Few photographers will find themselves in as dangerous a setting as Somalia. But some of the lessons learned there by Michael Kamber, who is at work on a book about photojournalism and war photography, can be applied to many challenging situations.
This was my fifth or sixth trip to Somalia. In some ways the anarchy there reminds me of Liberia during the fighting in 2003 — a place with no central authority, and where pretty much anything can happen. In many places it is completely anarchic, with clans and sub-clans and even sub-sub-clans fighting each other block by block. International experts say Al Qaeda is heavily involved in recent fighting there.
Lately, the main fighting in Mogadishu has pitted the Islamic Courts Union against the Shabab, a fundamentalist Islamic youth movement. In other places, clans or religious groups have created islands of stability and progress. We passed through towns where the residents had built schools, hospitals and even a library, with no help from any central authority.
Somalia has traditionally been a graveyard for journalists. Dan Eldon, Hos Maina, Hansi Krauss and Anthony Macharia were beaten to death by a crowd there in 1993. Kate Peyton from BBC was shot to death in front of her hotel in 2005. And in 2006, an unidentified gunman shot my friend Martin Adler to death while he covered a demonstration in Mogadishu. He was a true gentleman, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. He left behind two young children.
Nasteex Dahir Farah, a local journalist in Kismayo, was our translator and fixer during a 2006 trip. He was assassinated last year, leaving behind a wife, six months pregnant, and a 10-month old son. On the same trip, I met with the courageous director of Horn Afrik, the primary independent radio station in Mogadishu. His name was Said Tahil. He was shot to death by masked gunmen in February of this year. At least eight other Somali journalists have been killed since 2007, according to Amnesty International.
Lesson 1: Keep the essentials in your backpack.
Expect that, at some point, your suitcase is going to get left on the tarmac somewhere. I arrived in Mogadishu to find out my Pelican case with most of my gear was never put on the plane in Nairobi. I was at the beginning of a challenging assignment with the clothes on my back and a backpack. Fortunately, I had carried my still and video cameras in my backpack along with my laptop and charger. But I had left my camera battery chargers in the Pelican. I had to shoot sparingly the first week until a charger could be flown in. Clothes and a toothbrush you can buy anywhere, but try finding a charger for the latest Canon SLR in a country without a central government.
Lesson 2: Get what you can, when you can.
On dozens of occasions, I’ve thought, “Oh, I’ll come back and that get photo later.” It almost never happens and so I’ve learned to grab whatever I can, even though the conditions may not be perfect. Abshir Boyah, one of the biggest pirates in Somalia, agreed to take us to a seaside town to see his fellow pirates and ships being held for ransom. He cancelled at the last minute, and I got no shots of him on the street, as we had planned. But we had sat down with him several days before the planned trip and I took the precaution of shooting this portrait of him. In the end, it was all I got, but it was enough.
Lesson 3: Prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Later, we made a grueling 10-hour trip to the outskirts of another pirate town. In the end, it proved too risky to enter, and we spent two nights sleeping on the ground in the desert. (I slept mostly in the back seat.) I salvaged the trip by shooting a series of the sleeping soldiers that accompanied us (Slide 10), along with a shot of their shadows on the wall of a small town we passed through (Slide 11). But the trip was a reminder that preparation is key. Communication is the single most important thing you need. Working cellphones or a Thuraya satellite phone can literally be a lifesaver. When traveling overseas, make sure to have an unlocked cellphone that takes a SIM card. You can buy a local card anywhere, plug it in and make calls. And I find that, in addition to my cameras, the things I can’t do without are spare batteries, a mosquito net, bug spray, anti-bacterial wipes and protein bars. And water, of course.
Lesson 4: Leave your flash at home.
Invest in some fast lenses instead and learn to hand-hold your camera. With the fast ISO cameras today, one can do a quite a lot with an f/1.4 or f/2 lens, hand-held. I generally don’t even carry a flash. I shot Slide 4 with a 50mm f/1.2 lens, wide open, at ISO 1000. The shallow depth of field and dusky background help to create the mood. You should brace yourself as best you can when shooting in low light, exhale and slowly squeeze the shutter while not jarring the camera. Another trick is to shoot several continous frames using the motor drive. Pressing the shutter will often jar the camera on the first frame, but the second or third frame will be sharper. It’s very hard to focus at night, particularly when things are moving quickly during raids with the military. One of my tricks is to use a small, powerful flashlight with a simple button switch. I carry it in my left hand, switch it on for an instant, focus the camera, then switch it off and shoot. I find Leicas to be much easier to focus in these situations, but I’m still waiting for a digital model with good low-light performance and an affordable fast lens.
Lesson 5: Sometimes the details tell the story.
I carry a Hasselblad and shoot color negative film with it — usually simple portraits or details. Somalia is an amazing mishmash of ancient and modern, east and west. Nomads with cellphones drive herds of camels through the desert. The Somali Diaspora is involved in nearly every aspect of life here, and in many places, in conjunction with local Somalis, they’ve set up well-functioning small governments in the midst of chaos. At a prayer meeting of a Sufi militia, I found a young fighter with a Koran balanced on his AK-47 (Slide 7). The gun strap read “Playboy.” I’m not sure he knew what it meant, but I felt it captured the dichotomy of life here. After looking at the work of Martin Parr, I try to shoot details every day.
Lesson 6: Find the quiet moments.
It takes time to get to know the people you are working with — in this case, the fighters. They speak little English, and I no Somali, so it’s mostly hand gestures, smiles and little phrases. Still, even this can break the ice. Once that’s done, I often look for quiet moments around the corner from where the crowd is. I found this scene of a fighter praying, his bullets still wound around his body (Slide 6). I shot it with a 70-200mm zoom to avoid disturbing him. Especially in the Middle East, you end up shooting a lot photos of people at prayer. I try, whenever possible, to avoid getting in front of people when they are praying.
Lesson 7: Security is paramount.
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t go along with it. Numerous journalists have been killed and kidnapped in Somalia. Kidnappers there have held two Western journalists for nearly a year. Often the first mistake is showing up new in a country and hiring a fixer that you don’t know. (Fixers help you translate and navigate when you’re working in a foreign country). We worked with a Somali team that we knew and trusted. The correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman, has extensive experience in Somalia and I’ve worked there many times, too.
But it can be complicated. You get handed off from one clan to another as you move through territory. At one point, our team took us to a hotel that was not enclosed — the entire street could see us if we entered the hotel. We never left the car. We simply told the driver to turn around and find another place with a courtyard where we could be more discreet. We ended up sleeping on a rooftop, as we did many nights in Somalia. It was much safer in the end.
It is also important to keep a low profile when you’re moving through dangerous areas where kidnapping risks are high. Try to find vehicles with tinted windows. Long sleeves, beards, hats and local dress all help. Don’t be embarrassed to wrap a scarf around your head or put on local garb. From a distance, this makes you less visible. It may save your life.