Every Storytellers Abroad Workshop has time built in for the students to go into a local village and engage in street photography. This cultural excursion is designed to allow the students to experience the culture while teaching them some skills and techniques in engaging strangers that speak another language to photograph them. The instructors go with them and spend time watching them also - they offer tips and encourage the students to ask them questions about shooting in these types of situations. Learning from the instructors in this way adds a different dynamic to the workshop. Rather than seeking to discover the story of a person they have met and conversed with for several days, the students are now challenged to build relationships and uncover stories of strangers, telling those stories through one or even a series of images.
Come along with me and I can show you a bit of what this looks like.
Togo, West Africa. In a southern city called Tsiko (Cheek-Oh) our group of 14 loaded up in 2 vehicles with our 2 drivers. The 5 guys on our trip jumped into one car with our Canadian friend, Derek. The other vehicle is a pick up truck with a short bed. There are 9 people left; all of us girls. When everyone starts piling in the bed, we quickly re-evaluate our situation and opt to put our gear in the bed of the guys' vehicle. Once we are all inside, the tail gate is closed. Only then does our driver say, "Oh, and try not to lean on the tailgate, it might come open." Great, Andrew, thank you for that. Nonetheless, we all stayed put and off we went.
Our short journey to the small village of Adéta (Uh-Date-Uh) was somewhat uncomfortable, very bumpy, and very squished but we sure did laugh! The guys followed us in their vehicle with Jeff and Stanley periodically hanging out the windows to take photos of us in the truck. Naturally, we took photos of them taking photos of us.
On our way into the village, the children see us. At the sight of the cars, they are excited because they know that their weekly children's program is going to begin soon. At the sight of all of us in the truck, they are more excited. The children chase our vehicles, chattering away in their mother tongue. Finally, we arrive in the Adéta and we begin to unfold, grabbing our gear as we get out of our vehicles. The children have come in droves and they practically swarm us. There is a sea of small hands all grabbing for our bags or our gear in attempts to help us carry it all somewhere.
As the 14 of us storm this small village - overwhelming it with our bags, cameras, and tripods - we start splitting up. Some students stay in the area where the children are while others venture down the road where there are fewer children. However, some children do follow the second group down the road. The hunt for stories begins.
At the end of the road, we find a small open home with a little mud shed like structure, its thatched roof dancing lazily in the wind. We do what we would never dream of doing here in America: step over the property line into the dirt front yard and begin photographing and taking videos of the items we see.
The children followed and we allowed them to curiously look over and play with our tripods and monopods. There were also many students willing to take photo after photo of groups and individuals. The children loved looking at photos and videos of themselves and their friends. They also had no problem getting right back in front of the camera and hamming it up again time after time.
As I traipsed around the yard, carefully inspecting items and composing image ideas in my head, the woman inside must have heard the commotion and came outside to see what was happening. What a shock she must have had coming outside to find 3 Americans in front of her house with cameras and a whole other group of them across the street. I moved in to speak with her.
Without a knowledge of the French language, I smiled and lifted my camera towards her, gesturing first to it and then to her. She looked at me and laughed but then nodded. As I lifted the camera, the smile disappeared and the woman's face became serious. Many people in other countries are rather unfamiliar with the concept of smiling for photos. So I lowered the camera, checked the image and went back in for shot number two. When she got serious again, I laughed. Bingo! There came the smile! From that point on, she and I were friends. We laughed as I showed her images of herself and she showed me the fields behind her house. This kind woman was willing to oblige as I continued to photograph and video her in various settings around her house. My only regret is that I never learned her name. However, making new friends does not mean you have to speak each others' language. Sometimes all you need to do is to show someone else that you are interested in them.