A day in the life of a humanitarian photographer

My alarm sounds, but I’ve already been awake for a while — unable to sleep through the night due to the flurry of thoughts, concerns and excitement running through my mind. I have a big day ahead of me and I don’t want to oversleep or be late.

The sun rose early, encouraging me to start my day in spite of my puffy, tired eyes. Nightmares caused by my anti-malaria medicine the past couple of days have left their mark on my face. A quick look in the mirror confirms my expectation: the deep, dark circles underneath my eyes betray my rough nights.

After a fast shower with cold water and a generous application of sunscreen and mosquito repellant (I always come prepared), I’m ready to go. I’m craving a cup of coffee, but I know that there will be no access to a bathroom for many hours, so I avoid all fluids.

I double check my camera equipment: battery full, SD card inserted, lenses covered. My phone is fully charged, because I’ll need it to save the consent forms from those who are interviewed or photographed. I feel a slight pang of frustration as I realize that there is no internet or phone signal where I’m working, and wonder if I’m missing any important e-mails.

It takes several more hours of driving on bumpy, muddy, winding roads to reach our destination in rural Burundi. The scenery along the way is awe-inspiring and I ask my driver to pull over a few times so I can try to capture the beauty of this country with my camera. Try as I might, it never does it justice.

Photo © IOM 2020 / Amber Christino

We finally reach the project site and as soon as I step out of the vehicle, I’m surrounded by children who find the color of my skin to be both unusual and hilarious. They reach for my hair, my skin, and yell out “Bonjour!” “Hello!” “How are you?” and when I reply, dissolve into a fit of laughter. My heart expands just a little.

I’m given a tour of the activity they’re working on thanks to the support of my organization: some are making soap, others are cutting hair or harvesting beans with the skills they developed after receiving vocational training and a start-up kit — I can finally see first-hand the results of the projects we designed months, even years earlier.

I introduce myself with the help of a translator and regret that I don’t speak the local dialect to be able to communicate effortlessly. I only hope that my eyes, body language and expression convey that my intentions are good, that I respect them and am here to learn from their experience — and to do my small part in advocating on their country’s behalf at the local, regional and global level.

I listen to the story of a young mother who was unable to send her children to school before she received culinary training to open up a small restaurant, which is now successful. My mind goes back to the late nights and weekends spent pouring over budgets, logframes and proposals — using every last ounce of my energy, patience and willpower to push these projects through, sometimes at great personal cost. It felt lonely and frustrating at the time, but today I feel nothing but quiet, deep gratitude for the work that brought us all here today.

I show her the application on my phone which will capture her photo, signature and consent to publish her story in the future. I can see she is a little embarrassed at her dirty fingers, covered in the food she was preparing only minutes before our encounter. I try to reassure her with my smile, tracing my finger over the screen and showing her how to sign her name. We laugh together when she finally succeeds.

I quickly adjust my camera settings in function of the light, whether we are inside her dark restaurant or just outside. I try to make myself invisible as I take photos and videos of the women working diligently to prepare today’s meal, but it’s clear that my presence represents a momentous occasion for the entire neighborhood. Nonetheless, I squat in the dirt, carefully navigate the mud or stand on chairs to capture the angle that I want — fully aware that the small crowd forming around me is attune to my every move.

When it comes time to interview her, it’s difficult to find an isolated spot where she will feel most comfortable because hordes of children and adults follow me everywhere I go; before I know it, I am fully encircled. But I know from past experience that I need to provide a private, safe space for those who are being interviewed — otherwise the pressure of their community’s careful watch will result in stiff, predictable answers. After a few moments, I gently but firmly insist on moving away from the crowd.

Photo © IOM 2020

I ask her questions directly while looking in her eyes, even though I know a translator will need to help convey my message afterwards. I’m surprised, once again, at the willingness of complete strangers to open up and share their unimaginable hardships with me — despite the fact that we only met a few minutes ago.

I think back on the day someone tried to discourage me from interviewing refugees in France, assuming they wouldn’t want to relive their trauma with someone they hardly knew (they were wrong). But now more than ever, I am reminded of the innate human desire to connect with one another; a little kindness goes a long way, and when given the opportunity I find that most people are more than willing to share their story. I never take this for granted.

Halfway through the interview I realize that someone nearby is blaring the radio on some kind of amplifier or loudspeaker. The loud static captures my attention and I lean in closer with my camera — which until now has been recording the interview — and hope that my subject’s voice won’t be drowned out by all the noise. I can feel sweat dripping down my back as I try to hold the camera steady since I don’t have a tripod. Not exactly ideal conditions, but I make do.

After we finish discussing the positive impacts that have resulted from the project we created, she tells me that she doesn’t have enough money to pay for medicine that her handicapped son needs, and also that when it rains each day, her damaged roof fails to prevent it from pouring inside her small house. She wonders if we can help her with those things too?

I pause, not wanting to say the wrong thing and create false hope. I reply to her that I’m very sorry to hear about her son’s medicine and her leaky roof, but that right now we only have enough money for the project she’s been involved in. But the reason why I’m here is to learn from her experience and show the rest of the world what’s going on in Burundi, so that people become more interested and hopefully more projects will be created as a result. It’s the truth, but I know that in all likelihood, even if there is another project she will not be among the population who is selected — but I don’t mention that. She gives me a sad smile of understanding and shakes my hand.

Once we finish the interview, she expresses her desire for us to taste the results of her hard work, inviting us to share a meal at her restaurant. My colleagues and I politely decline but eventually give in after she insists; it feels rude to reject her generosity but also wrong to eat this precious food when so many people around us are hungry. Another tough decision to make. We ask for a tiny portion and divide it amongst us.

Photo © IOM 2020 / Amber Christino

After establishing some rapport with her (and unexpectedly sharing a meal), it’s now time for me take her portrait so that a face can accompany her powerful words when I eventually put them down on paper. I bring her to areas where we can be alone, or nearly alone, in the hopes of eliciting a more natural reaction than the typical solemn pose I get upon first request.

In my broken Kirundi, I smile and tell her that she’s beautiful — because she really, truly is — and that’s enough for her to break out into a laugh. I quickly snap away and double check that I got the shot; the lighting, focus and positioning need to be just right. When I’m satisfied with my work, I walk over to her and show her the photos I’ve just taken. Her face lights up at seeing her reflection in the camera and once again, she’s smiling from ear to ear. This is my favorite moment of the day.

On the drive back to my hotel, I quickly sort through the photos I’ve taken and delete the ones I won’t use. I put my camera away in time to admire the sun as it descends across the lake separating Burundi from the DRC, quickly disappearing from the horizon in an explosion of light pink and orange hues. I feel a combination of sadness from all that I witnessed today and gratitude for the fact that I’m actually here, doing this work that I love so profoundly. A lifetime of deliberate choices, dedication and a lot of good fortune landed me here — and no matter how tired I am, I know these are the moments I will carry with me forever.

I check in to my hotel room and to my dismay, discover that the power has been out for several hours and no one knows when it will return. My mind immediately races to my camera, wondering how I will charge it for tomorrow’s interviews without any electricity. But then I remember, I always come prepared. There’s a spare battery in my backpack just waiting to be put to use.

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.

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