Tell and sell

Your back home. The adventure is over. Its time to transform all those pages with notes, arrows and exclamation marks into something that someone else will actually understand.

It´s during this time that you try to kill yourself with coffee, bashing your forehead against the table, because your sentences are doing the chat- cha – and there is nothing glamorous about it.

Then suddenly it all falls into place. Once more you realize what the core of the story is and you manage to transform it into sentences combined with facts and quotes. It starts to look alright, you might have something here!

Now starts part two.

Its time to sell the story. But wait! This is not what I signed up for! I´m a well respected journalist, an idealist and aspiring photographer – not a salesmen!.. and maybe not that well respected, but you get the picture (like an aspiring photographer?).

But the truth is that being a freelancer is to be a salesmen. I spend hours almost every day working on sales pitches, trying to get in contact with editors. This is not an area that I got educated in while I studied journalism, it´s something I had to pick up along the way. Because the story is not told if its not published somewhere.

19 out of 20 times the sales process goes something like this: I email them: “Good day, I´m in Mali and I´m working on this story… could it be something that you are interested in?”…. silence…. I email them again: “Hi again…”….they reply: “Interesting, but sorry, we have no money.” You repeat the process with another editor. You get the same reply.

Thankfully this changed with Kickstarter. Through my backers I managed to find financial support before the trip. This meant that I could focus a lot more on being a journalist, than a salesmen during the trip.
With my backers blessing, I have tried to sell some stories to a few other papers with some success. But donations through Kickstarter and Borderlandbulletins.com still stands for over 50 % of my income today.

This is not only important for my work (and ability to pay the rent), it´s awesome for journalism in general!

 

If you would like to support independent journalism and my coffee budget, please consider donating some change through the Paypal button bellow. 
Or send me a message if you have any suggestions on where I should go next! The full story from Mali will be published here in April. 

 

(by the way, if you are wondering what four boys has to do with “tell and sell” the answer is: nothing at all. It just a more pleasant picture than, lets say, of me paying bills and writing emails)

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.

 

Your donation is my salary. So if you like what you read and want to support my work and independent journalism, then please consider donating through the Paypal- link below. Every penny goes to future articles (and maybe a cup of coffee) 

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?

Your donation is my salary. So if you like what you read and want to support my work and independent journalism, then please consider donating through the Paypal- link below. Every penny goes to future articles (and maybe a cup of coffee) 

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.

A industry driven by hope, part 1

Once again I found myself travelling before dawn. On pitch dark roads we cruised back to Bamako with a cab drivers who´s car lacked working lights. Somehow he still managed to avoid most of the big holes and the trucks that met us before we arrived at one of Bamako’s busstations.

But nothing is easy when it comes to travelling in West Africa, at least not for me it seems. Once again the bus I jumped on broke down and our travelling time went from 8 to 15 hours. But few bad things can not be turned into something good and we soon realized that the next bus we got on where filled men and women heading for different mines. A perfect time for small talk.

“I few years ago I would never had guessed that I would become a miner. But once you found that one piece of gold and you get that feeling, well its hard not to come back after that,” one man told me.

I asked another who long he planned to stay. First he just smiled at me, then he replied:
“As long as it takes.”

When we arrived at our destination, a small town close to the Senegal border, the sun had set. We found ourself waiting in the darkness, surrounded by nothing more than empty street shops and a raging wind that seemed to want us gone before we had arrived.
We where picked up by my guide´s friend: a man that combines mining with missionary work and spent the night in his house. The village he and his wife lives in lies in a beautiful area totally surrounded mountains that circles around the area like one huge wall.

With the help of our host  we could travel further out into the countryside on mopeds to find an area filled with different mining fields. One driven by a big company, but most by normal men and women that hopes that they will be the one who finds that big lump of gold that will change their lives. But we were soon told that to be here and report from this place, we first had to talk to the village elder and get his permission. The village elder had been sacrificing an animal to increase the chance that the local miners found gold, but should be back by now. And so we went on to meet this man…

Next part follows in a couple of days.

 

One mans trash…

… is another´s treasure. But to say it here, at Bamako dump site, is to take it too far. More accurate would be that one man’s trash is another person’s survival.

I was on my way back from home from the University of Bamako when I passed this huge dump site just behind one of the university buildings. Out there, surrounded by smoke and the dirt, walks dozens of people, even children, in search for anything of value.

So I asked my translator to stop the moped and we went to say hi to one the women who were searching for plastic bottles among the rubbish.

I have to admit that it feels strange to call it rubbish, since she has been calling it home for almost twenty years now. Her old house fell apart and she´s been stuck here since then. I had so many questions I wanted to ask here, but also very little time. So we decided to come back another day.

There´s no city recycling program, or anything like it, in Bamako. But what does exist is something I call “spontaneous recycling”. That means that you can take anything you don´t want, but that might be of value to someone else, and just put it outside your home. It could be simple things like plastic bottles, or a piece of wood, scrap metal maybe, and I promise you that it will be gone in an hour.

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