A picture is worth a thousand words.
Shouldn’t this axiom be the anathema of every (print) journalist? Perhaps not, and yet it’s definitely mine. After all, I write. I believe that writing is one of the most effective ways of communicating—of sharing news, experiences, ideas, challenges. But this maxim disagrees: Prevent wasted ink, wasted time and carpal tunnel; snap a picture instead, it says. In my mind, the saying surmises that no matter what I write, no matter how much time I spend trying to craft a gem of a sentence or a perfect paragraph, one click of my camera could accomplish the same feat.
But pulling out a camera in Kibera is the equivalent of wearing the perennial “KICK ME” sign, as looks of disparagement shoot my way. I might as well show up wearing a banana suit or some other ridiculous attire. When I pull out that Canon, I feel like the slum tourist who callously invades another’s home, snapping away at artifacts of his or her daily life. The camera is a reminder: Remember, I’m a journalist. Remember, I’m not from here. Remember, beware.
I delayed it for as long as I possibly could. So long, in fact, that Genesis began to wonder where my camera was. He assumed that pictures are a component of my project. He also assumed that I might be reluctant to unmask my camera, for fear that those around me might then begin to resent my presence. He was right, as he has been all too often.
Soweto East is bustling, teeming with people who hasten up and down the only road in Kibera. The occasional vehicle hoots, and pedestrians scuttle out of the way. I’m surprised by the number of people I see in Soweto East, one of twelve or thirteen villages in Kibera. My astonishment is based on an interview with a staff worker at the KENSUP Secretariat, who reassured me that Soweto East is nearly empty now that its former residents have been relocated to a decanting site while their neighborhood is renovated. She assured me that Soweto East remains virtually vacant, that I might find a dozen people there, but no more.
She’s wrong. Since their relocation, others have moved in, claiming those shacks as their own. Genesis and I joke that we should take a picture and show it to my liaison at the Secretariat. And then I decide that I will.
Enter the camera. I have a paranoid-but-not-altogether-delusional sense that I’ve suddenly made myself more noticeable, tenfold. Using my budding photographic skills (not really) and the few techniques that I’ve mastered (really, only the Rule of Thirds), I snap a few quick pictures and put the camera away, eager to revert back to my not-so-conspicuous ways.
Genesis says, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
But it was, and I’ll just have to pretend that I didn’t notice the stares.