A different type of portrait

Far from the selfie-crazed Kim Kardashians of the world, the people of Bwindi don’t smile for photographs. My whole training as a wedding photographer taught me the complete opposite. I spent half my time convincing people to relax, not to suck in their stomachs or pout their lips: in essence, how to let their guard down and look like normal human beings. My camera has the complete opposite effect around here. People stare straight down my lens: no guard or pretense. Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.36.07

I’ve never taken a photograph without asking for it, it just feels dishonest. A person’s portrait is their story and I am grateful to the people who allow me to borrow a bit of theirs. But here, as soon as they agree for a photo, I find their eyes instantly staring at me, fixed on me and my fumbling attempts at getting my camera settings right. They’ve caught me off guard with their honesty. No poses, no facade, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it.

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I always wondered how Nat Geo photographers did it. Maybe they ask people not to smile to make their pictures look more serious, or raw, or true or some other bullshit. But it’s not something I’ve prompted in my time here, and I’m sure the same applies to Nat Geo photogs. People in different places of the planet have different reactions. In Bwindi, people seem less concerned with whether their flabby bits are showing or if the light is hitting them on their “good side”. When they agree to a portrait, they agree to show themselves without filters. No bullshit, no masks. Thanks Bwindi, it’s been brilliant. We hope to be back.
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One thought on “A different type of portrait

  1. The culture is common in East Africa, mostly (Kenya,Uganda,Tanzania) it was inherited from the colonial days of the “Kipande system” where male Africans were required to carry a certificate on their neck with their personal details. When Identification cards were introduced in 1950 specifically in Kenya, the policeman would slap hard those who smiled while being taken photos for their Id’s, on the basis that a smile disfigured your face and if lost no one would identify you. To date it is still practised in some parts of Kenya, and it must be worst in Uganda to an extend that somebody asks the photographer if they should smile or not in a photo.

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