A rural first-hand experience of peasantry life in Uganda
My wife and I have always had a passion for animal welfare, an interest in biodiversity and a pure love of all animals. We own 5 cats and a dog, get involved with as many animal charities as possible, and only wish we could have more in our lives. So since we met, and started earning any form of salary/wages, we began traveling to various countries and spending time on safari or in locations that we could spend time with wild animals, and it was on safari, up close and personal with all types of incredible creatures, where I really started to become interested in photography, and my love of capturing a subject and/or a moment was recognised.
Unfortunately over the last 2 decades we have witnessed a huge deterioration in wildlife around the world, so time is always against us to either help or just go and see the beautiful animals that are out there before it’s too late. So where am I going with this…..well, we had a few trips to the Congo booked to go and see the famous Mountain Gorillas at Virunga National Park, but 3 times in a row it either got cancelled due to domestic/tribal violence in the area (it is notoriously unstable) or COVID-19 safety issues. So when an unforeseen opportunity presented itself to go to Uganda instead I jumped at the chance, as I didn’t know when in the future we would be able to go to the Congo, or indeed any other home of the Gorillas, again. At the time of writing, the Congo still remains impossible to get into and is suffering its own natural disaster(s) as well as unvaried domestic conflict(s).
My trip was really split into 3 parts; firstly my time with the Gorillas, then within local villages in the Bwindi area, and after that I headed to Jinja, located on Lake Victoria and known as the Source of the Nile.
Second to the main goal of spending time with these absolutely breathtaking primates, was to experience other parts of the country, and particularly the people within it. After spending a few days trekking with the gorillas and taking plenty of photos – see here for the gallery – I headed time after time into Bwindi village (next to the entrance to the National Park) to explore some of the local life and the people within it. In a place that relies heavily on tourism, it was easy to get wrapped up in some of the less authentic practices so I searched for life a bit further away from the gorillas and looked for themes or areas where I could not only explore the people but some interesting photography opportunities.
After a bit of digging and persuasion through my guide and various security personnel I managed to gain access to coffee plantations, foundational projects, local schools, hospitals and people’s houses. Of course being the only white guy within hundreds of miles I was aware that my time, certainly when it came to photography, was limited, before the authenticity of the situations and environments I found myself in were degraded, thus not making interesting photos. So with time against me (I wish I had planned more strategically) and a lack of lighting equipment (I left this with the tour company at my next destination in Jinja) I relied heavily on street portraits, environmental light towards dusk and the least amount of wide-eyed onlookers as possible.
After a day of walking around without a camera, humouring the local guides by visiting places they wanted to show me, but I had no interest in, I found myself gravitating towards photographing the children within the villages. Rural villages in Uganda have average life expectancies of below 50 years old, and with many children unable to access any form of education or healthcare it seemed appropriate to focus on the lives and emotions of the young, and how they perceived both me and the outside world, if at all. All that aside, I just wanted to observe and learn, and hopefully impart some warmth and kindness where I could.
My photos in and around Bwindi certainly reflect more reportage than portraiture, but nonetheless it certainly allowed me to ease into all the unseen facets that go into travel photography; exploration, research, getting to know subjects, putting subjects at ease, accurate translation, visualising ideas, expressing ideas, directing, managing assistants, space, people, weather, light, narrative, etc. etc. Usually this takes a good day or two to mould, but I had to get straight into it and as such I believe my street/environmental photos reflect that.
Once I got to Jinja, I had had my so-called ‘practice’ and essentially landed in the middle of an array of villages near the huge Lake Victoria. Here I would spend 3 days (again, I wish I had longer) and their own challenges presented themselves straight away. I lost most of the first day due to weather and poorly communicated (on my behalf) ideas, as well as almost being conned into large amounts of money on previously agreed photo setups, subjects and locations – word spreads quickly when a ‘Mizungu’ (white traveler) comes into the area. At the end of the first day I had nothing, so I took some time to clear up a few things with my guide Jonathan and local villager/fixer Charles. These types of conversations are great over a beer and have to happen quite often when you are working with different people all the time (rather than taking your own crew with you).
- Communicate clearer – ideas and plans are directed from me, and me only (sometimes if you are not assertive as a photographer there will be too many people talking or doing things that they think are best), but I need to ensure that everyone understand what I need in order to get what I want. Taking photographs is always a collaboration between the photographer, subject and people involved in producing the environment. All ideas and requirements that are needed to do this successfully can easily be lost in translation, expression or misunderstanding, and this is on me.
- Agree any photo shoots upfront – this goes for both permission to photograph and money. It is vital that in these situations, we recompense the local people, but are not taken advantage of. For me to take my photos, I need the subjects to be fully at ease and everyone around me (those working with me or the audience that is ever present) to be comfortable with what is agreed. Usually money and permissions go hand in hand (depending on where you are) but having transparency on both is vital, and without this foundation, there is nothing.
- Discuss and agree plan A and plan B – more often that not, plan A does not work out as you wanted or expected – this could be due to weather, light, access, subject issues etc. etc.. It is important that your team know this too, and are fully aware of the backup plan, and even then one must be fully capable of improvising on the spot to create a plan C!
- Give your team and your subjects an idea of what you want to capture – so often you can waste a day of shooting by trying to explain the ‘style’ that you want. A lot of these issues can be prevented by having material to illustrate the look you are going for, as well as clearly define that you will need to do some test shots before the real thing, which is also a good opportunity to show your style and the way you work.
- Enjoy and absorb – I have been on many shoots where I did not tick all of the boxes above, especially whilst abroad this is easy to do, and stress, tiredness and environment can quickly get on top of you. For me – a non-commercial photographer – I have no excuse to not enjoy the process and take in every moment as much as I can – it’s my passion after all (which can often be the reason for stress!).
The second day went smoother, even though there was plenty of rain to ruin our Plan A outdoor sunrise shots. And so the plan changed, and the photography became more enjoyable for everyone involved – people relaxed a bit more, they got to know me a bit better, they played with my camera and I printed them some photos. From then on in, the trip went far too quickly and of course I didn’t get nearly the amount of content that I dreamed of, but there is always next time! One’s favourite photograph is always the next one…
There were a few magical moments in just these few days that I will not forget. Although once again I was on my own, I didn’t feel alone with the warmth of the local people. Throughout the whole 10 days I was given so much hospitality and kindness from those that had nothing but a torn shirt on their back, and for that, as well as some of the unforgettable people I met and managed to photograph, I thank them, as well as all of those that helped me get the content that I am proud to publicise here.
If you want to see a bit of footage from behind the scenes please watch the video below. We also have the book available for purchase, as well as an e-book (free) download here. Feel free to send me a message to ask any questions about the project, or indeed anything at all, I’d love to hear from you!