I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for a month and a half. It seems like a very long time ago. Normally by now, I’ve thought of all kinds of things to write about. Honestly though, my passion to write about the subjects I normally write about is at a nadir for the year. This is not because I’m losing interest or passion, but because sometimes you just need some downtime. This year I traveled to Ethiopia three times and spent about a month there in total. When I wasn’t actually traveling, I was either fundraising for those trips, helping other people fundraise for their trips and ministries, and working my photography job. I also helped start a 501 (3)c non-profit organization. I also have a wife and three kids. So to say the least, I’ve been busy this year. My passion for missions is because of gratitude to the God who saved me, and not out of a sense of obligation to look busy. As such, I don’t have a problem taking a vacation once in a while for some renewal.
That renewal came last week, when I traveled by ship to the Caribbean for eight days. I took the whole family with me, traveling to four different islands. We went to the islands of Grand Turk, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I had no phone and no internet for a full week, so there was no checking in with work. There was no Facebook (thank God), no email, and I couldn’t check phone messages. It was wonderful.
I of course took pictures and videos, but it was on my own terms. There were no shot lists, and no one was paying me. I could shoot whatever I wanted to. I could take pictures of beautiful things just because I wanted to. I also took my drone along and was able to get some great aerial shots of each place. I might write a blog on that sometime, but for now, please enjoy my trip of renewal through my eyes. And of course, please feel free to subscribe if you’d like to get emails when there’s an update to my blog.
I’ve been in a lot of uncomfortable situations. Without going into too many details, I’ve done public speaking, which I’m told most people fear more than death. I’ve eaten some very sketchy meals and stayed in even sketchier places. I’ve traveled on some very dangerous roads. So in my own mind at least, it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Or so I thought.
My last trip to Ethiopia was supposed to be a documentation trip. My function, at least in my own head, was to take photos and videos. It’s what I do for a living and it’s what I’m comfortable with. Furthermore, when I’m taking pictures, there is a bit of a disconnect that happens by looking through that electronic device between myself and the subject, rendering the uncomfortable and the difficult just a little bit more palatable. Sunday that was taken away from me. One of the things on my shot list was to go to a particular local church of about 700 and take pictures of the service. A vehicle and a translator was procured. The plan was to show up, get some pictures, and get back out again. After all, I had to get back to finish work on the Tesfa Center, which was opening that afternoon, and there was still a lot to do.That plan went right out the window.
What happens when you are the only representative from an organization that shows up to a church that said organization has been supporting? Guess what? You’re preaching today.
I had about 40 minutes notice. There were no excuses, nor was I going to make any. Didn’t they know I’m just the photographer? Apparently not. We entered the church, and as tradition dictates, guests sit up on the stage with the pastor and the elders. You would think I wouldn’t have a hard time thinking of what to say. After all, I have 150 or so blog posts to draw from. But for some reason, none of that seemed to fit in a church I’ve never been to, in a language I don’t speak. I’ve preached before in Africa, but I knew a long time before that it was coming and spent quite a bit of time preparing. It’s not one of my highest skills.
My time came and I got up and spoke. To say the least, my sermon was short, maybe five minutes. I talked about the long legacy of following Christ in Ethiopia, all the way back to Peter speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch in the first century. I spoke about how it was possible that a missionary from Ethiopia may have been responsible some time in the past for the salvation that my family was blessed to have. I talked about how we follow Christ not because we have to, but because we have gratitude to our Father, who even while we were enemies of God, sent his son Jesus to sacrifice for us. I can only hope that I made some kind of coherent sense. One of the verses I said was translated wrong (the wrong verse was translated.) I can only hope this was divinely inspired. After all, if Balaam’s donkey could speak by the Spirit of God, there’s hope for me as well.
I finished, and the translator was quite surprised that I was done already. (That’s what you get when you ask the photographer to preach.) But it wasn’t over yet. I asked the translator if it would be rude to leave early, because I really did have a tremendous amount of work to finish. The answer of course was yes. Not only that, but I would be going to the pastor’s house with all the elders and deacons for a meal afterward.
The thing about missions is that there is a plan you start out with, and usually there’s an entirely different series of events that happens that looks nothing like that plan. Missions is not for the inflexible, and there’s a time to just give in and go with what happens. This was one of those times.
I sat down to the meal with some very gracious hosts who put an extravagant meal together by Ethiopian standards. There were two kinds of meat in a place where meat is not usually served at all. There was a spicy bean stew, and even bottles of soda. All of that was fantastic…….except for the injira bread, and that was where my second event taking me out of my comfort zone happened.
Injira is an acquired taste. It’s a spongy bread made out of a grain called teff. Injira, when fresh, isn’t bad. It’s used in place of silverware. You rip a piece of it off, and scoop up whatever is on the plate. It comes before the rest of the meal, and you unroll it and put your other food on top of it. This is all fine.
The problem is the Ethiopian taste for fermented injira. Lots of Ethiopians consider the flavor better after it’s had a few days to ferment, and fermented injira bread gets VERY, VERY, did I say VERY sour. If my Ethiopian friends are reading this, I’m sure you are laughing at me right now, but the injira I ate was so sour, I thought the meat with it had gone bad. Nevertheless I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, and I put on the best face I could as I choked it down and tried not to insult my very gracious hosts.
So where does this bring us? As with all things in missions, there are the plans we walk in with, and there are the plans that God has. Frankly, I was wrong to pigeon hole what I thought God’s plans were to simply taking pictures. He wanted me to preach that day, and not take pictures. He wanted me to engage in community and not work on the Tesfa Center. John 3:8 says “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
When I made that decision to follow Christ, I gave up the right to tell him what I will and will not do. The events of that day were a good reminder of that, and will allow me to be more prepared next time, perhaps at a time and place where the stakes are higher.
Seven years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a flight into the Sudan. I had never been to Africa before, never been to a developing nation, never been involved in missions. I was incredibly green. I didn’t even know enough to know what questions to ask. All I knew was that God had called me to go. I had a camera with me, and I knew that God had given me the skills to use it.
I look back now and question how effective my work was on those first few trips. I don’t know if much direct and lasting fruit came from my work there. However, in the bigger picture, I know that what I learned from those first difficult trips was incredibly fruitful. It has allowed me to be useful in ways that I never could have imagined. The path I’ve traveled was definitely God ordained, since he put people and organizations in my path that I never would have found without his help.
Having said that, I’d like to thank Linda and Ray at Petros Network for giving me the opportunities to work with them and to use my skills for Kingdom work, and not just for myself.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for a few weeks, and I’ve had a chance to go through a lot of the pictures. I’m not satisfied with my work unless I can look at the photos and know that I’ve conveyed the sense of where I’ve been, touched the heart of the people, and done both of those things in a way that I feel is respectful to the subject. I can honestly say this time that I think I was able to do that. As I promised, I’ll be bringing more stories of the things that happened on this most recent pair of back to back trips. For now though, here are a smattering of some of the shots that struck my eye as I went through the thousands of shots. All can be clicked on for a larger view.
Also, since I keep forgetting, here is a link to my ebook that I’ve had out for a while. It covers some of the things I’ve learned on my travels, as well as having lots of photos. Most of the proceeds goes to missions.
I’ve now been home from Ethiopia for almost three weeks. I went straight back into normal life. I shot a wedding with a case of jet lag. Then went on to edit the one I shot right before I left. I’ve had jobs to do just as if I’d never been gone. On top of that, I also had the pictures from Ethiopia to edit, and I’m just getting to some of the ones I shot in September as well. Needless to say, I’m tired. Which is why I have not written until now. It’s certainly not because I lack content. A lot happened on this trip, most of which I hope to write about once I figure out how to convey my thoughts properly.
Though I don’t yet feel completely ready to start writing about the experiences I had on this trip, it’s been long enough, and I need to just start writing.
The first thing I’d like to write about is something that happened the first day of the medical clinic. Medical clinics are always hard, particularly on the first day. That’s the day when the most desperate people show up; the ones who know something is seriously wrong but don’t have the money to go to a doctor. You see a lot of tuberculosis, a lot of cataracts, HIV, thyroid problems, even leprosy.
But one lady just wrecked me. She was dropped off on a donkey by two men, who promptly left. She was elderly, bend over at a 90 degree angle, she was blind from cataracts, and she was extremely agitated. She said she was sixty years old, but if you told me she was ninety, I would not have thought twice about it by looking at her. Even before anyone was able to help her, she was saying if she didn’t get help she was going to kill herself. She said she had no home and no family, and had nowhere to turn.
Looking through the lens gives me a little bit of separation from what’s happening in front of me. Even still, after I was done shooting what was going on in front of me, I had to go find a quiet corner and just cry. After that, I had to compose myself and get back to the tasks at hand. I saw this happening to other people as well. There are plenty of tragic human stories you see in Ethiopia, but the ones where you see no hope in people’s eyes are truly the ones that hurt.
The woman got in to see the doctors, though I don’t think there’s really much they were able to do for her. We didn’t work on cataracts, and I don’t think there was anything they could do for her posture. We didn’t know who had dropped her off, so we also didn’t know what to do with her. Consequently she spent a lot of time in the medical clinic being tended by various people of different backgrounds that day, medical or not. I was also able to keep track of her since I saw so much of her.
It was because of all of this time spent with her that her story began to crack. It turned out she was not alone. She had children, including a son, who had been watching from a distance. She also was not homeless, and apparently also had plenty of food, judging from the amount she kept pulling out of her blouse. (Yes, the story keeps getting stranger.) I heard people say (and honestly felt myself) that it had been foolish to feel such angst over this woman, because she lied to us. But should I have?
I’d like first to say that dealing with the poor and the marginalized is often and usually messy. Sometimes they lie to you. Sometimes they have habits that cause them to be in the situation they are in. Frequently, it can take an emotional toll on you to the point where you begin to look for the emotional “out” if you will. It was for times like this that Paul wrote in Galations, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” People were feeling foolish for having compassion because she had lied to us, but the fact was that her story was still tragic. She was still blind, still crippled. The desperation she had on her face when she arrived and the tears she shed were real. She lied because she wanted someone to show compassion to her and spend time with her, which is exactly what happened.
Should God feel foolish for having compassion for us when we prayed that, “Lord if you only get me out of this, I’ll do (fill in the blank)?” Of course not. In the same manner that God showed grace to us, we need to show the same grace to others. That is why our creation in the image of God is so profound. In the same manner that God shows grace to us, we should act in grace toward the others around us who are also made in God’s image. This is summed up well in Romans 5. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
Though there was little we could do for her physically, she met people that day that cared about her. She met people who were willing to listen to her, and people who would sit down and pray for her. She met people who were willing to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ on Earth. She met people that showed the same grace to her as Christ showed to us on the day that “while we were still enemies of God, Christ died for us.”
Though I’m not quite home from Ethiopia, I am nevertheless sitting in a Canadian airport where there is good wifi. I had intended to blog while I was in Ethiopia, but I’ve been up in the mountains with very limited internet access, at least on my IPad. This trip has been many things; exhausting, thought-provoking, fullfilling, and hard. It put me way out of my comfort zone at times, which I would have previously said was a hard thing to do. I will be writing about these things in the future, but as is my tradition, my first blog when coming back into the country is one I don’t have to think about very hard. So you get pictures this time, which is what a lot of you are looking for anyway. Many of these I will write about in the future, but for now, you’ll just have to wonder and use your imagination.
Today I’m just writing a short post. In two weeks I head back to Ethiopia. In the meantime, Im spending time with my wife and kids, doing a little traveling, and shooting some pictures and video for no one but me.
We had intended on camping, with the kids in a tent. However, the remnants of another hurricane are coming through with torrential rain. We’ve had so many hurricanes this season that I don’t even know the name of this one. However, it did change our plans slightly in that we rented a cabin instead of tenting.
One of the things we traveled to see is waterfalls in North Carolina. The bonus of the hurricane is that all the rivers, and consequently the waterfalls, are roaring. There’s a silver lining to every dark cloud. So here is the first of the shots that I took today. Until next time, when I’ll likely be on a plane over the Atlantic.
I have now been back from Ethiopia for about twelve days. For anyone who has ever been concerned about getting sick in Africa, don’t be. If you’re going to get sick, it’s going to be on the plane either going or coming back. I managed to stay healthy for the entire trip despite lack of sleep, but two days after getting back, I came down with a persistent cough that I’m just now getting the better of. I have a very hard time sleeping on planes, so I often find myself awake for up to 48 hours. This tends to run me down, and it’s at that point that I get sick.
Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to go back to Ethiopia, and in only three and a half weeks. I have, some would say, foolishly agreed to do so. This will be my eleventh trip to Africa and the third in this calendar year. I believe though, in what’s going on over there. We are seeing the gospel spread, and we’re seeing tangible results in the quality of life in those we’re in relationship with. I will be going over there to document the opening of the Tesfa Center, a center for job development and training for destitute widows and their children. It will, God willing, be finished by the time I get there, and there will be a grand opening with the local community and dignitaries in attendance. So I will get over this cough, shoot a few weddings, and get right back on a plane in a few weeks. As Reinhardt Bonnke said, “God’s reward for good work is more work.”
Until I have more to write about, I’m going to leave you with some shots of the beauty of Ethiopia, all taken on this last trip that just ended. Feel free to subscribe if you’d like to follow this blog.
After a week up in the mountains of Ethiopia, I am back in Addis Ababa. Once again, I have seen new things and will have new stories to tell, but only after some thought. My team worked wonderfully together, and I’d take this group anywhere. There were a few minor illnesses, but with some prayer, everyone recovered quickly. I had the honor of bringing my son on his first missions trip this time, so I finally got to share in person what I’ve only been able to tell in stories and pictures. I wish all of you could see what we have seen, but as he has now experienced, no matter how good the pictures and stories, there is no substitute for the real thing.
Having said that, my function this time was not to collect media, but rather to lead a team. Nevertheless, my camera never stays put away for long, so here are the first of my pictures to escape from Ethiopia. Enjoy, and I’ll write more soon.
In six days I leave for Ethiopia. Each time I go to Africa, I have to reassess what I’m carrying with me. Did I use it last time? How much use was it to me? Is there something better I could be using next time?
This is my tenth trip to Africa in less than seven years. I’m a missionary, and on most trips (though not this one) my primary purpose is documentation. You may have other reasons for shooting, but the basic equipment list will be the same, except for the choice of lenses. Over the years, my equipment list has changed and I believe it has become more efficient. Efficiency is key, because most, if not all of my photographic and video equipment is carried on my person when I travel. Whether my gear is insured or not, there are certain airports I travel through where the baggage handlers seem to have particularly sticky fingers. The best prevention for theft is to never let your gear out of your sight. The bag I carry is small enough to fit in either the overhead compartment or under the seat on any plane I’ve ever boarded. With that, I’m going to go through my equipment list. Keep in mind, the type of shooting I’m doing is fairly unusual. I shoot mainly with prime lenses, so I tend to be heavier on lenses than most people will be. Nevertheless, everything going into my carry-on bag comes in at about 11 kilos, not including the tripod, which I carry as a personal item. By the way, I’m not endorsed or sponsored by any of the products I use, so if I mention it, it’s because it works well for me, and not because I’ve been bought.
My backpack is a Clik Elite Escape. I’ve had it for a few years now, and it’s held up far better than any bag I’ve used before. The previous one I used was a brand I won’t mention, and if fell apart on the first trip.
Yellow Fever Card. This is required to enter a number of developing nations.
Memory cards and holder. Your memory needs will vary. I shoot a lot of 4k video, so I need large, fast cards.
Canon G1X. This is my backup camera for when I’m trying to be discreet. It has roughly an APS-C size sensor, so I get far sharper pictures than most small cameras.
Canon 5D Mk IV. Shoots 30 megapixel images as well as 4K video (or 5.5K video if you have the upgrade.) The quality is excellent, though it is a memory hog. Attached is a 70-200 mm f4 Canon L image stabilized lens. I choose the f4 lens because it weighs about half of what the 2.8 version does.
Canon 135 mm f2 L lens. I shoot a lot of portraits and expressions, and this is the one for that.
Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens. This is possibly my favorite lens.
Sigma 20 mm f1.4 Art lens. Truly an astounding lens.
10 stop neutral density filter.
velcro zip strips, for fastening things together on the go. Zip ties are useful also.
Extra batteries for both cameras, as well as an extra set of AA batteries.
Disposable lens cleaning cloths.
Remote trigger for the 5D Mk IV.
Oben carbon fiber tripod with Giottos fluid video head. It’s very light weight, and I’ve developed a technique for using it as a steadicam with the larger camera. With the video head, you can’t shoot vertical, but when’s the last time you shot a vertical on a tripod?
Shotgun microphone. (Don’t rely on your camera’s built in mic.)
Rode wireless mic setup, for doing interviews or if I need to voiceover a video while I shoot.
Zipper bag to hold most of the stuff on the right. Toiletries, bug spray, stomach medication, antibiotics, superglue (for stitching injuries, not other stuff), ace bandage, antibiotic ointment (incredibly hard to find overseas), wet wipes (a God send when you’re traveling), band-aids (plasters to you Brits), hand sanitizer, and a contact lens case to keep small quantities of loose medication (space saver).
International electrical power inverter with adapters for different plugs.
An extra set of clothes for either traveling or if they lose your luggage. You don’t want to get where you’re going in the tropics and have only the clothes on your back. They will eventually evolve a rudimentary intelligence and walk off on their own.
(Not shown) iPad Air 2. This is lighter than a computer, and allows me to wirelessly sync photos from my camera. The hard drive is not large enough for backing up photos, but allows me to transfer the ones I need for my writing. I recommend loading up communication apps such as Facebook Messenger, Viber, or Skype for communication back home. You should also load up a virtual private network (VPN) both for security issues on public wi-fi, but also because it helps bypass censorship issues in certain nations.
Headphones, both for listening to music but also for monitoring video.
(Not shown) iPad Air 2. Lighter than a laptop. I use this for writing, blogging, and communication back home. Load up communication apps such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Viber. Also, it’s good to load up a Virtual Private Network (VPN), both for security on public wi-fi, but also to get around censorship issues in some countries. I can also sync the iPad with my camera. It doesn’t have a large enough hard drive to back up files, but I can move over the pictures I’d like to edit for blogging.
(Not shown) iPhone 5. This has a removable sim-card, so you can buy a local one for communication in whatever country you are in.
So that’s all of it. There are of course variations you’ll have. For instance, many people will get away carrying a couple of zoom lenses rather than all the lenses I’m carrying, but again, that’s just my style. Also, sometimes I need to carry a second SLR camera body. This has served me well though. Hopefully this was helpful.
Over the past seven years I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve covered about a dozen countries, several of them multiple times. I’ve been to Ethiopia three times, South Sudan four times, and Kenya about ten or so. I’ve stayed in cities, towns, villages, and some places so remote that when you try to enter it into Google earth, you get nothing. The great thing about being a missionary is that whenever possible, I’m either staying with the locals, or at least somewhere very nearby. I’ve seen all kinds of living conditions, from a family of six living in a 3 meter by 3 meter room, to relatively affluent people living in modern houses with soft furniture and satellite television. Having seen all that, what I’ve learned is that poverty and wealth have very little to do with income.
I learned this week that the average individual, non-mortgage debt in the United States right now is $37,000. That’s the average of every person, not every family. One in ten have non-mortgage debt over $100,000. That is a staggering figure. Now I realize that for some people this is medical debt, and there’s not much that can be done about that. But for a lot of people, it’s just lifestyle debt; the desire to attain some fictitious standard that we’ve either been told we need to achieve, or that we’ve decided we owe to ourselves. It’s the latter that’s the most insidious thing. As we tell ourselves and our children that we can be and have anything we want, we seek to self-glorify ourselves through things. It is the end product of the hyper-individualistic American mindset. In the land where the winner is the one who accumulates, and the king is the one who accumulates more than anyone else, is it any wonder that we see success as having the most stuff?
Here’s the cruel irony. The inevitable end-product to individualistic self-glorification is that we eventually become a slave to someone else. Don’t believe me? Which of the following two people is richer? An Ethiopian who makes enough money to put a simple roof over his head, feed his wife and children, and is content with his life, or an American making $75,000 a year with a mortgage that is going to take 30 years to pay off, student loans that don’t disappear even if he goes bankrupt, two car loans, and a year’s income worth of credit card debt? Who sleeps better? What good is having stuff if at any moment the bank can call in all my loans? Who has better security, if such a thing exists?
I write this today not as a condemning measure, but because for many of us, our paradigm is that this is the way it has to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, and in fact most of the world does not do it this way. Wealth is not just having a lot of things, it is also not having the things you don’t need. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
For those of us who have chosen to make missions our lifestyle, this is doubly important. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I can’t think of a bigger encumbrance than $37,000 of consumer debt. How can we be a servant of God, when we are already a slave to the bank? How can we give our time when our time is already spoken for to pay for our debts? Simple living is a virtue. I want to challenge us to learn from the African who lives simply, but enjoys his family and every blessing that God gives him. It’s not too late.