudan.


A Maasai woman holds her 12 hour old baby.


The peaceful face of a Dinka woman in Bor, South Sudan.


An old Dinka woman in the village of Liliir, South Sudan.
An old Dinka woman in the village of Liliir, South Sudan.
Women carry reeds for roofing material in Torit, South Sudan.