Tag Archives: infrared photography

Seeing Africa For The First Time

The first time I saw Africa was not looking out the window as I flew into Nairobi. It wasn’t when I got off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening to the cool air and the smell of charcoal smoke. It wasn’t the next morning waking to the cawing of the large ibises that are ubiquitous to Kenya. It wasn’t even the next day when I stepped off the next plane into the suffocating heat of Juba, South Sudan. The first time I saw Africa was several days later.

In the book, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad writes of nineteenth century travelers, “Most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them-the ship… In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, and changing  immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance… A casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.”

I believe this to be the case as much today as it was in 1899. People like the idea of seeing another culture, but would rather do it as one looks at fish in a bowl. This is why cruises are so popular. Go to a new place every day, take the sanitized, expurgated tour designed to solidify preconceptions and stereotypes you came with, and at the end of the day be safely back within the insular confines of familiar comforts.

This is why the first time I saw Africa was several days after I got there. It was when everything familiar was left behind that I really saw Africa, and it was a day I will never forget. It was the day that I realized this was not a one time event, but something that was to become part of me. It was the day it occurred to me (because it hadn’t yet) that I would be back many times.

The day I’m referring to was about my fourth day in South Sudan. We originally had no plans to go where we ended up going, but the pastor we were there to visit arranged for us to go and visit his home village, about a three hour off-road drive from Bor, where we were staying. That day I saw things I never imagined I would see. The cattle herders herding cattle with horns so immense it’s hard to imagine how something could carry something that large. The grass fires rolling across the plains, set by people deliberately to renew the land with fresh grass for the next season. We met the chief of the village of Liliir, a man with three wives, seventeen children, and I’m not sure how many grandchildren. He had been the chief of this village of 60,000 for fifty years, and ruled not with an iron fist, but with wisdom and respect. I met a man who was 110 years old that day, and who could remember when the British colonialists came. His wife was much younger, and when I asked to take her picture, she hurried into her hut to put her best clothes on.  As we traveled back that day, by chance we came across a gathering of two cattle camps. They were there for South Sudan’s favorite sport, wrestling. We asked the driver if we could stop and watch, and the cattle camp got the first foreign audience they had probably ever seen. It was absolutely amazing.  That was the day I became immersed in the culture; where all the familiar was left behind and I was able to experience Africa as part of Africa, and not through the glass. It was a turning point for me, when the foreign became not so foreign, and my worldview changed. It was the reason I write this blog today, and the reason I’m going back to Africa in less than two months.

A cattle herder on the plains of South Sudan
A cattle herder on the plains of South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chief with one of his children and one of his grandchildren.
The chief with one of his children and one of his grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Khalei, 110 years old with his much younger wife.
Khalei, 110 years old with his much younger wife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grassfires near Liliir.
The grassfires near Liliir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The children gathered to watch wrestling.
The children gathered to watch wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children starting the grassfires.
Children starting the grassfires.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the more painful moments during wrestling.
One of the more painful moments during wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrestling.
Wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The elders gathered for the meeting with the chief.
The elders gathered for the meeting with the chief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A man in the village cleaning his prized but very old Kalashnikov.
A man in the village cleaning his prized but very old Kalashnikov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A beautiful woman with tribal scarification.
A beautiful woman with tribal scarification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Africa in Infrared

As the wedding season slows a bit here in the south (it gets really hot here), I find I’m able to catch up on the things I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. I no longer feel like I’ve got all the unedited files snapping at my heels like a herd of badly color corrected schnauzers.

 

On one of my previous trips to Africa, before I left, I had my old 30d slr camera converted to shoot 720 nm infrared light by Digital Silver Imaging. They take the old filter that’s opaque to infrared light off your sensor and replace it with one that allows certain wavelengths of infrared light to pass through. This allows for some really unique photography. I’ll say right off the bat that people seem to either hate it or love it, but it is a totally different way of seeing things. Objects reflect infrared light differently than visible, light, so the processing of the photographs is really an art form unto itself.

Infrared photography taken in Torit, South Sudan
Infrared photography taken in Torit, South Sudan

 

So why would I carry the extra weight of an additional camera body when I have tight weight restrictions and  literally need to be able to carry everything on my back?  Because as far as I know, nobody’s done it before, at least not in South Sudan. All photos were taken either in South Sudan or in Kenya. I wanted to get a new perspective, and by doing so, perhaps catch peoples attention who have never paid any notice to what’s going on in that part of the world. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, there is a tremendous physical and spiritual need in South Sudan. Having said that though, I’m not sure I’d carry the extra weight again.

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A family shelters from the heat of the day in Torit, South Sudan. Infrared photo.

I am currently getting ready to go on a missions trip to Ethiopia. I’ve been asked to take pictures for the Petros Network, which is doing extensive work there with church planting, medical missions, and widow and orphan missions. I am excited and honored to be able to help them. Their website is http://petrosnetwork.org

I will of course be blogging and posting photos of the Ethiopia trip when that happens. In the meantime though, between now and the end of October when I leave, I need to raise about $2000 more  to cover my expenses. I have put my infrared photos up for sale as a fundraiser.  The gallery can be viewed by using the following link. There are a variety of sizes available, and custom sizes can be ordered by contacting me though the online gallery.  Please visit http://www.enjoyphotos.com, and fill in the following information:

Username: Infrared Africa Prints
Password: 43975

Enjoy my photography, and if you’d like to own some of it, you’ll be helping a good cause.

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Huts and one lone sheep, Bor South Sudan. Infrared photo.

Trying to explain South Sudan

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In the movie “The Matrix”, Morpheus tells Neo, “No one can be told what the matrix is.”  The same can be said for South Sudan. When I tell people where I do missions there, I get one of two responses. The first response is a cringe followed by, “Wow, rough place!”  They’ve seen the BBC stories about civil war, starvation, tribal warfare, etc.  The second response I get is, “Did you bring your wife and kids along?”  They know nothing about South Sudan at all. Neither is really a correct assessment of what South Sudan is like.

Even as I go to write this, I’m tempted to try to explain what South Sudan is really like, but I know that I can’t do it myself.  There are unfortunately too many preconceptions and paradigms that Americans have about the way they think life is and about what’s important, and any explanation goes through those filters first. There was a show a while back called “Meet the Tribe”, where five men from Vanuatu come to America and stay with families for a while to see what American life is like. When they got to California I can honestly say I was embarrassed for our culture. Between the in-house botox parties and the many luxuries that are seen as needs, I was made aware of just how hard it is for many Americans to comprehend what life is like for most of the world. Fortunately, I took a lot of video footage the last couple trips I made. I was lucky enough to be in on a conversation that really put a lot of things into perspective, and explain a lot about why South Sudan is the way it is. It is also a great explanation to those people who ask, “Why do you go all the way over there to do missions when there is so much to do here.”  It’s all in understanding what need is.  So check this video out. It was shot this last November, about 30 days before the town we were staying in was destroyed over things that are talked about in the video. Hopefully it will bring some understanding.

 

Thankfulness and Faith in Hard Times

It’s been a rough week in Bor, South Sudan. I’m still trying to sort out all the details as to what happened, but in any case, the end result is that about fifty people are dead. Even as the mass graves settle from the previous conflict, new conflict has arisen, this time between youth in Bor and United Nations soldiers. I hesitate to call them peace keepers because that doesn’t seem to be their primary goal. In any case, the violence continues.

One would think that this would be a time when people would be angry and would lash out at each other or at God. This is not what I’ve seen though.  We ask ourselves many times, “why would God let this happen?”  I heard an evangelist recently speak about their conversation with an atheist. The atheist insisted that the blood of Christ makes no difference in the world, because the world is worse off now than when He came.  The evangelist responded that the atheist was mistaken.  He said the blood of Christ is like soap. You can own soap, and even work in a soap factory, but until you apply it, you will not be clean.

The response I have seen from those I know in South Sudan is truly humbling to me. In a week where it seemed like a lot of things went wrong for me, one of my friends in South Sudan posted on my Facebook page the following verses; “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore” ISAIAH 2:4 If you are please this verse say AMEN.”

It was truly humbling to receive that. Faith for them is not a tool to add to your utility belt, it is everything. They realize that in a world where nobody wants to apply the soap of Christ’s blood, He is still their only hope. They don’t dread Christ coming back, they long for it, because only then will there be real peace. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Their faith astounds me.

I’m finishing by posting a shot I grabbed from one of my friends. It’s a picture earlier this week of a parade to celebrate Palm Sunday. Even as violence brewed and the town of Bor is still in shambles, they are celebrating.  Lord let me be like that.

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Commitment

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Twice on my trips to South Sudan, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of drums. When I say middle of the night, I’m talking about 3 in the morning middle of the night. I assumed it was some sort of tribal celebration or a wedding, since those can last for a week.  When I asked in the morning, though, I found out that what I heard was the sound of an all night church service.

This really made me think. Would we ever see something like that at home? If the prospect of an all night church service was available to me, would I go?  It really struck a chord with me that whoever it was I heard was operating under a different set of priorities and a different level of commitment than myself. You stay up all night for something that’s important  to you; for something you really care about. A faith that we see as something private, that is just one of many things in our life that may or may not be important is nothing to stay up all night for. A faith that is something useful to complete your social persona is also nothing to stay up all night for.

On the other hand, a faith that goes through to the core, a faith so deep that if you didn’t have it you wouldn’t be the same person; now that’s something that would cause you to stay up all night.  So would a faith that would cause you to appeal to God to save your family, or your village, or your nation from perils that are too numerous and too terrible to list. The people I heard were praying and worshipping because they are appealing to their Dad, because He is the only one who can save them. They pray and worship because it is the first thing that comes to mind when there is a problem, not the last thing or one of many things. That’s the kind of faith I want to have, and that’s the kind of faith that gives me hope for South Sudan despite the numerous and sundry problems that exist. In second Chronicles, it says; “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This goes for us as well. Healing begins in the heart of each person, through humility and prayer, and it’s where we have a deep lesson to learn. I pray that we haven’t become so cynical that we become lost as a people.

For the South Sudanese at least, I hold hope, because I’ve seen where their hearts are.

I’ve begun going through the voluminous video clips I shot on this most recent trip. Appropriately, here is a link to some video of a worship service in Bor, South Sudan.

Where Time Touches Eternity

It’s wednesday, and there are only four days until I leave for South Sudan again. I’ve moved out of my malaise, and am now excited about the trip. I have part of my things packed, and will take care of the rest tomorrow.

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Don’t let fear of the future ruin both the present and your impact on eternity.

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis this week, specifically The Screwtape Letters. There is such a tremendous amount of poignant observation of the human condition written in such a small text, and some of it is applicable to the common condition that links those in the west with those in South Sudan. That condition is how we see and respond to the past, present, and future.

I’m going to quote some of C.S. Lewis’s work, paraphrasing where needed so as to not have to explain the entire work to those who have not read it.

“The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which God has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present- either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks in the present pleasure.”

“The human nature, however, makes all our passions point toward the Future, and inflames hope and fear. Also, thoughts of the future turn our minds to unrealities. In a word, the Future is, or all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time- for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence nearly all the schemes and vices of men are rooted in the Future, on the very core of temporality.”

So what does all this mean for us, and what am I talking about anyway?  So I think about the future. So what?

I used to be in the financial services business, and one thing that I was taught that helped me understand why people do what they do is this: “People are primarily driven by fear and greed.”  Now there may be different recipes for this two ingredient pie depending on your taste, but the effect is the same. People tend to make poor decisions based on those two things, either by the wanton lust to satisfy their temporal desires, or by the fear of what might happen tomorrow (or twenty years from now), if I don’t gather everything within arms reach, whether I’m entitled to it or not.

In America we work at a job we don’t want to do for an employer we don’t like for financial security and comfort in retirement, when our bodies are mostly used up, (ironically on the afore mentioned job). It’s what makes the CEO think he’s worth 380 times the salary of his average employee. Get what I can now, because tomorrow will certainly have more trouble.

If on the other hand, we lived more simply, had less financial fear, and did what we actually enjoyed, our lives would be much richer, and we’d be far happier. The old adage is “Work at what you really enjoy, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” We insist we don’t have the time or resources to do either the things we ought to do, or the things even that we want to do. We go to meetings for the sake of going to meetings, or to impress someone who in the lens of eternity we have no obligation or business trying to impress. We live our lives in desperation and fear, not because the present is bad, but because the future might be if we don’t continue the relentless schedule we’ve placed ourselves on.

In South Sudan it’s the same thing, only the flavor is different. They gather what they don’t need and steal their neighbor’s cattle not because they don’t have food today, but because they might not have it in the morning if they don’t steal those cattle.

Out of riches and abject poverty, the result is the same, and the human heart is the same. The ancient text of Proverbs 30 tells us that this is nothing new, and centers our attitude back to where it should be.

Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

This is counter to human nature, and it is only by the Spirit of God that this conclusion moves past the academic and into the core of our own spirit.

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Juba, South Sudan is like an old-west town, full of people striving for the future.

The weight of leaving.

It’s a week until I leave again for South Sudan. Tonight my thoughts are a bit rambling. I had some of my family over this evening, because this is the last chance I will have to see a lot of them until I get back. A sort of melancholy  often follows me now, knowing the weight of what is before me, and knowing that I’ll be leaving my wife and kids for two weeks with very little contact. 

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Children paddle a dugout canoe in the village of Panwel, South Sudan.

Though it hurts, this is a good thing for me and probably a good thing for them as well. Sometimes I don’t realize what I have until I step back for a while. Only then can I reassess and re-sort everything that’s important to me. All the nuances of faith, family, work, business in general, hobbies; these are all brought into perfect clarity, and in the end the dross is skimmed from the top, and the things that are left; the things that I still find myself praying and thinking about when I’m in South Sudan, these are the things that are the fine gold that are worth having.  That client that’s been irritating me, or that issue at home; these things fall by the wayside as the permanence of the relationships I build with my wife and kids and the work to make the world a little less evil rise to the top. It’s funny, but when I’m in South Sudan, I’m always eager to get home, but when I’m home, I can’t wait to get back to South Sudan. This week it will become even more real as I pack.

I’ll stop here, lest I find myself rambling further. Needless to say, though, I will miss my family, though I know that the example I give my kids is worth it. 

Staying out of trouble.

There are lots of ways to get yourself into trouble in Africa, and particularly in South Sudan, especially if you’re carrying a camera. God has watched over me in all situations, so I am blessed to be able to tell you a lot of these things from personal experience without anything bad having happened. Just as a side, all photos can be clicked for a larger view.

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First of all, as in any undeveloped country, don’t drink the water. You would think this goes without saying, but some people still do, though it may not be intentional. If you’re taking a shower, don’t let water run into your mouth. This is the first way people drink untreated water unintentionally. The second is if there is ice available, it’s usually made with untreated water and can make you as sick as water straight out of the river.

Secondly, don’t eat any raw fruit or vegetables that have not been peeled. You really have no idea what’s been on it, and it’s a quick way to pick up a parasite.

When you’re taking pictures, be aware of what’s going on around you, as well as what you’re taking pictures of. Don’t ever take pictures of the military or police unless you have their permission, and even then maybe not. Furthermore, and what you might not think of, is don’t take pictures of infrastructure, especially in a country that’s at war. They may think you’re a spy and you’ll find yourself either arrested or shot.  Also, be aware of the political situation going on. Elections can be more dangerous times to be in an unstable country.

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Election posters in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013.

If you can spend some time in a village and get to know people, it’s much easier to take pictures and get the kind of results you are looking for. If you’re just passing through and are taking pictures, there’s a general lack of trust and you might find yourself in a precarious situation, even if you technically have the rights to take photos. If you find yourself in this situation, a smile and being friendly will get you out of the situation most times rather than being combative. Offer to delete the picture if it comes down to it. If however, the people aren’t truly upset about having their picture taken but are trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain, well, that’s another story and I’m not going to give advice on that.

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Infrared photo taken from the top of a water tower in Juba, South Sudan

Blending into the surroundings is easier than you might think.  I’ve climbed a water tower before with a long lens. People see you go up, but after a while, they forget about you. People generally don’t look up when they’re going about their daily business, and it’s a way to get truly candid shots.

Now we get more into the nitty gritty. Always, and I mean always, be aware of your surroundings. Trouble doesn’t usually just show up out of nowhere. There’s usually some kind of warning beforehand, and it’s always easier to get out of a tricky situation if you avoided it altogether than to extricate yourself later.

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spent 50 caliber bullets littered the road in this spot.

Don’t follow regular patterns. If you do, and someone intends you harm, you’ve made yourself a target of opportunity because they know where you’ll be at what time.

Don’t pick up anything if you don’t know what it is. South Sudan is full of mines and unexploded ordinance.  Even if an area has been declared free of mines, stick to where there is obvious traffic.  Also, if you see a line of rocks with paint on them, the white side of the rock means the area has been checked for mines and cleared, the red side of the rock has not. Stay on the white side.

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An unexploded mortar in a minefield.

Finally, don’t travel at night. And if you must travel, make sure you can stay within sight of other vehicles if at all possible. Again, most situations can be avoided if you don’t make yourself a target of opportunity.  I hope this was helpful.

 

The people of Africa

You can travel the world, and there are some truly incredible landscapes to see, but ultimately what makes a place worth seeing is the people. Take a landscape shot and it might be a great shot, but add a person to it and the human element makes it even better. Africa has some truly outstanding people watching. They’re still engaged, still human. They’re not all staring at their phones. The joys and the heartaches of life are worn into every crease of their faces, and every one tells a story. I’m keeping this short today, to let the pictures tell the story for themselves. So here are some of my favorite people pictures from Kenya and South Sudan. These are the ones you’re not going to get on the tour. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger view. Please enjoy.

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A pastor weeps and prays in Torit, South Sudan
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The eyes of a Maasai child.

 

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Curiosity as the Kawaja (white man) arrives.

 

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The face of decades of conflict worn into the face of an old woman in South Sudan.

 

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A Maasai woman holds her 12 hour old baby.

 

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The peaceful face of a Dinka woman in Bor, South Sudan.

 

An old Dinka woman in the village of Liliir, South Sudan.
An old Dinka woman in the village of Liliir, South Sudan.
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Women carry reeds for roofing material in Torit, South Sudan.

Practical advice for shooting on the go.

Sometimes I have to get off my soapbox, stop pontificating, and give some practical, easy to use advice.  Sometimes some of the best pictures can be obtained from a moving vehicle, whether it’s wildlife if you’re on safari, or the everyday goings on of the people you’re passing as you travel from one place to another. In the developed world, you’re flying by at 100 kph, and the problem is horizontal motion. In Africa, the problem is exactly the opposite, the up and down motion. For those who haven’t been to Africa, it’s probably impossible to express exactly how much up and down motion there is, so I’m not even going to try, except to say that sometimes it’s hard to even get the camera lens out the window without damaging either the lens or yourself. However, it’s an easier problem to remedy than the problem of moving too fast, and here’s why. When you are traveling at a high rate of speed, the perspective is constantly changing, meaning that the closer an object is to where you’re shooting from, the faster it appears to be going relative to you. It’s therefore hard to get a good picture where the foreground elements of the photo do not exhibit motion blur.

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Woman walking in the blazing sun with umbrella, taken from a moving vehicle.

On the other hand, when you are moving relatively slowly but have lots of jarring, your only problem is to try to freeze your own motion because the perspective outside the vehicle is changing relatively slowly. Now I’m writing this assuming that the reader has at least some knowledge of camera functions. There are several ways to freeze motion when traveling in a rocking, jarring vehicle.

The first is to shoot with image-stabilized lenses. These lenses have floating elements inside them that counteract the motion of the person shooting the picture. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. Many people think that an image-stabilized lens freezes the motion of the subject. This is absolutely not true. If you take a picture with too slow a shutter speed and your subject is moving too fast, it’s going to be a blurry picture. It does, however, take some of the blur out caused by your own motion.

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A man thatches his roof with new reeds. Photo taken from a moving vehicle.

Another method is to shoot with a high ISO setting on your camera, even in bright daylight. I often shoot in bright tropical sunlight with an ISO of 640 or 800. High ISO pictures can have some additional noise (grain to some people) in the photo, but I’d rather have a noisy picture than a blurry one any day. Along this same line, if you shoot with a larger aperture (smaller aperture number), you will also achieve a higher shutter speed, which will in turn freeze motion. When shooting from a moving vehicle, I try to shoot at shutter speeds of between 1/2000 and 1/8000 of a second. Speeds like this will stop almost any motion, no matter how awful the road is.

Using these methods, some of my favorite pictures from Kenya and South Sudan have been taken from the window of a vehicle.

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A boy looks in the window of a polling place shortly before the referendum for independence in 2010. Photo taken from a moving vehicle.

Oh, one other thing. If you want to get any pictures, you’re going to have to use an slr camera. Point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way, but they still tend to have limited controls, large amounts of noise at high ISO’s , and annoyingly, still a bit of shutter lag. This means you’ll press the shutter button, and in the time between when you press the button and when the picture is taken, you find you’ve taken a picture of something entirely unintended.

Finally, take lots and lots of pictures, because no matter how good you are, there are going to be a lot of rejects. But in that pile of rejects, there will be those few gems that totally make up for them. So keep shooting.

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Abandoned northern Sudanese tank in the road. Taken from a moving vehicle.