A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the book store at the photography section. I have to give the store credit, every time I look at the photography section, it always has new material. Two books tempted me; I narrowed it down to one: A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt. I was really excited to discover a mother who made a career in travel photography work, and I wanted to know how she did it. That the book was text-heavy was a selling point for me: I wanted to hear all about her experiences as a mother and photographer, how she balanced it all. When I saw the opening quote from fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, I was in:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

I finished it the other night, and I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment. Now, it could very well be that my expectations were unrealistic. Perhaps I should have known from the coffee-table-book presentation (hard cover, large size) that it probably wasn’t going to give me what I was looking for.

The photos were great, although they did have a sort of National Geographic-ness about them that I didn’t quite care for, a datedness I guess. Many of them made me feel 10 years old again, looking through my brother’s stacks of National Geographic magazines, and not in a good way. It’s probably not fair of me to hold this against the photos, since the woman has enjoyed a very long career that began around the time I was 10, but oh well. I very much enjoyed her later work, especially her photos for Habitat for Humanity.

The text is where it was really disappointing though. I feel like this book couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. Is it a coffee table book? A memoir? A travelogue? While I’m all for fusion and postmodern blurring of boundaries, I think it was a bit of a failure in this case.

Where I was hoping for a sustained discussion of her experiences, perhaps bound by the theme of motherhood or feminism, I got merely a series of chronological anecdotes. None of them delved deep enough for my satisfaction. It was like taking a survey course, where just as you begin to grasp a subject or theme, you’re forced onto the next one.

My disappointment may also stem from the fact that within the first few pages, I very quickly realized that I will never make a good travel photographer. I’m far too risk averse for that. And my sense of smell is too keen.

According to Myers-Briggs, I am an NF, an idealist. I am an abstract thinker who prefers to deal with information that comes from my intuition, with underlying patterns rather than concrete facts. I suspect Griffiths Belt is an SP, an artisan, who prefers to deal in concrete facts and information that comes through her five senses rather than intuition. And I suspect that fundamental difference is at the heart of my disappointment. I want to see how her experience fits into the big picture, and she’s really not so interested in the big picture.

Disappointment aside, there were a few moments in her writing that really spoke to me:

“As a photographer I have learned that women really do hold up half the sky; that languge isn’t always necessary, but touch usually is; that all people are not alike, but they do mostly have the same hopes and fears; that judging others does great harm but listening to them enriches; that it is impossible to hate a group of people once you get to know one of them as an individual.”


“The most touching aspect of my work has always been how quickly people open up to me and my camera. I do try to appear as non-threatening as possible. I travel light, never wear a photo vest or camera bag, and work very simply. I believe that it’s far better to look like somebody’s mother than like a photographer. But despite my efforts to connect with people of other cultures, I know that I remain an aberration in their world. I arrive in my jeans and T-shirt, a middle-age white woman in a baseball cap, speaking a strange language and wielding a big fat camera. And yet the openness and generosity of the people I encounter always takes my breath away.

“Whenever possible I try to communicate without an interpreter, because it’s so easy for an interpreter to actually become an unwitting wall between me and the people I’m trying to photograph. I’d rather make an idiot out of myself pantomiming and using whatever few words of the local language I possess than to rely on an interpreter. And I have learned that even without a shared language, it’s easy to let people know that their children are beautiful, their homes are lovely, their tea is delicious, and their stories are worth sharing with the world.”

opportunity to vote

One of my photos made the top 10 cut in a contest over at Imagekind with the theme of unity. Now it’s open to voters, and anyone can vote – not just Imagekind members. So if you think my photo represents unity the best, please feel free to vote for it.


How I believe it fits the theme: Visually, this photo shows four boys unified by their focus on a single book. As well, mosaics are made of disparate fragments unified by art. The photo was made in the courtyard of the Gugu S’thebe Arts and Culture Centre in South Africa, 13 years after the end of apartheid. These boys are younger than the country’s new democracy, the product of years of united, hard work.

And while I’m on the subject, Imagekind just announced a 25% discount on all framing until 10 pm (Pacific time) on August 18, 2008. To take advantage, just enter the promo code PLUNGE25 when you check out.

new project

Wednesday was the start of something that I hope will be a long-term project. For six months, I’ve been volunteering at our local drop-in centre, which provides a safe, warm or cool (depending on the season) place to eat two hot meals a day, drink cheap coffee, and gain access to housing, mental health, and other resources. On Wednesday, I had the day off and it was overcast, so I decided to go for a visit and take my camera with me. A couple of people have agreed in principle to let me photograph them, but we’ve been stuck on logistics. I figured it was more than time to just take the plunge.

So I spent a couple of hours in the smoking area, and talked and listened and occasionally shot pictures. Here are a few of my early favourites:




john's hands




I like that the images don’t scream HERE IS A POOR PERSON. They say Here is a Person. I also see the trust they have in me and the respect I have for them, and that makes me so proud of these images. They were a true exchange, exactly like I wanted them to be.

It’s obvious I have no emotional distance from these images. They’re so entwined with the conversations we had that I can’t really judge them properly. But I think (and hope!) they’re the start of something wonderful and exciting. If you want to see a slide show of all the images so far, click here.