Photographing machetes and football 

Taking photos in the street is always challenging. You do not want everyone to know that you are there photographing, since that will most likely make the photo feel constructed. At the same time, you do not want to offend anyone or make them feel harassed.

You generally do not have these kinds of problems when you are photographing landscapes. But yesterday was an exception. I went on an evening walk trying to capture the Niger River that, more or less, runs through my backyard. Parts of it are dried up, which has left a moon-like landscape that looks amazing.

I took picture after picture but never seemed to get it right. Finally, I decided that I would try to include someone who might be passing through the area, to make the picture more dynamic.

I waited until I saw two people who seemed to be crossing the river a couple of hundred meters in front of me. As I raised my camera and looked through the view finder, I noticed that one of them stopped and changed direction toward me.

This is could mean trouble, but I decided to stay where I was. As I put down the camera, I realized that I his face was covered by one of the masks you usually have on you to avoid smog. He was also carrying a small machete.

So I realized that the situation looked a bit worrying. We were pretty much alone out here, but I decided to stay put. To walk away now would make me look guilty. But boy was he was upset. He pointed toward where he had stood when I took the picture and shouted in both French and Bambara. I speak neither but realized that gestures become way more dramatic when you’re holding a machete — even from a five-meter distance.

Instead, I used one of the oldest tricks in the photographer’s book: I played stupid and regretful. I told him that I did not understand why he was angry, but that I was sorry to have offended him. He yelled some more. I gave him my puppy-eye look, and he walked away.

 

I went back to the city and decided not to go home directly but to try to turn this around. But this time I would make sure that I had everyone´s permission. To hell with taking genuine street photos.

Photographing children in Mali is a pure joy. They are everywhere and super enthusiastic. If you have the opportunity to say hi to any grownups nearby, you´re completely safe.
In the time it took me to listen to one punk rock song, I found a bunch of kids playing football. I said hi to the grownups who smiled and waved back. I sat down among some kids, showed them the camera and was immediately welcomed. I got a few decent pictures, a lot of smiles and said goodbye.

One street away, I was invited to join a man who was sitting by himself. We did our best to understand each other, and after a couple of minutes I decided to ask him if I could take his portrait. He kept pointing toward his house, and before I knew it people were streaming out through the main gate.

My portrait had suddenly turned into a neighborhood photo, including at least 20 people. Everyone was laughing and joking as the group grew bigger and bigger. I asked for an email address so that I could send the picture to someone. Instead, I got a girl´s phone number. Not sure what to do with it, but at least it´s a lot better than being yelled at by a man carrying a machete.

 

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Asking the hard questions

How do you talk to a stranger about something that is private  to him or her and most likely painful? This can be especially hard if you do not even speak the same language, but have to communicate through a translator.

I´m trying to find people that can inform me about the situation in northern Mali. To find out if slavery is growing in the shadow of the ongoing conflict in the north. For that I need to find first hand sources.
But the topic is sensitive, tabu and I can feel it in the air during the interview. The elephant in the room is growing larger and is starting to look mighty fierce, so I try a more general question to approach the subject.

“What did you do when you were living in the north of Mali, where you working?” I know this woman has been living as a slaved, but it doesn´t mean that she wants to talk about it. She avoids my question, and the next one. Time is running out. So I ask her:
“There are several reports from different human rights organizations that the practice of slavery in different forms have been brought back in communities in the north. Is this something you can confirm?”

She confirms. At the same time she looks like someone is holding up a torch flame towards her face. I tell her that she do not have to talk about it if she does not want to. She shakes her head. No, she doesn´t want to talk about it. But she can gives us contact information to a group of women whom might know more.

We talk a bit more, about her son who goes to school, the lack of government support and memories from the Sahara dessert.
“During night it was so cold that the sand would almost freeze. It felt like walking on glass,” she says and smiles.

We thank her for her help, gives her a number to a refugee center we visited earlier and wish her the best. It´s time to visit the women she gave us contact information to. Time to once more ask the hard questions. First I have to sit down and think this though. Should I have done something differently? Could I have formulated my questions differently? Was I patient enough? Have I the right to bring up topics that causes people pain? Is the story worth it?

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Storming corridors of power

Storming halls of power

After weeks of interviews with musicians it became more and more clear that I needed a comment from someone who was involved in the shaping of Mali´s culture on a political level. Also a few comments concerning Mali´s mining policy.

My first chief editor told me that you should always aim for the person at the top and only move down the political ladder if you have to. A good rule, but that often results in that I get answers written in an email from a political secretary. This after days of emailing. A meeting? Never. At least not in Sweden.

Therefore I was a bit worried that here in Mali this might become a bit of a struggle. Organizations such as Reporters without borders do not exactly rank Mali among the top countries in the world when it comes to freedom of press. Since I neither speak French or Bambara I did not want to try to reach them through emails or phone. So we tried a different approach.

Almost all ministers in Mali are working in a handful of buildings placed next to each other, surrounded by walls and guards. These buildings contains almost every minister’s office and all the staff that surrounds him or her. To get in my driver had to show his ID and explain the reason of our visit, I only had to show my white skin (or maybe it was my smile, who knows?).

Inside the walls we just followed a few signs and started to ask for the minister’s office – and it worked! Ok, we did not reach the culture or mining ministers themselves, but we got to me both ministers representatives – without filling in a single piece of papers or spending days trying to organize a meeting.

So here I am with answers to all my questions from people that represents top politicians in Mali. And it only took me one day.

 

An industry driven by hope, part 2

As the title indicates, this is the second and final part about my journey to one of the “traditional mines”, as they call them. Pictures will be added when the connection allows it. I promise! 

Another reporter had been here a couple of days ago. Rode in to the mining area and started taking pictures. The miners got suspicious, thought he might be a spy of some sort, or so I have been told. It only strengthen my belief that we took the correct decision to go to the village elder first. Not only would that be appropriate according to their customs, but it might open doors to us that might not otherwise be open. The job has to take the time it needs. I´m learning that, slowly.

It soon became very clear that the decision was correct. In a hut without windows we found the old man sitting in the corner. I could not spot him until he asked us to sit down. That’s how you do it here. Strangers walks into your home, you offer them a seat, food and water. Then you tell him why you are here. So we talked a little, ate some corn rice that he generously offered us. Then we talked.

Half an hour later he, his first son, and another local man and miner joined us on mopeds to the mine.
“People work too long shifts. Sometimes they use drugs to cope with the burden. We join you there to make sure that everyone understands that you got our blessing and so we can minimize the risk that bad things happened,” the village chief told us.

I think I shook hand and greeted at least two dozen people before I even took a photo. I know I lost a couple of really good ones in the process, but maybe I got some too- who knows. Everyone greeted us with smiles and curiosity. No one accused me or my guides for being spies. And so we got to work. Photos could be taken and interviews were being made.

Something almost all of the miners that I have talked to have in common is that economic desperation brought them to the mines and hope keeps them there. I asked a 16 year old miner how it was to work down there below the surface.
“You should go down and find out yourself,” he told me. I had to give it to him, he was right. So I did.

A lot of miners had been encouraging me to climb down one of the holes, still they all looked really surprised when I took of my shoes and socks as instructed. But the way I see it, if you want to write about how it is to be a miner, then you better be ready to go down into a mine. Not only for the job, but as a sign of respect. They work 12 hour shifts, surely I could manage 20 minutes- even with my claustrophobia?

Let me tell you, it was a very long time ago since I cursed so much as I did when I realized that the reason they take off their shoes and socks is that they climb down there using only their hands and feet. No ladders, no ropes.

But it was well worth the visit. Maybe not the easiest place to take pictures, since flashlights are the only source of light they use. But I think I got a couple of good ones. I save those and the details of how it was down there for the final story.