June 30, 2011

Mzungu in the Mist Part I

Ducking my head under yet another low hanging vine, I watched my leg slowly sink into mud up to my knee. I kept telling my self: one more step- it will be worth it.  Just keep walking began to play on a loop in my brain set to the tune of Ellen Degeneres’ “just keep swimming” song that Dory sings in Finding Nemo. Mud up to my knees- just keep walking. Another stinging nettle on my butt- just keep walking. Sliding down the crater with a sheer vertical drop below- just keep walking. Why was this usually sane city girl on this crazy trek you may ask? One word: Gorillas. Gorilla trekking in the Virunga Volcanic Mountains in Rwanda is not for the faint of heart (or weak of muscle) but it is the most amazing wildlife encounter I have ever experienced and this is coming from a girl who’s bottle fed lion cubs, palled around with panda bears, walked hand in trunk with African elephants and cage dived with great-white sharks. Gorilla trekking might be strenuous and exhausting, but the moment I saw those majestic apes standing a mere few feet away from me is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life.


Over the course of our 2-week safari we did 4 gorilla treks- two in Rwanda and two in Uganda. Four treks is pretty unusual for most tourists visiting Rwanda and Uganda because the trekking permits are very expensive, costing $500 a person for each trek.  It may sound pricey, but the money goes to helping conserve these amazing apes. There is a big misconception by the western world that in Africa wild animals are just walking around mingling with locals. This could not be farther from the truth and in most countries mega fauna like gorillas are only found in national parks because that is the only area they are safe in. If a gorilla group wanders out of a national park the park rangers will closely monitor the group and make sure it returns to park unharmed. The gorillas are still under constant threat by poachers and could not survive outside the walls of the park. They also need the wild forest habitats only found in the national parks. Every inch of land in Rwanda and Uganda is cultivated or has someone living on it except for the parks and you can see really clearly in the picture below the boundary line of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda.   The cultivated land on the left side of the picture used to be dense forest like on the right side before humans cut it down.


The money from the permit goes to protecting the park, fighting to keep the boundaries, paying rangers and trackers, medical care for gorillas, education for locals about great apes, and to local communities like the displaced Batwa who were removed from the National Parks to protect the gorillas. The high price for foriegners also helps keep down the price for locals which is less than a 10th of the foreigner cost so they can have a chance to see the gorillas too. This conservation system is slowly working and the Virunga population has seen a 14% increase in the last 12 years according to WWF, but Gorillas are over all still very threatened and are still considered endangered by IUCN.


Each trekking group consists of 8 people plus a ranger, one or two trackers and porters as needed. The porters are all local people some of which used to be poachers and have been retrained to be porters. Most of the time in Africa poachers aren’t making that much money.  It is the black market seller that makes a fortune. With a little education and retraining the former poachers are taught the value of keeping gorillas alive and they learn to make enough money to support their families through helping to protect the gorillas by being porters for tourists and scientists going to visit the gorillas. The treks are often long and arduous and can reach over 8 hours in Bwindi so $10 (in Rwanda) and $15 (in Uganda where the treks are usually harder and longer) is money well spent.  The porters will not only help you carry your gear (which if you are bringing cameras can be a lot), they also give a helping hand to make sure you don’t fall off the mountain or sink into the mud, which is really priceless.  I probably would have died or greatly injured myself over a dozen times if my porter wasn’t holding my hand.  If the porters help you out a lot or are carrying particularly heavy packs (like 30 pounds of camera gear) it is customary to give them an extra tip in addition to their fee.  Our lodge packed us lunch everyday that we never ended up eating so we also gave our porters the packed lunches, which they were really appreciative of.  On our last trek in Uganda my dad and I were the only ones who got porters and by the end of the trek the two of them were carrying everyone’s packs and helping everyone down the hill, which really isn’t fair for the porters so I recommend that you hire a porter if you are carrying a pack because it’s not fair for one porter to be helping 4 people and they are too nice to say no!


It is important to support the locals who are finding jobs that profit off of conservation instead of poaching.  As I’ve said before conservation only works if the locals want it, understand it, and work for it. A severed gorilla hand or decapitated head (sold illegally to be used as ashtrays or mounted on walls by very sick people in my opinion) can sell for as little as $20 by a poacher to an international seller. $20 was the market price for Diane Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit in a local Rwandan market. The black market dealer turns around and sells the hand or head for thousands of dollars to rich people in the western world. I didn’t love the 1980’s Sigourney Weaver movie about Diane Fossey’s life, Gorillas in the Mist as much as Diane Fossey’s book of the same name, but there was one scene I loved. In the movie Bob Campbell, a National Geographic Photographer, is trying to convince Diane Fossey of the importance of photographing wildlife and why it is so important to share the photos with the world. He tells Fossey to not blame the Batwa for poaching the gorillas. He says blame the doctor in Miami who hires the man who hires the Batwa. The Batwa feed their family, the man gets a silk shirt and the doctor gets a head for his wall or a hand for an ashtray. Fossey angrily says that she can’t reach the doctor in Miami. Campbell replies back, ever been to a doctor’s office without a National Geographic in the waiting room? Poaching is purely supply and demand so with no demand poachers would stop murdering in order to supply. Fortunately reputable zoos no longer snatch animals from the wild like they did 50 years ago.  Many zoos now have formed conservation society’s to protect wildlife and help create new genetic pools through breeding centers like WCS at the Bronx Zoo or ZSL at the London Zoo. However, there is still a lot of live trafficking in wildlife for pets, entertainment, and for non-reputable zoos. A live infant gorilla can reach over $20,00 on the black market and each live baby gorilla caught represents a handful of dead adults killed in the capturing of the infant. For more information on how you can protect gorillas and the amazing work of Diane Fossey check out the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

While I disagree with some of Diane Fossey’s ideas and methods about conservation I believe that her work was amazing and the modern protections gorillas are given are largely owed to her. She didn’t believe in gorilla tourism because human diseases can be passed to gorillas and by the end of her life she had become very possessive of the gorillas, referring to the mountains and the gorillas as her own. It is indisputable that humans can pass diseases to gorillas, but precautions can be taken like signing a waiver stating you are healthy and educating tourists on the danger they are putting gorillas in if they go on treks when they are sick, particularly with respiratory infections. A simple cold in a human can wipe out an entire family group of gorillas. I had the chance to chat with an amazing young woman doing a study on gorilla health in Bwindi with Oxford Brookes University. As part of a survey she asked if when doing treks I would be willing to wear a surgical mask and gloves to help prevent the passing of diseases. I was already wearing gloves because of stinging nettles and thorns, but I think adding a mask would be an easy and great addition that I and most tourists would be happy to make. After all if people are traveling that far and spending that much money to see gorillas don’t they care about the future of the species?  You can read more about Diane Fossey’s life in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, or on her fund’s website.  Her methods were controversial, and her murder still remains a mystery, but we owe her so much for the knowledge she gave us about gorillas and they would probably be extinct in the wild now without her.

When you visit the gorillas (especially in the rainy season) you really see how “in the mist” they are. At the end of the treks locals come meet you where you exit the National Park and have trinkets to sell like small gorilla carvings and shirts that say, “I trekked for Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park” with the name of the gorilla group that you visited printed on it. My father purchased one and I laughed when I saw the back of it. On the back of the shirt it reads “Mzungu in the Mist.” He is not great with languages and thought Mzungu meant gorilla in Kinyarwanda. I explained to him that Mzungu meant foreigner (basically it translates to “whitey”) in Kinyarwanda, the local language, and kids had been oh so affectionately yelling it at us for the past week. The term used to be quite derogatory, but is now generally used more jokingly by children. But hey, after 6 hours of trekking I am proud to say that I was a Mzungu in the mist!


Our first trek in Rwanda was just under 6 hours, which included an hour with the gorillas. Only one hour is allowed with the gorilla groups as to not bother them and allow them to be the wild animals they are. There are an estimated 768 mountain gorillas at the latest count living in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the locals like to say the gorillas have no passports and freely move between the countries. Gorillas live in family groups usually consisting of one dominant male known as the silverback and then a group of females and infants. Sometimes a group will also have juvenile males known as blackbacks who will either have to challenge the silverback or leave the group when they reach silverback maturity.  Some groups do have multiple silverbacks, but one is always more dominant. Gorillas in the wild can live between 35-45 years, but can reach over 50, which is the normal lifespan for gorillas in captivity. Gorilla groups are patriarchal and the baby gorillas love climbing on the silverback’s back to play with him and you can often see many babies huddled around the silverback. They are also very loyal to the dominant silverback and will actually “tattle” on the females in the group if they see them mating with another male.


Agashya Gorilla Group Video 2 from Rebecca Yale on Vimeo.

Not all the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are habituated and meeting an unhabituated gorilla would not be a fun experience because silverbacks are very protective and a full grown silverback is incredibly strong and can rip apart a 6-foot 200 pound man easily. However, the rangers have worked for years to habituate 7 gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park and humans can now safely visit without alarming the gorillas. Of course they are still wild animals and certain precautions should be taken like keeping a safe distance from the gorillas, showing submission to the silverback, not pointing or shouting near them, no using flash photography, and never making eye contact with any gorilla as it is a sign of aggression to them. On our second trek my dad mistakenly made eye contact with a female gorilla as she turned around to look for her baby and instead caught my dads eye and she started to display her dominance by beating her chest and pounding the ground, which if he hadn’t looked away quickly could have ended with him being charged.


As I mentioned above each trekking group consists of 8 people plus a ranger, one or two trackers and porters as needed. The forest is dense so the trackers lead you through it carrying guns and machetes. The guns are to scare off elephants and buffalo that sometimes make appearances in your path and can be very aggressive, but are only used to make warning shots in the ground, which scare them off. The machetes are used to by the trackers to clear a path and my dad had fun posing with it when we got out of the forest.


The rangers are incredibly knowledgeable and can identify the gorillas by their noseprints, which are distinctive like our fingerprints. The rangers and trackers can identify each gorilla by name. We had an amazing tracker named Felix who we loved so much on our first trek that we requested him on our second. He was actually Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s tracker in their documentary Long Way Down. He had never seen the whole documentary and didn’t own a copy of the DVD so my dad and I bought one are sending it over to him. I hope it makes it! For our golden monkey trek we had another amazing guide named Francois who has been working with gorillas for over 30 years and started his work with Diane Fossey. He was very energetic and pointed out plants to us that the gorillas eat and actually demonstrated for us how they eat them by actually eating the. He was a real character and made for an amazing trek! I would recommend asking for either of these rangers if he you can! Only 56 trekking permits are issued each day, which means if you want to visit them book in advance!


Stay tuned for Part II on gorilla tracking in Rwanda where I will talk more about the actual treks themselves, give some advice on when to go and what to bring, and share lots more photos and video!

June 28, 2011

Being a Responsible Photographer

The modern notion of “the photographer” is completely different then the photographer from just 20 years ago. Before digital photography only a select few people had a camera (usually in the western world there was only one per family). However now almost everyone has a camera either on their phone, in their computer or a point and shoot stuck in their back pocket. There’s also a growing number of amateurs investing in better DSLR cameras who just shoot for fun. However, very few of these people would actually define themselves as “a photographer” and therefore do not think about the implications of taking a photograph. I spent 4 years studying aesthetic philosophy and the impact of taking a photograph. I don’t expect every person with a camera to do the same, but I do think it is every person’s responsibility to use common sense and think a little deeper about what being a photographer means.  I wish I could make it mandatory to read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others before bringing a camera into the developing world with the intention of photographing people. Of course I have a long list of authors like Tremlett, Strauss, Renov and Barthes dealing with the somewhat esoteric concepts of the self and the other and the philosophy of representation, but I don’t expect the whole world to care about that as much as I do. However, I do expect the whole world to be respectful towards each other.  I’ve seen caring and intelligent people lose their common sense when they peer at the world behind a lens and it has to stop.

While I was in Rwanda I had an unsettling experience watching tourists photograph children. Unfortunately this wasn’t my first time seeing a situation like this happen, but this time I knew the perpetrators were generally respectful, kind and intelligent people. Most tourists with a camera don’t consider themselves “photographers,” but it does not make a difference if you’re shooting with a D3S or an iphone; to a child on the other side of the lens it is all the same. In On Photography Sontag talks about how the photographic safari is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. While I think this is great and highly support shooting pictures instead of guns this frenzied shutter-happy trigger finger has bled into all travel photography and tourists shoot away at locals the same way they’d shoot at a lion in the Masai Mara. There is nothing inherently wrong with photographing other cultures when you travel; it just has to be done respectfully, especially when a child is involved. I go by the rule that a photograph of a person should never be taken without permission. I wouldn’t want someone taking my photo without my permission and I actually experienced a lot of that firsthand while I was traveling alone in China.  I hated men coming up to me and taking my picture without asking so trust me when I say that it is not enjoyable, cute or funny. Often when I travel there is a language barrier, but so much can be communicated non-verbally. Obviously if you are a professional photographer you need to speak with the person to get a photo release or if you’re a photojournalist you are documenting news so this doesn’t apply to you as much though I hope as a professional you are as respectful as you can be.

When I am photographing someone I always make eye contact first and smile. If I receive a positive reaction I lift my camera and judge the reaction to that to see if it is all right to take a picture. If I get an angry or shy reaction I immediately put down the camera and either try to speak more with the subject or smile, say thank you, and politely leave. Try to see it this way- do you want a beautiful intimate portrait of a person with mutual respect or do you want a portrait of a screaming child visibly terrified of you? Trust me the first option is a better picture. I have seen people attack children with their cameras flashing away at their eyes while they are visibly frightened and even crying. Trust me- that photograph is not going to morph into a beautiful Steve McCurry NatGeo photograph. That photo is going to be a horrible photo of a screaming child that you will probably delete or will get lost in the recesses of your hard drive.

As a young kid I idolized the photographs in National Geographic and then in my teens I became obsessed with Diane Arbus’ work. Arbus was famous for relating to and understanding her subjects. Her beautiful intimate portraits look the way the do because of mutual respect. One theory on her suicide in ’71 is because she felt so depressed over images she took at an insane asylum because she felt the subject was taken advantage of because they couldn’t participate in the photographer-subject relationship.

The UN actually gives guidelines to photographers regarding the photographing of children, but these guidelines are really more about the ethical implications of representing the child after the photograph is taken. While I believe that is extremely important and was a big part of my studies, I think it is really only applicable to professional photographers distributing their photographs publicly. I think the UN should make guidelines for anyone with a camera listing basic respectful behavior when photographing. These may seem really obvious, but the camera has a magical property to make you feel like you’ve disappeared behind your lens and when this transformative property occurs common sense too often disappears too.

Do not photograph a person if their face is identifiable without their permission.

Permission can be non-verbal, but watch body language and don’t delude yourself into thinking you have permission when you do not.

If a child looks scared or starts to cry while photographing STOP. Put the camera down and assess the situation. You can try and show the child the camera is not dangerous and make him or her smile. If the child is still in distress thank him or her and leave.

Do not use flash in a dark room (or at night) around small children. It can hurt their eyes. Never use flash without asking someone especially in remote places where people may have not seen a flash before. Flash it on the ground or on yourself first to show it is not dangerous.

If a child is begging for money to do not take his or her photograph. You do not want to perpetuate a begging/photograph/payment system.

Try and connect with your subject it will make for a better photograph.

Use common sense. At the end of the day every photographer, subject and situation is different, but use your head and try and think how you would feel if the situation was reversed.

I hope these simple guidelines help.  Please feel free to post others in the comments section. If you have any questions about the ethics of photography or want suggestions on further reading leave me a comment or send me an email and I’d be happy to suggest a few.  Please don’t comment and tell me these guidelines are impossible for taking good pictures, because I know they are not.  Below are some of my favorite photographs I’ve taken from my travels of children all around the world all taken respectfully using the above guidelines.



June 26, 2011

Gifting in Africa

When I was at the Gitaga Center for Street Children I went out into the field to take some photos of the kids playing football (or soccer to us Americans) and the kids all started rushing over to see the pictures of themselves. This was really the first time I interacted with children on the trip and it was of course amazing. The Rwandan kids were so sweet and kind and loved having their photos taken and getting to see them on the camera. However preserving the good relationship of photographer and subject is a very delicate balance especially in Africa and there is a right time and a wrong time to photograph. There is also a respectful and friendly way to do it, I will dedicate my whole next post to the ethics of photographing people (especially children) so I will not harp on about it too much here. I brought along a Polaroid with me, which I hadn’t done in years since Polaroid had gone bust and film was no longer available. However Polaroid is back with awesome new cameras so I brought along a cool blue one and 10 packages of film (100 pictures). I didn’t actually get to use all the pictures though because it got so crazy whenever I pulled out the Polaroid I became afraid it was start fights, but in smaller situations using it was incredible. Gitarma was the first place I pulled out the Polaroid and I learned my lesson from there not to pull it out in large crowds of children. The kids were so excited just to have their photo taken and to see it on the back of the digital camera so you can probably imagine how excited they were to actually get the printed Polaroid photo to keep. All of a sudden about a hundred kids stopped playing ball and ran towards me to get their photo taken.


Luckily things didn’t get too out of hand because I had to leave pretty soon, but kids were starting to climb on top of me and I started having flashbacks to getting attacked while giving out pens in a village in India. Doing things like giving out Polaroid pictures, pens, coloring books, or pencils is a wonderful thing to do, but has to be done very carefully because it can cause fighting amongst children and foster an attitude of begging where children beg foreigners for these things. Instead if you visit a third world country and want to bring presents I suggest bringing them to an orphanage or a school and giving them to the director and letting him or her distribute it to the children. It may not be the same wonderful immediate gratification you get from handing a child a ball or a pencil and getting a smile, but it is truly the more charitable thing to do because they will be given out in an organized fashion, which keeps children from fighting over the gifts and then the kids are thankful to the school and their teachers instead of a foreigner.


Polaroids are a little different then school supplies and balls and can be a wonderful thing to give to someone when you’re photographing them. However, it has to be done in a respectful way and because polaroids cost about $1 a piece I recommend doing it when not many people are around or you’ll end up with a lot of people lined up for a picture and not enough film to go around. The new film takes a little longer to develop (about 30 seconds) and I had some very funny moments of children staring at the blank white polaroid and then at me wondering what I was doing. As soon as the picture started to appear they were so excited and would smile and giggle, but every new photo I gave they looked at me unsure if it would appear. I tried explaining it, but in my broken French I think I said, “the picture us like magic, there is nothing than poof it becomes a picture.” I think they still think I am crazy.


I had a wonderful experience photographing a family when I visited a water pump in the northern part of Rwanda. There was a small house on the road to the water pump and a couple of brothers came up to me and wanted their photo taken. I took a few and showed it to them on my camera and then after making sure not too many other people were around I took a Polaroid of them and they got so excited they ran back to their house to show their mom. I then met their whole family- the two original brothers plus their baby brother, their mom, grandma and father all living in this very small square one-room house on the side of the road. I ended up giving them about 7 photos of their family and the older boy who spoke English told me it was the first photo they ever had of themselves. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend other photographers to bring polaroids with them when they travel, but be careful to determine if the situation is right before using it.