Kisoro :: Murole Portraits On Black
Posted on May 26, 2011
When people ask me more specific questions about my trip to Uganda like, “What was your most challenging experience?” or “What was the highlight of your trip?” I end up talking about these women I encountered in Kisoro, a very mountainous region of Uganda which borders the Congo and Rwanda. It’s kind of weird that my most difficult experience of the trip was also my most rewarding and encouraging. You’ll soon find out why this kind of dichotomy exists though.
Kisoro is a day’s trip from Mukono, where Raising The Village’s office is and where we had set up “home base.” We packed the night before until 1am-2am, then got up again at 3am in order to hit the road by 4. Though Jen and I experienced relative luxury to Richard and Shawn who, in the past had to take public transportation to Kisoro in a time when the roads were not yet paved… ah!, it was still quite an uncomfortable journey. There were definitely still parts of the road where the SUV would be going 5kmh because the pot holes / huge craters in the road were so extreme. Off-roading in an SUV is nothing like how I imagined it would be (which is mainly based on those luxury SUV commercials on TV). You get thrown all over the car, shoulders bang into the sides, and your neck gets a wonderful workout. Sleep in the car? Barely. Don’t forget the crazy amount of dirt/sand that get kicked up into the air as you drive behind a truck, whose fumes are already stenching up the car.
We set up home base in the town of Kisoro however all of our work was up in the mountains, in super rural and yes, hard to reach places (it wouldn’t be a Raising The Village project otherwise!). Getting to these villages required more off-roading with the SUV up the mountain, sometimes 2 hours until there was just no more “road” to drive up. Then it’d require us to hike the rest of the way with all of our gear and equipment. In one instance, Shawn was informed that the steps we were hiking up as we approached one village were actually built that morning! Apparently the locals didn’t think we’d be able to make it up without some help. To be fair, we’d probably have a tremendously difficult time getting up there without those steps.
I will write on some more specific experiences and images I shot while spending a week in Kisoro however this post is specifically on my Portraits On Black and why they’re my most cherished and “prized” images from the whole trip.
From a technical / logistical standpoint, these were a pain in the ass to photograph. Traveling to these hard to reach places with a friggen 6′ pole bag, a 20lbs battery and my camera equipment made things a lot more difficult. Before leaving for Uganda, I almost didn’t bother with all this gear because it was just so cumbersome but something in me told me that I should make the extra effort. Setting the backdrop and light up was always an extra task too– finding the right spot, the right time, always keeping a mindful watch on the monstrous rain clouds headed straight towards us… Shooting this series really challenged me a photographer as well. Not being able to communicate a single word in English to them was frustrating so there was a lot of
hand body gestures, me actually showing them what I wanted them to do etc. But what I found was the coolest thing about not being able to direct/interact with the women too much is that they were truly just being themselves in front of a camera. They had no preconceptions of needing to smile or act a certain way. Some of the women didn’t even really understand to look at the camera however I found that so organic and accurate to their personalities. At the heart of an honest portrait, that’s what it’s all about.
One of the most challenging and difficult things to face during my trip to Uganda was having to confront poverty itself. It was learning how people live in extreme poverty are stuck there and how there are so many cyclical factors that keep them imprisoned. It’s one thing to know about it and to see it on TV etc. but another to be where people live and stand where they stand.
The same social/cultural problem that plagues Ssanga also plagues Kisoro. With hunting and lumbering now made illegal by the government as an effort to preserve the rainforest, men have lost a purpose in their community and in their families. As such, many men sit around all day doing nothing (most likely while drunk) and a whole workforce in the community becomes idle. Women and children must pick up the slack in farming, herding the animals, water fetching, cooking, cleaning, watching after the kids (or children taking care of their siblings), etc. You could always take a quick scan around and children caring for their baby sibling or see women working the fields with a baby strapped to them. I always say that the weight of the communities are figuratively and literally on these womens’ backs.
During a visit to the Murole village, Shawn and Richard were busy having a community meeting and it was at this time that they discovered that 98% of the village was illiterate. That’s just insane! And you could tell through the voting/polling process where Shawn and Richard would ask the community about their priorities and needs that there was a lot of confusion over the simple task of voting. Women would raise both hands or more than once as their critical thinking skills were lacking. At one point, Shawn was disheartened and thought that this place was hopeless. The need was just too great, they were too remote and there was no where near enough educated/literate adults to lead the rest of the community. While talking about the logistics of how they would go about building a school, specifically of how we’d be able to get bricks to them, the chair woman of the village stood up and said (in her native dialect), “We’ll carry them on our heads– one by one up the mountain.” The other women around her nodded and “mmmm’ed” in agreement. THAT is the highlight of my trip. Experiencing the eagerness, willingness and strength of these women. They don’t drown themselves in self-pity or complain. They work hard. And when there’s a difficult challenge in front of them, they work even harder.
Talk about humbling.
Well that’s what these images are about. They are photographs of these incredible Murole village women, all illiterate except for one. They live on less than 25 cents to none each and every day. I’m completely humbled to have met and photographed them. More so, I am so floored that one of the images has been selected as one of only ten chosen by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart for an exhibition in New York as part of the Global Poverty Project (GPP). The CEO of the GPP is going to be there along with Oliva Wilde … fancy :) More on the win here.
Beyond the fanciness and recognition of my work, I’m just so happy that there’s this opportunity to share their photos and share their stories with people who’d never would have seen/heard them otherwise.
Thanks for reading this long post. I think I will end it off with one of the most impactful quotes I’ve read which pretty much defined what I do and why I do it:
“At our best and most fortunate, we make pictures because of what stands in front of our camera, to honour what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly though what we are given is something perfect — a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us and becomes a part of the biography in which we want to be known. ”
- Robert Adams
Oh wait, I’m going to end the post with a photo of the chair woman of Murole (one of the two literate people) helping me carry the stupid pole bag down the mountain (about a 1.5hr hike), you know… on her head, with an umbrella in her hand and a baby strapped onto her back, in her no-lace Vans shoes…during the horrific torrential down pour.