The balance between not taking pictures and not getting killed

I have been walking from my house to the boys’ school- about a mile and a half each way. The route takes me along a very busy street for a bit but it’s mostly on smaller streets (without sidewalks, of course). I have been wearing my camera around my neck and “shooting from the hip” in an effort to catch some candids of the crazy things I see around here. It hasn’t worked yet. I haven’t perfected the angle I should be holding the camera at and I have a lot of shots of the ground.

Balanced

But I got to the school last Thursday, my $$ camera around my neck and my friend Rachel, who has lived here for 2 years and was in Zambia for 3 years before this post, freaked out a little at me. She was shocked that I have done this walk more than once with what is essentially a large diamond around my neck. She knows of two people personally that had someone walk up and say, “Give me your camera” and the people just had to give up their little point-and-shoots. (I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but because of the extreme and widespread poverty, there is a lot of robbery. And apparently the thieves are not violent if you hand over the goods. But resist at all and out comes a knife or gun, so it’s just better to give over your possessions.)  So on the walk home that day, I put my camera away in Caleb’s backpack and held it for him. I’m not sure what I would do if someone tried to take it. I think I would hesitate, at least.
I related the story to Kevin later and expressed my frustration with not being able to take pictures. I said something that I realize now is ridiculous:
“I just feel like I’m failing if I’m not taking pictures of the crazy things I see here everyday. And I’m trying to find the balance between not taking pictures and … not getting killed.”
But finding that balance is actually a greater question of identity, really.
I am a photographer. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am an athlete (of sorts). I am an artist. I am a cook. I am une ménagère (the french word for housewife). It reminds me of the word manager and to me at least, more accurately describes what I do than “stay at home mom”. I stay at home yes, but that conjures up an image of a middle-aged pudgy woman in a pink sweatsuit with tapered ankles “folding laundry” while watching soap operas and eating potato chips in the middle of the day. This is not who I am. It also doesn’t describe a single one of my SAHM friends, either. So I’ll take the French term.
But back to who I am. When Kevin fills out our taxes he always fills in the blank for my occupation as photographer. This causes an argument between us because, although that is who I am, it’s not actually what I do. Or at least, it’s not been what I have done since getting pregnant for the first time 7 years ago. It’s what I want to do. Intend to do.
When people find out that I am a photographer, that I studied it in college, there are two reactions.
One: can you shoot our family portrait? The answer is yes, but you probably don’t want to pay me enough even to cover the cost of a babysitter for me to take your pictures, much less edit them. You (theoretical person) have been inundated with too many Groupon deals from desperate Mommy Photographers offering shoots for $50. That is a ridiculous price, even for a mom with no overhead, save the babysitter. I’ve done some of these and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I haven’t decided to go head-first into this flooded market.
Two: What do you take pictures of? The answer to that question hits close to my question of identity. What I shoot tells about who I am. I like to shoot people. To capture moments of intimacy and emotion, but these happen only when the subject is not conscientious about my camera’s lens focusing on him or her. I spent my last semester in art school taking photos of my three sisters, examining their lives and the relationships between them.  They were relaxed and comfortable with me pointing my giant lens towards them.
Shooting strangers on the street here in Cameroon can only be done from a car unless I approach the subject and ask him if I can take his picture, lest someone get offended/upset at me. But after approaching someone and introduce myself, the dynamic is different. He is aware of me, self-consciously. Also, I am just very shy about interrupting and bothering people. I hate to be obtrusive, so asking if I can invade a person’s space and capture his or her soul on (digital) film is just not something I like doing. But come on Kristen, scores of photographers do this everyday and so many whose work I admire had bigger cohones than I have. Of course this iconic picture comes to mind:

Dorothea Lange, Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California" 1936

Dorothea Lange, Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” 1936

Dorothea Lange’s are the kind of telling pictures I want to take. Of course her work has inspired thousands of young photographers and I am no different in wishing to replicate her insight.  I know I am not exactly like Lange, she was white, as were most of her subjects and she spoke their language. I feel like an Asian tourist in Disneyland, pointing my camera at the most inane things and taking photos of things that are commonplace to the people here. But she was wealthy enough to be in a separate class from her suffering subjects. And that I have in common with the people here, as uncomfortable as that “class” distinction is- it’s undeniable.
I found this photograph (below) of hers from the National Archives. It very closely reminds me of some of the neighborhoods and roads here. The small shanties look the same, the way of cooking/cleaning laundry, the huge puddles in the muddy road. Only the car looks nicer than most cars here. And the emptiness in the photo is something only witnessed in Yaounde in the very early morning on a weekend.

Robert Frank is a Frenchman who took pictures of the real, gritty America of the 1950′s instead of the glamorous images we had of ourselves in glossy magazines. His work “led not only me, but my whole generation of photographers out into the American landscape in a sense — the lunatic sublime of America,” said photographer Joel Meyerowitz. Frank’s outsider view of Americans is what I can relate to. I hope I have a fresh look at the world around me but I’m constantly thinking about falling into stereotypes.
So right now I feel stuck. Not taking many pictures. Taking risks with my safety that aren’t even paying off. I feel like I just need to get braver. Stop worrying and just ask people if I can bother them for 2 minutes and take the dern picture. I should be travelling to Douala next weekend with the boys, so hopefully I will have some more opportunities to shoot something besides big-city life.
For now I have my kids as subjects, following the example one of my perennially favorite photographers- Sally Mann.

The softness here was not done in Photoshop. That’s how I shot it.