A few days in, I was determined to get over my fear of photographing people. It's a fear I have everywhere I go, but it was magnified since landing in Kenya. The self-proclaimed "people day" resulted in what was simultaneously my best and worst photography day. I found some of my strongest photos hidden in the snaking alleys of Mombasa's Old Town. Much to my chagrin, I also found one of my biggest weaknesses.
The best part came when I was walking a few blocks ahead of Mike and Thushan, and in doing so stepped out of my comfort zone, too. I find it very difficult, at times, to get into a photo groove when there is someone around me who loves taking photos as much as I do.
Why? I am all too often concerned with what others are thinking. To clarify, note that I did not say "about me." When I stumble into someone's orbit, I am always wondering if it offsets them in a negative way. Long story short: this doesn't bode all that well, journalistically speaking. Getting the story - in my case, the photo - is much easier if one is at least partially aloof. Thushan's got this down to a science. That's not meant to be an insult; it's actually quite impressive.
This leads direclty into the not-so-best part. During our Old Town tour, while about to take a photo of a street scene, a teenager (with what must have been a brick, rather than a chip, on his shoulder) shouted in my general direction, "It's not fair, sista. It is not fair. This is not London. You are not on safari. These are not animals to photograph." With that, he rounded the corner and was gone. Had I been in my element, I would have snickered and replied with some ever-so-slightly sarcastic retort. But this was not Boston (or London, for that matter). I had yet to press down the shutter and suddenly felt very exposed myself. And then, in the middle of the beautifully dark and sunny dust-filled streets of Old Town, the strangest thing happened: I cried.
In fact, uncontrollable sobbing would be a more valid description. Not wanting to be seen, I stepped off into a corner. Thushan, having seen and heard what had unfolded, followed me. "Just shake it off," he said. I bit my lip, trying to do just that, but the tears kept flowing. Our unofficial tour guide was unsure of how to handle this unstable white girl. I walked on, trying unsuccessfully to shake my shakiness. We passed women selling small boxes of red rose tips. He picked up a box and brought it to my nose, nodding and smiling, "Smell. Nice, yes? Do not be sad."
Eventually I walked it off. It didn't take long to realize why this young man's words affected me so much. Even setting aside my Caulfield-esque tendencies, the not-so-deep-down truth is this: I'd asked myself several times what the heck we were really doing there. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we were doing Kenya a solid; we were spreading the word that the country is safe. We were bringing the word to you, fellow travelers, to make haste. We were telling people to go on safari to this amazing country. But at street level, what was I actually giving to these people I was taking photographs of?
We'd read on the plane on our way to Kenya (i.e.-too late) that a great thing to bring is a Polaroid camera, because a large number of Kenyans have never seen a picture of themselves. We could not find a store that sold one, but were able to share a bit of instant gratification with our subjects, thanks to digitality, showing them what they looked like on the 2 inch screen on the back of our cameras. Likewise, we've promised to send prints to those who requested them. My heart's in the right place. A change in mindset was all that was needed to "brush off the haters and move on," as a good friend of mine would say.
On our way out of Mombasa, we took the long way to the train station so we could see the missable, but nonetheless infamous Tusks. Back on the train, everyone remembered us from our trip days prior. The train manager, Rufus, arranged for a cab to pick us up in Voi. This was a huge help, as we were to disembark at 11pm in the middle of a town that was even further off the beaten path, which is saying a lot in Kenya these days. All the negative aspects of the day were easily washed away with a 35 shilling (50 cent) Coca Cola. They really do taste better in glass bottles.