Capturing the African spirit
Klaus Mellenthin went to Burkina Faso, in order to examine how the NGO Misereor helps poor people in Africa. With his authentic pictures he shows their zest for life.
German NGO MISEREOR supports pioneering projects in the poorest parts of the world, projects designed to help people help themselves – and thereby find a way out of poverty, deprivation and famine for good.
In September 2015 I joined a team of 6 who traveled to Burkina Faso in western Africa on behalf of MISEREOR. It is one of the most destitute countries on earth. A mere 50 km separate the typically western African capital of Ouagadougou from Noungou, a village that’s a world apart: here there is neither electricity nor running water. And you can forget about cars. Transportation consists of donkeys, bicycles and a handful of small motorbikes.
This is where our team of 7 was tasked with bringing to life a new visual language and content for the new donation campaign through photos and film; months of work had already gone into the project as part of a collaboration with Hamburg-based agency Kolle Rebbe.
“The world is full of good ideas. Let them thrive.”
This motto conveys a sense of hope and confidence – and that’s precisely what we want to visualize through our images. In what Europeans would consider a precarious way of life, we have discovered wonderful people and a functioning community. That said, the mud-and-straw huts are no match for the rain that abounds at this time of year, and knowledge about storage methods, e.g. for onions, is lacking. This is where the aid campaign comes in.
In the first few days we more or less put our cameras to one side, instead focusing primarily on getting to know our environs and the locals and also gave them the opportunity to get to know us and our project in a calm, relaxed atmosphere. We also adapted the visual language and the content of the campaign to the local conditions. As there is only very little contact to western civilization here in the village, we were definitely perceived as an alien presence. We felt even more like outsiders on account of our photography and illumination equipment, the likes of which the villagers had never set eyes on before.
I am an advocate of capturing the environment as well as my subjects: when I work with professional models at advertising shoots, a considerable amount of my work comprises portraits of real people in their natural environment. By and large, I use my ALPA MAX camera with its LEAF medium-format digital back in conjunction with a tripod. This is a slow, controlled technique that enables me to compose an image and offers the subject plenty of freedom to move around and act natural in the frame. I call this “staged reality.” Tethered shooting allows me to actively determine image composition and content and expose a 9x stitch – even without a subject – in order to provide the graphic designer with ample scope for all reproduction formats.
While the film team focused on the moving pictures on the other days, I was out trying to convey what life is like in the village. I photographed people’s daily routine, the lush nature, the farmers tending to their fields, the pace of family life. In so doing I spent several days away from my team, speaking to the villagers from morning to night, and as such was able to earn their respect. My aim is for the villagers to become accustomed to me and my camera, so much so that we blend into the background. Even if this is difficult in light of their welcoming nature and our mutual curiosity, I try not to distract them too much in the way I conduct myself. That’s the best way to capture authentic moments.
I deliberately work very slowly when it comes to journalistic photography; I use little exposure and ensure graphic image composition. This allows me to bring clarity and calmness to this lush, foreign environment, and not be disruptive, thereby leaving the dignity of my subjects intact.
For journalistic photography, my usual camera of choice is a digital rangefinder with focal lengths of 18–75 mm. Due to our tough journey and limited budget, however, we were unable to take two sets of all the equipment with us, and because finding the equipment in the country is impossible, I opted to use the Sony α7RII, which had been launched in Germany just a few weeks beforehand. This camera has the resolution I need meaning I can use it in place of the ALPA to capture the key visual with sufficient resolution if required. It also doubles as a backup for our professional video camera thanks to its neat filming features. Thankfully, neither approach proved necessary. Plus, I can adapt my LEICA M-Lens.
On this trip, I also had the chance to try out two ZEISS Batis fixed focal lengths. In the end, I took almost all my photos with the Batis 2/25 and the Batis 1.8/85. The quiet and precise autofocus performed especially well in poor light conditions, and the image stabilization in the 85 mm lens particularly impressed me as it enabled me to capture images that were not possible in the past. A good example of this is the nighttime shot of the two huts, each lit up by nothing more than one small LED.