dancing to freedom

“My greatest hope with teaching dance is to offer people that glimpse of inner freedom we’re all born with–the spark of divinity within us,” says Tara Murphy, an African dance performer and teacher whom I recently photographed dancing on a Cape Cod beach.

“I put on that music and danced all around the house. I was so consumed with the rhythm, I just couldn’t stop dancing. Here I was in Minnesota surrounded by snow, dancing like crazy to African rhythms. I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Tara Murphy says of her first exposure to the music of Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian Yoruba who came to America in the 1950s and popularized African drumming.

The first time I ever saw Tara Murphy dance, I knew I wanted to photograph her. She was like a bird recently uncaged, flying through the air with an appreciation of its own freedom and joyousness. It was stunning to watch. I finally had the opportunity to photograph Tara dancing at a beach on a beautiful summer evening a few weeks ago. The experience of photographing her was as inspiring as that first time I watched her dance. At times, I thought she might fly off into great blue Cape Cod sky. Afterwards we sat down to talk about her dancing and the story behind it.

One of Tara’s most striking comments during our conversation was this: “My greatest hope with dance is to offer people that glimpse of inner freedom we’re all born with–the spark of divinity within us.” Tara was born in Washington D.C. to an African-American mother and Irish-American father in 1969. Her parents had married when interracial marriage was still illegal in most states in the U.S. Later, after her parents divorced and her mother remarried, the family moved to Northfield, Minnesota where Tara’s family was one of two black families. While the community was quite open, she grew up hearing painful stories from her grandmother about growing up in the segregated south. “I inherited the burden of those memories and still think there’s so much healing that needs to happen,” she says.

Tara became immersed in ballet during childhood but by the time she was 16, she felt she was losing her connection to dance because of the undue focus on outward appearance in ballet. Because of the pressure to be thin, she developed an eating disorder. Just about this time, she happened upon a vintage record of Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian Yoruba who came to America and popularized African drumming in the 1950s. “I put on that music and danced all around the house. I was so consumed with the rhythm, I just couldn’t stop dancing. Here I was in Minnesota surrounded by snow, dancing like crazy to African rhythms. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I think at the time I made an unconscious deep spiritual connection with this music,” she explains.

A few years later, Tara would have her first real exposure to African dance while in college doing a study abroad program in Accra, Ghana. She took dance classes, hung out with the National Dance Company of Ghana and was immersed in the culture of Ghana. Even though she had a ballet background, she transitioned to African dance quite naturally. “I really lacked exposure to African culture growing up so my choosing African dance was very much about reclaiming my roots and embracing that heritage,” she says.

African Dance continued to play a major role in her life but it was only when she moved to Cape Cod in 2001 with her husband that she first began teaching it. “No one else was doing it in the area and I found myself in demand. A few years later she developed a group of local dedicated dancers that she performs with. Her classes and performances are accompanied by several professional drummers and a master African drummer, Issa Coulibaly, from Mali, who leads the performances.

In addition to getting people excited about African dance and drumming, Tara hopes to educate people about the context out of which the dances emerged. “I want people to understand the sophistication and complexity of the rhythms, the purpose of the dance forms which are often used to usher in life events like birth, death, marriage, initiation into adulthood etc. and how dancing and drumming create a healing connectedness and community which we’ve lost to some degree in our culture.”

Tara’s classes (capecodafricandanceanddrum.com) have inspired a passionate following. “Dance is the one thing that takes me to that place of peace and stillness and that’s what I care more about than getting a movement ‘right’,” she explains. “I want people to know that ultimate freedom, natural access to a heightened experience of being alive without drugs”.

creatures strange and beautiful

A galapagos penguin shares a rock with marine iguanas on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.–Charles Darwin

I don’t consider myself a nature photographer but I have spent perhaps some of my happiest moments in the wilderness–in South Africa as a child, on assignment in India and Tanzania and, in a less dramatic sense, on daily walks in the woods with my dog, Winnie the Pooch. I find it comforting to know that the animal world exists outside of human control. While we may have an impact on the habitat or health of wild animals, their daily rituals are played out completely independently of our actions or will. I was reminded of this recently when I spent a week in the Galapagos and had the honor of observing and photographing the unique and extraordinary creatures that have evolved on the islands over millions of years.

Looking at the unusual animals I saw in the Galapagos, I could not help but be profoundly aware of the role they played in leading Darwin to his understanding of natural selection and his theory of evolution. Darwin’s discovery that almost all the animals and plants in the Galapagos were unique to those isolated islands catalyzed one of the most revolutionary ideas in history and changed how we think of ourselves as human beings. Below are some of the strange and beautiful creatures that Darwin saw on his visit in 1831.

A galapagos land iguana carries a cactus fruit before eating it on South Plaza Island. Because there is very limited fresh water in the Galapagos, the iguana gets most of its moisture from the cactus plant. Darwin described land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance”. I personally think they are quite beautiful.

A swallow-tailed gull wings over the ocean on South Plaza Island. Strangely, this gull forages at night and their white forms appeared quite eery and ghost-like as they plunge into the ocean in the darkness.

A juvenile swallow-tailed gull practices flapping its wings in preparation for flight. While it is still to young to get off the ground, we watched it repeatedly jump while flapping–clearly enthusiastic to get to the next step.

Three marine iguanas, found only on the Galapagos Islands, lounge on a rock on Isabela Island. The marine iguana is the only modern lizard that lives and forages in the sea and its primary food source is marine algae. Because they have to rid their bodies of excess salt, one can often see marine iguanas making a sort of sneezing sound and expelling water and salt from their noses!

More marine iguanas.

A Galapagos sea lion mother snuggles with her pup on Espanola Island. I was struck by how affectionate and social the Galapagos sea lions are. One rarely sees a sea lion that isn’t spooning or teasing or playing with another sea lion. As with so many of the animals in the Galapagos, they seemed utterly unafraid of our human presence. If anything, they seemed more curious and there were numerous snorkeling experiences in which we were surrounded by playful sea lions swimming and dancing around us, often coming so close we could have touched them.

A Galapagos sea lion barks, perhaps summoning her pup, on Isabela Island.

Two sea lions share a nose-to-nose moment on Fernandina Island.

A Galapagos sea lion jumps playfully out of the water off the coast of Florian Island.

Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle around on a volcanic rock on Isabela Island. While the adult crabs are brightly colored, young crabs are very dark and camouflage well on the lava rocks.

Two black-necked stilts forage for small crabs, fish and snails in a brackish pond on Dragon Hill Island.

A female lava lizard makes a meal out of a dragonfly on Isabela Island.

A male blue-footed booby tries to catch the attention of his female partner by performing a courtship ritual on Isabela Island. Apparently, the name “booby” comes from the Spanish word “bobo” which means “clown” or “fool” or ‘stupid”. They earned this name because of their clumsy movements on land. Famous for their mating dance, the male booby will spread his wings and lift his blue feet high off the ground to impress his female partner with whom he mates for life.

A great blue heron calls out loudly on Isabela Island. I was so struck by how unafraid this heron was of us. I see great blue herons all the time on Cape Cod but one cannot get anywhere close to them before they fly off with a harsh croak, as if expressing their dismay at one’s presence. The great blue herons in the Galapagos primarily eat marine iguanas, lava lizards and common fish.

A beautiful yellow warbler eats an insect on South Plaza Island.

A Galapagos giant tortoise–the creature for which the Galapagos Islands were named–raises it extraterestrial-looking head on Isabela Island. The Galapagos giant tortoise is the largest tortoise species in the world and can weigh up to 880 pounds. It is also known for its longevity, living over 100 years in the wild and almost 200 in captivity. Sadly, the tortoises nearly became extinct after whaling ships took them in great numbers for food. Because they were able to live without food and water for almost a year, they were brought on board and kept upside-down until they were ready to be eaten. The image of these beautiful creatures lying upside-down for months is heartbreaking. Breeding and release programs, which started in 1965, saved them from near-extinction and their numbers continue to grow today.

Whale bones are left undisturbed on the lava rock on Fernandina Island while in the distance, a rainbow arcs up dramatically.

Ikiwa’s world

Ikiwa Abdulla arranges her hijab using a small broken mirror in her home in Fumba, Zazibar. I spent time with Ikiwa while working on a story about an aquaculture project that hopes to teach rural women in Zanzibar how to cultivate shellfish as an alternative form of protein. After documenting the scientific aspect of the project in the shellfish hatchery, spending time in Ikiwa’s world really personalized the project for me and made me see the potential impact the project’s success could have on her life.

Ikiwa Abdulla walks out almost a mile onto the shellfish flats to gather shellfish in Fumba, Zanzibar. The temperature is scorching and Ikiwa, along with other women from her village, spend most of the day bent over double, digging into the sand to find clams, cockles, oysters and conchs. As Zanzibar’s shellfish stocks become more and more depleted, women like Ikiwa have to walk out further and further into the ocean at low tide to reach the wild shellfish that remain.

Over the last two winters, I spent some time in Zanzibar working on a story about an aquaculture project that hopes to help women like Ikiwa. A collaborative effort by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Island Creek Oysters Foundation, both based in Massachusetts, the project hopes to teach rural women in Zanzibar how to cultivate shellfish and help replenish shellfish stocks in a part of the world where protein is in shorter and shorter supply and economic opportunities for rural women are few and far between.

While I spent quite a bit of time documenting the scientific aspect of the project in the shellfish hatchery where experiments are being done to find the best way to cultivate a healthy, consistent local species of shellfish seed, the most extraordinary part of my experience was the time I spent with Ikiwa. Except for her cell phone, Ikiwa’s world appeared to me much as I imagined it must have been for the people of Zanzibar hundreds of years before. The home she shares with her extended family is made of stones, sticks and straw. She cooks over open fire and the house has neither electricity nor running water.

After spending a day on the shelffish flats with Ikiwa and the other women, I noticed how labor-intensive their work was and how little food they returned home with. There is a long tradition of harvesting shellfish in the wild in the coastal villages of east Africa. Typically the women who harvest them bring them back and boil them to extract meat from the shells. Without access to refrigeration, this renders the shellfish meat in a form that is relatively easy to keep for a few days without spoiling.

While the women use some of the shellfish to feed their families, they sell most of it at the daily food market. Witnessing Ikiwa’s struggle to bring home enough shellfish to feed her family and also make a small profit, the aquaculture project’s potential impact on her life really struck me.

At the end of her long day gathering shellfish, Ikiwa bathed using a bucket. I was particularly struck by the care with which she then took to arrange her hijab using a small broken mirror (see image above). Below are a few more images from Ikiwa’s world.

Ikiwa walks out almost a mile onto the shellfish flats to gather shellfish in Fumba, Zanzibar. As Zanzibar’s shellfish stocks become more and more depleted, women like Ikiwa have to walk out further and further into the ocean at low tide to reach the shellfish that remain.

Despite scorching temperatures, Ikiwa and other women from her village spend most of the day bent over double, digging into the sand to find clams, cockles, oysters and conchs.

Three young sisters spend the day collecting shellfish for their family to eat.

Ikiwa heads home with her bucket of shellfish balanced on her head.

On returning home, Ikiwa boils the shellfish she harvested on an open fire. Typically the women who harvest shellfish boil them to extract meat from the shells. Without access to refrigeration, this renders the shellfish meat in a form that is relatively easy to keep for a few days without spoiling.

Ikiwa and her extended family clean the shellfish and remove the meat from the shells. While the women use some of the shellfish to feed their families, they sell most of it at the daily food market. Witnessing Ikiwa’s struggle to bring home enough shellfish to feed her family and also make a small profit, the aquaculture project’s potential impact on her life really struck me.

A detail shot of Ikiwa and her cousin cleaning and separating the shellfish.

Ikiwa grinds coconut for the shellfish sauce she is making from her day’s take. Behind her is the open fire the sauce will be cooked on.

Ikiwa’s shellfish sauce cooks on the open fire in her kitchen–the delicious end product of a long day of work.

the red-eyed women

Sayi Mwandu, 56, who had her fingers cut off after she was accused of being a witch, is photographed in her room in Kolandoto, a protective institution in Shinyanga, Tanzania. Mwandu was accused of witchcraft after her eyes turned red from overexposure to smoke from cooking fires. Below is the tale of my thwarted attempt to tell the painful story of Tanzania’s red-eyed women.

A few years ago, when I presented one of my multi media pieces to a photojournalism class at Miami University in Ohio, a woman in the audience told me about the red-eyed women issue in Tanzania. She had just returned from an exchange program there and had been horrified to learn about the persecution of older women whose eyes had turned red from overexposure to cooking fires. Apparently, because of the color of their eyes, these women were believed to be witches and were either threatened, maimed, run out of the village or killed. I’ve always been drawn to projects about women’s issues and immediately started researching the story.

When I finally had the opportunity to pursue the story last year, I made contact with several organizations in the area where the red-eyed women issue was most prevalent. We emailed back and forth over several months and I made arrangements to meet with them when I got to Tanzania. After working on another story in Zanzibar, I headed to north-western Tanzania with a sense of anticipation and perhaps a little clairvoyant trepidation.

I won’t go into the details of what happened over the weeks that followed but to summarize, I found myself confronted with a degree of corruption I had not anticipated. Despite jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops that were presented to me by local authorities, I was blocked over and over again from getting anywhere. I began to suspect that the non-governmental organization I was working with–which proclaimed to provide support for the red-eyed women– was no more invested in changing things or giving me access than the authorities were. I soon felt as if I was caught up in some kind of ancient myth where I was sent to slay a dragon, swing a lion around by its toe three times and find the impossibly small golden key before gaining journalistic access. I soon realized that the bureaucratic blocks I was running into were an attempt to prevent me from working on a story which reflected poorly on local authorities and on the Tanzanian government.

In the process of my frustrating and fantastical experience, I did find out some frightening truths behind the red-eyed women issue. The first thing that surprised me was that the accusations of witchcraft were not solely a product of superstition. Many of the accusations were launched when an older woman was occupying property someone wanted. In Tanzania, when a woman’s husband dies, she does not inherit the land but may live on it as long as she is alive. When she dies, the oldest son or, in the case of no male child, the oldest nephew, automatically inherits the land.

It is not uncommon in Tanzania for older women’s eyes to turn very red from years of exposure to smoke in small enclosed spaces. When one of the family members decides that they want to get rid of the woman to gain access to their inherited land, they begin a rumor in the village about her being a witch. The already present superstition coupled with a culture of misogyny means the accusation is immediately taken seriously. A villager’s death, crop failure, drought or illness provides further support for the accusation. Soon after, a letter is sent to the woman accusing her of being a witch and telling her she must leave the village or be killed. It struck me that there is so little fear of being prosecuted for this crime that the accusers are willing to put a death threat in writing.

Soon after, if she does not leave of her own free will, someone is contracted to threaten the woman (often by maiming her) or kill her. Prosecuting cases of murder related to witchcraft has proven very difficult. The person who actually commits the murder is often brought in from a distant village and few witnesses are willing to testify against him. Powerful cultural beliefs about witches and witchcraft further dissuade community members from coming forward as they don’t want to become the target of witchcraft themselves. There have recently been some efforts made to introduce “smokeless stoves” to prevent women from developing red eyes and supply them with a more convenient way to cook but these efforts are still in their infancy.

After several week of trying to gain access to this story, I realized the forces I was up against were far greater than myself. This was a self-funded project and I had limited time, money and support. I did manage to spend one afternoon at a protective home where several women who had survived the ordeal were housed. Sayi Mwandu, 56 (photographed above), told me her story through a translator. It mirrored almost perfectly the story detailed above. After ignoring the letter she received, a man came into her home and cut off her fingers. She ran away and an organization arranged for her to stay at Kolondoto, an institution originally created to house people with leprosy. She now lives with 42 other people, many of whom are also missing extremities due to their leprosy. Since she no longer cooks in a small, enclosed space, her eyes have returned to their normal color. In the telling of her story, her anger and sadness were very palpable. She felt enormously betrayed by the people she’d known and loved all her life. I left feeling even more urgently that this story needed to be told.

The “red-eyed women” of Tanzania are emblematic of the kind of disempowerment and violence many women in poor communities struggle with all over the world. While I’m not sure when or if I’ll return to this story, I have added my portrait of Sayi Mwandu to my collection of images about women’s lives and the human rights issues that still persist globally. This experience, while difficult and frustrating for me, only strengthened my commitment to focusing on stories about women and their struggle to empower themselves.

the art of losing

I photographed artist, Coco Larrain, at her home the day before she had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Coco documented her first experience with cancer 15 years ago through painting and drawing. “I’ve always done self-portraits and documenting myself going through the cancer treatment process helped me look at my body objectively and get outside of what I was feeling,” she says. While she still plans to use art to process her current experience with cancer, she felt having someone else photograph her before her surgery would be helpful.

While I was in Morocco a few weeks ago, I received an email from Coco Larrain, a wonderful artist I know on Cape Cod. She told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time and was going be having a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Could I do some portraits of her before the operation, she asked. A few days after I returned from my trip and literally the day before Coco’s surgery, I photographed her at her home.

The experience of photographing Coco surprised me. She was unflinching and vulnerable at the same time and I left struck by the enormity of what she was about to go through. I had a sense that there was more to this than creating some “before” photos, both for myself and for her.

Coco had been diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years earlier and during her treatment, had documented her experience through drawings and paintings. “I’ve always done self-portraits and documenting myself going through the cancer treatment process helped me look at my body objectively and get outside of what I was feeling,” she says. “I think it helped me be more accepting,” she adds. One of her self-portraits from this time period ran on the cover of the American Journal of Nursing and other articles have been written about her and the connection between art and healing.

While Coco had taken some photos of herself after the cancer reappeared recently, she thought having a professional photographer document her would be helpful. Inspired by our first session, I have since returned multiple times to photograph her. A few days ago, I posted a series of images in a private online gallery for Coco to see, slightly anxious about how she would experience them. I hoped that she would be able to see the powerful, brave woman I did.

When I picked up the phone the next morning and heard Coco’s voice, I realized she was crying. Concerned, I waited to hear if she was okay. “This is the first time I’ve cried during this whole process,” she said. She told me seeing herself through someone else’s perspective enabled her to really see what she’s gone through…and what she’s survived. I was so moved by Coco’s emotional response to the photos and touched that our collaboration could be healing for her. Below is some of Coco’s work from her first cancer experience.

Me Going Through Chemo, Chemo Going Through Me by Coco Larrain, oil on canvas

Inner Child Prays by Coco Larrain, oil on canvas

“You’ll Be Okay”, I said to the Mirror by Coco Larrain, charcoal pencil on matt board

bread and olives with a Berber family

From left, Khina Boujnoui and her daughter, Fatima, share a moment of affection outside the family’s home in Tamda, Morocco. The women are part of a traditional Berber family that has been weaving for generations.

A few weeks before leaving for Morocco, I was photographing an assignment on the Cape and commented on the beautiful and unusual shoes my subject, Nathalie, was wearing. “They’re traditional Moroccan shoes,” she informed me. I told her I was leaving for Morocco soon. “You should visit this Berber family I know there,” she said. The indigenous ethnic group of Morocco, Berbers are traditionally nomadic and are known for their tapestries called “kilims”. “Four generations of weavers!” she said. “They’re wonderful. I’m sure they will welcome you.”

10 days into our trip, Mark and I found ourselves snaking our way into the Atlas Mountains up precarious roads with sheer drops just feet away. We were looking for the small town of Azilal where we’d arranged to connect with our Berber hosts, Fatima and Latifa.

Neither of us knew what to expect–showing up on this family’s doorstep, hoping to make some kind of human connection despite a significant language barrier–but I reminded myself of Nathalie’s enthusiasm and her words “I’m sure they will welcome you”. Within minutes of meeting Latifa and her mother, Fatima, I immediately understood why Nathalie had sent us to them.

That afternoon we went to the extended family’s home in Tamda where they have lived and weaved for generations. The family greeted us warmly and offered us mint tea, freshly baked bread, olives and some kind of delicious and mysterious Moroccan sweet. It struck me how pared down their world was. No computers, television, ipods, cars or any of the other trappings of our modern lives. Their world seemed much as it might have been hundreds of years before.

With her school English, Latifa acted as translator and by the time we left from Azilal the next morning, we’d had a Berber language lesson, a mehndi session (during which Latifa painted beautiful floral designs on my arms with henna and wrote, “makayene mauchkile”–translated as “no problem”–on Marks’ arm). We also shared a feast of lamb couscous eaten out of a large communal bowl which Fatima spent hours preparing.

While our time with the family was brief, it was perhaps the most genuine human connection we had with Moroccans on our trip. Throughout our trip, people constantly approached us to buy their wares or services and it was wonderful to spend time with this family without any expectation of financial exchange. In fact, when we asked if they sold their rugs and tapestries (thinking they might want us to buy one), they said no, they were for their own use. After we left, I thought about my observation of Nathalie’s shoes and how this small exchange had led to to such a rich experience.

The photos you’ll see below focus primarily on Fatima’s grandmother, Khina, the matriarch of the family and give just a small glimpse into her world. She lives surrounded by her extended family and the sheep whose wool they use to weave. Her warmth both towards us and with her family members really struck me and I hope these photos capture something of it and the world we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of.

Matriarch of the family, Khina Boujnoui continues to weave despite her age.

Khina picks up a kettle to make mint tea. In the foreground are the family’s sheep whose wool is used for weaving.

Khina looks up at her daughter and granddaughter after weaving on a communal loom.

Fatima holds her very young nephew in her family’s home in Tamda, Morocco. Right is her sister-in-law (the mother) who lives with her extended family in the home.

Fatima says goodbye to her family members outside their home before she and her daughter, Latifa, leave for their apartment in Azilal.

camels, sand and the seamless Sahara

A’arib nomad guide, Hassan Kachti, proud owner of three camels, leads one of his camels out to graze in the Chegaga dunes in the Sahara desert in Morocco. Sometimes he will have to walk as far as 20 km to find his camels at the end of the day. “That’s not far for us,” says Kachtii.

A’arib nomad guide, Hassan Kachti, proud owner of three camels, leads one of his camels out to graze in the Chegaga dunes in the Sahara desert in Morocco. Sometimes he will have to walk as far as 20 km to find his camels at the end of the day. “That’s not far for us,” says Kachtii.













The Sahara desert has always been a mythical place in my mind. Mysterious, romantic, intriguing, the backdrop to one of my favorite books, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s a place so storied, part of me doubted its existence in modern times. And yet here we were, in the Sahara with our nomad guide, Brahim, and the most seamless and beautiful landscape of sand and dunes one could imagine. The dunes are not only a visual feast but are so soft, one can run up and jump into them and feel as if one is landing in the silkiest of pillow piles.

And then of course, there are lots of camels. I learned quite a bit about camels during our few days. I spent some time photographing them early one morning before their owner, Hassan, led them out into the desert to graze for the day. I discovered they regurgitate their food and chew it…sideways with long, protruding teeth. They are very uncomfortable to ride (maybe because they move both legs on one side of their body at the same time) and don’t smell good. They also have beautiful long eye-lashes (a double row) and can smell water from 30km away!

I don’t know if it was the expansiveness of the desert or the quiet but we seemed to share a lot of thoughtful conversation as well as moments of great hilarity with Brahim and his brothers and cousins. By the time we left, we had Brahim hooked on scrabble and they had us playing a nomad strategy game using camel poop as pieces. I was a little skeptical at first but Hassan, proud owner of three camels, insisted is was “very clean and good”. At night, Brahim’s brothers and cousins played nomadic music on guitar, drums and glass tea cups and sang songs that have been passed down through the centuries.

We left the desert with sand in our eyes, hair and ears and the Sahara’s mystery still intact. Below are some of the images from our time there.

A fellow visitor to the Sahara collapses, exhausted after jumping into the dunes and walking up them numerous times.

Our nomad guide, Brahim Tfil, plays a scrabble move in one of the camp shelters in the Erg Chegaga region of the Sahara. Right is his cousin, Hassan Kachti. Later, Brahim and his brothers and cousins had Mark and I playing a nomad strategy game using camel poop as pieces.

Nordin Banna chews on a stick while looking out at the desert near the small town of M’Hamid. M’Hamid is the last town in the Draa Valley before reaching the Sahara.

A lone donkey is dwarfed by the massive dunes of the Erg Chegaga in the Sahara desert.

Two of Brahim’s cousins play music late one night. The accompanying songs are nomadic songs passed down through the centuries. “We all play music and sing,” says Brahim. It’s just what we do to entertain ourselves in the desert,” he adds.

A camel chews its food sideways after regurgitating it.

Sitting at the top of the highest dunes, the view of the Erg Chegaga is magnificent (and very windy).

A joyous moment–jumping into the silky, soft dunes of the Sahara.

portrait of a blue town

Children play in Chefchaouen’s medina (old city), a place famous for its striking blue walls.

Chefchaouen is a small medieval town in the Rif mountains of Northwest Morocco. The “medina” (old city) is surrounded by a large stone wall with 7 arched doorways. Once inside the pedestrians-only medina, one is confronted with a mind-boggling maze of narrow streets and alleyways, beautiful arches, hundreds of stairways and yes, most of the buildings are painted in shades of blue! It’s a stunning spectacle seeing towns people, donkeys, cats, children, shopkeepers and their colorful wares all against the backdrop of the brightly colored blue walls.

While I was here, I wanted to try to photograph more than just the beautiful architecture and striking colors, pretty though they are. It struck me that within these ancient walls, a lot of wonderful interaction happens very publicly every day. It was my hope to capture some of it.

Every morning and afternoon, old men gather in the town square to talk and people-watch together. Another group plays parcheesi outside a tea shop. Kids play near one of the numerous town fountains as a blind old man walks past, his cane making a soft ticking sound as it taps the stone ground. Some children do their homework on the steps of a hotel their family runs while nearby, a cat dozes in a doorway. These are some of the moments you’ll see in the photographs below.

A group of old men sit in the town square people-watching.

A little boy laughs at something at the top of one of the many stairways in the medina.

A woman walks her child home from school past a display of colorful clothes, offset by the striking blue walls.

Some men play a game of parcheesi outside a tea shop.

A cat lazes in one of the many colorful doorways of the medina.

A blind man walks past one of the medina’s public drinking fountains where children are gathered.

Some children do their homework on the steps of the hotel their family runs.

A girl laughs while she plays a skipping game with some friends.

Photographing Casablanca’s Grand Mosque

Before arriving in Casablanca, Morocco a few days ago, I was told most visitors get out of the city as quickly as possible. It’s true the city is gritty, chaotic and full of dinged-up cars that hold evidence of Casablanca’s seemingly lawless roads but then, off in the distance, at the edge of the Atlantic ocean …there’s the Grand Mosque.

Despite our hotel receptionist’s insistence that it was definitely too far for us to walk and probably already closed, Mark and I walked the few miles through Casablanca’s afternoon rush hour in hopes of catching the mosque during the “golden hour” before sunset. As we got closer, we saw a ghostly minaret rising up, back-lit and shrouded in fog. I found myself walking faster and faster, anxious to get to what looked like something extraordinary from a distance before the light was gone.

When we finally reached it, the mosque was even more enormous and otherworldly than I had imagined it would be. I knew it would be big because I had read that around 105,000 people could worship there at one time and that it was the 7th largest mosque in the world (with the tallest minaret), but I had not imagined that the grounds of it would serve as more than just a place of worship.

Families and friends gathered in small clusters, seemingly to talk or have an evening picnic while their children chased one another or raced around on scooters. A teenaged couple sat shyly next to one another in the garden area while another couple laughed over photos on their cell phone. An old man even sold white and pink-colored popcorn at the far end of the mosque, which we watched a small boy dump on the ground in an attempt to lure some pigeons over to chase. The ploy was a failure and the boy’s father seemed unimpressed. Everywhere there were arches, beautiful mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns.

It struck me that the mosque served as the sort of “Central Park” of Casablanca, providing a beautiful space to connect and relax, fall in love or just people-watch. We stayed until the very last bit of natural light was gone and watched it change colors and moods. As I was editing my photos, I noticed that the color palettes of my images were so varied despite the fact that they were shot relatively close together in time. I was aware, as I was photographing, that everywhere I turned, I was seeing new light and colors. The fog was heavy, then lifted, then seemed to return as the sun set and the light reflected off the buildings, the ocean and the multiple surfaces in such a variety of ways. It was exhilarating. Below are a few of my photographs.

lump-in-throat moments

A boy holds his puppy while he waits for it to get treatment at one of CLAW’s mobile clinics in Soul City, an impoverished shantytown on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

I spent the past week documenting a nonprofit organization called CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) that provides free veterinary services for the most impoverished shantytowns in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was so moved by the work they do and had many lump-in-throat moments.

While I was there, this dog was brought in with an embedded chain which had to be cut out of its neck (see photo below). Sadly, this is not an uncommon case and is a product of ignorance and a lack of access to proper collars and leashes…At the same time, despite the poverty, I saw people going to great lengths to get care for their dogs.

CLAW sets up mobile clinics in the shantytowns on specific days. Often people have to walk quite far to reach them and frequently, because they don’t have collars or leashes, they end up carrying their dogs. I saw this over and over–small boys or older women carrying dogs, struggling with the weight. Some children brought a series of dogs and when they were asked whose dogs they were, they answered their neighbor’s or friend’s or uncle’s.

Two boys wait in the rain for their dogs to receive treatment at a mobile clinic in Snake Park.

One case that sticks out in my mind was when a woman called CLAW to get her puppy which apparently wasn’t eating. She lives in the squatter area of Kliptown, one of the roughest townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg (ironically, a historic town where South Africa’s original “Freedom Charter” was first officially adopted). This part of Kliptown is made up of a bunch of small shanties pieced together from whatever people could find and built on top of each other. The roads are almost unnavigable because they are so potholed. A few horrendous-looking porta-potties are the only form of plumbing and the smell of sewage and burning rubber permeates the air (people burn tires to extract what little metal they can to sell). The place looks surreal–like a theatrical dramatization of humans living in hell.

When we found the woman, she took us to her small shanty. Her face was quite strikingly but she was so thin and worn-looking, it projected only pain. When Cora (CLAW’s intrepid founder and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met) examined the woman’s puppy, it was clear to her the animal had an advanced case of billary (tick bite fever). She told the woman we’d have to take the dog to the clinic for treatment and the woman carried her puppy to the CLAW vehicle. As she placed the puppy inside, I noticed that she had tears streaming down her face. I was so struck by this show of emotion–this woman who appeared so hardened clearly really loved her animal. She quietly asked when she could get her puppy back. Sadly, the puppy died overnight and it still pains me to think of her being told the news.

A woman carries her dog, which has an advanced case of billary, to the CLAW vehicle in Kliptown, South Africa.

Some of my lump-in-throat moments arose out of positive stories too. One morning Cora took me to a beautiful garden right next to a shantytown. She told me that, with some support from CLAW, the shantytown residents worked together to clear a rubbish dump and with a little training, created an exquisitely cared-for garden. Because they can’t afford pesticides, the gardeners make use of a worm farm to fertilize their soil. Cora told me that that interested community members were offered training in organic gardening and at the end of their training, they received a certificate. “Many of these people have never received a certificate in their lives,” Cora said. “So this was a big deal for them. They brought their whole families to the certificate ceremony.” I was so moved by this and struck by the beauty of the garden, the carefully created rows of carrots, lettuces, the lovely patch of herbs and the smell of lavender filling the air. “When I’m discouraged by everything I see, I come here and just walk in this garden,” Cora finished. Definitely a lump in throat moment.

Below are a few more images from my time with CLAW. Just the tip of the iceberg really but hopefully they will give you a small glimpse into CLAW’s world.

A very ill dog sits on the examining table in CLAW’s clinic.

Veterinary nurse, Maiday, comforts a dog after its wounds have been treated and wrapped.

Some puppies in a wheelbarrow and their ill mother are brought to a mobile clinic in Snake Park for CLAW to treat.

Cora Bailey and vet nurse, Jennifer Gerner, take out some posters that were used in a recent animal cruelty court case which CLAW was involved in.

township energy!

A boy jumps joyfully next to a woman selling chicken feet and entrails in a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am currently in South Africa working on a story about CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare), an organization that provides veterinary services for the most impoverished shantytowns and townships around Johannesburg.

Despite having the largest economy in Africa, many of the people who live in these areas have no running water, electricity or plumbing. I can’t really describe how many mind-blowing and painful moments I’ve had in the past few days, seeing how people struggle to maintain their dignity in almost impossible circumstances. Ironically, in the context of all of this, there is an extraordinary vitality that seems to pervade. The energy is palpable, especially in the early evenings when the weather is cooler and everyone seems to come out to play, talk, sing, pray, bet on an illegal chinese lotto game, sell street food, do errands or just hang out with friends.

Yesterday, at the very end of the day, I went with Cora, CLAW’s primary organizer, to pick up a sick dog. As we waited in a central area for someone to bring us the dog, I watched a spontaneous soccer game spring up in this small yard behind a barbed wire wire fence. Soccer is played everywhere in Africa. I watched many games played on the beach at sunset in Zanzibar until the players couldn’t see the ball anymore. Here, when kids don’t have a soccer ball, they play with a ball made out of plastic bags wadded up around a small rock.

I saw women selling chicken feet and entrails, another selling mealies (corn) cooked on a portable fire. I watched as two tiny girls tried to get a peek inside a window. One lifted the other up, almost dropping her on numerous occasions. The light was exquisite and everywhere there were long and massive shadows, almost as if people were being followed by stealthy giants. At one point, as I was photographing something else, I saw a boy running nearby. He suddenly jumped wildly, joyfully and I was so thrilled to have caught it on camera.

Later, as we headed back, we saw a small tent set up on the side of the road. We found out it was a revival and so we stopped and listened for a while as people danced and sang their hearts out–beautiful, strong voices. A few minutes later, Cora pointed to a group of people gathering in the dusky light for outdoor church services. I thought to myself that there is something very universal about this–people engaging in life, trying to make it meaningful no matter what the circumstances they find themselves in. Below are some of the images that came out of last night’s shoot.

Boys play soccer in a small yard behind a barbed wire fence.

A man paints an advertisement on the wall of a “tuck shop” (South African version of a snack shop) while another walks by.

This boy seemed so pensive in the midst of all the energy and chaos.

Two little girls try to get a peek inside a window.

I loved this woman’s strange and massive shadow–like a stealthy giant following her.

A boy brings a sick dog to Cora who was waiting to take it back to the clinic. CLAW treats animals in some of the poorest areas on the outskirts of Johannesburg where vet access is non-existent.

Paradise Lost

A woman is photographed with her puppy in Randfontein Refuse Center on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, where she, like many others, live in small shanties and survive off the refuse brought in every day. Residents sort and sell recyclable items and live off what edible food they can find thrown out by others. There is one faucet for the entire area and no electricity or plumbing at all.

My previous post was called “Paradise Found?” and was about the absolutely exquisite beach area of Nungwi, Zanzibar. In stark contrast, I’ve spent the past few days going into some of the most impoverished shantytowns and townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. I grew up in Johannesburg during the apartheid era and so this brief trip has been both powerful and painful in so many ways. I really feel as if I’ve spent a few days in a war zone and even Zanzibar’s country villages–where there is still no electricity and running water–look well-off (and safe) by comparison. Ironically, after all these years and much to my surprise, I feel as connected here as ever.

I’m documenting an organization called CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) that provides medical services for the surrounding townships’ animals (dogs, cats, pigs, goats etc.) Because the areas they live in are so poor and crime-ridden, they would otherwise have no access to veterinarians so CLAW shows up on specific days for “clinics” and local residents come flocking to them with their sick, injured or dying animals. They bring them in wheelbarrows and boxes or pull them on carts.

Despite poverty, people here value their dogs…primarily for the protection they provide them in a country with one of the worst murder rates in the world, but also as pets. While the program focuses on treating animals, people come to Cora Bailey (who runs CLAW) and her team for every problem imagine. In the past two days, I’ve heard such a wide variety of intense stories. For instance, at the end of the day today, we went to the Randfontein Refuse Center where many people live in small shanties and survive off the refuse brought in every day. They sort and sell recyclable items and live off what edible food they can find thrown out by others. There is one faucet for the entire area and no electricity or plumbing at all. The shanties are all made from materials found in the trash.

As it was getting dark, a rainstorm was brewing and we rushed back to the CLAW vehicle to avoid getting soaked. A small group of girls–perhaps 10 or 11 years old–approached Cora (all the children in that shanty town call her “Auntie Cora”) and said they needed to talk to her about something. They proceeded to tell her a man in the town had raped one of the girls and had threatened to rape the others.

I found this moment so touching and painful–these incredibly vulnerable girls who have no voice or access to protection approaching the one person who they see as having some kind of power to help them. Cora has been spending time in the townships since before apartheid ended and unlike most white South Africans, has become deeply involved in the issues many of the residents struggle with.

When we left the refuse center, we drove past a mine dump–a fixture of Johannesburg’s landscape–and a large pool of water left over from the frequent summer rainstorms. The stormy light was so lovely and a rainbow appeared in the distance over the water which, mixed with the red African dirt, was almost blood-like. It was simply beautiful and Cora stopped to let me photograph the scene. We had seen so much ugliness and suffering during the day what we saw offered a welcome natural beauty I think we both quietly appreciated in that moment.

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