I've been contemplating on all the special days I've spent with my friends, volunteers and co-workers in the Ukerewe Island, and thinking of the transformations that took place within me and the Island and the people with Albinism that I've met 7 years ago. I was very grateful to have met these special people and especially gain their trust to open up and allow me to learn and gain insight about their inner world and the challenges they’ve gone throughout their lives in 2011, I have never seen anyone with Albinism before, I knew the word Albino which meant “Zal” in Persian, and Zal in Iranian literature is the name of one of the most important legendary characters in the Book of Kings “Shahnameh”, he is the father of Rostam the legendary hero of this book. Ironically the tragic story of some of the children being left and abandoned in the Island was similar to the story of Zal , where he too was left abandoned in the Alborz Mountains in the story.
Back in the days when I was solo traveling in Tanzania in 2011, I would come across them, but very rarely, it caught my imagination, it was then in Mwanza, when I heard about their horrifying tragic story, children and adults being kidnapped and mutilated due to the superstitions, witch doctors believed that making potion of their body parts would bring them fortune and prosperity. while doing my research, I came across the biggest inland island of Africa called “Ukerewe”, which was located in Lake Victoria, just 3hrs away from the mainland Mwanza. At the time I had no links or contacts, yet I set out to make a visit, on the boat I was probably the only white man, being constantly stared at and creating a lot of attention. I was luckily approached by the chief officer of the island who asked me about my reason for the visit, after a brief talk, he then thankfully connected me to a young local called Yohanna who was at the time struggling to bring tourists in the Island, a quirky, cheerful, caring chap, who became my translator there and also a long-term friend. After a brief meeting with the Chairman of the Albino Society 'Ramadan', I explained about my idea and he agreed for us to start a photo-project together, to visit as many families and write about their stories and document them.
I was pretty aware of how they have turned into victims since the killing started a few years before, But every family I visited was pretty eye-opening and further enlightened me, each were very special in their own way, the Shade wasn't their limitation, but rather their main ground to think for an alternative way to survive, some were even smart enough to set-up a small store and get into trading to avoid working under the sun, but agriculture was still the main income for most of the families, and working under the sun was a challenge for them, most families couldn’t afford to buy sunscreen, and being exposed under the sun puts them at risk of getting skin cancer. I felt I needed to learn more about them, I thought the best way is to visit many different formed families that are someway connected with someone with Albinism. After two weeks of photographing with my film camera, I was in shortage of film rolls, therefore I needed to travel back and bring my digital camera with me. After heading back, I needed to make a short stop in Egypt/Cairo on my return (which was at the time in its post-revolution) to make the return flight affordable. I left all my equipment at a friends house, and one day while I was away, I found out that a group of thugs broke into his house and stole everything including my equipment, it was such a big blow in my life, and the whole project came into a halt.
I never felt comfortable to show a series that wasn't complete and not in the context I wanted them to be. I self-published a Photobook the next year and asked friends and family to purchase it on the day of my birthday as a gift so I can donate the money and collect some help for the UTSS ( the only NGO I knew at the time that would help and sponsor their education ) HERE. In 2013 I was fortunate to be the selected Photographer by Gulf Photo Plus, to feature the series in a slideshow format, where it was showcased in the Knowledge Village cinema in front of more than 200 people from all around the world, and there I could talk and explain the story of these images and raise awareness about their situation. I must confess I was never full-filled by that, some of their words still reverberated in my head, that they can't afford to buy sunscreen and many other personal issues that were hardly addressed. It was up until I heard from Yohana a friend and translator who I was still in touch with since seven years ago, which informed me about Standing Voice a charity organization from the UK, that helps and supports people with Albinism. I was so thrilled to learn about this organization, and I deeply felt that I needed to somehow get in touch and show my support to them, it was amazing to know the organization was built with funds inspired by an amazing film from Harry Freeland called ‘In the Shadow of the Sun’ that took several years also to complete.
I was then approached by the Standing Voice team who gave me this special opportunity to not only volunteer but also to teach Photography to them. I had a brief teaching experience back in 2014, when I volunteered for the Yangon Photo Festival, while I was traveling in Burma, helping and mentoring young selected amateur photojournalists pursue and execute their ideas. even though it was very brief but yet very successful for me, knowing that one of my students to whom I helped choose and develop his idea won the first prize. But yet I acknowledged I wasn't faced with the same students who at least knew the basics of operating a DSLR and had some photography background. Teaching about light to people which light is a danger to them was to me quite challenging, I was also a bit concerned about their vision, I knew some people might have trouble with their eye-sight, since lack of pigmentation is not just in their skin or hair but also their eyes, creating vision defects like Photophobia, nystagmus, and amblyopia. I remember reading the book Seeing Beyond Sight by Tony Deifell, who taught blind students to photograph, this book really inspired me a lot, that photography is not just about seeing and capturing with your eyes but also understanding the world through your other senses…There was no way to tailor a plan until I knew them and their level of understanding of photography and also their interests and how they would like to use the art of photography in their lives. So I had to be spontaneous and open to any change of plans, I was very grateful to be introduced to Brian a fellow photographer who would be teaching along with me in the workshop, I learned that the students were only be given the cameras during the workshop and that they would have to return the cameras after the workshop. So I felt my initial step would be to help them first own their cameras, that way they will be able to continue using their cameras and start developing their skills by their own, and that’s how I learned photography myself, by trial and error, to make mistakes and to learn from them. I was never taught by a teacher, I was a self-taught person, and I wanted to teach them how to teach themselves, so I needed to get cameras for them. I knew most of us all had a camera which was outdated and unused due to the quality or the technological advancement , so I invited people in social media to help donate cameras, and in exchange I would promise to send them back a print of a good picture taken with their cameras, in that way It would also oblige me to get the best out of them. Thankfully it was very well-received and surprisingly I received eleven cameras from all across Iran, within three days before my flight. A big Thanks to all the donators for trusting me and the cause.
Before the beginning of our workshop, it was great to meet and get to know the volunteers and also my fellow photographer Brian to whom I spoke and discussed ideas with, I was very delighted to be working with someone from a diverse background, and a very different approach to photography. We both had a different history and path of becoming a photographer, It was nice for our students to also understand later; that there is no one way to achieve a level of professionalism in the vast world of Photography.
On The first day of our lesson I emphasized on getting to know my students well, I was very surprised to see three of the people with Albinism, whom I photographed 7 years ago were present in my class, it was Jeremiah, Elizabeth and Musa, I was so happy to see them again after all these years, and that I can teach them something. I was also very happy to return some of the pictures I’ve took 7 years ago, and give the pictures back to their true owners. It was just amazing that they have now a moment captured from their family and life, almost a decade ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find them all, my notebook with all their names was stolen along with my camera. some were present in the workshop like Musa and Elizabeth and Charles and Sabine, but others I had to ask Ramadan, who was the one who introduced me to these families at that time. but he too couldn’t remember. So I left the Album in the centre for the hope that they would be found by them someday.
Our class was fairly mixed, we had eleven people in total, our students were with and without Albinism, which was great. And so I prepared some key questions about who they are and what is their aspirations? and where they want to go with their photography? some were seeking employment, others wanted to learn for their lessons at school, I realized most were looking to be famous and wanted their work to be seen. I decided not to tell them that they will be owning these cameras after the workshop…But they will keep them during the workshop. They would have an assignment every day but also one main assignment to complete during the whole days of our workshop, and that was to Photograph their personal life and living space, I wanted them to start observing and seeing their life through their cameras, to capture special moments, not from the unusual but rather the most usual, the hardest and challenging thing for any observer is to see something special in their daily life or routine. It would also allow us as teachers to learn and understand how and where our students are living, it would make us all closer and more intimate with their personal space and worlds. Gladly SV has allowed us to take day tour excursions to different areas of the island, a special opportunity that not many of our students could take by themselves due to the cost and lifestyle. They got to know and appreciate the wonders and beauty of their Island and country. It was also really fascinating to see them singing aloud altogether during our rough drives due to the really bad roads. It unveiled the real meaning of the word ”Umoja" which means Unity in Swahili for me...and appreciated their title as "Umoja Photographers" even more. For each trip they would take every day I would ask them to shoot the event as if SV has given them the assignment, that if they take a good shot, SV will publish it in their blogs, and credit them for it and in that way they will have their name out, and most probably if they are good enough to be potentially selected as their photographer in the future. I wanted them to take my role so they could better challenge themselves as an event photographer, it did really inspire them a lot I think. In one of our sessions, I would ask them all to photograph one of the workshops in the center and I would also personally photograph with them and try to challenge them to see differently, to use their bodies and see from a more diverse angle, to create more engaging photographs. Thanks to SV for allowing us to use their video-projector, something I was insisting all along to have it during our workshop, so they could experience the significance of an image and better see how powerful an Image could become if captured well, it would allow them to see details in their image and help them compose well. I insisted we don't start by teaching them the technical side of photography, but rather how to see and communicate through images. Our cameras even though they were old, but were all advanced enough to shoot in Auto mode. I also come from the school of Lomography, where you learn to shoot film with a plastic toy camera, equipped with only two shutters/Exposure, and a fixed plastic lens, it pushed you to see without being too indulged in the technical aspects, but furthermore to also push you to make mistakes, where these mistakes would often even aesthetically add to your image.
I wanted them to learn the other way around, to make them ask questions about their mistakes, that if it’s blurry or too washed out and over-exposed, etc. why is it so? and make them feel the necessity to learn about it…they could then come to the next level of using their cameras manually….we realized they were too focused in finding their moments and trying to capture the right time. we also wanted to see how and what our students tended to capture most, and realized they take photos of people a lot, and so in our next round of lessons, we did focus briefly on how to effectively use their cameras to photograph portraits, we would ask them to take a photograph from each other, and so they would shoot all on default with their wide angle and then we would ask to use their optical zooms and re-photograph the same person, we would then screen the difference and so they would understand the angle of view.
during our lessons I thought how it would be great to integrate some of the workshops together, I thought the painting workshop could use our students photos, it would be great to print and share the good shots of our students for them to paint….Thanks to Annie our great drawing/painting instructor, who agreed for this to happen, and the outcome was really great, some of the painters would even re-compose and correct and improve our students photos, they would change the composition and even add their own color and textures, which allowed our students to dig deeper and try to see their images beyond just a photograph, and break it into shapes and lines and to also make them understand the artistic aspect of photography.
It was great to also have Yohana as our translator, he was very articulate and enthusiastic in assisting us to teach and get our word cross the language barrier. He was very caring and passionate about our lessons, it was really great to have him on board.
We had one student complaining about how her camera being less advanced than the others, some of our donated cameras were older models than the rest and we didn't want the students to feel discriminated, so I explained that all these different cameras were once the best and latest camera manufactured at its own time and the camera doesn't determine nor help one to see any better. We had students with these older cameras taking better images than those who held newer models. That is why I wasn’t much concerned with their weak batteries or limited memory storage…It was to me in some way a mimic of old film cameras, how you are limited to 36 images for each roll, back in the old days. made you rather more sensitive in photography than just having the leisure to shoot as much as you want…I wanted to teach them that limitation always unleashes one creativity.
My hope is that this platform could also potentially help update SV with their daily lives of the people with Albinism. I always thought how great it would be for them to start exposing and reporting about themselves, to show that they are no different from others, that they live and do things just like the rest.
In our last two sessions, we had to organize our students photos and pick some of their best shots to project them on the screen and we then would ask our students and also personally themselves to choose their best and favorite image to print as a gift for our sponsors with a personal written statement behind it. They also explained to us why they would think this image is good, through this we also learned many things about our students way of thinking and also analyze their judgment on the subjectivity of what a good photograph is… It also allowed other students to see and understand the "Point of View" of how different could one see and value the same moment, most would have the same image taken from a different time and angle of view and would help them understand how one moment can be seen in endless ways, and that would unlock their creativity in seeing.
In our final session, our students were very happy to know that they will be keeping the cameras. We also exchanged some of their cameras with better models (thanks to Brian’s generosity), so they could feel more content and more committed to photography, we promised to set-up a page on social media, to share their work, and in turn they all promised to keep shooting and that whenever the computers arrive at the centre, they would every once or twice a month meet together and bring their selected images and send them all to me via email so I can start selecting their images for their social page. Unfortunately, many of our students don't have access to computers to copy their images, and it is difficult to keep in touch with all of them as many don't have smartphones or internet connection. So I selected Ayub and also Yohana to be in charge to help others in case they need to send images to us through the Internet cafe. I also left my card reader in the center, so they could come and borrow it whenever they need it.
Here are the selected photos of my students. It's wonderful to see their world through their own eyes!
Benedict holding his selected photo for the doner of his camera. We also decided to upgrade his camera, donated by Amir Bahador and @azar.shoaee from Tehran/Iran
Naema holding her selected photos for the doners of her camera. we decided to upgrade her camera too. Camera donated by @Backpacking_trip_ and @kianamsqt from Tehran/Iran
The days have passed so quickly, I felt we needed more time to work with our students, even though six days felt sufficient in the beginning. We lacked the final exhibition unfortunately, it would’ve been nice to have their selected photos exhibited along with the paintings of these photos.
Since I got to know more about our friends with Albinism the whole concept of disability has immensely changed for me. It is not about what they can’t do but rather what they can do! If they could see that they are rather, unique, special and not disabled, then they could unleash numerous possibilities of the things they can do.
They don’t have Dis-ability but rather a Different-ability.
A very Special Thanks to Standing Voice and the kind Donors of the cameras. Asante Sana! (Thank you in Swahili)