98.7 % Human

Rescued chimpanzee, Eddy, is one of the many chimps I photographed for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Refuge in Uganda recently. Eddy was confiscated from Akefs Egyptian Circus in 1998 and arrived at the sanctuary very depressed. He has since done much better although he still sometimes shows signs of trauma and acts up.

Rescued chimpanzee, Eddy, is one of the many chimps I photographed for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda recently. Eddy was confiscated from Akefs Egyptian Circus in Kampala, Uganda in 1998 and arrived at the sanctuary very depressed. He has since done much better although he still sometimes shows signs of trauma and acts up.

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is located on a magical little island in Lake Victoria, Uganda, and is home to 48 orphaned chimps rescued from Uganda and neighboring African countries. At the end of a month teaching photography to kids in Rwanda, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend four days on the island. I was there on assignment to document the chimpanzee sanctuary for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the sanctuary’s founders and continuing supporters.

When I first stepped off the small boat that brought me the 45 mins from Entebbe, I was struck by the intense chirping of birds. I soon discovered that the island is not only home to the chimps but to literally thousand of weaver birds as well as egrets, monitor lizards, fruit bats, otters, fish eagles and a variety of other small creatures. The island also houses an exceptionally caring staff who feed the chimps, clean the compound, educate visitors about the sanctuary’s work and generally ensure the chimps’ wellbeing. Innocent Ampeire, one of Ngamba’s most experienced caregivers, was the first staff member to welcome me and, wearing a shirt that read “98.7 % chimp”, proceeded to introduce me to the extraordinary microcosm that is Ngamba Island. With the birds singing, the chimps calling and hooting in the distance and the beauty of Lake Victoria all around me, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a little piece of paradise.

The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was founded in 1998 with the idea that it could serve as a home for confiscated chimps who could not be returned to the wild. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested. Of the remaining two acres, one acre is used as camp quarters for staff and researchers and the remaining area, located between the forest and the viewing platform, is where the chimpanzees are fed during the day. While the chimpanzees spend the majority of their day in the forest, they do voluntarily return to the feeding area several times a day to eat as the forest’s natural food resources are not enough to sustain a group of that many chimps. Most of the chimpanzees also return at night through a long caged corridor to eat their evening meal and sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.

In advance of my arrival on Ngamba, I did a little research about chimps to better understand what I would be photographing. I was immediately struck by the fact that we share 98.7 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees. Like us, they have complex emotional and social worlds and even have different cultures depending on the region they live in. They experience joy, anger, grief, sorrow, pleasure, boredom and depression and also comfort one another by kissing and embracing. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960’s, chimps use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals! Their gestation period is very similar to humans, their body temperature is the same, they have opposable thumbs on their hands (and on their feet!) and, like humans, eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. They enter adulthood at around 13 years old and, like us, share life-long bonds with their children. The primary difference between chimps and humans is that they don’t have language although they do communicate using a complex system of of sounds, facial expressions, gestures and body language.

As I spent time observing and photographing Ngamba’s chimps and learning about their personal histories over the days that followed, I became fascinated with how different they all were from each other, not just physically but emotionally. Innocent and the other caregivers know the chimps intimately and speak of them almost as familiar friends. They’d say things like “Medina seems depressed today” or “did you see how one of the others tried to steal Baron’s security blanket?” and then a discussion of the given chimp would ensue. They also make detailed notes in logs books about the chimps’ behavior and activity at the end of each day. I found these snippets of conversation about the chimps compelling and began to read and ask questions about each chimp’s personal story.

As I mentioned earlier, like humans, chimpanzees have close familial relationships so early separation from a mother–as most of the Ngamba chimps experienced–leaves deep emotional scars. Some of the stories I heard simply broke my heart. For example, Baron, who found a rag in the forest and holds onto it as a security blanket, was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with sibling who died. Another chimp, Ndyakira, was confiscated as an infant from illegal wildlife traders in Uganda. She had been sent first to Russia and then to Uganda where the dealers were intercepted and she was found malnourished and traumatized. When female chimp, Medina, arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a bloated stomach and was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and is now a friendly and generous chimp. These are just a few of the painful stories I learned about during my stay.

While many of Ngamba’s chimps struggled to integrate, showed signs of depression or had behavior issues when they first came to the island, almost all have since managed to adapt and seem to be thriving.  Hearing their stories and seeing what a rich and full life they now have on the island made me realize how special the sanctuary is and how important it is to have places like it in the world. With chimpanzee populations threatened by habitat loss, hunting and disease, there are few places where our closest relative can live peacefully and I feel honored to have spent time capturing this exceptional little spot on earth.

A chimpanzee sits in the crook of a tree in Ngamba Island's dense forest. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested.

A chimpanzee sits in the crook of a tree in Ngamba Island’s dense forest. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested.

Female chimp, Ndyakira, was confiscated as an infant from illegal wildlife traders in Uganda. She had been sent first to Russia and then to Uganda where the dealers were intercepted and she was found malnourished and traumatized. After some time at the sanctuary, she happily integrated into the group and loves being in the trees while in the forest.

Female chimp, Ndyakira, was confiscated as an infant from illegal wildlife traders in Uganda. She had been sent first to Russia and then to Uganda where the dealers were intercepted and she was found malnourished and traumatized. After some time at the sanctuary, she happily integrated into the group and loves being in the trees while in the forest.

Female chimps Surprise (above) and Mini (below) climb a tree at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Incidentally, Surprise was unexpectedly born in the sanctuary despite the fact that all female chimps are on contraception to prevent them from conceiving because pace and resources are limited. As with humans, contraception is not 100%.

Female chimps Surprise (above) and Mini (below) climb a tree in the sanctuary. Incidentally, Surprise was unexpectedly born in the sanctuary despite the fact that all female chimps are on contraception to prevent them from conceiving because space and resources are limited. As in humans, contraception does not work 100% of the time.

Male chimp, Baron, is photographed with his "security blanket" --a rag he found in the forest at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. As a baby, he was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with sibling who died.

Male chimp, Baron, is photographed with his “security blanket” –a rag he found in the forest at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. As a baby, he was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with a sibling who died.

A few of the sanctuary's 48 chimpanzees hangs out at the forest's edge.

A few of the sanctuary’s 48 chimpanzees hang out at the forest’s edge.

Female chimp, Medina, reaches out a hand requesting food. The hand reaching gesture among chimps is also used to beg for support from a friend or as a reconciliatory gesture after fights.

Female chimp, Medina, reaches out a hand requesting food. The hand reaching gesture among chimps is also used to beg for support from a friend or as a reconciliatory gesture after fights.

Care givers feed chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While the chimps forage for food in the forest during the day, their food is also supplemented by the sanctuary's staff since the island's natural resources are not enough to feed such a large population of chimps.

Caregivers feed chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While the chimps forage for food in the forest during the day, their food is also supplemented by the sanctuary since the island’s natural resources are not enough to feed such a large population of chimps.

Six year-old chimp, Sara, stares at the reflection of herself in my camera's lens. Sara was the island's youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful--very much like a human child.

Six year-old chimp, Sara, stares at the reflection of herself in my camera’s lens. Sara was the island’s youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.

Female chimp, Medina, scrunches up her face as she tries to catch a piece of carrot in her mouth. When Medina arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a big and hard stomach which was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and now is a friendly and generous chimp.

Female chimp, Medina, scrunches up her face as she tries to catch a piece of carrot in her mouth. When Medina arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a bloated stomach and was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and now is a friendly and generous chimp.

 Chimpanzees voluntarily file into their enclosure through a corridor after spending the day in the forest to eat their evening meal and sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.

Chimpanzees voluntarily file into their enclosure through a corridor to eat their evening meal after spending the day in the forest. Afterwards they sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.

 

 

Female chimp, Medina, eats her evening meal of porridge in one of the chimp enclosures at the end of the day. I found myself completely fascinated with chimpanzee hands which are so much like our own.

Female chimp, Medina, eats her evening meal of porridge in one of the chimp enclosures at the end of the day. I found myself completely fascinated with chimpanzee hands which are so much like our own.

Chimps enjoy their evening meal of porridge in one of the enclosures at the end of the day. While the chimps forage for food all day in the forest, their food is supplemented with fruit and vegetables at the sanctuary's feeding station during the day and they voluntarily come into their enclosures in the evening for dinner and sleep

Chimps enjoy their evening meal of porridge in one of the enclosures at the end of the day. While the chimps forage for food all day in the forest, their food is supplemented with fruit and vegetables at the sanctuary’s feeding station during the day and with porridge in the evening.

A chimpanzee reaches to take some cabbage from one of the care takers at the end of the day after returning from the forest. Because chimps can be very aggressive, the sanctuary's safety precautions include bars on the enclosures and a fence between the forest and the human camp.

A chimpanzee reaches to take some cabbage from one of the caregivers at the end of the day after returning from the forest. Because chimps can be very aggressive, the sanctuary’s safety precautions include bars on the enclosures and a fence between the forest and the human camp.

Caretaker, Joseph Masereka, washes the outside of the chimp enclosures after the chimps have left for the forest for the day.

Caregiver, Joseph Masereka, washes the outside of the chimp enclosures after the chimps have left for the forest for the day.

Male chimp, Kalema, is photographed at the edge of the island's forest.  Kalema is a happy and playful chimp. Athough he is one of the bigger chimps, he doesn’t enjoy the rough and tumble play of the older males. He can be quite shy and is often seen sitting and observing the activity around him from a distance.

Male chimp, Kalema, is photographed at the edge of the island’s forest. Kalema is a happy and playful chimp. Athough he is one of the bigger chimps, he doesn’t enjoy the rough and tumble play of the older males. He can be quite shy and is often seen sitting and observing the activity around him from a distance.

A small group of chimps communicate with each other at the forest's edge on Ngamba Island. While chimps don't use language per se, they communicate with one another through a complex system of vocalizations, facial expressions, body postures and gestures.

A small group of chimps communicate with each other at the forest’s edge. While chimps don’t use language per se, they communicate with one another through a complex system of vocalizations, facial expressions, body postures and gestures.

Kalema eats the leaves off a plant at the sanctuary. Like humans, eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960's, chimps use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals!

Kalema eats the leaves off a plant at the sanctuary. Like humans, chimps eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960’s, chimps also use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals!

Male chimp, Rambo, scratches his chin. Chimp gestures and facial expressions are, unsurprisingly, so similar to humans'.

Male chimp, Rambo, scratches his chin. Chimp gestures and facial expressions are, unsurprisingly, so similar to humans’.

Female infant chimp, Sara, is carried by care givers after being sedated so Ngamba's veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, could examine and treat pox in her mouth at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Female infant chimp, Sara, is carried by caregivers after being sedated so Ngamba’s veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, could examine and treat pox in her mouth at the sanctuary’s clinic.

Ngamba's veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, examines female infant, Sara, after care givers noticed she had pox in her mouth that needed to be treated.

Ngamba’s veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, examines female infant, Sara, after caregivers noticed she had pox in her mouth that needed to be treated.

Six year-old Sara, is photographed with her mouth slightly open which is how care givers very noticed the pox in her mouth. Sara was the island's youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.

Six year-old Sara, is photographed with her mouth slightly open which is how caregivers first noticed the pox in her mouth. Sara was the island’s youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read more.. Monday, April 6th, 2015

new work from my Rwandan students

Portrait by Odilla Umuziranenge. Orphaned at a young age, Odilla has been participating in "Through the Eyes of Hope" for over seven years and now runs the studio most days. When I first saw this portrait she created last week, I was stunned by the beauty and solemnity of it.  Odila's photographic progress only affirmed my decision to come back and teach in Rwanda again this year.

Portrait by Odila Umuziranenge. Orphaned at a young age, Odila has been participating in “Through the Eyes of Hope” for over seven years.  She now runs the studio most afternoons and attends university classes in the evenings. When I first saw this portrait she created last week, I was stunned by the beauty and solemnity of it. Odila’s photographic progress only affirmed my decision to come back to teach in Rwanda again this year.

After my experience last year teaching photography to students at the “Through the Eyes of Hope” program in Kigali, Rwanda, I knew without a doubt that I had to come back.  For those of you who didn’t see my blog post last year,  here’s a bit of back story.  “Through the Eyes of Hope” was founded by photojournalist, Linda Smith, in 2006 and is wonderful program that seeks to empower kids through photography.  The program not only enables them to express themselves creatively but also means they can earn a bit of money through the studio they run where they primarily provide passport photos for locals.  The students’ work has been shown in exhibits in both Rwanda and the US.

After I left Rwanda last year, I was determined to get more cameras for the kids to use since they were sharing three consumer-level cameras.  I approached fellow professional photographers as well as local Cape Cod camera shop, Orleans Camera, about donating older generation cameras that they no longer used.  I was so touched by the generous response I received and was thrilled to be able to send six professional-level digital SLRs with lenses and cf cards back to Rwanda.

What drew me back to Rwanda after last year’s experience was the kids’ enthusiasm, appreciation, exploding creativity and complete lack of entitlement.  When I arrived at the airport three weeks ago, I was joyfully greeted by four of my students and received big, welcoming hugs.  Since arriving, I’ve been training the students on the donated cameras, pushing them to improve their technical skills and also working on capturing “moments”.  Since there are few photo studios in Kigali, we’ve especially been focused on improving their studio skills since they’re in  unique position to offer professional studio photos to clients at a reasonable price. Together we worked towards preparing for an “open studio” day which we decided to make on Valentine’s Day, during which we would offer community members a free photo session and print. The idea behind this was to show the community the amazing work the students can do, create some positive PR for the studio and hopefully create some future customers.

During the days before Valentine’s day, the students had several assignments to create interesting studio portraits. I was thrilled with how enthusiastically they approached this task and what beautiful work came out of  these assignments, some of which you will see below. When Valentine’s day arrived, I knew they were ready.  Word spread quickly about what we were offering and we soon had a steady flow of community members coming in for the photo session and print.  I was so happy and moved to see the customers’ consistently smiling responses when we handed them the glossy 4×6 print.  Of course I was also elated to see what good work the students were producing, some of which is included below.

Beyond working together on their photography skills, we also made several field trips. The first was to Nyamata Church, a genocide memorial site where 10,000 Rwandans were brutally murdered during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Only seven people survived the attacks at Nyamata and these were all children who went unnoticed because they were hidden under adult bodies.  None of the students had ever visited the site before.  While they’ve grown up learning about the genocide at school, I thought seeing the memorial site in person would be powerful for them as well as for me and open up a dialog about Rwanda’s painful past. It did turn out to be a very difficult but meaningful experience for us all which I don’t really think words can describe.

Then, last weekend, some of the students joined me for a trip to Akagera National Park about two and a half hours from Kigali which again, most of them had never visited.  Having grown up in South Africa myself, visiting the wilderness and seeing South Africa’s incredible wildlife was such a rich part of my childhood and it pained me to think that these Rwandan students had never seen the rich wildlife in their own country.  It was wonderful to see their excited reaction to zebras, giraffes, hippos, a crocodile and the many other amazing wild animals we saw during our visit.

As my time with the students winds down, I think of all the moments in which I’ve been moved by my experience here. One particular moment that struck me most powerfully was during our drive to Nyamata to visit the genocide memorial site. The students are all passionate about music and they spent much of the drive singing together–primarily Rwandan religious songs–harmonizing beautifully and just having so much fun.  As their voices rose up in the car, I found myself with a huge smile on my face coupled with a painful lump in my throat. How strange and beautiful to be driving towards this reminder of Rwanda’s traumatic past with a new generation joyfully singing their hearts out.

Portrait by Lucky Fikiri

Portrait by Lucky Fikiri. This is a portrait of a community member who happened to be passing by the studio and came in to get her photo taken.  Her shy but delighted response to seeing the print of herself was quite touching.

Self-portrait by Joshua Munyaburanga. Joshua calls this image "Two Brothers" as the boy on the right side of the frame is his brother, Sustain, while the face in the mirror is his own.

Self-portrait by Joshua Munyaburanga. Joshua calls this image “Two Brothers” as the boy on the right side of the frame is actually his brother, Sustain, while the face in the mirror is his own.

Portrait by Bobo Simubara

Portrait of fellow TEOH student, Lucky Fikiri, by Bobo Simubara. This photo came out of an assignment to create an imaginative studio portrait. The students got incredibly creative and while I was distracted editing work with another student, used fabric, jewelry, paint and other accessories to create images that reflected their culture.

Portrait of three brothers by Joseph Korerimana

Portrait of three brothers by Joseph Korerimana. These brothers were just a few of the community members who visited the studio on Valentine’s day to get a free photo and print of themselves. Many of them people who walked away with a print do not have any other print of themselves so it was wonderful to see their reaction to the glossy 4x6s they received.

Portrait by Sustain Kabalisa

Portrait by Sustain Kabalisa. This security guard was one of the community members to visit the studio on Valentine’s day. I was struck by the beautiful light in this image and the seriousness of his pose.

Portrait by Joseph Korerimana

Portrait by Joseph Korerimana. This is a portrait of  TEOH student, Odila Umuziranenge and a  friend’s child.  Odila is one of TEOH’s original students and has really thrived over the years. I loved the joyfulness and spontaneity of this image and was particularly impressed since Joseph, the photographer, is one of TEOH’s youngest students and is in the early stages of learning photography.

Portrait by Justine Mukundiyukuri

Portrait by Justine Mukundiyukuri. This image came out of one of the portrait assignments I gave the students in preparation for our open studio event on Valentine’s Day.  Again, I was impressed with Justine’s creativity in response to the assignment. Incidentally, the yellow container on the girl’s head is the kind of  water container one sees children fetching water in all over Rwanda.

Portrait by Bobo Simubara

Portrait by Bobo Simubara. This image too emerged from the studio portrait assignments in preparation for our open studio event.

Portrait by Hamis Ndikumukiza

Portrait of fellow TEOH student, Sustain Kabalisa, by Hamis Ndikumukiza. Incidentally, the murals on the wall behind Sustain were painted by the students.

Portrait by Prossy Yohana

Portrait by Prossy Yohana.  This image came out of assignment about depth of field. The students were learning how to use the donated SLR’s in manual mode and were asked to create portraits with a wide aperture which creates a shallow depth of field. I loved the pensiveness of this image and thought the shallow depth of field worked beautifully to isolate the girl against the background..

This image, made by Odilla Umuzirangenge, was one of my favorite to come out of an assignment the students were given to photograph at their church.  The photo is of a choir member singing at the end of a three plus hour pentacostal service (which I too attended with my student) held in a tent whose temperature rose and rose throughout the service.  I thought this photo really captured the passion with which she approached her singing and praising.

This image, made by Odilla Umuzirangenge, was one of my favorite to come out of an assignment the students were given to photograph at their church. The photo is of a choir member singing at the end of a three-plus hour pentacostal service (which I too attended with my student) held in a tent whose temperature rose and rose throughout the service. I thought this photo really captured the passion with which she approached her singing and praising.

Taken after our Valentine's day open studio event, this is a photo of me with my "Through the Eyes of Hope" students and the equipment generously donated by my fellow photographers. Thank you again to all those who donated!  I hope you enjoyed seeing what your generosity helped enable!

Taken after our Valentine’s day open studio event, this is a photo of me with my “Through the Eyes of Hope” students and the equipment generously donated by my fellow photographers. Thank you again to all those who donated! I hope you enjoyed seeing what your generosity helped enable!

This blog strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful or disturbing photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

ps. comments are closed due to an overabundance of spam but please feel free to respond to this blog post directly if you have any questions or comments.

 

Read more.. Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Journey to Machu Pichu

One of the many resident llamas is photographed at Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length.

One of the many resident llamas is photographed at Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length.

Nestled 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains and almost entirely circled by the Urubamba River is a mysterious Incan city that up until just over 100 years ago, was completely unknown to the west. The story goes that in 1911 a Yale archeologist, Hiram Bingham, was searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba–the last Incan stronghold to fall to the Spanish–when a local farmer told him about some ruins located at the top of a nearby mountain. Bingham was then led by an 11 year-old boy to the site that has astounded archeologists ever since and also ignited a custody dispute that went on for almost 100 years, catalyzed partly by the fact that Bingham took artifacts from the site back to Yale for further study. What was particularly remarkable about the site was that the Incans had managed to keep it a secret from the Spanish for over almost 500 years and as a result, it remained relatively intact–a true icon of Incan civilization, architecture and engineering.  Of course I’m referring to the now famous archeological site of Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America.

During a visit to Peru last month, Machu Pichu was, unsurprisingly, on the top of our list of things to do. The journey to Machu Pichu itself is worth mentioning–the usual planes, trains and automobiles, then long snaking lines to buy tickets in the rain at the “Ministry of Culture” in the launching city of Cusco, more lines to buy bus and train tickets at a local tourist agency, another bus ride, a beautiful train ride through the Andes, a fairly intense but exquisite 2 hour hike up steep and mossy Andean steps from the town of Agua Calientes (for those who don’t want to hike, there are buses that take you directly to the entrance) and then the final ascent into the site itself which, at over 7,000ft with high altitude oxygen levels, is not made for the average couch potato. Or, for the really ambitious, one can hike the extraordinary 4-5-day Inca trail which passes through cloud forest, alpine tundra, tunnels and many Incan ruins.  Despite the intense journey and the enormous number of tourists exploring the site–most with selfie sticks extended in front of their faces–I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city seems to have been created with a unique aesthetic sensibility, functionality and awareness of the surrounding environment.  If, as archeologists now theorize, it served as a sort of retreat and ceremonial site for Incan rulers, it’s clear these men knew how to retreat and ceremonialize in profoundly thought-out style. In short, Machu Pichu is truly as beautiful and otherworldly as the guide books proclaim (albeit with way too many humans and selfie sticks).

Separated into three areas–urban, religious and agricultural, the structures are so perfectly matched with their surroundings.  While the agricultural areas, with their well-defined terraces and aqueducts, make use of the natural slopes and the urban areas–which housed farmers, servants, teachers and the like–are built in the lower regions, the religious areas are located at the top of the city, with soulful and inspiring views of the beautiful Urubamba Valley far below.  Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. Also, I was amazed at being able to imagine so well what life must have been like in this high altitude world. For instance, the many houses have stone shelves for displaying objects, high windows to allow enough light to enter at sunset and sundown and notches next to open stone doorways so that residents could lock their doors!  There are baths and storage rooms, temples and of course the well-laid out terraces extensive enough to grow more than enough food for Machu Pichu’s residents. For a place that appears to be of another world, its details betray a city very much made for humans.

Of course there is so much more to be said about Machu Pichu’s intricacies–its Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock but perhaps these places are best left to be explored in person. These days, besides the overabundance of tourists (whose free-wheeling explorations of the stone structures have put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site list), there are also, surprisingly  enough, a herd of free-range llamas whose heads occasionally pop up between the granite stones. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length. They are, perhaps the only truly consistent and natural residents of the site and their peaceful presence and lovely dromedary-like faces amidst the beautiful ruins are what I held onto as we hiked back down the mountain.

 

Isolated in the Andean mountain range, the only way to get to Machu Pichu is by rail to Agua Calientes, the small touristy town at the base of Machu Pichu.  The train ride itself is wonderfullu scenic and the train's large windows on the sides make for a visually breathtaking experience.

Isolated in the Andean mountain range, the only way to get to Machu Pichu is by rail to Agua Calientes, the small touristy town at the base of Machu Pichu. The train ride itself is wonderfully scenic and the train’s large windows on the sides and ceilings make for a visually breathtaking experience.

To get to the site from Agua Calientes, one can either wait in long lines for the busses that snake up the mountain every 15 mins or one can hike up the steep Andean stairs for about two hours. The hike up was peaceful with some stunning views of the shrouded Andean mountains. We only ran into one other hiker--a Frenchman who appeared about to pass out.

To get to the site from Agua Calientes, one can either wait in long lines for the buses that snake up the mountain every 15 mins or one can hike up the steep Andean stairs for about two hours. The hike up was peaceful with some stunning views of the shrouded Andean mountains.

I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city is truly as otherwordly as the all the guidebooks proclaim.

I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city is truly as otherwordly as the the guidebooks proclaim.

 Tourists explore Machu Pichu's stone structure. The number of daily tourists who visit the site relatively unresricted has put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site and the Peruvian government is considering tighter restrictions.


Visitors explore Machu Pichu’s stone structure. The number of daily tourists who visit the site relatively unresricted has put Machu Pichu on the list of endangered archeological sites and the Peruvian government is considering tighter restrictions.

Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu's structures are massive--perhaps 50 tons or more--they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar.  These stones were of course cut long before the invention of machinery.

Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu’s structures are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. These stones were of course cut long before the invention of machinery.

A view of the sun temple from above. Apparently the sun temple was dedicated to the solar god and patron Incan deity, Inti. The temple was an important observatory in which the measurement of the solstices was undertaken. Underneath the Sun Temple is a cave-like room named the Royal Tomb in which the nobles and possible the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Cusco Empire and later the Inca Empire, were laid to rest in their mummified state.

A view of the sun temple from above. Apparently the sun temple was dedicated to the solar god and patron Incan deity, Inti. The temple was an important observatory in which the measurement of the solstices was undertaken. Underneath the Sun Temple is a cave-like room named the Royal Tomb in which the nobles and possible the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Cusco Empire and later the Inca Empire, were laid to rest in their mummified state.

Visitors explore the "urban" or residential areas of Machu Pichu which are built in the lower regions of the city and housed farmers, servants and teachers etc.

Visitors explore the “urban” or residential areas of Machu Pichu which are built in the lower regions of the city and housed farmers, servants and teachers etc.

Machu Pichu is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River with cliffs dropping vertically almost 1,500 ft.  The Urubamba accounts for the morning mists which rise up from its waters.

Machu Pichu is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River with cliffs dropping vertically almost 1,500 ft. The Urubamba accounts for the morning mists which rise up from its waters.

A view of the Inca Bridge which is part of a trail that heads west out of Machu Pichu.  To prevent outsiders from entering Machu Pichu on this trail, a 20-foot gap was left in this section of the carved cliff edge over a sheer drop. Two tree trunks could be used the bridge the gap which was otherwise impassable.

A view of the Inca Bridge which is part of a trail that heads west out of Machu Pichu. To prevent outsiders from entering Machu Pichu on this trail, a 20-foot gap was left in this section of the carved cliff edge over a sheer drop. Two tree trunks could be used the bridge the gap which was otherwise impassable.

The Incans were known for their use of agricultural terracing and Machu Pichu's extensive stone terraces are a prime example of this practice. Because the sun's rays don't reach deep enough in the valley, the terraces allow use of the more intense and longer sunlight exposure during the day.  Terracing also prevented soil erosion, mudslides and flooding and allowed farmers to better control the amount of water that fed the crops.

The Incans were known for their use of agricultural terracing and Machu Pichu’s extensive stone terraces are a prime example of this practice. Terraces created larger areas for growing crops and allowed use of the more intense and longer sunlight exposure on the mountain sides during the day. Terracing also prevented soil erosion, mudslides and flooding and allowed farmers to better control the amount of water that fed the crops.

Visitors look ouf of Machu Pichu's trapezoidal windows at the breathtaking view of the Andes. Because Machu Pichu was built between two fault lines, the Incans took great pains to build it to withstand earthquakes. Trapezoidal doors and windows which tilt inward from bottom to top was one of the features used to make the buildings more earthquake-proof.

Visitors look ouf of Machu Pichu’s trapezoidal windows at the breathtaking view of the Andes. Because Machu Pichu was built between two fault lines, the Incans took great pains to build it to withstand earthquakes. Trapezoidal doors and windows which tilt inward from bottom to top was one of the features used to make the buildings more earthquake-proof.

A view of the shrouded Andean mountains surrounding Machu Pichu.

A view of the shrouded Andean mountains surrounding Machu Pichu.

This blog aims to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful or disturbing photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

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Read more.. Saturday, February 14th, 2015

a dog’s life–Peru

A Peruvian hairless dog stops to observe a train arriving in Agua Calientes, a town at the base of Machu Pichu. I saw many of these ancient Peruvian dogs walking around in Agua Calientes with specially-made t-shirts. Temperatures in this area are cool in the mornings and evenings. This was just one of many moments in my travels through Peru in which I noticed how much Peruvians embrace their canine residents.

As a dog-lover, I always notice dogs and their general well-being when I travel. In many countries, I’ve learned that dogs are seen less as family members than as security guards. Frequently, they’re kept on short chains or slinking around the shadows of the family’s back yard, nervous and ready to snap at the smallest infraction. Alternatively, they are street dogs riddled with ticks or infections, mangy or so thin one can count each rib from a distance. Often, in these same countries, dogs are perceived as dirty (which they usually are because of lack of care) and people balk at the idea of petting a dog or taking him into one’s home. I know that poverty plays a significant role in how cultures treat their dogs. When there isn’t enough food for humans, it’s understandable that dogs too will go hungry.

So happily, one of the first things I noticed in Peru was that dogs are ever-present, well-fed and Peruvians seem to love them! Every corner I turned–whether on the streets of Lima or the tiny towns of the Sacred Valley or Colca Canyon–I joyfully witnessed a new vignette of canine bliss. I saw dogs being scratched, cuddled, played with, fed with market scraps, or simply allowed to sleep peacefully, curled up close to human companions. While I noticed few collars and rarely a leash on these Peruvian dogs and they seemed to wander the streets peacefully with a traffic savviness my own pooches certainly will never attain, they did not seem to be strays or gather in packs as street dogs sometimes do. They simply looked like there were going about their days, exploring the usual nooks and crannies, visiting their doggy or human friends and then wandering home at the end of the day for a good meal.

Who knows why dogs are so integrated into Peruvian culture in a way they aren’t in so many other countries. I know that the Peruvian hairless dog breed dates back to pre-Incan times but whatever the reason, I was so inspired by this canine-loving culture that I thought I’d share some of my favorite Peruvian doggy moments.

A dog watches the goings-on from the doorway of his family's home in the small town of Pisac, Peru.

I watched this young boy play with his dog for a long time outside his family's store in Maca. I was struck by the affection and trust between them.

A young woman texts on her phone while waiting for customers at a tourist shop in Cuzco. I was touched by the little bed her dog slept on and the way in which she draped her arm around him as he slept.

Two traditionally-dressed Peruvian women chat on the streets of Chivay while a dog waits close by.

A dog snoozes peacefully in Lima's Plaza de Armas close to the Government Palace, seemingly unconcerned about the presence of riot police beside him.

A dog sleeps on the step of his family's home in Pisac. I saw dogs sleeping in so many spots like this.

Three young girls play with a puppy on the steps outside their family's restaurant in Agua Calientes--the town at the base of Machu Pichu.

A dog seemingly enjoys being in the midst of the action on a street corner in Pisac. While he was clearly blocking the sidewalk, I didn't see anyone chase him away.

A boy and his dog keep each other company in the entranceway of the family's convenience store in Pisac.

A little girl nonchalantly rests her foot on a dog's head as she hangs out with her friend in Chivay. I was surprised by how tolerant the dog was of the little girl's foot.

A dog crosses the street at the cross walk while another walks down the center of the street in the tiny town of Chivay.

A woman affectionately touches the nose of her dog while waiting for tourists to purchase her wares at the Incan historical site of Q'enqo just outside of Cuzco.

A classic Peruvian scene in the Colca Canyon town of Chivay.

If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up in the right hand column or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

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Read more.. Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Into the Amazon…

I photographed this beautiful juvenile tree boa while on a night walk through the Amazon jungle in southeastern Peru.

The Amazon jungle has always inhabited a special place in my imagination. Mysterious, faraway, full of ominous and beautiful creatures, it seemed out of the range of possibility to actually experience it. Which is why it was all the more extraordinary to find myself motoring up the Tambopata River–a tributary of the Amazon river in southeastern Peru–on a small wooden boat heading into the Amazon basin for four days earlier this week.

The air engulfed me like a hot, wet blanket when I first walked out of the airport in the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado and I was surprised to see how sunny it was given that this time of year it can rain for days without stopping. My second surprise came a few hours into our boat ride when we came upon a small creature swimming across the river. At first I thought it was just another log like the many we’d passed close to shore and then I saw it had eyes, a mouth and a very determined expression. Our guide, Jair Mariche, excitedly exclaimed it was a three-toed sloth and told us that in all his years of guiding, he’d only seen a sloth once and certainly not one swimming. This was only the first of a series of extremely lucky sightings we had during our four days of exploring the Amazon.

The days that followed were full of extraordinary (and very muddy and sometimes wet) adventures during which we saw numerous snakes, spiders (including a family of tarantulas), wild pigs, giant river otters, monkeys, macaws, an electric eel, a wide variety of frogs, extraordinary selection of insects and birds and of course, vegetation that grows on a scale I struggled to wrap my mind around. At the end of each day, I was struck by how much my fantasy of the Amazon felt accurate. I couldn’t seem to get enough of the fact that the wildlife in the Amazon operates independently of human existence, that each creature seems to have found a unique niche to inhabit and thrive in and that all the Amazon’s creatures represent endless adaptations that have allowed them to survive in their complex and competitive world.

A rainstorm looms in the distance as we motor up the Tambopata River in a narrow wooden boat into the Amazon basin.

A three-toed sloth swims across the Tambopata River. Despite the fact that they move very slowly in trees, the three-toed sloths are surprisingly agile swimmers.

Trees in the Amazon compete for light and there are, as result, a lot of extremely tall trees. Some trees reach heights of over 420 feet!

An owl butterfly--known for the large eye-spot patterns on its wings that resemble owl eyes--rests on a tree.

Red and green macaws gather on a clay lick along the Tambopata river. There are numerous theories as to why the birds consume the clay on an almost daily basis in the Amazon. One theory is that some foods eaten by macaws in the wild contain toxic substances which the clay they eat neutralizes.

A pair of scarlet macaws fly off after visiting a clay lick. Macaws mate for life and are almost always seen flying with their mated pair.

A capybara, the largest rodent in the world, forages for food on the banks of the Tambopata River. The rodent, which is related to the guinea pig, hangs out in groups of 20 or more animals. While it isn't endangered, the capybara is hunted for its meat, its hide and also for a grease from its thick fatty skin which is used in the pharmaceutical industry.

I photographed this three hundred year-old giant strangler fig deep in the jungle surrounded by other very tall trees such as a 600 year-old kapok tree. The strangler fig has developed an adaptation that helps it survive by growing seedlings in the crevices of other trees. The roots of these seedlings then grow downward and envelop the host tree while also growing upward to reach into the sunlight zone above the canopy. The host tree dies over many years and becomes hollow (and as result one can sometimes climb up its center as you'll see in this photo if you look closely!).

A great egret lands on the banks of Condenado Lake.

An electric eels hunts for food in Condenado lake. Apparently this eel is capable of generating electric shocks of up to 860 volts! It uses this unusual adaptation for hunting, self-defense and for communicating with fellow eels. Despite its name, it is not actually an eel, but rather a knifefish.

A spectacled caiman, also called a “white caiman”, hunts for food after dark in the Tambopata
river. While other caimans such as black caimans are hunted for their skin, the white caiman
has bony deposits forming scales on their skin which means it is not desirable for leather
products such as bags, shoes etc.

An emerald frog clings to a tree, waiting for prey to come his way.

A juvenile “chicken spider” tarantula waits for prey outside its family’s den. This young tarantula,
which is about the size of my hand, is only a third of the size of its mother! Apparently the name
“chicken spider” comes from the fact that these creatures have been known to eat chickens!

Read more.. Sunday, January 11th, 2015

105 year-old Alice

The hands of Alice Mendes,105, and her great-grandniece, Sophie Friend,12, lie intertwined on Alice's lap.

Alice Mendes remembers walking in the Victory Day parade in Newport, RI after World War I ended. This may sound unlikely given that World War I started over a century ago but the day before I photographed her, Alice celebrated her 105th birthday surrounded by friends and family members, including a good number of great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Alice immigrated to the United States as an infant from Cape Verde in 1910. While she spent her early childhood in Newport, she and her family moved to New Bedford when she was 10 and she has been there ever since. “Things were really different back then. No gas stoves, no street lights or traffic lights. I remember my mother getting up early in the morning to start the coal stove so that the house would be warm when we woke up,” she explains. Alice also remembers going down New Bedford harbor to see the boats of immigrants arriving. “We’d stand on the sidewalk and wave to them as they were coming in,” she says, her eyes bright and animated.

Alice spent much of her life working as a nanny and housekeeper and married the love of her life, Jimmy Mendes, a professional boxer and fisherman who ended up dying at sea in a storm. Together they had daughter, Barbara, and also raised four other children Jimmy had had with his late wife. Today, Alice lives in her home in New Bedford with her daughter, Barbara Teixeira, 82, and her granddaughter, Cindy Teixeira, 58. In warm weather, she sits outside on the porch and waves to the many people she knows who pass by. “People always wave to me and often they stop to talk,” she says smiling.

“Aunt Alice’s house was always the center of our family gatherings,” says her grand-niece, Melissa Alves. “I have wonderful memories of New Year’s Eve parties where there’d be Cape Verdean music playing and everyone would be dancing…including Aunt Alice of course. She is the clear matriarch of the family–the person we all come to for advice. She just commands respect and has always been stylish and cool,” she adds. Melissa’s own daughter, Sophie Friend, 12, became pen pals with Aunt Alice a few years ago. Sophie and Aunt Alice have shared a strong bond for as long as Sophie can remember and during our visit, that bond was apparent in their sweet embraces and the way they sat together talking and holding hands. “How long has this love affair been going on for?” Alice asks, laughing and looking at her great-grandniece adoringly. Both Sophie and Aunt Alice have saved their stack of lovingly-written letters.

It’s easy to see why people are so drawn to Alice. She’s quick to smile, speaks in a clear, strong voice and her hands reach out to hold a hand or touch a shoulder or fold someone into a hug. Despite her 105 years, Alice is astoundingly healthy. She exercises in her home by walking or doing arm movements, eats a healthy diet and takes only blood pressure medication and vitamins. “She still eats like a horse and has all her own teeth!” laughs her daughter, Barbara. What’s perhaps most striking about Alice is that at 105 years-old, she still seems so engaged in the world. “One of the reasons we all love being around Aunt Alice is that she is always interesting and interested,” says Melissa Alves. Watching Aunt Alice connecting with Sophie, her eyes sparkling and hands animated, I thought of the Jules Renard quote, “It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old,”. As we prepare to leave, Alice stands up and, with the help of her walker, accompanies us to the door. Each of us gets our own special Aunt Alice hug and she stands in the doorway, small but determined, waving goodbye until we’re out of sight.

Aunt Alice and Sophie share a blissful hug during our visit. The two have always had a powerful connection and have been pen pals for the past few years.

Aunt Alice reads the birthday card Sophie brought for her from her family.

An old photograph from 1953 shows Aunt Alice (third from left) with daughter Laurie, husband Jimmy and daughter Barbara.

Aunt Alice holds an old photograph of her late mother, Theresa Monteiro, whom she adored. “She was a wonderful cook and such a hard worker. I remember her getting up early in the morning to start the coal stove so that the house would be warm when we woke up,” she explains.

Alice insists on walking us to the door to say goodbye and then waves until we're out of sight.

I strive to make “Apertures and Anecdotes” an interesting place of discovery–-a place to engage in photographs and stories about the extraordinary people and places of the world and lose oneself for just a short time. If you or someone you know would like to receive new “Apertures and Anecdotes” blog posts via email, please contact me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank You!

Read more.. Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

a forsaken place

Children skip at one of Durban Deep Goldmine's old hostels on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. During the previous few weeks, all the power cables in the area were dug up and stolen, leaving the entire area without any power. Ironically, these kids are using the stolen cable casing as skipping ropes. During my few weeks here, this neighborhood was transformed into sort of post-apocalytpic wasteland.

The Demise of Durban Deep

During my recent visit to South Africa, I spent a lot of time on the outskirts of Johannesburg in a neighborhood centered on an old goldmine called “Durban Deep”. I was there to document the work of Cora Bailey who founded Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), an organization that provides veterinary services to some of the area’s most impoverished shantytowns. My time there just happened to coincide with some dramatic events that radically transformed the neighborhood in which CLAW is located. Having grown up in South Africa and left many years ago, I always feel both inspired by and heartbroken by this beautiful country and I think what followed during my brief stay only affirmed my sense that apartheid and its legacy still haunt the country.

Like many of South Africa’s now defunct gold mines, Durban Deep is a relic from South Africa’s apartheid past.  It sits on Johannesburg’s West Rand flanked by the distinctive glimmering hills of gold dust and its rusting headgear rising up majestically.  While Durban Deep shut down its mining operations almost 15 years ago, the property it sits on has continued as a neighborhood to many low income residents who moved in after miners and management left. Despite crumbling walls, a rat infestation and very poor sanitary facilities, the two hostels that used to house miners are full of the joyful sounds of children playing. Until recently, a host of businesses and organizations such as a fire fighter training school, a golf course, a judo school, CLAW and a primary school still operated in the neighborhood. When Durban Deep was recently sold to developers, Dino Properties, no one could have anticipated the sudden and dramatic transformation the mine and its surrounding neighborhood would take. While the developers had not yet begun to evict residents or start work, the area was, in a short period of time, transformed into a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. 

Soon after the sale of the property was announced, copper thieves moved into the neighborhood, cutting down and pulling up cable, which meant local residents and businesses no longer had power. The copper thieves began burning the cable to extract copper in Durban Deep fields which left a toxic layer of smoke hanging over the area.  Helpless in the face of thieves who were armed and often doing their thieving in broad daylight, security guards for the local businesses and organizations proved useless. In addition, illegal gold mining which has long been a problem in the area, escalated, leaving the land riddled with deep holes, craggy ditches and reopened mine shafts which pose a danger to neighborhood children (and to the miners themselves).  In February of this year, 23 illegal gold miners died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning while working in one of Durban Deep’s shut mine shafts.

After most of Durban Deep’s cables had been removed, the thieves began dismantling many of the historic homes in the area, stripping them of their metal, glass and anything else of value. Sometimes they came when local residents were home, creating a sense of terror in the neighborhood. As things escalated, local residents became more and more angry and frustrated with the situation. With no response from police despite many calls, the residents formed vigilante groups to tackle the situation themselves. On one of my last days there, Cora and I ran into a truck that had been turned on its side. We asked what had happened and the residents told us the truck belonged to the thieves and they had turned it over to teach them a lesson. Apparently the thieves had abandoned the truck and run off. While our sympathies were with the residents who felt disempowered and angry that their neighborhood was being destroyed, Cora expressed concern with the feeling of escalating violence and at one point said to me, “I think something bad is going to happen this weekend.” Cora has seen her fair share of violence in South Africa and has often been caught up in frightening situations most of us will never encounter. Sure enough, a few days later, a group of neighborhood vigilantes attacked some of the thieves, killing six of them. While the police were called, the killings were not reported nor was anyone arrested.

While I am now back in the United States, I think often of Durban Deep and wonder how things are continuing to unfold. I think of the children I photographed there, skipping with ropes made of the cable casing; I think of so many of the residents we spoke to who expressed anxiety about being home but who have no place else to go. No one knows when the developers will begin work and while Dino Properties are negotiating with local and provincial government to find alternative accommodation for the affected residents–some of whom have been on a waiting list for a house for many years–the neighborhood seems to live with an impending sense of doom. It struck me looking though my images of Durban Deep, that even though I was there for just two weeks, the neighborhood was completely different at the end from when I had arrived. The judo studio was gone, CLAW was relatively abandoned having sent most of its patients to a temporary location about twenty minutes away, the houses which were intact when I’d arrived looked like broken skeletons, the roads were torn up, even the firefighter training school had a huge moving truck parked outside its property and was loading equipment to be moved elsewhere. If I found this forsaken landscape so disturbing, how must the people who had lived there for years feel? What will become of this community? These are questions that I suppose I may never know but at the very least, I hope my images stand witness to what happened here.

A view of Johannesburg's West Rand flanked by the distinctive glimmering hills of gold dust. These hills are made up of the waste product left over from more than a century of gold mining and are believed to pose a serious health and environmental risk to the communities that live near them.

Durban Deep's now defunct headgear rises up between stalks of pampas grass.

A woman sits with her granddaughter and dog outside an abandoned gold mining grocery store which they and many other families have made their home. The grocery store's residents have partitioned off the interior space to create privacy for the many families that live there.

A security guard wears a bullet proof vest as he stands on duty outside Durban Deep's substation. Days before, the entire substation was ransacked and the cables and transformers were stolen, leaving the neighborhood without power.

Durban Deep's gutted substation days after its ransacking began.

Two little girls and a doll’s head are photographed at Durban Deep’s old “Skomplaas” hostel.
While the gold mine was still operating, the hostel housed hundreds of goldminers. Today
a large number of families live in the crumbling buildings. Sanitary facilities are very poor
and rats abound.

A young boy peeks around the corner of one of “Skomplaas” hostel’s crumbling buildings.

A school girl sits on stones and uses a plastic container as a desk to do her homework on at the hostel.

A group of men play casino at “Skomplaas” hostel.

A child rides a tricycle outside the hostel's now closed restaurant.

A baby cries outside one of the hostel's crumbling buildings.

Dug-up cables are photographed outside CLAW's utility building. Over the course of a few days, armed thieves removed the transformers, cables, fuse boxes and even used a blow torch to remove the steel doors. Without power, the veterinarians were unable to operate on their patients and so the animals were taken to an alternate location.

Men carry metal stripped from one of Durban Deep's homes. The metal is sold to local scrapyards and while it isn't as valuable as copper, for the many unemployed men in the area, it provides some cash.

One of Durban Deep's historic homes is photographed a day after it was stripped of all its valuable materials. While homes like this one housed gold mining managers when Durban Deep was still in operation, they have since been home to many local families, some of whom are the children or grandchildren of the goldminers and have no where else to go.

Bags of soil containing small amounts of gold sit slashed and abandoned after police forced illegal gold miners to destroy them. Behind the bags is what is left of the judo studio which operated in Durban Deep for over two decades.

A young boy brings a bag of trash to a makeshift dumping site outside Skomplaas hostel.

A truck belonging to the cable thieves sits overturned on one of Durban Deep's roads after local residents, frustrated with the ongoing attacks on their neighborhood and with no response from police despite many calls, formed a vigilante group to tackle the situation themselves. Apparently the thieves had abandoned the truck and run off. This was just the first of many incidents that ultimately led to the murder of six men by the local vigilante group.

A teenaged boy sits on a tire and bounces a soccer ball on his feet at another of Durban Deep's old hostels. No one knows when the developers will begin work and while Dino Properties are negotiating with local and provincial government to find alternative accommodation for the affected residents--some of whom have been on a waiting list for a house for many years--the neighborhood seems to live with an impending sense of doom.

Read more.. Monday, April 14th, 2014

gorilla gazing

A female mountain gorilla engulfs her three month-old infant in an embrace in the jungle of Rwanda's Virunga Mountains.

Waking up at the foot of the Virunga Mountains–a massive chain of volcanic mountains that borders Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo–the first thing I saw was a perfect cloud cap covering the peak of Mount Karisimbi (14,763ft), the tallest of the volcanic mountains in this area. Up in the jungle of these beautiful mountains resides the greatest concentration of mountain gorillas left in the world. Perhaps most will know this region from the 1988 movie “Gorillas in the Mist” which centered on naturalist, Dian Fossey’s work with these primates. I’d come to see these same gorillas and with the rich, green mountain range looming up before me, I had a great sense of anticipation.

With the advent of gorilla tourism, eight gorilla families out of 17 in the Virunga Mountains are habituated to humans. Tourists interested in seeing the gorillas may hike into the mountains in small groups and can, for one hour, quietly observe a gorilla family in its natural habitat. While some might be critical of daily exposure of gorillas to humans, gorilla tourism has been instrumental in decreasing gorilla poaching as many of the poachers are now employed as trackers and porters and are therefore invested in preserving their gorilla population. Also, the fees from trekking permits offset the cost of gorilla conservation and boost the economy of the towns at the base of the Virunga Mountains.

My particular group of trekkers was assigned to the Ngambara gorilla family which has 17 family members including three infants. Soon after our group began the ascent up Mount Bisoke, it was clear that this would be a tough hike. Starting off at over 8000ft above sea level, our lungs already struggled with lower oxygen levels and the steep climb quickly left us out of breath. Our guide, Felicien, warned us not to touch the giant stinging nettle leaves which loomed up on either side of us. Felicien stopped at regular intervals to check in with the trackers and see where our gorilla family was located as well as inform us of some fact about the flora and fauna. At one point, he stopped to show us a massive earthworm the size of small snake. This area also boasts a variety of other wildlife such as golden monkeys, spotted hyenas, forest elephants, buffalo, giant forest hogs, bushpigs, bushbucks, black-fronted duikers and large variety of birds.

After several hours of hiking, our group veered off the main path into the thick jungle. Above us, Tarzanic vines hung in ropy masses and tall trees rose up like quiet giants. The stinging nettles grew so densely here that they were now almost impossible to avoid. Despite wearing long-sleeved clothing, long pants and gloves, the nettles stung through our clothing. By now we’d connected with our trackers and one of them used a machete to cut through the dense vegetation. After some time of hiking through this denser jungle, Felicien stopped us at a large tree and told us to put down our backpacks. “We don’t want the gorillas to smell any food you have with you,” he explained. He then lead us further into the thicket. Suddenly, Felicien began making a series of low rumbling belching grunts indicating contentment. Earlier, he had demonstrated a variety of sounds gorillas use to communicate and had suggested we use the “contentment” sound when in close proximity to the gorillas.

Moments later, I got my first glimpse of a mountain gorilla. He was a large silverback sitting quietly and cradling his head. He sat so close to us, I could see the movement of his eyes and smell his earthy gorilla scent. I was mesmerized. Felicien told us that there were three silverbacks in this family group and that this one was second in rank. Nearby, a smaller female sat in a clump of grass. Apparently, while the lower-ranked silverbacks are not supposed to mate with the females, they will sometimes sneak away from the family group and secretly do so. If the top silverback catches them, he will punish them.

Soon after, Felicien lead us to the dominant silverback who lazed on his back with a mass of female and baby gorillas around him. One particularly small baby with sticking-up punky hair–a three-month old, Felicien told us–was particularly fascinating to watch and human-seeming as he climbed all over his mother and demanded her attention while she tried to nap. Slightly older gorilla babies playfully rolled around pulling at each other’s hair and somersaulting over the bodies of the adult gorillas. This playful behavior teaches young gorillas how to interact within the group and adult gorillas encourage their play. Gorillas are highly social animals and their family groups are held together by strong bonds between members. Silverbacks, who are responsible for the family’s safety, are more likely to defend family members than territory and will even go so far as to sacrifice themselves to protect their family.

I completely lost all sense of time watching the Ngambara gorilla family. I was struck by the humanness of their interactions–the gentle grooming, the playful tumblings and affectionate intertwining of gorilla bodies. While I’ve seen a lot of wildlife in my time–primarily as a child growing up in South Africa and later on trips to Asia and Africa–there was something particularly powerful and elemental about this experience. I think part of it was that we were essentially in the gorilla family’s intimate space. There was no glass window or car door between us and these primates. In such close proximity, it was easy for me grasp how much we have in common. Specifically, we share 98.6% of our genetic code with gorillas and like us, they prioritize family, have human-like hands, have an almost 9 month gestation period, communicate using sound, are susceptible to the same diseases and have a very similar sense of smell, taste and sight. In the final moments before we had to leave, I watched as the mother of the three-month old infant engulfed her son in an embrace. She looked up at my camera momentarily (see top image) and I was so struck by her expression. I thought of my own childhood and the comfort of being held in my mother’s arms and knew exactly how that baby gorilla felt.

Our group of trekkers hike through the beautiful jungle of Mount Bisoke. Starting off at over 8000ft above sea level, our lungs already struggled with lower oxygen levels and the steep climb quickly left us out of breath.

Our guide, Felicien, holds up a giant earthworm common to this region of Rwanda. This area also boasts a variety of other wildlife such as golden monkeys, spotted hyenas, forest elephants, buffalo, giant forest hogs, bushpigs, bushbucks, black-fronted duikers and large variety of birds.

The first gorilla we saw was this silverback cradling his head. According to Felicien, he was the second-ranked silverback in the family. Nearby, a smaller female sat in a clump of grass. Apparently, while the lower-ranked silverbacks are not supposed to mate with the females, they will sometimes sneak away from the family group and secretly do so. If the top silverback catches them, he will punish them.

A young gorilla rests pensively on its mother's body as she tries to rest.

A juvenile gorilla and an infant are surrounded by the lush green vegetation of the Virunga mountains.

A three month-old infant is seen through the dense vegetation riding on his mother's back.

A three month-old infant clings to his mother's shoulder. I thought there was something so human about the tender relationship between this infant and his mother.

An adult female looks at the camera. Each gorilla has a unique nose print similar to our unique finger prints. Researchers use the nose to identify individuals within the family group.

A mother gorilla looks exhausted as her infant tries to wrestle with her. Young gorillas are known for their playful behavior, often somersaulting over the adults' bodies and wrestling with each other. This playful behavior teaches young gorillas how to interact within the group and adult gorillas encourage their play.

A female gorilla forages for food.

A gorilla blissfully scratches an itch.

A three month-old gorilla demands attention from his mother while she tries to take a nap.

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Read more.. Saturday, March 29th, 2014

portraits from a new Rwandan generation

I just spent two weeks teaching a portrait and self-portrait photography workshop to students at the “Through the Eyes of Hope” project in Kigali, Rwanda. “Through the Eyes of Hope” was started by photojournalist, Linda Smith, in 2006 and is a wonderful program that empowers kids through photography, allows them to express themselves creatively and also enables them to earn a bit of money through the studio they run where they primarily provide passport photos for locals. The students’ work has been shown in exhibits in both Rwanda and the US.

When I first arrived in Kigali, I had no idea what to expect. During my first few days of teaching, I presented some techniques for creating portraits and self-portraits to the students and showed them lots of images that illustrated the techniques. It immediately struck me how engaged they were with the images I was showing them. We talked a lot about composition, lighting, altering one’s visual perspective, using props, choosing interesting backgrounds, using reflections, finding good door or window light etc. I soon had them standing on tables, shooting from the ground, seeking out colorful walls in the neighborhood and generally experimenting with the techniques we’d talked about. It was quite a sight–the group of us carrying cameras and a big reflector around the neighborhood, often attracting interested crowds. There were many lovely moments, lots of laughter and general joy in these photographic adventures.

Over the course of the workshop, we worked on a collaborative portrait assignment, a portrait assignment and a self portrait assignment. They approached all three with great enthusiasm and I was touched by many of the images they created over the course of the workshop, some of which you will see below. The collaborative portrait assignment images, which were all shot in the studio, encouraged them to think about who they are and how they wanted to portray themselves visually. These images will be featured in a separate blog post. Some of their own self-portraits, which followed this assignment, are below.

On Saturday, the last day of the workshop, I showed the students a final slide show of their edited images. I think they were excited about the work they’d produced. We had a little celebratory party and I recorded them singing together for an audio slideshow I plan to put together about the workshop. Between their beautiful voices rising up in the studio, looking at their creative work and saying our goodbyes, I felt such a sense of joy and connectedness and knew, without a doubt, I’d be back.

For more information about Through the Eyes of Hope, go to:
Through the Eyes of Hope Project

The younger siblings of my students played a really important part in our workshop, often holding equipment or posing as subjects for the photos. Towards the end of the workshop, I came out of the studio only to discover they had made their own "cameras" out of styrofoam and other bits and pieces. They were enthusiastically photographing everything in their path, including me. They had even used bottle caps as shutter buttons! I was so moved by their creativity and was happy to see their interest in photography playing out in this wonderful way. I have no doubt they will be the next generation of "Through the Eyes of Hope" students.

Here are a selection of images made by the students during the workshop:

portrait by Zephanie Kwizera

portrait by Odila Umuziranenge

portrait by Odila Umuziranenge

portrait by Hamis Ndikumukiza

portrait by Zephanie Kwizera

portrait by Lucky Fikiri

self-portrait by Sustain Kabalisa

self-portrait by Aimable Byishimo

self-portrait by Teta Usanase Annie Veva

self-portrait by Lucky Fikiri

photo by Jordan Ganzo

portrait by Vedaste Twagirimana

portrait by Vedaste Twagirimana

portrait by Claire Umuhoza

self-portrait by Jy Pierre Gashyaka

portrait by Divine Ange Muhimpundu

portrait by Jonathan Niyibizi

self-portrait by Hamis Ndikumukiza

self-portrait by Zephanie Kwizera

self-portrait by Joshua Munyaburanga

self-portrait by Aimable Byishimo

self-portrait by Odila Umuziranenge

self-portrait by Odila Umuziranenge

Read more.. Monday, March 10th, 2014

the humanness of monkeys

A mother macaque grooms one of her offspring in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali.

Watching the macaque monkeys in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, I found myself mesmerized by their expressive faces and extraordinarily human interactions. I watched a mother macaque gently chastise her teenager when he pulled away from her grooming, two adults squabble over a banana, an infant peeking anxiously from underneath its mother’s belly and siblings huddling together in mutual protest of their mother’s grooming.

After hours and hours of watching and photographing the macaques, I was left with the impression that, like us, macaques have a complex social structure and their interactions are fraught with meaning. After doing a bit of research, I discovered some interesting facts. For instance, the amount of time a female spends grooming a male signifies his social hierarchy, a female will solicit a male by presenting her swollen behind to him, looking back at him and smacking her lips together and young females will, under the supervision of a mother, carry infant macaques as a way of practicing for motherhood. This all sounds quite familiar.

It did not surprise me to discover that monkeys play a complex role in Balinese society. Like humans, they can embody both good and evil and this is reflected in the cultural narratives one sees in Balinese dance and theater. While on one hand, monkeys are revered and protected by the Balinese because they are believed to guard temples from evil spirits (hence their protected status in such religious sites as the Sacred Monkey Forest which houses several important Hindu temples), they are also seen as a menace because they raid rice paddies and are famous for their thievery (often stealing bags, cell phones and other objects from tourists or items from shops). Perhaps too the Balinese see themselves reflected in the monkey and recognize their own fallibility.

On my way out of the monkey forest, I noticed how many tourists, like me, could not draw themselves away from the macaques. Perhaps they too were mesmerized by the mirror held up before them–a perfect image of the gentle, loving, complex and sometimes frail bonds that connect us.

Read more.. Sunday, February 9th, 2014