All photos and text are property of Dave Forney and may not be used without express permission.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

East African Eyes

OK, here's something you might not have known about me.  I love eyes.  That may sound a bit weird, but for as long as I can remember I've always liked eyes.  And not just peoples' eyes either.  We had a beautiful purebred Siberian Husky, when we lived in Alaska.  He had the most captivating, light blue eyes you've ever seen!  Our pet python in Indonesia (all of our pet pythons actually--yes, we had quite a few over the years) had very intense, crystal-clear, sinister eyes.  Have you ever looked into the eyes of a tiger, or jaguar?  It's like they can see inside you!  Well, either that or they're just sizing you up for a meal.  Haha.  I've taken a lot of very closeup macro shots of dragonflies and other insects over the years--their eyes are amazing!  In the case of spiders, all of their eyes are amazing!  

But it's peoples' eyes that are most interesting to me.  I'm sure you've all seen the very famous National Geographic cover photo, by Steve McCurry of the Afghan girl with the striking green eyes?  That's become one of their most famous and well-recognized photos of all time, and it's no wonder why.  Those eyes are absolutely captivating, and they're frozen in time by that image.  People are left to imagine--to fill in the blanks.  (Well, not anymore, since Nat Geo tracked the girl down and did that for you.  But you know what I mean.)  With a photo like that you can see the image over and over and over, and even years later it still pulls you in like it did the first time.  Why?  Because there's so much that's revealed in and by a persons eyes.   And yet, behind the beautiful catchlight lurks mystery, and intrigue, and untold stories.  A photo that captures a person's eyes, captures all of that intrigue and mystery, but doesn't actually reveal it outright.  You, the viewer, are compelled to imagine what the real story is behind the eyes.

As a photographer, I'm always looking for those striking eyes, and I love nothing better than to capture them in super, sharp focus.  But as a believer and follower of Jesus, it is the person behind those eyes that interests me most.  Each pair of eyes represents a unique and special person, created by God, in His image.  And He desperately loves each one.  No matter their skin color, social or economic status, family name, tribe, country or the myriad stories that are hidden (from our view) behind those eyes--the owner of each pair of eyes is not a mystery to Him--to the One who created them.  He loves each and every one equally, and desires nothing more than to have a personal relationship with them.  Perhaps that's what so intrigues me about peoples' eyes--they're like a shadowy window into someones soul.  And a soul is eternal, and I care a lot about where they spend that eternity!  I want each one to know the peace and joy that surprises all understanding--to know and accept the love of the One who created them, and sent his one and only son, Jesus to die for them.  No matter what stories are hidden behind the eyes, the story of Jesus is radical enough to overwhelm and change them all... forever!

So this is a post about the eyes of some of the East Africans whom I've met over here in the past few months.  I'd love to hear what you think in the comments.  Like everywhere else I've lived in the world, I find the people here to have very captivating eyes.

One day a Karamojang family was standing off to the side, watching the airplane.  I had my camera out and gestured to it and to them (they don't speak English) if I could take a picture.  They were happy to oblige (photo above).  They didn't pose or move or do anything different than what they were already doing.  (Well, I think the kid in the black shirt crossed his arms to try and look tougher, but the rest of them--especially the three on the left--never twitched.)  That's exactly how they were standing, and I just had to get the camera settings I wanted and snap the picture.  With the shadows created from the very bright African sun and their dark skin, it's a bit hard to see their eyes from a distance.  But when I was taking the photo I immediately noticed how striking their eyes were--especially the three on the left.  When I showed the picture, below, to Joy, that the first thing she mentioned--their eyes.

Here's a tighter crop of the above image.

In the above image, the guy's eyes were actually a bit hard to see because of the way the shadows fell.  But a few minutes later he had wandered over to watch what I was doing and I saw that he had the same type of captivating eyes that seem to stare into infinity, so I took another photo (below).  I really wish I could speak their language, so I could find out more about who they are.  But it would be impossible to speak all the languages in East Africa.  Fortunately, we fly people into each area who do speak the local language, so they are able to play that part.  And our part is to get them into and out of those remote places safely.  I'm glad I get to play a small role!

Earlier I mentioned catchlight.  If you haven't heard that term before, it refers to the specular highlight from a light source that's "caught" and reflected in someone's eyes.  In a photo, if there's no catchlight at all in a persons eyes, they will look dead... or psycho.  But some types of catchlight are more flattering than others.  If you take a picture with a point-and-shoot camera, while standing directly in front of the subject, and the flash goes off, you'll see a pinprick of light in the dead center of the person(s) eyes.  In my opinion that gives a very unnatural and unflattering look, like a deer in the headlights.  I much prefer naturally reflected catchlight--or at least an indirect or bounced flash if a flash (or more than one) is used at all.  

If the eyes are very sharply focused, and the shot is tight, and the light is right, you can often even see other images reflected in the eye itself.  In the shot below, on my mac at full resolution, you can actually see a clear reflection of me in the boy's eyes, as I take the picture...even though I'm probably 30 feet away.  Dark eyes like these are very good for reflecting light.  By the way, almost none of my images are posed.  Most, like the one below, were taken with a long lens where I was standing off in the distance, ready and waiting until the person turns of their own accord.  Then, in an instant I (hopefully) grab the eyes in crystal clear focus and snap the picture before the person realizes what happened.  Those are the most natural-looking images in my opinion. But you have to be careful so as not to offend people.  That's why I tend to have more pictures of kids--they tend to love having their pictures taken.  Adults, not so much.  

When taking photos here, because of how the harsh light of East Africa mixes with the nice dark skin of the people here, their eyes are often shrouded in shadow.  That only adds to the mystery.  If I had the liberty to position people better for a photo, or use reflectors or fill in flash, it might be easier.  But frankly, it also might detract from some of the realism.  I like the natural look.  But frankly, it's actually pretty tough to take pictures of adults here--they're really not all that excited about it.  You have to be respectful and careful how you go about it, as you don't want to offend someone, or worse.  This guy saw me with my camera and indicated that he would agree to have his picture taken.  Then he immediately snapped to attention like a perfectly straight statue.  I would have loved to move him somewhere else, where the lighting wouldn't be so harsh, or where the airplane wasn't distracting in the background.  But I got the distinct impression that this might be my one and only chance and I had better just take it now or never.  In some ways, the harsh light and the soldier-like pose sort of adds to it I think.  In a weird way it sort of reflects the reality of life and light out in the bush of East Africa.  Harsh and extreme, yet rigid and poised.

The younger ones, however, seem to love to have their picture taken.  At least in Northern and Eastern Uganda.  Not so much up in S. Sudan--but that's probably more b/c of the security situation up there than the kids themselves.  It's just not too kosher under the present circumstances, to be taking pictures of much at all when they're in the middle of a civil war.  So all of the pictures in this post come from Uganda.  Perhaps some day, when things cool down a bit up there in S Sudan, I'll get some shots from there as well.  This one, below, is right along the border between Uganda and S. Sudan.

I've found that a lot of people out in the villages--especially kids, but adults included--have very yellowish eyes.  I'm no doctor, but I know that's indicative of some health issues.  For most of us, the stories and struggles that are hidden (not so well hidden in some cases) behind many peoples' eyes here, would or should, at the very least bring tears to our own.  But frankly in many cases, to borrow a phrase from the movie A Few Good Men, I don't think we could handle the truth.  In our comfortable, western society, we're often sheltered from real pain and struggle.  We see it on TV but it's over there, somewhere far away in Africa, or wherever.  But not in our home.  Not our kids.  Not us.  

"Poor kids" we say to our friend over a steaming $5 cup of mocha...  Meanwhile those poor kids go without food for another day.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with enjoying a mocha, but I just think we're often so detached from reality, in the suffering world around us, that we're completely unaffected by it.   We have NO IDEA what it means to suffer.  We can't handle the truth.  We don't even want it.  

I think we know, deep down inside, that if we ever were truly confronted with it first hand, we would never--could never--be the same.  Never again could we be comfortable in our detached complacency!  Our lives, our entire way of life, would be forced to radically changed... and to many of us, that would be the very definition of pain and struggle.  Unfortunately, for many of us, that also makes it virtually impossible to ever grasp or achieve true joy and contentment.    

Which is perhaps why it's so convicting and contagious when you see kids smiling like this (below). 

We've only been here 5 1/2 months and we've already been humbled and challenged in so many ways, as we've seen people who have almost nothing (materially speaking) and yet who have everything!  Some of them, despite hiding stories that we could never imagine in our worst nightmares, have true joy and contentment.  And thus, they are wealthier than the richest person in the world who still seeks more.  You can see it in their eyes!  And if you don't believe me, or if you want to see the flip side of it, look into the eyes of the person who has everything (materially speaking) and yet still seeks more.  You'll see what I mean.  

When you look in a mirror, which type of eyes do you see looking back?

Next time I'll have some new airplane shots, and I'll try to keep it a bit lighter. :-)


Jennifer said...

Really enjoyed the post and the pictures. You captured a glimpse into the hearts and souls of these people. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work!

Treasures from a shoebox said...

Captivating post! Thank you for sharing your heart and bringing this remote place a bit closer. Very convicting!

Just me said...

This is the first post of yours I've seen where you were sharing thoughts more than a story or an adventure - and I very much enjoyed it Dave! I love the term catchlight and enjoyed also learning something here about photography too. Aside from that, I find the photos that illustrate the words startling and beautiful. Let's sum it up: awesome :-)

Sandy said...

Thanks for the insight you share in your photos and stories. I have been wondering about liver disease when I have see the other photos with yellowish 'whites' of eyes, but wasn't sure if it was the lighting and contrast with the skin.
I think it is interesting how you focus on the eyes and then we are able to see more than a photo, but a person when we look. Thank you for doing that. Somehow we hear numbers when it comes to missions or epidemics. But more and more I am trying to think about each one making up a number to be a person with a life and a family and whom God cares about. Your photos help make that more real.
Sandy in the UK

Anonymous said...

Love your photos!
Of course it is simple for anyone to look up, but just wanted to mention that it is often normal and harmless that Africans have yellowish eyes, simply their pigment in the sclera of the eyes. Of course, it can be of viral or medical cause also.

Dave said...

Thanks for your comments everyone! Really appreciated seeing what your thoughts are.

As pointed out by "Anonymous" (who are you??) the yellow eyes here in Africa are not necessarily indicative of health issues, but can be perfectly normal. I had no idea that was the case. Thanks for pointing this out and sorry if I caused any confusion or hurt feelings. You should identify yourself with a name so we can give you appropriate recognition. Even just a first name would be fine. :-)

Rebecca said...

Wow! Your pictures are always amazing! I really enjoyed this post…eyes are so fascinating and intriguing. I love how so many of your pictures are candids and not posed.