WINDHOEK. First things first. We ran into this herd of elephants on the next leg of our trip, just cold munching by the side of the road. Where I’m from, we see deer like that - not elephants. On Thursday we drove out to Namibia’s panhandle, where HIV hits a staggering 39% of everyone you see: the worst rate in the country, and unrivalled almost anywhere in the world. On Friday an NGO called Caprivi Hope for Life brought me around to meet top graduates from a recent program of theirs, which we supported to promote safer living in the face of the epidemic - things like less drinking, sex with just one partner, using protection.
These are some of my favourite photos I’ve taken in this job, because the people aren’t just props in them. They feel like actual people to me. My directives from USAID have generally been: Shoot a person in action, benefitting from U.S. generosity, ideally with USAID’s logo somewhere in the frame. I get it - they want some awareness of the billions in aid they spend every year - but it’s unfortunate when it looks like the project is what matters, and the person is just a placeholder. (Lord knows what goes through Hillary Clinton’s head when she’s greeted by something like this.) This week, though, Caprivi Hope for Life had lined up visits with so many subjects, there was no question of me using someone to sum up our work superficially. This was going to be a broad snapshot of the community, with portraits of each person and their aspirations in their own right.
The first picture shows Ticcoh, a drinker who has lost half his siblings and looks older than his 26 years.
He’s in front of his sister’s beer joint, where he still spends his time - they call these places “shebeens” here - but when I ask him about our partner organization’s course he proudly brandishes the condom he now carries with him. I like the formal composition of the shot, and its tension with the loose setting. I could see this being a pretty arresting image for the front of a local report, or an exhibition.
I mimicked the same composition for the other shots: portrait dead-centre, background with some personal significance spreading away on either side. Next is 15-year-old Simiyasa, mugging for the camera in his family compound - that’s his room over his right shoulder. He’s a bright, earnest kid, who says he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his education, so he can become a doctor. “What kind of doctor?” “A medical doctor - not a traditional one.”
Simataa is posing with his weights - he answers all my questions openly and thoughtfully, with a likeable half-smile that makes me think his expression here has mostly to do with how heavy that barbell is. After years of partying, at age 24 he’s settled down with a girlfriend, and they live in the back room of a hut that doubles as their community’s kindergarten. Before he can put up an outbuilding of his own, he’s planning to stay with relatives in the capital and look for construction jobs to sock away some savings.
Briged Mary is 48 - five kids. She’s probably the one I’m proudest of winning over, as much as I did: We had to talk through a translator, and she seemed skeptical of my questions, or tired from her work. She’s working at a 10-hectare vegetable garden run by an HIV support group now, and she only started to laugh when I kept asking for details about what exactly she used to look like back when she was drinking hardcore. Thin, with no braids in her hair. She moved onsite in May, because elephants were coming and eating their tomatoes, and they have to scare them off with drums and vuvuzelas at night.
Finally there’s Lennox, an induna - traditional councillor - for the Mafwe tribe. He’s posing inside their courthouse; his seat is the turquoise one at the very back behind him. “I realized that what is killing us is just fear,” he said. By sharing and gaining the freedom to talk about being sick, about the need to test for HIV, he said that he “became a hero, in a way.” To him, HIV has become like malaria: a better fate than cancer.
Lennox adopted this serious face the second he stood for the camera - and it didn’t seem appropriate for me to ask for a smile. How do these shots compare to the one of the happy, singing children I posted yesterday? Or, how would they compare if they were stripped of their backstories?