“Can I take your picture?”
The three young women responded with blank looks at me before glancing to each other, shrugging their shoulders, either for lack of understanding or for signs of agreement amongst themselves. They were sprawled alongside the curb, amongst empty pails and sacks of red onions, tired, exhausted, scarves wrapped tight atop their head, faces fallen, arms and legs hanging. I thought it to be a perfect picture of working in the market.
I pointed to my camera, then back at them, “a picture?”. They turned to a woman nursing her child, who smiled and explained, to which they demurely shook their heads whilst waving their hands at me, “no, no”. I moved on.
Earlier, weaving through the people jamming the market, I encountered an older woman, sitting amongst her wares, bags of various nuts, singing, banging her tambourine, grabbing my attention and curiosity. A quick stop and a photo garnered an angry admonishment, beckoning me, but I kept walking, pretending not to understand, an easy answer from the lone white guy in the crowd. I had not expected the resistance.
My intention on all my excursions is to capture the faces and situations of the people, not just the architecture and scenery. Most of those in India, for example, were obliging and co-operative, posing proudly alone or along with me. In Tanzania, the Maasai were oblivious to my camera, although they were a stop on the pre-arranged tour, and were anticipating a purchase of their crafts after the display of dance and song. My Ghana guides accommodated my requests for a photo, Asante asking one for himself.
They were being paid, perhaps viewing the request as their job, which I interpreted as friendliness. The market experience had me being more cautious, taking pains to ask, sometimes directly, other times through my guide. I wasn’t very successful.
During a walk through a fishing port, we encountered an old woman, alone, peeling squid, meticulously, deliberately, one after another, tossing the remains in one bucket, dropping the cleaned fish into another. I hoped to the capture the image, asking Kwame, our guide, who then translated to the woman. She reluctantly agreed.
After I showed her the result, I turned away, catching Kwame, out of the corner of my eye, handing the woman a bill of undetermined denomination.
“Did you just give her some money? I have money and would have done the same had I known. Let me repay you.”
“Not to worry, not to worry.”
I was considerably more circumspect the rest of the day, utilizing the zoom lens of my DSLR to capture people from a distance, themselves unaware a photograph had been taken. From the heights of the castle walls overlooking the busy grounds below, I captured whole scenes, surreptitiously including Ghanaians attending to their business or their play. Then, with the miracle of computers and photo software, I managed to conjure some personal close up shots.
On my final day in Ghana I was escorted through the Nima slum of Accra, advertised for its colourful market and people co-existing from different backgrounds, cultures, and religion. My guide talked about the dominance of women in business, a testament to their strong presence in commerce. The write up encouraged participants “to interact with the local women”, so I asked Mohammed to speak with a select few about photographing their stalls. I was particularly interested in those with baskets of nuts or produce or legumes. I wanted to capture the bountiful scene. Mohammed made several attempts, rebuffed with each request. It was clear people were uncomfortable. Even taking a picture of stacked microwaves was met with anger by the locals, telling Mohammed he was not the owner and therefore had no right to encourage.
Still wanting some images, I turned my phone on the video and held it by my side, inconspicuously, facing outwards as we walked the streets. The footage itself provides a sense of the chaotic nature of the market, and with the marvel of computer technology, I managed to isolate several screen shots which portrayed some flavour of the people and the Nima neighbourhood.
A degree of guilt still gnaws at my conscience reviewing the images. In my first trips to the continent, I was concerned pictures could be interpreted as touristic voyeurism. Each experience since has shifted my views, refined my outlook. As I think about my best photographs at home, they are largely close-ups, capturing a smile, a smirk, a natural laugh, a thoughtful look, the wrinkles, the worries, the concern, the joy. I am attempting the same with those in the worlds into which I have the privilege to interact. My best efforts at writing or describing the places and the people falls short.
I hope, therefore, I am forgiven for these photographs. My intention is only to remember the people as they are.
You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright
Whilst you can only wonder why