Tag Archives: mission

Travel retrospective 9 – health confidential

Submitting a prescription


This is how prescriptions are submitted and dispensed at a clinic in Kinshasa, D R Congo. The patient leaves the clinic with a prescription and then goes round the corner into a secluded street where it’s passed through a window to the pharmacist. Once made up the medication is passed out in the same way.

Why should something as simple as this appear so clandestine? Perhaps it’s a security issue, or maybe it’s more to do with the fact that this clinic deals mostly with patients who are HIV positive or have AIDS and perhaps there is a social stigma still associated with that. In truth, I don’t know the answer but it makes me wonder what we do to the dignity and self-respect of people when we end up stigmatising them as a result of a medical condition. It seems, perhaps, that some conditions carry with them a moral judgement making them more serious than others. That hardly seems right.

For this photograph I deliberately chose to shoot the transaction from inside the pharmacy to emphasise the anonymity of the patient.


The light of hope

Old Afghan


The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, December 2003.

I took this photograph on a filming trip and it remains one of my favourites from the set for the way it speaks to me.

Here is a man with eyes cast down, looking world-weary. And why wouldn’t he be? Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 49 years for both men and women. And he looks to be older than that. Most of his life is behind him and here he is living in a country best known for a history of conflict and war.  Afghanistan’s location is almost asking for trouble. Located pivotally between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent it was centred on the ancient “Silk Route”. This geographic significance has made it a much disputed and fought-over territory for centuries.  But what’s happened within this man’s lifetime?

In 1953 General Mohammed Daud became prime minister and sought economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union.  He was forced to resign as prime minister in 1963. Ten years later Mohammed Daud seized power in a coup and declared a republic.  In 1978 he was deposed and killed in a pro-Soviet coup. There then followed violent infighting with USA-backed mujahedeen groups beginning to feature. In December 1979 Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet army which then supported the communist government.  Mujahedeen groups continued to fight the Soviet forces backed by arms from the USA, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In 1988 Afghanistan the USSR, the USA and Pakistan signed peace accords allowing the Soviet Union to start the process of military withdrawal. Then, in 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul introducing a hard-line regime featuring severe punishments for disorder and disobedience, which included stoning and amputations.

In 1998 the USA’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden led to missile strikes at his suspected bases in Afghanistan then, following the 9-11 attacks, a bombing campaign began in October 2001 followed by a USA-led invasion.

Finally, in August 2003, NATO ISAF forces took control of security in Kabul providing a foundation for relief and development efforts.

So, in December 2003, this photo epitomised for me the struggles, conflicts and heartbreaks that a nation had suffered for centuries, reflected in microcosm in one man’s life. At the time I took the photo I was struck by the light falling across this man’s face. I like to think of that being the light of hope for a future that might bring a lasting peace to this troubled land and its people. I find it significant that the light is falling across his eyes in the hope that he might see peace and reconciliation in his lifetime.

Historical source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12011352

blending in

a colourful character

costumed character

Parading the icons

Catholic parade in Ecuador

trombone player

a musical reflection

It was an unexpected assault on the senses. Shouting from a gathered crowd, music from random instruments and much jostling for a better position was a clear indication that something was afoot.

This was a filming trip with BMS World Mission in December 2006 and we had reached the final stage high in the Andes in the capital city of Quito. Whilst trying to find a local contact we came upon what seemed to be some kind of festival, so we went for a closer look. The first thing I spotted was the colourful characters with painted face masks that appeared to be handing our fruit and other items to the crowd. The painted faces were resonant of an Inca tradition but the costumes seemed much more in tune with a Spanish influence. Whilst this had the initial feel of a traditional festival the costumed characters were followed by icons carried in glass cases and it quickly became apparent that this was a local Catholic festival.

Between 1544 and 1563, Ecuador was part of  Spain’s colonies in the New World after the conquistadors landed in 1531. Since the Spanish colonization, Ecuador officially became a Roman Catholic country with the Catholic Church holding a significant place in government and society.  One of the observable aspects of the development of the Catholic church in Ecudaor has been the effect of syncretism. “Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.” [1]

What we saw in the parade was a living example of this religious syncretism – the blending of unrelated traditions into something that clearly made sense to the people, but leaves so many questions about the accurate transfer of core beliefs and truth.

The photo of the trombonist with the reflection of some of the crowd in the horn of the instrument summed up for me the need to reflect carefully on how we deal with change without losing the basic principles. To what extent does blending add colour and value and at what cost to the essential elements?

For those interested, the photographs were taken on Fuji Pro 800 colour film using a Nikon 35mm camera. Sadly I took no notes of the lens I used, the shutter speed or aperture and as it wasn’t digital there’s no metadata to cover for my inadequate note-taking.

[1] wikipedia.org

The triumph of hope

Karen children in church

Karen children

These two young girls are refugees.

This photograph was taken in MaeLa camp in Thailand near the border with Burma. At the time the photo was taken, in late 2005, the camp was home to around 48,000 Karen people and only one of a number of camps along the border.

In January 1984 the Burmese Army launched an offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) and the first refugees fled across the border to Thailand. Over a period of 20 years, almost 3,000 ethnic villages in the east of Burma were destroyed by civil war affecting at least one million people. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Karen, were displaced inside Burma while the population of the refugee camps, over the border in Thailand, increased to over 150,000.

The Karen are an indigenous people to Thailand and Burma. Traditionally, most Karen are farmers who cultivate the nutrient rich soils of southern Burma and eastern Thailand. The religion of the Karen majority is Animism and Buddhism although there is also a sizable population of Christians accounting for approximately 30 per cent of the population. These two girls were photographed in one of approximately 40 churches in the MaeLa camp and, although I can’t be certain, they were possibly born in the camp.

Their happy, smiling faces were so typical of the Karen people and they were clearly intrigued by the foreigners in their midst. I deliberately chose a slow shutter speed to emphasise their movement as they fidgeted happily to the music and singing. I see this as a photograph of hope and the triumph of innocence over conflict.


Elderly carer

Elderly carer

This is a woman living in relative poverty in Kinshasa in D R Congo.

I took this photo on 9 November 2007 whilst on a BMS filming trip. We had come to this area to get some general footage and our hosts, who knew this woman, had taken along some food for her.

We know little of her story other than for many years she had cared for children, despite her own poor situation. In doing so she had probably given many a chance in life they would otherwise not have had.

It’s an unusual angle of view but I wanted a character shot that said something of her role and condition in life. By selecting a low viewpoint I wanted to photograph her from a child’s perspective. The bucket and basket in the foreground speak of her labour in keeping things clean and the background is the wall of her home. The moment she turned and looked at me was the cue to take the photograph as I saw her expression, which seemed to say so much.

For those interested, the photograph was taken on a Nikon D70s using a shutter speed of 1/80 sec at f13 on ISO 500. The focal length was 18mm.

Role play

Between 1983 and 1985 there was a major famine in Ethopia. Reported at the time to be the worst in a century it’s estimated that 400,000 people died as a result of both the famine and human rights abuses that exacerbated its effects. My wife and I were married in 1983 and I can clearly remember watching the TV news coverage of the famine with her, both of us feeling angry and upset at the images on the screen. I can also clearly remember us feeling angry that someone had filmed and photographed this saying, “why can’t they put the cameras down and help?”

I have long been interested in photography and spent much of my youth taking photographs and developing them in the school darkroom. I briefly considered a career in photography, inspired by the work of Don McCullin and others. However, my naivety as a teenager was such that I believed if my income depended on taking photographs I would stop enjoying it. That was completely bonkers, I later decided. So, a degree in business studies led initially to banking then marketing and my interest in photography continued as a serious amateur.

Poor child eating corn from an old sardine tin

hungry and poor

In 2001 I joined BMS World Mission, where part of my role was having responsibility for the harvest appeal, which involved going abroad with a filming team. It was a particular joy to me to have the opportunity to take photographs on these trips which would feature within the appeal materials.  My second overseas trip came in November 2002 to Brazil and the harshly arid region of Trapia in the north east of the country. Whilst on that trip we visited a family living in a mud and stick hut. Two girls in the family had brain damage caused by their mother’s malnourishment during pregnancy and whist feeding them as infants.

We were filming this family as a possible story to include in the appeal video and as I saw one of the girls sitting on the baked mud of the floor eating some corn from an old sardine tin, I decided it could make a useful photograph to have on file. As I crouched and framed the shot in viewfinder, I was abruptly and very tangibly reminded of that time in the early 1980s watching the footage of the famine in Ethiopia and here, now, some 20-odd years later, I was that photographer; “why can’t they put the cameras down and help?”. In a moment, I felt both helpless and guilty yet, today, I’m proud of the fact that I still took the photo.

It took me a few days to rationalise the experience and to realise that it was not my job to intervene and help. In fact I’d probably have made matters worse. We had people there who’s job it was to do something to help and my job, in part, was to report and help illustrate the needs. It was a hard lesson in some ways, but the experience gave me a new respect for the photographers I had criticised all those years previously. We all have a role to play in this complex world and at times we can be unduly critical of others’ roles when we simply don’t understand them. We should, I have decided,simply play our own roles as best we can.

Although, technically, this isn’t a great photo (I could criticise a few things) it remains one of my personal favourites because of the lesson I learned in the taking of it. For those who are interested the photo was taken on Fuji Pro 800 35mm film using a Nikon camera. Unfortunately no field notes remain to confirm shutter speed and aperture or lens details – this was pre-digital for me with no recording of metadata! My memory isn’t that detailed either. Originally taken in colour a digital representation of the image allowed me to convert to mono in the digital darkroom.