“Wait, wait!” I called. I huffed over to where two men were pointing my bright red camera at a tree. “Remember what we’ve been talking about? What would make this photo more interesting.”
“People,” said Mr. Kakungu.
We looked up at the paw paw tree for a moment. It was our team’s second day at Al-Hidra Primary School in the small, sea side town of Pangani where we were holding a four-day teacher workshop. We were working on creating an alphabet about the environment in Pangani, one photograph for each letter. Our current task was to make a picture for “P—Paw Paw Tree”.
The first instinct of the two teachers I was working with was to simply make pictures of the objects and plants they had identified as part of their environment: trees, umbrellas, vehicles, nglawa (a type of fishing boat), to name a few. This is a common impulse and snapping a photo whenever you see something that catches your eye is an interesting and valuable way to document the world around you, but it is not a principle of LTP. Instead, the goal is to look carefully at the world around you, think deeply and communicate your ideas through pictures. If you take the first photo that comes to mind in the easiest way possible, you miss out on the opportunity to look at your world in a new way or consciously tell a story.
“How could we include a person in this photo of a tree?” I asked Mr. Kakungu.
“We could have someone climbing the tree!” He answered enthusiastically.
“Well, we could, but that might be difficult. Maybe instead . . . “ But before I could finish, Mr. Kakungu had already called two young boys over. “Climb that tree!” He told them.
They obeyed immediately. Figuring they were students of his or the children of friends, I watched as the littlest boy inched his way up the trunk of the paw paw tree. The teachers took several photos and perused them on the camera, oblivious to the boy quietly climbing higher and higher. “You can come down now!” I finally shouted. I nervously positioned myself under the boy, ready to catch him if he fell, but the teachers were already on their way to take their next photo. I suddenly felt silly. I had grown up not being allowed past my front lawn by myself. These boys had a different kind of freedom and responsibility—they didn’t need a spotter. I asked Mr. Kakungu who the boys were.
Walking around Pangani with the teachers that day—weaving between homes and pastures, peering through hedges, interrupting soccer games—I got a glimpse of a community at work and play. And everywhere we went, the teachers seemed to feel totally comfortable asking for participants in their photos. Some refused, but let us use their property in our photo. Others responded enthusiastically—hopping on their bikes so we could take a picture of “R—Riding” or bringing their furniture outside and having their children photographed sitting on it for “S—Stool”.
The instruction to try to include people in their photos resulted in a much more interactive process in the Pangani community. That day, it became clear to me that the act of taking a photo is a living and charged process. It has the power to bring people together or alienate them, the power to welcome or oppress. A camera is not simply a tool to document; it creates moments where we glimpse the character of a community. I imagine the same situation in my hometown, where strangers were always people to be feared and the end of the street was an unknown world for a five-year-old. If a group of people, one of them a foreigner, had asked me to climb a tree so they could take a photo of me, I’m pretty sure my mom would have called the police. Are we people who slam doors or open them, trust or mistrust, give or take? We can see these things both in ourselves and in communities that are strange to us when we take out our cameras.