The grime of Kibera, which I wash away every night, stains my skin with invisible odors. Motorcycles move through throngs of people, buses honk, music blares. The low din of chatter in the fading sunlight. It’s easy to document a slum, to find something to take photos of. To follow a character, to take images, to take video. It’s all so easy. That’s probably why you see endless numbers of repetitive poverty porn images that flood the internet. It’s beautiful, it’s alive….its terrible, its haunting, its ghastly. In-between those spaces everyone just carries on, living their lives.
“Love deeply, but hold lightly”.
Kibera is notorious for these types of images, for slum tours, for ratatat tourist photography masquerading as documentary. I’m not being pompous, because I am that man too. It’s hard not to expropriate.
I take the child petting the dogs and steal what’s left of his transient innocence.
There’s a man stooped under the weight of a heavy load, but I don’t ask his name.
I visit the home of the boy in the colorful jacket but give him false hope that I’ll come back. “Maybe”, I say. But I know I never will.
“Love lightly, and hold lightly”.
There’s details to take care of. Are the batteries charged? Did I put on sunscreen this morning? Is it in focus? I’m good at blocking it out. As long as you make an effort, I tell myself, you’re doing all you can….Am I doing all I can? The effluent running alongside the road means that one wrong step and you’re covered in human waste. Higher-order thoughts disappear into the familiar and routine processes of work.
Thomson Reuters Foundation wants a story on a road. This road is going to decimate a community. I need to give a sense of the human and of the communal. I need to provide a global perspective and a single person perspective. That single human is Mohammed. That global perspective is a drone.
Mohammed’s mosque is the landing zone for the drone we’re using on this project in Kibera. People don’t usually fly drones here, which is exactly why we’re using it. It’s new. It’s pushing the boundaries. It’s the only way to understand this vast geography which surrounds us.
We’ve even attached a 360 camera underneath the drone, which can give a person wearing a VR headset the feeling of being immersed in Kibera. When that person turns his head, he will look left, and see the Nairobi River, efficiently washing the vast amount of rubbish into a nearby dam, which is quickly becoming Nairobi’s largest landfill.
When that person looks right, he will see the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi, beckoning the denizens of Kibera with a promise of unskilled labor and enough of a wage to provide the night’s meal of ugali.
When that person looks straight down he’ll see me, staring back at him. It’ll be a strange moment, and I’d imagine the need to stifle the instinct to wave. I’ll be standing there, between the rebar and the old children’s desks, trying to look like I know what I’m doing. I’ll be standing there, on top of a community foreign in so many ways, taking a document of lives I’m not even sure I’m fully aware of, let alone that I comprehend.
As the images flood my computer screen back in my hotel room it’s clear they’re good. I’m obsessed with trains, and the shots of the train in Kibera are the best of the day. Our fixers, Jafar and Abdul, stare into my lens thinking god knows what. I hope they like me.
The batteries are on charge, the water is boiling. The shower drain has collected the grime from my skin and hair. I can’t hear or see Kibera. If it wasn’t for the photographs and a vague electric sense of clarity that I always get in township areas, I could be anywhere. Doing anything. Orbiting any small livelihood just like the millions of other souls around me. Caring as much or as little as every other person on Earth.
I find that utterly unsatisfying and so bury myself back into the mundane details of editing. The composition, the color. It’s a fantasy. It’s real. Nothing’s certain but what I’m forcing to be.
I think out loud. I didn’t know the answers before, but I do now.
Do I love? Yes.
Do I hold? Yes.