Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 1998/08/10

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Subject: RE: [Leica] Street / candid photography
From: "B. D. Colen" <>
Date: Mon, 10 Aug 1998 11:25:24 -0400

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I just downloaded the attached text file from the "Newsday" library. It is a
piece I wrote in Feb., 1993, on my return from Somalia, where I was working
for the paper as both a writer and photographer. I believe the first part is
totally relevant to this "street photography" exchange. The rest isn't, but
some may find it worth a glance. If not....DELETE. :-)

B. D.

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Journey To Somalia

Newsday medical writer and columnist B.D. Colen just completed amonth's
assignment in Somalia and east Africa. These are observations
of things that were not "news," but that, he says, will always be with

Coerced Consent
    "Is it all right to take photos?" I ask the clinic director.
    "Of course," she says, automatically. "They understand. Take
anything you want."
    So, safely removed from the misery and separated from my own
humanity by the camera's optics, I begin recording the haunting sights
around me: The woman too weak to sit up; the man so skeletal it is hard
to believe he is alive; the infant strapped to his mother's back who has
a hole in his cheek through which flies crawl.
    What I am doing constitutes an appalling invasion of privacy. I
cannot communicate with my subjects, for I do not speak their language
and they do not speak mine. I cannot ask permission to capture their
living death. They are victims of war, victims of starvation, victims of
ancient clan hatreds. Are they victims of my "right to know"  -  and
yours? Am I capturing their humanity, or am I robbing them of it,
turning them into objects, to be briefly pitied and then eternally
    And if, as the clinic staff tells me, these people do not mind being
photographed, why is it that a few weeks later, when I am attempting to
photograph Somalis in a situation where they are healthier and less
dependent on the foreigners "helping" them, the women either turn their
heads and hide their faces, or angrily yell at me and wave me away?
Cocktails in the Armory
    It is dark but still hot, just before dinner time, when the four
visitors arrive at the hospital tent at the French army camp in Hoddur.
Two staff members of Medecins Sans Frontieres  -  Doctors Without
Borders  -  have come with two journalists in tow to check on a patient
sent to the French doctors earlier in the day.
    After business is concluded, the commander of the French medical
unit, a surgeon-colonel, invites the visitors to have a drink.
    The colonel and his guests wend their way through the hallways of
one of the buildings that was part of a military base built by deposed
Somali dictator Mohamed Siad-Barre, and end up in a small room cluttered
with equipment.
    But this is not just any room, or any equipment: It is the armory
for the medical unit. Automatic rifles are neatly lined up on the floor
 -  some with condoms over their muzzles to keep out the dust that coats
everything here  -  and two French soldiers sit cross-legged on the
floor, methodically emptying and then reloading four ammunition clips
for each rifle. As they work, the colonel offers the visitors a choice
of cold beer from a cooler on the floor, or scotch or cognac, which
stand beside glasses on a cluttered desk.
    While the visitors and several of the French officers enjoy
"cocktail hour" in Somalia, nurses and medics, assigned to guard duty,
troop into the room to be handed an automatic rifle and four ammo clips
by the soldiers on the floor. The beer flows, the guns go. And I wonder
how this all squares with the ancient medical maxim, "Primum non
nocere"  -  First, do no harm.
    They are the self-described "expats," an unarmed army of nomadic
expatriates caring for Somalia's nomads.
    They are not volunteers. They have not taken leaves from jobs in the
United States or European countries in order to spend a few months
"helping" in Somalia. In fact, they say that those who have only come to
"help" are the ones who quickly burn out when they realize how relative
a term "help" is. No, these men and women, ranging in age from their 20s
to their 70s, are American and European expatriates who, as paid
employees of such nonprofit agencies as CARE, Save the Children and the
International Committee of the Red Cross, spend years and even decades
bouncing around the Third World from famine to civil war to flood to
earthquake and back to famine.
    They are nurses, like Dawn McRea, who after stints in trauma and
cardiac surgery units in Washington, D.C., spent a year as a "flight
nurse," accompanying high-paying patients being flown to medical care in
various parts of the United States, and then joined a nonprofit
health-care agency and ended up in Mogadishu. Or Mary Lightfine, who
left an emergency-room job in Tampa, Fla., because she "couldn't stand
the attitude of the patients  -  always demanding that you do this or
that for them." Or Michella Kelly, who has worked in the Sudan, El
Salvador, Romania and now Somalia. "Where else could someone like me
order around a bunch of guys with AKs?" she asks, facetiously, referring
to the Somalis armed with AK-47s who guard the International Medical
Corps compound in Belet Huen.
    Kelly, like many other expats, says she's adopted the life for its
sense of adventure, for the fact that the people she cares for seem
appreciative of that care and, oh yes, because she is doing something
socially useful.
    And then there is "Mr. Bill," Bill Allen, 73, who after eight years
in the British army and 27 years as a Liverpool firefighter, set out for
Australia and ended up instead in Los Angeles. There the self-described
"logician"  -  generator repairman, warehouse builder and
jack-of-all-trades  -  somehow found his way to IMC's headquarters,
where "they said they needed someone to go to Pakistan, so I went." That
was five years ago, and he's still on the road.
`It Is Very Shameful'
    Hassan Bulle Hussein had been accepted for admission to Somalia's
medical school, in Mogadishu, when the civil war broke out and shredded
the fabric of his life.
    "The common life became very difficult," says Hussein, 23, who now
works as a translator and rural health program administrator for a
relief agency. "The only thing we were thinking about was how safe we
    Hussein is a member of a powerful subclan in Belet Huen, a town of
about 50,000 near the Ethiopian border. But he did not join his fellow
clan members in USC  -  the United Somali Coalition  -  in fighting
against the forces of former dictator Siad-Barre. "I feel that it is
very shameful to have a gun and hurt your own people," he says,
explaining why he did not join the fighting.
     "Your own people? You mean your clan members?" he is asked.
   "No," he says, at once earnest and indignant, "the Somalian people.
They are all my people."
    Time is a relative concept, and nowhere is it more relative than in
the nations of the Third World.
    The flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,  to the city and nation of
Djibouti  was scheduled to leave at 8:15 a.m., but the announcement
board says the flight is "delayed" and will now leave at 11. According
to my watch, it is 8:57 a.m. According to four large clocks in the
airport waiting room, for the two hours I have been sitting here it has
been 6:02 or 5:45 or 6:03 or 5:49. I wonder what time Ethiopian Airlines
 thinks it is  -  and cease to wonder why nothing here occurs "on
`Beau Geste'
    A military base, built "in the time of Siad-Barre," stands on the
edge of the town of Hoddur. While the roofs, window frames, doors and
everything inside the long, single-story masonry structures were, like
everything else in the town, looted during the 18-month Somali civil
war, the walls themselves still stand.
    Now the base is a temporary home to French troops  -  including
Foreign Legionnaires  -  stationed here.
    On the dusty plain in front of the fort are 25 town wells, which
various relief agencies have chlorinated to make the water in them safe
for human consumption. So now, in the shimmering heat of mid-afternoon,
nomads with dozens of camels and goats, and townspeople with their
children and donkey carts, are gathered at the wells outside the walls
of what, for all the world, looks to be a 19th Century fort.
    In the distance, the French tricolor flag flies in the dust-laden
wind above the pale yellow masonry of the fort. And all that is missing
is Gary Cooper, striding across the dun-colored plain, wearing the
uniform and white kepi of the Foreign Legion.
The Masai
    They were standing on the corner beside the Nairobi Hilton, two
tall, handsome, Masai men clearly disoriented by their surroundings.
Both had their ears sculpted and stretched in the traditional manner,
adorned with large earrings. Both wore multiple beaded neck collars and
traditional togalike garments. And each was wearing a dirty, worn,
ill-fitting suit coat over his tribal garb, and battered black leather
shoes on his sockless feet.
    The two men looked around, apparently trying to get their bearings.
They then turned and began walking back in the direction from which they
had come.
    A group of "modern" Kenyans stood on the sidewalk outside the hotel,
hawking trinkets and imploring white tourists,
    As the Masai walked away, these city cousins pointed at them and
Strangers in a Strange Land
       I am having dinner in a Nairobi hotel restaurant one evening with
a young black American writer, and he tells me that he is finding his
first trip to Africa unsettling. He says he came here expecting to be
accepted by black Africans in much the same way an American of Italian
extraction might hope to be accepted in rural Italy. "But these people
don't see themselves as black," he said. "They see themselves as
Kenyans, or as Africans. And they don't see me as black: They see me as
an American."
    Can it be that conscious awareness of one's own race is a function
of being part of a minority? That may account for why, in America, I
think of myself simply as an American, rather than as a white American.
But here, where I am a bit of white flotsam on a black sea, I am acutely
aware of being white, and it is an extremely uncomfortable feeling. For
it is impossible to separate myself from the baggage of racism,
colonialism and exploitation that is the white legacy here.
    During my downtime on this trip I have discovered the works of
Nadine Gordimer, the white South African Nobel Prize-winner whose
writing exposes the reality of black-white relations on this continent
the way a pathologist's scalpel exposes the muscle, bone and nerve
fibers of the body. And reading Gordimer makes me even more aware of my
race, and of the fact that meaning well may mean nothing.
    For there is nothing I can do to change the fact that, on this
continent, I am one of a people who have overstayed their welcome, not
because we were not welcome to stay, but because we behaved as invaders
rather than what in fact we were  -  uninvited guests, strangers in a
strange land.
The Golden Glow
    In the harsh white glare  -  and 122-degree heat  -  of the midday
sun it is difficult to find beauty in rural Somalia:
    For most of the day the round mud huts look exactly like what they
are  -  houses made of reddish-brown dirt. The unforgiving light sharply
illuminates every bit of animal and human waste littering the ground,
and the often-bright colors of the traditional sari-like clothing worn
by the women seem to fade into the dust that is everywhere.
    But from sunrise to about eight in the morning, and from about 4:30
in the afternoon until sundown, something magical happens here:
    For those brief hours, particularly in the late afternoon, there is
an ethereal quality to the light that turns the brown of the huts to
gold and turns the dusty air to a light-tan scrim. It is then that this
land takes on a beauty rarely seen anywhere else. This barren dust bowl
is transformed from a place of immense sadness and destitution into a
land of mystery and imagination, where women and men, their day's work
done, are seen in the distance, colorful cloth whipped about them by the
wind, as they walk toward their exotic huts of gold.

Copyright 1993, Newsday Inc.
Newsday medical writer, columnist B.D. Colen just completed amonth's =
in Somalia, east Africa, Journey To Somalia., 02-07-1993, pp 06.=20

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