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.
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?
- Head lamp
- 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.
Each year, I try to publish some of my favorite photos of the year. This year, as I went through my files for the various things I took pictures of this year, it became apparent to my the vast diversity of things I shot this year. Up until this point, I hadn’t realized this year was different from any other. Sure, I take pictures in Africa every year, but this year there was so much more than that. From Eastern Ethiopia to shooting a wedding in the Bahamas to documenting life on a fishing boat, I truly have a lot that I’m happy to have captured this year. I’m posting quite a few photos in this blog, and there are many more I could have posted. Some made it in for the technical quality of the photo, some for the backstory or the story the picture tells. Hopefully the latter two will represent well. Please enjoy. I look forward to the adventures that 2016 brings. All photos can be clicked on for a larger view.
I had a lot of thoughts on my mind lately; a lot of heavy thoughts. I decided to throw them all out and write about my upcoming trip to Kenya instead. After all, this blog doesn’t always have to heavy.
In just a few weeks, I leave for Kenya. This will be my eighth trip to Africa since 2010, and the frequency of the trips has only increased. It’s now at least twice a year. Nevertheless, this trip will be full of firsts. This will be the first time I am going to Kenya when I’m not either just stopping through on the way to somewhere else or taking a partial vacation. I will be doing ministry in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Though I’ve been to Africa several times, this is the first time I will be leading a team. There will be three people traveling with me, and two of them have never been to Africa before. My wife has only been once. To be honest, it makes me a little nervous, because I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I am fine with nervousness though. Everything that is worth doing comes with some risk, and the rewards are eternal. I know also that my nervousness will be nothing compared to that of my fellow travelers. I am looking forward to seeing that look on their faces the first time they step off the plane in Nairobi to the sights and sounds, and ah yes, the smells of Africa. I am looking forward to this because I remember the first time for me; for the awestruck wonder usually reserved for children but nonetheless granted to me one more time. I’m excited for them because I have some idea of what’s in store for them even if they don’t. I’m excited for the life changing epiphany that awaits them if their eyes are open even a little.
This is also the first time I will be going to Africa when photography will not be my main function. Yes, I will still be doing that, but I will have to put the camera down a lot more and do tasks which I may not be accustomed to. A year ago, when I was in Ethiopia, an African pastor prophesied over me as he prayed, saying I would be given new skills that would be used all over East Africa. Now is that time, and I will keep that in mind when I feel I am being stretched past my limits. New abilities don’t normally just drop into your lap. They form when we are pushed past what we have already become comfortable with into the realm of what might be possible. There are no participation trophies. I am looking forward to what is hard, knowing that what is hard now will not be as hard later. I’m looking forward to becoming more capable, even if it involves making mistakes. As I read in a book recently, “God cares more about the worker than the work.” I think this is a true statement.
I intend to be giving updates on our upcoming trip while in Kenya, including pictures. Thankfully I will have good internet access in the evenings. I also hope to be able to write about my team members’ first impressions while they are still fresh. I’m looking forward to that. One last note, I wanted to congratulate my friend Peter in South Sudan, who’s wife brought a joyous new life into the world last week.
For those wishing to follow my travels, and see the parts of Africa the tourists never see, you can follow this blog, and you’ll receive an email each time there’s a new post. Until next time.
Back in November of 2014, on my first trip to Ethiopia, I met a woman who had either never seen her face or had not seen it in a very long time. I had gone out walking through the countryside one evening and came across a woman with incredible character in her face. She was standing in front of a simple hut that was no more than ten feet by ten feet, made out of sticks with mud packed between them to keep the breeze out on the cold nights up in the mountains. She smiled at me as walked past, and I simply had to get a picture of her. As a courtesy, I showed the image to her on the back of the camera. When I did, the reaction was not what I had expected. Usually it’s either joy or embarrassment, but in this case, she just looked at the image and began to touch the parts of her face. Evidently what was on the screen was not how she pictured herself. I also found this to be the case with some other people I have taken pictures of since then. I took pictures of a pastor on my most recent trip in April of this year, and after seeing it, he indicated that he had not known that his hair was gray. I think there are just not very many mirrors around, and not a lot of standing water for people to see their reflections.
When I come back to an area in Africa that I’ve been to before, I try to bring pictures back of the people I’ve either stayed with or who I plan to visit again. I simply had to give this woman a picture of herself. On the last evening I was in the village, I went out walking again, hoping to find her. Just as before, she was sitting outside her simple home, looking out over the beautiful view of the farm-covered mountains of Ethiopia, making a grass basket. I greeted her, and even though I had a heavy beard this time, she recognized me. I have her the picture, and here are the results.
Here’s a reference to my previous blog post about my first experience with the woman who had not seen her face. https://southsudantraveler.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/not-seeing-yourself-for-a-very-long-time/
Every once in a while I like to give some practical advice to people who might be taking a trip to Africa, particularly those who are going primarily to take pictures. Well, 108 blogs later, I’ve finally decided to do a comprehensive breakdown of how I pack my carry-on bag. I start with the attitude that if the airline loses my check-in bag, I could still continue on with my trip without much inconvenience. As such, I only pack in my check-in bag extra clothing, toiletries, and medication that I can live without should the airline lose them. In fact, I’ve traveled to Africa on a few occasions without actually checking a bag. Traveling light is the key, because the more you have to carry, the more difficulty you will have getting around, and the more you will miss. I travel with a minimal amount of clothing, but mostly stick with synthetic materials and bring a small bottle of detergent so that I can wash clothing by hand every two or three days. Synthetics also dry much faster. The following image shows the contents of my photo backpack laid out. The bag is a Clik Elite. I’ve used other bags in the past and found that for the hard use I give them, they tended to break down to the point that my heavy lenses were all sitting in the bottom of the bag after a long day of walking. (I am not endorsed by Clik Elite.) The Clik Elite bag gets dirty, but it holds up to a beating.
1. Canon 5D Mk2 SLR camera. 21 megapixels which is plenty should I need to crop the picture later. It’s been beaten up, gotten wet, been in the dust, and still takes great pictures.
2. 4 lenses. My two primary lenses are a Canon 135 mm f2 for taking tight portraits, and a Sigma 35 mm f 1.4 for taking wider portraits and landscapes. These are my go-to lenses for taking those winning shots. The shallow depth of field I get and the low light capabilities make carrying these totally worth the extra weight of redundant focal length lenses. My two other lenses for more general use are a Canon 24-70 f2.8 and a Canon 70-200 f4 image stabilized lens.
3. Canon G1X Point and shoot camera. It’s small and discreet for when I have to be less conspicuous, but has an APS-C sized sensor inside for much better quality pictures than a typical point and shoot camera. It also shoots 1080p video. The camera does have its limitations though, just due to what it is.
4. Extra batteries for both cameras, as well as chargers.
5. 300 gigabytes of memory cards. At least some need to be fast enough to shoot video.
6. Oben carbon fiber tripod with ball head. This is a must if you’re going to shoot video or time exposures.
7. Camelbak All Clear bottle. This has an ultra-violet lamp built in so I can purify water should I need to. It purifies unsafe water in one minute. I drank water out of the Nile for five days without getting sick using this. I also stuff the bottle with an extra pair of clean socks and undies for traveling. (Use your space to the fullest).
8. Extra pair of pants and a fleece shirt. (It can be quite cold in the parts of Ethiopia I go to.) I also pack extra clothing into any empty spaces in the bag.
9. Ipad 64 gig (not shown). This has reading material, allows my to load pictures and write my blog while away, and has VOIP software for making phone calls when I have wi-fi overseas.
10. Adapters for linking my camera to the iPad.
11. Unlocked GSM world phone. This is a multi-band phone that I can buy a sim-card for when I get to Africa so I can make local calls. I can also call home with it when there’s no internet available but cell phone service is.
12. Passport and yellow fever card. Many countries in Africa require proof you’ve had your yellow fever immunization.
13. Power converter and adapters. Lets you plug in your US based electronics into foreign outlets.
14. Case of photo filters with polarizing filters and Neutral Density filters.
15. Disposable eyeglass wipes for cleaning lenses. Travel is too dirty to reuse a normal lens cleaning cloth.
16. Hand sanitizer.
17. Wet wipes for cleanup when there is no water available or for on the plane. (These are your best friend in Africa.)
18. Remote trigger for camera. Needed for taking long time-exposures or for discreetly triggering your camera.
19. Pain reliever. (I have plantar fasciitis which can hurt after standing all day.)
20. Bug spray. This is a necessity if you are going to areas where malaria is common.
21. Head lamp. Africa is frequently very dark.
22. Cash and credit cards. (Not shown)
What I didn’t bring but could have
1. Anti-malarial drugs. You have to weigh your risks. I’ll only be in an area with malaria for a couple days, so is it worth being on drugs with potential side effects for two days of protection? I decided not to. That’s why I have bug spray. Also, use the mosquito nets at night if you’re in an area with malaria and don’t be outside in the evening.
2. A flash. I’ve brought a flash before, but found that for my style of shooting, out of a couple thousand pictures taken, I used the flash for about 10.
So you might have a hard time believing that all that goes into the bag. I can assure you that it does. It does fit under a the seat in front of you even on a small plane, though I usually have to take the tripod off and place it beside. Weight is almost certainly over the limit, but fortunately most airlines don’t weight your carry-on bag. So here is the bag as it’s packed and ready to go. As a side note, my check-in bag is also a backpack, so that if I have to travel over distances cross country I can put one over each shoulder. Total weight for both bags is somewhere between 50 and 60 pounds.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere–in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These words of Jesus were the last he spoke before he was taken up to Heaven. I am blessed to have been able to go many times now to the uttermost parts of the earth. Tomorrow I will buy airline tickets, and soon I will go to even more uttermost parts than last time. I won’t be specific as to where yet, but I will be in Ethiopia again.
Some people say they don’t hear God’s voice. I have to say that I do. Sometimes it’s in the form of thoughts that I know in my knower are the truth. Other times it’s in the voice of someone else, or in dreams, or in things that I read. There are many ways God can speak if you’re listening. But you do have to put away all the busyness of the world around, let the distractions go, and listen for that voice that comes when you’re paying attention. I spoke with God recently, and my first question was, “Lord, am I supposed to go back to Ethiopia?” As soon I asked the question I felt a bit foolish, not because I asked it, but because I asked a question that, had I been thinking about it, I would have already known the answer. The answer I got was, “I have given you many opportunities now; I’ve given you a passion for this, and a passion for people and the gospel. Most of your funds are raised even before you started trying to raise them. I’ve cleared your schedule at the specific time you would need to go. I’ve given you a wife who is supportive of you in all these things. Do you really need to keep asking if you’re supposed to go? I’ll tell you when you’re NOT supposed to go.
I’m excited for this trip. Frankly I’ve been excited about all of them except for one, but that’s another story. We’ll be covering some new territory, but also some familiar, and building on the relationships we’ve already established. All the while I will be documenting again, so there will be plenty of pictures. I won’t be specific on places and times until I’m already there, but I will be putting my thoughts down all the while, even if I don’t publish them until later. I learn more about myself than I do about Africa every time I go. I expect this time to be no different, and look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.
This is my 100th blog post on South Sudan Traveler, and what better way to celebrate it than with some of my favorite pictures of all time. Some you’ve seen in previous blog posts, but many others are brand new (at least to you). I think back to my first time going to South Sudan back in 2010, before it was its own country. I think back to how green I was, but fully aware that I am simply a different shade of green now. My perspectives have changed since that time, but thankfully I have the pictures to document how those perspectives changed. So please enjoy Africa as I’ve seen it over the last five years, from South Sudan to Kenya to Ethiopia. Soon I will have even more. All pictures can be clicked on for a bit larger view. Also, I am beginning to work on a book that will feature the unexpurgated version of Africa you don’t see in the brochure. More on that later.
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 while back I wrote about the adventures of Blurry Man, the adventurer who travels the world and comes back with in-focus pictures of everything and everybody except himself. Well, I’ve been on a few trips since then, and I’m happy to say, that thanks to some great people I was with, I have some in-focus pictures of myself to prove that I was where I was. I’m not sure the people I handed my camera to will ever know how much it means to have pictures of myself in some of the places I’ve been, so I’ll just say “Thanks” right now to those people.
But you’ve come to this blog to see where Blurry Man has been, so I won’t disappoint. There are of course some things you can do to make sure your own blurriness doesn’t happen. The problem is usually the tools you’re using. The reason pictures look so good coming out of an SLR camera with a good lens is that there is control over the depth of field, or how much of the picture is in focus from front to back. The tools that make your pictures look great when used correctly also give you the ability to take really bad pictures if used incorrectly. A good portrait usually has a shallow depth of field, meaning only the portion of the picture with you in it is in focus. This works great when the focal point is You, but if the focal point is something else…. well, the results follow. There are a few ways to alleviate this. The first is to tell the person taking the picture for you to make sure you are in the center of the picture. While this may sometimes be a composition faux-pas, it will at least insure that the central focus point in your camera’s viewfinder will locate you and focus on you instead of the background. The second method is to use a wide lens and a large aperture number to insure a large depth of field that hopefully includes you. This may make you a small part of the picture, but at least you’ll be in focus so long as your shutter speed is long enough. (which is another possible cause of your blurriness.) The third method, and the one I’m tending to go with lately, is to first stand where you’re going to be in the picture, focus your lens on the person who will be taking the picture, set your focus to manual, hand them the camera, and walk back to exactly the same spot you were standing. Since the distance from you to the person taking your picture is the same as the distance between the person taking your picture and you, you should be in focus when they take your picture since you’ve pre-focused for them. No matter where you are in the picture, as long as you stay the same distance from the lens, you’ll be in focus. This is insurance in case your shooter gets “artsy” The fourth method is to just have someone who is familiar with an SLR take your picture, which, wonderfully, was an option on my last trip to Africa. (Thanks Anthony).
I’ve included a couple of old Blurry Man sightings in this blog, as well as some new ones. I’ve also given the reason why each picture is out of focus.