Friday, January 30, 2009

Benin. Atakora Mountains near Boukombe. Somba initiate with antelope horns on her straw-woven cap and a white stone jutting down from a hole under her lower lip.
Benin. Atakora Mountains near Boukombe. Somba initiate with antelope horns on her straw-woven cap and a white stone jutting down from a hole under her lower lip.

Benin. Atakora Mountains near Boukombe. Held down by two women, including her mother, a little four-year-old Somba girl is undergoing face scarification under the knife of a specialized man.

Benin: Barred From Access To My Car

People ask me sometimes whether I have faced danger among tribal people. To this I respond that it is considerably safer living among them than walking the streets of Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I live, at two in the morning. However, while photographing 35 indigenous peoples in three continents, I have inevitably run into occasional difficulties, as in the following case.
The man stood squarely against the driver's side of my car, a small Renault 4cv, arms and legs spread apart to impede my entrance. Except for a loincloth, he was naked, and his muscles bulged all over the black skin of a medium-height body. His left hand held tightly a big black dog by a chain. We were in the Atakora Mountains, in northwestern Benin, on the west coast of Africa. I was passing through on my way elsewhere, and was returning to my small French car after taking some pictures of the landscape that spread far below an escarpment on one side of the dirt road and of the fairyland miniature clay castles that dotted it.
"Pay!" the man said in French (until 1960, Benin was a French colony, and to this day its official language is French). He was a Somba tribesman, and I didn't need an explanation. The Somba, like many other Africans, demand money for being photographed.
I had not taken his picture, but assumed that one of those picturesque miniature castles, which the Sombas learned to build at a time when they had to defend themselves against the attacks of Moslem Bariba horsemen, belonged to him. I handed him the equivalent of one dollar, but he threw the money down furiously. I gave him five times the amount, but he flung it to the ground with equal scorn.
Considering that, due to the distance, the houses were a small part of my picture, I did not feel that I should have given him anything. But "Paie!" was the only French word he knew, and it was much simpler to part with some money than to try to explain anything to him.
I thought him unreasonable, however, for in 1969 five dollars was a lot of money for a primitive tribesman. And as I now saw other Somba men climbing the mountain in my direction, bows and arrows in hand, I understood that what they all had in mind was modeling fees for every resident. That was impossible, as I wasn't carrying much cash. The only way out was to retake my car by force, and quickly, before the men shot arrows through me.
Because I had boxed in my youth, I might have hoped to win a fist fight, but surely the dog would not watch quietly. What was I to do? I thought fast, evaluating my poor options, and quickly running out of time. And then I thought no longer, and hurled myself against the man. With an eye on the dog, I tried to shove him sideways, but I might as well have tried to move his house. He was immovable. The dog bit through my shoe, leaving a hole in it.
I jumped back and had a better look at the man. He was built like a gorilla, and he stared at me fiercely. I tried to look fierce myself, but it would take more than mean eyes to get out of this absurd situation.
Since I would not win this one by force, I decided to play it by wits. Pretending to suffer greatly from the dog bite, I slowly limped to the car hood, as if to brace myself against it. And then, suddenly nimble again, leaped over it, stormed through the opposite door, scrambled to the wheel, and started the engine.
Unfortunately, if I had left the doors unlocked when marching off to take my picture, I had also left the windows open because of the extreme heat. The dog, which the man immediately released, ran after me around the car, and jumped right through the window. As he landed on me, ready to bite again, I let loose in its ears such a loud and maniacal cry that he kept going right through the opposite window and into his master’s arms.
As I tried to drive away, however, the Somba tried to wrest the wheel from my hands while furiously banging the heavy dog chain on my car's hood. When I started gaining speed, he dropped the chain, grabbed the roof rack with his right hand, and with the left forced the car to turn towards the precipice down which I had photographed his people’s miniature castles. The other Somba, now only fifty paces away, came running faster with great whoops. Everything was happening much more rapidly than I could describe here.
By then, with no control over the car's direction, we were headed down towards the escarpment--I at least, for the Somba could jump off at any time. I had to get rid of the man quickly, and as this was my last option, I punched him in the face harder than I ever punched anyone in the ring. This time he rolled to the ground, and as I righted my car out of its deadly course, nearly ran over him. As I finally drove safely away under a shower of what sounded like insults, I saw in my rear mirror one of the men aim an arrow at the car. It hit it with force, and its metal point left a small hole in it, but I was already driving at full speed.
Four years later, as National Geographic was preparing to do a book on primitive peoples, I proposed to return to the Somba, who are as interesting as they can be aggressive, and to write one of the book’s chapter on them, which I did. This time I first talked to their priestess, and negotiated a price to be freely allowed to take the pictures I wanted. With the Somba as with other tribes, it’s always better to talk first.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Part Two - Back to Africa

In New York I spent two years working 16 hours a day in two waiter’s jobs, and sleeping little. Then, having saved enough to cover the purchase of additional photo equipment (I owned only one camera and two lenses), a journey on the cheap, and my family’s upkeep during my absence, I returned to Algiers. The year was 1963. Passing through Brussels, I overheard my father-in-law whisper that I was a boy scout who would not grow up. I understood his feelings and empathized, but was glad not to have grown up yet, or I might not have dared to risk another failure.

Through the Algerian part of the Sahara I rode on oil trucks. Through Niger and Benin I squeezed at the top of overloaded and overcrowded trucks that broke down continuously. Again, I had no budget for hotels or restaurants, but was hardly ever close to any. I lived on a dollar a day, plus what little I paid for transportation.

All through the Sahara I tried to pay Tuareg nomads to take me on a camel ride adventure, but they laughed and thought that I had lost my head. Back in the Sahara after Benin, I finally found two of them willing to do it. Over a month and 650 miles of desert, we would ride from Agadez (Niger) to Tamanrasset (Algeria) through the Air and Ahaggar Mountains, two beautiful parts of the Sahara.

Back in New York, I returned for a year to a 16-hour work day, though half of it as a photographer’s assistant this time. Meanwhile, Venture, published by Look Magazine, gave me the cover and ten pages of its third issue. Argosy, a man’s magazine, used my pictures to illustrate the story of a man’s jeep trip across the Sahara. And a photo agency sold a large numbers of my Algeria pictures. Not only had I recouped my journey’s expenses and the purchase of two camera bodies and lenses, but I was left with a profit.

It took National Geographic a whole year to decide not to use that story, which I had also submitted to them. Most of my shoot was in black and white, and at that time the editors thought that they would never run black-and-white pictures again, though they would return to that some day. They did give me some money to allow me to return to the Sahara the cheap way to ride with a Tuareg salt caravan and spend another three months sharing the Tuareg’ lives.

When those nomads refused to let me travel with them, saying that no Westerner would survive such an ordeal and that they had no business having to bury my bones in the desert sand, I offered them to share their work, which they could not resist, for they were undermanned. They might also have accepted me in exchange for money. But I had hardly enough left by then, and it would have to last four months. On my way there I had run into problems that had cost me much of what National Geographic had given me. It hadn’t been much anyway, as I was still an untested photographer and writer.

The 22 days that I traveled with the caravan, up to 16 hours a day, often without water to the limit of survival, and with very little food, would indeed be galley slavery, but I count them as the most wonderful days I ever lived.

National Geographic gave me the cover of its November 1965 issue, and Paris Match, the French counterpart of Life magazine, followed suit by publishing that story on 17 outsized pages. That story, and others that I would do later for NG, appeared in my book, Wind, Sand and Silence: Travels with Africa’s last Nomads, now out of print.

National Geographic asked me what else I had for them. And so they would give me another 11 assignments, resulting in articles and book chapters, three of which they would not publish. I would also travel for many other magazines, nearly all of them long out of business now.

To my everlasting wonder, I was now able to travel anywhere I wanted--in Africa, South America, and Asia—for assignments nearly always resulted from ideas I proposed. My interest in anthropology would push me to share the lives and cultures of more than 30 indigenous peoples. To this day, the Tuareg, whom I have visited again and again over the years, three times for National Geographic alone, remain my favorite people. But do I not owe them my career?

In 1974 I moved to Colombia. Up to 1996, when life there became fraught with problems, I self-published photo books on that country, while still traveling elsewhere on assignment. After that I had to move back to the United States.

Though all this happened a long time ago, I keep traveling to the places of my choice and producing articles on my trips. There is no money anywhere now for extended journeys, but I learned to do in two or three weeks what used to take me three to four months. I’ll do that until the end of my life, for I could not imagine a different life. To keep in shape I jog and work out at the gym three to four times a week. I learned that life is not what you get, but what you make it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Travel is Addictive

Travel is Addictive. I did not know it in 1957, when at age 24 I left my native Brussels on a 125cc Vespa scooter to ride across the length of Africa to Cape Town. I had already served two years in Occupied Germany as a Belgian army sergeant. I had worked on a ship that ferried people between Belgium and its colony, the former Belgian Congo. And I had spent a couple of years working in the Congo for Sabena Airlines.

But was that travel? Not to me. Travel had to be the stuff of dreams. It had to be adventure and discovery. No plans. No preparations. Just throw a few things in a bag and go. Face what comes. Eat what you find. And sleep where you may, mostly under the stars. My budget had no allowance for hotel rooms or restaurants. That’s how I embarked on my six-month adventure. I would pay dearly for failing to worry at least about the best months to travel there. But I would learn from that lesson and do better the next time.

As a kid I dreamed of becoming an explorer. Having learned that all the white spots on the world’s maps had been filled, I cursed the fate that had brought me to the world too late. From childhood to adulthood, I despaired of ever being able to enjoy the only life I could imagine for myself. I longed for adventure, and swore that if I ever managed to live at least one memorable escapade, I would never ask anything more from life. Such an escapade seemed so farfetched anyway. And it was.

I was, after all, like my younger brother, growing up in poverty. At age fifteen I had to leave school to help my family with a salary of my own, as would my brother a year later. I went to work in a restaurant, 12 hours a day and more, sometimes without a day off for two or three weeks. One of the reasons for our poverty was that my father had been away between 1939 and 1945--one year under arms, and five years as a prisoner of war in Germany. But there were others. And without him, my family had suffered great hunger every day of the war. Now, three years after it had ended, we were still paying its price.

So I was inevitably looking into a bleak future. But I had thrived in school, and it helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel. That light was self-education. I started with the self-study of several foreign languages, which, I thought, would at least help me find work overseas, if that was all that I could ever hope for. And I devoured books on exploration, geography, history, geology, archaeology, and anthropology.

Thanks to that, I had been able to live the memorable adventure that should have kept me forever happy. I had squeezed safely through a throat-slashing Algeria at war with France. I had found my way through the sandstorms of a hellish Sahara summer. I had sloshed through the mud of one of the worst rainy seasons in years throughout West and Central Africa. Except south of the Belgian Congo, Africa had no real roads, and sand and mud and stones and deep holes had constantly made me fly over my handlebar.

At night the blood-curdling shrieks, bellows, or roars of wild animals lurking around in the moonless bush or jungle had sometimes pulled me out of my sleeping bag to ride a light-less scooter away into the night (Africa was sparsely peopled, but teeming with wildlife). And scary storms had soaked me through in my sleep, tearing down trees and setting them on fire all around me. I had lived all that, and was still unhappy.

But I had seen too much too fast, and now I needed to return for a better look and understanding. First I would have to spend time with the Tuareg nomads. How I had envied the amazing freedom with which they moved from horizon to horizon, unaffected by the tyranny of trails, while the rarity of gas stations and the fear to get lost restricted me to the straightest courses between oases. No trails, in fact, only the tracks of trucks that had gone before, and which a sandstorm could erase at any moment. I wondered why I had not sold my Vespa to buy a camel and followed the Tuareg. But now that would have to be later.

I went on that journey with the intention of writing a book on it, or at least some magazine articles. Three years earlier, as I was photographing the people of a Congolese village, I had had an epiphany. I would become a magazine photographer and writer, and as such, would be able to travel to the world’s secret corners and get paid for it. Everyone who was aware of my background found my idea preposterous. I wondered why. But it would certainly be more difficult than I imagined.

At the end of my journey, the South African and Belgian media feasted me. And the Vespa Company gave me a brand new 150cc Vespa in exchange for the battered old 125cc one. They would exhibit the latter all over the country. I basked in my glory and expected good things from it. A magazine assignment, perhaps. Instead, I learned that my writing and photography were not of publishable quality.

Having run out of money, and glory, I was back at square one--to the waiter’s life that I had thought to have forever left behind at age nineteen. It did not help, of course, that I now had a baby daughter to raise, who would soon be followed by a baby son. I had married my girl friend before accepting the Congo job three years earlier.

I spent three unsuccessful years trying to find new employment in the Congo while saving what little I could for the next step I would take. Finally, at age 27, having lost patience, I moved my family to Canada. Having always recoiled from modernity, North America had never tempted me. But to travel where I really wanted to go, I first needed the money that I could only earn there. Fifteen months later, with $800 in my pocket, I put my family on a train from Montreal to New York for yet another life episode.

Next post:

Back to Africa