Striking a balance, Zambia
I already had a picture in my head.
That’s the opposite of the way I usually work. Most of the time I try to empty my mind of preconceived images in order to be open to whatever the situation brings. I want to see the light, to feel people interacting, to notice the unexpected, and then to be ready for the peak moment that tells the story.
But this time I could already visualize the picture. The challenge was finding it. My assignment in Zambia was for a pivotal World Vision magazine feature story on water (read it here!), and I had to come back with a dynamic cover shot. I pictured golden water flowing from a faucet backlit by a rising or setting sun, and a silhouetted child drinking.
So the World Vision staff in Zambia staff helped me search for the perfect location. We needed an open faucet with a clear view to the horizon in the direction of the rising or setting sun. This was the first big hurdle. Almost all the World Vision-drilled boreholes were topped by hand pumps, and, for sanitary reasons, most of these had walls built around them.
Finally we found the right faucet in Sinazongwe, next to the home of sponsored girl, Mutinta. Their massive mango grove faced west, and between the vegetable gardens and the home I was quite certain I would be able to catch sunrise directly. The faucet was fed by a solar pump from a World Vision borehole and served nearby families.
Then disaster struck. From past experience, I knew an out-of-focus rising sun would look much bigger if I used a long telephoto lens. But my primary long lens, my 70-200/2.8, had started acting weird. Violently bumpy roads and years of heavy use had finally taken their toll. The lens stopped focusing on any part of the frame but the center, and even there it wasn’t quite right.
Fortunately I had a back-up 85mm lens with me. My other main lens, my 17-35mm, also malfunctioned on the trip, something I’ve never had happen before in decades of work. These lenses are built for professional abuse, but I’ve learned to always bring backups. So I carry two camera bodies, an all-purpose general lens like a 24-85mm, extra cords, and a second card reader — and I back-up images to at least one extra hard-drive each night.
The next step should have been hard, too. But if you’ve ever met Zambians, you’ll know they are the most gracious, hospitable people on the planet. When I asked World Vision colleagues Davison Phiri and Collins Kaumba (a talented photographer) if they minded waking up with me at 4 am to make the 2+ hour drive back to Mutinta’s house for sunrise, they didn’t hesitate.
We stood by the tap in the dark, waiting for a glimpse of light. Neighborhood kids came to watch the show, so I knew I’d have plenty of subjects to photograph. Someone ran to turn the water on early (it usually doesn’t get turned on till first light).
And then there was a warm glow on the horizon, right where we expected it to be, and everyone scrambled into action. Close to the equator the sun seems to race up and down much faster than I’m used to here in the north, so I only had about 20 minutes to work. We put a bucket under the tap and turned it on full force. Kids took turns drinking or standing by the tap, while others whisked full buckets of to water the nearby vegetable plot.
It was a blast, a group performance.
I alternated between an 85mm and 50mm lens, using a high shutter speed to freeze water drops. I metered off the sky away from the sun to keep the kids in silhouette, trying to focus carefully while looking right into the sun. With the 85mm I used as large an aperture as possible to try to make the sun prominent. I used a bigger depth-of-field with the 50, hoping to overcome focus challenges with the wiggly kids. I missed having a good tripod — that would have made it so much easier. Next time…
The balance between preconceived pictures and spontaneous moments is a delicate one. In this case I was trying to illustrate a concept, to create an iconic image, and I was careful to pick an actual World Vision tap and kids from our project area who really drink from it. But the only back-up I have for a controlled set-up is another created one, and my imagination and directorial abilities are limited. This time, the rising sun, the flowing water, and the sweet kids came through for me.