My most recent trip to Africa was to Ethiopia, and specifically to the highlands west of Addis Ababa. As I talked about in a previous blog, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was told that the people of Ethiopia were very stoic and hard to photograph. In practice though, I was pleased to find that this was not the case. The only time this seemed to happen was when the subject was not only aware you were photographing them and only them, but also that there was not a situation of trust between you both. I found that the ways to alleviate this were twofold. The first was to be in a situation of trust, which for me was easy due to all that was going on between Petros and the people of Gojo. Over nine hundred people were seen by the medical and dental staff, in addition to all the widow and orphan projects happening. The second aspect was to just be discreet and not simply walk up and take someone’s picture. I spent a lot of time just sitting and waiting for people to lose awareness of me, or using the distractions of other things going on to allow people to become less aware of me. After a week spent with them, I felt I was able to share in their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and tragedies. Though there were fortunately more joys than sorrows, for the purpose of capturing the soul of the people, it was in many cases the latter where their souls were bared more fully. So here are some of those windows into the souls of the people of Ethiopia. None of these expressions were coerced. They were all caught in the moment.
I’ve debated in my own mind how to write this, because I don’t want to sound like I’m judging people’s intentions. But there comes a time when there comes a chasm between truth and untruth, and between real life and life that becomes in practice an unintended satire. We have reached that point.
I’m speaking today about virtual activism, which has become extremely popular with the advent of social media. It used to be that when people were passionate about something, they went out and did something about it. If you wanted to save the dolphins, you might do anything from boycotting fish products that also killed dolphins in their nets, all the way to getting on a zodiac in the middle of the ocean and interfering with fishing vessels. (This is just an example. I’m not a Greenpeace activist.) Those days for many people are largely gone. Now, when someone wants to be an activist, they share an often misguided Facebook post full of half-truths or flat out lies, or they might tweet a hashtag. These are all attempts to sway public opinion, which is fine. But that’s where it ends. The event that bothered me more than most others was when over two hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group in Nigeria. They oppose Christians and western education. They raid villages, kill anyone who will not convert to Islam, and kidnap the women and children to put them up for sale as slaves. A hashtag was created called #bringourgirlsback. For people who feel powerless to do anything about a situation 5000 miles away, it’s something. But when Michelle Obama got involved, with her sad picture holding up the sign with the hashtag, it truly was nothing. If only she, I don’t know, slept next to someone every night with the power and resources to do something about it…… It’s now been over six months, and none of the girls have been returned. The United States sent “advisors” to help. There’s quite a bit of arrogance to sending advisors to a nation that deals with this kind of event literally almost every day. Exactly what were we going to advise?
Which brings me to my point. As we have become more insular and self-centered as a nation, we’ve latched onto the notion that opinion is everything. We’ve begun to believe that if enough of us give the stink-eye to Boko Haram, they’ll just return the girls. I’m going to lay the hard truth out. Boko Haram doesn’t give a load of dingoes kidneys what your opinion of them is. In fact, as Islamist terrorists, every time someone repeats the mantra “Islam is a peaceful religion”, they’re going to do their best to prove you wrong, because they are not going to have their identity dictated by a bunch of infidels, (which is their opinion of YOU). This goes for Boko Haram, and Isis, and Al Kaida, and Al Shabab, and Hamas, and Abu Sayyaf, etc, etc, etc.
Opinion only matters if it brings people to action, and this is where the breakdown is. People who, before the advent of social media, might have gone out and done some small part to make things better, now feel that simply by sharing the post, or the hashtag, or wearing the t-shirt, they have done some good. People’s idea of making the world a better place now involves sitting in a circle staring at their navels and agreeing with each other that something should be done about this. Their social conscience is sated even as nothing is done. It’s time to log off of Facebook. It’s time to get off of Twitter. It’s time to really find out about the issues of the world out there, because it’s a very big place, and MSNBC and Fox News are not going to tell you ANYTHING about what it’s really like. There is so much social injustice out there that your choices are almost unlimited, and there’s something that almost anybody can do about it, in either a big or a small way. Just remember, opinion is nothing if it doesn’t lead to action.
On my first four trips to Africa, I carried what in my mind would be the most pragmatic list of photography equipment I could think of. I had a Canon 5D Mk 2 camera body, an external flash, and three lenses, ranging in focal length from 24 to 270 millimeters, (including my extender). I had a 24-70 2.8 Canon L-series lens, a 70-200 f-4 Canon L series lens, and a cheap 50mm f 1.8 lens in case I had a low light situation. I was taking good equipment, so on paper it all made sense that using good glass and covering a wide variety of focal lengths, I should be able to get great pictures.
Practice was different though. As I would look through my pictures afterward, I found that I tended to like a lot of what I got with the 70-200, and hardly anything with the 24-70 lens. I also found that I hardly ever used the 50mm, and out of thousands of pictures I took, I only used the flash perhaps 20 times.
This year I changed things up. Since I rarely liked what I got with the 24-70, and it was my heaviest lens, I gave up the flexibility of a zoom, and left it home. I still carried my 70-200, but for my other lens choices, I changed over to fast prime lenses. For those who don’t know what a fast prime lens is, it’s a non-zoom lens with a very wide maximum aperture. In other words, it lets in a lot of light. The other effect of this is that if shot wide open, these lenses have a very shallow depth of field, so only a sliver of the picture is in focus. This is what I was looking for. We see in stereo, and since each of our eyes sees from a slightly different angle, we’re able to separate the subject from the background. In photography we don’t have that option. We see from only one angle, (through the lens) so we separate our subject from the background through the use of selective focus. Using fast prime lenses gave me more latitude with which to do this than with zoom lenses. I’m a snob about sharp pictures, and prime lenses also tend to be much sharper than zooms.
The two prime lenses I chose were Canon’s 135 mm f2 lens for longer, portrait shots, and Sigma’s new 35 mm f1.4 lens, for wider environmental shots. Both lenses are incredible, but the latter has been particularly so. There’s a slight amount of distortion between close and far due to the wideness of it, but it also allows me to blur out the background, a rarity in lenses this wide. The effect is almost three dimensional, as if the subject has been cut out and placed on the background. I found that even though I brought my 70-200 along with me, and this had more flexibility in a given situation, I spent most of the time using the two primes, even though it was harder to compose the shot. The result was that I got a lot of shots from my most recent trip to Ethiopia that I am extremely happy with. The only time I missed the 24-70 was when I was trying to get a large group shot, and my 35 mm just wasn’t wide enough. Other than that, I never once missed it. Following, I have several examples of the use of the 135mm and the 35mm lenses. Notice the difference in the character of the two lenses. All can be clicked on for a larger view.
Part of what I enjoyed so much about Ethiopia was that it was safe enough to leave the house where I was staying, and just get out to explore or go for a run. After getting my bearings I never really felt like security was an issue. This allowed me to get out into the village and the countryside on occasion when I wasn’t otherwise engaged.
One late evening, I saw that the light was going to be beautiful, so I headed out into the countryside with the other photographer. We hadn’t yet attracted the entourage of children that normally and inevitably gathered around us, ruining any chances to be inconspicuous. As we reached the crest of a hill, there was a beautiful old woman forming a basket from rolled grass, so we stopped to look at what she was doing, and of course, take her picture.
As in many cases, after I take someone’s picture, I will show it to them on the back of my camera, but this time I got a reaction I’ve never had before. As she looked at her face on the screen, she began to touch her face. It was clear that she didn’t know what she looked like, and it had been a very long time, if ever, that she had seen her face. I am certain she was unaware of how old she really was. She was beautiful to me, but I’m not certain what her thoughts were about that. I seriously hoped I hadn’t ruined her day.
I’ve been thinking about this encounter for the last week and a half since I met her. The story in itself was enough to tell about, but it made me think of the book of James, where it says, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.”
Until that day, I’d never met anyone who didn’t know what they look like. I hear people say all the time, just follow your heart, do what feels right. I think that’s terrible advice. Following your heart and doing what feels right is probably what gets people into trouble more than anything else. The book of Proverbs says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” The path to God has to come from God Himself and from his word, both of which are outside of ourselves. The analogy of the mirror took on a deeper meaning to me when I met this woman. She may have had an idea (possibly wrong) of what she looked like, and it was only when she saw what she looked like from an external source that the truth became apparent to her. It is the same with us spiritually. We have an idea of who we think we are, and we’re exceptionally good at lying to ourselves about how great we are. It’s only after we see the reflection of ourselves in the word of God that it becomes apparent what we actually look like. It’s seeing ourselves from the outside that gives us honesty in our appearance. The standard always remains the same, not like our own view of ourselves which is based on comparison to others, and somehow manages to change based on our subjective idea of how good or bad we are. The fact is, we are all bad, but we’re also forgiven. As I wrote in a previous blog, the difference will be when we find where the chains of doom are kept. Will it be an unfamiliar place, or will we be so comfortable that we find that we had taken off our shoes to stay a while?
When we look in that mirror, let us look intently, and not forget what we’ve seen. Look at it often. If we walk away for a long time, we may find in coming back many years later, that the face we now see is vastly older and more haggard from the one we saw last time.
I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for five days, and I’ve had a chance to go through a good number of the 4600 pictures I took while I was there. This was my second trip to Africa in two and a half months. Each time I get back from Africa, I have a number of photos that I like initially. Whether they stay favorites is still yet to be seen. Like music, I find that I grow tired of some pictures quickly, while others I had not initially liked grow on me as their complexities and nuances mature until they become some of my favorites. The thing about traveling so much is that each time, it’s harder to get that “wow” factor, at least in my own mind. Though a photo may be new and exciting to someone else, I find it harder to impress myself. I think I could categorize this under the law of diminishing returns, though not in the economic sense, of course. Ethiopia was excellent though for a number of reasons. It was a new country for me, and I had excellent access to real people in their everyday lives, with their struggles and joys. It’s truly an experience to be fully immersed in the culture and experience life WITH them, rather than just making observations OF them. I’m also going to make a quick plug for the Petros Network, whom I was with. If you’d like to help with the work they’re doing, their website is http://www.petrosnetwork.org. So with that, here are some of my initial favorites. I will have more later, since I currently have too many favorites. (It’s a good problem to have.) All pictures can be clicked on for a bit larger look. Enjoy.
I’ve put off writing this article for some time now. I thought about writing it last week in Ethiopia, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now I think it’s time.
When I was 13 years old, my father died after a six month illness. Thirteen years after that, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She fought that battle for six years, during which time I saw her deteriorate until she died as well. I found myself a young man with both parents dead. So though Loss and I are not on good terms, we have shared a table together on occasion. The problem with watching both your parents die at a young age is that it can take a mental and spiritual tole on you. During the time my mother was sick, and after she died, I began to wake up at night with this awful dread that I was going to die too. It was a fear I couldn’t shake.
Fast forward to last week. The most heart-breaking thing for me in Ethiopia was one boy who was about twelve years old. He came into the clinic because of some medical issues. He had a goiter, and his thyroid problem had caused another autoimmune issue that was attacking the pigment in his skin, leaving him with white patches. This boy had also lost his father about a month before. The boy came in because he didn’t know what kind of illness he had, but he was sure it was serious. I watched as this boy quietly wept in the chair. He was certain he was going to die like his father did. The doctors told him through the translator that he had nothing wrong that was going to kill him, but it took a while for it to sink in. This boy utterly broke my heart, because I knew exactly what he was going though. How terrible to be twelve years old and thinking you’re going to die. Though there were bigger tragedies of the week, this one hit me the hardest.
Eight years ago, I was still praying that God would release me from this fear. Finally He did. At a seemingly random time as I was driving, in an almost audible voice, God told me that I am on this earth by His grace and for his purpose, and I’ll be here as long as He wants me to be. At that point I was delivered from all that fear of death I had been dealing with, and it hasn’t come back.
It was this revelation that has allowed me to be involved with the missions I’m involved with. If I was still dealing with fear of death, I never would have been able to go to South Sudan. If I never went to South Sudan, I never would have gotten involved with missions in Kenya or Ethiopia. But God’s grace is sufficient. I still deal with fear of other things, but I won’t give them validity by naming them. When the day comes that I find myself willing to give them up to God, those will leave as well.
Matthew 10:39 says, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” This isn’t some trite irony that just sounds good because of its dualism. There is a profound truth in this. The day I gave up control of this situation to God was the day I found my life. After all, you can’t be afraid to lose something you’ve already given up. I hesitated to write this blog because of how I might come across, but I think it’s important that people read this, because I know there are a lot of people going through the same thing that I did. There is life, and there is hope. You just have to give up your fears to God, because He is the one in control.
I am sitting in the hotel lobby in Addis Ababa, waiting for the van to the airport. The mission for now is over, but the pondering and the editing has only begun. I wasn’t entirely sure what it would be like working with the Petros Network, but I was eager to find out. Well, I couldn’t help but feel that I was the least talented person there. This is not a bad thing, and rather than make me feel inadequate, it makes me feel a great appreciation for people who pour their passion and talents fully to the task at hand. If there were any weak links, I was oblivious to them. This passion shows. There is tremendous revival going on in Ethiopia. By loving people and pouring their lives into others, over 800 churches have been planted in Ethiopia in the past ten years through this group alone, with more in Uganda and South Sudan. So I will be back again to do my part in any way I can be used, God willing. I am truly honored to have been part of this team.
After a week of no internet, I am back in Addis Ababa. I’ve been in a remote area of Ethiopia, west of the capital for about the past week. I’m sunburned with a cough and chapped lips from being near the equator at 10,000 feet, my feet hurt and my legs are sore from being on them so much. I cried almost every night over the things I saw, But this has undoubtedly been the best trip I’ve ever taken. I have seen God move in such profound ways in Ethiopia, and I have received far more than I’ve given. I’ve seen people healed, some by the doctors, and some solely through prayer. I saw a girl who had been blind for two years see again. 930 people were treated either through the medical or dental team. 270 pastors were trained, 74 of them were new. They were also trained in clean water practices. Widows and orphans were cared for, and a woman and her family on the edge of death from starvation were saved. This is what the church is about. I have a tremendous amount to ponder before I write more about this trip, but I will be shortly after thought and rest. For now, here are a few pictures.