a photographer’s lament

Let me be blunt.  Taking pictures in Cameroon can be a major pain in the ass.

A little over a week ago you saw some of my photos from the Ngoun Festival.   While I’m glad they’re now resting comfortably on my hard-drive, sometimes I can’t help but wonder whether the hassle to get them was worth it!

Hey!  Where’s your official photographer access badge?, asked a power-hungry yellow blimp of a man?

a power-hungry yellow blimp of a man

Access card? I don’t need one because I am an invited guest of the Sultan, I replied.

I’m the chief of marketing for the festival – anyone who takes a picture here needs to buy a card from me.

But I’m not working – the pictures are just for my pleasure, I countered.

So what? Without an access card I can take your fancy camera away!

Calling his bluff, I looked him in the eyes and bluntly said, “Just try it!”

Then I walked away.

He could have followed, harassing me further, but he probably knew he wouldn’t be rewarded for making a scene with one of the Sultan’s invited guests.  Instead he moved on to harass more naïve tourists who dared to aim a tiny point-and-shoot at resplendent traditional chiefs who posed regally.

My nightmare in shades of yellow helps spell out one reason why my photographic output has dipped precariously since we came to Cameroon.  In fact, I haven’t taken so few photographs in years.  Here are a few more lessons I have learned that will hopefully help others hit the ground snapping away while volunteering (or visiting) in Cameroon!

  • Ixnay on the overmentgay! Anything related to the government is a touchy subject – ministry buildings, train stations, prisons, gendarme (police) shacks, bridges, airports, military training facilities. Caroline is really desperate to photograph an army guard-post here in Yaoundé that is decked out like a soldier’s camouflage combat helmet.
  • Show me the money! If you’re taking pictures of people they’ll assume you’re going to sell the image.  So they’ll either say no or ask for money.  The developing world has seen many unscrupulous photographers export pictures much like mining companies extract countries mineral wealth – the profits rarely go to locals.  I even got asked to pay for a picture of some plantains at the market!  Perhaps a new meaning for the term “cash crop?”
  • A game of musical motos. Getting to and from a photo shoot can complicated. I am always careful about who follows me with my “fancy” camera. I don’t worry about my camera being ripped from my grip while shooting in a public place.  However, someone could easily follow me home and break in when the camera is unattended.  My solution?  When leaving a photo shoot in Maroua I’d jump on a mototaxi, take it to some random spot, get off and then immediately grab another one home.
  • A-TEN-TION! Parades are the bread and butter of photographers and Cameroonians love to parade – Women strutting by in rich textiles, children marching fiercely, banners extolling the wisdom of the omni-presently absent President or First Lady.  The parade wouldn’t be the same if gendarmes weren’t on the prowl for tourists illicitly taking pictures of these “government events”!  Our fellow-CUSO-VSO volunteer Maxime got caught during Cameroon’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Maroua (May 20th). He snapped away – a regime-threatening act? –  and was told his camera could be confiscated.  He hung onto his gear, paying a 1000francs ($2) to the gendarme who then became Maxime’s “best friend” for the rest of his time in Cameroon!
  • Hide! The beach boys are coming! I’m often afraid of showing my camera.  Wandering about with even a small digital camera draws lots of attention.  Picture necks whipping around and eyes bulging when my monster DSLR emerges from its case. Buying a camera represents an unimaginable outlay of cash for many Cameroonians.  At $400 an average point-and-shoot costs more than most families in the Far North earn in a YEAR! Obviously not all Cameroonians are out to steal it – not even close!!  But, it is a big risk to walk around with something so valuable.  Maybe those beach boys on Kribi’s shores aren’t only looking to score a visa by winning a foreign bride?  Maybe they’re looking for cameras to pay for the wedding!
  • It’s who you know. Relationships matter big-time here so it’s much better if you’re taking pictures of people you know or of a development project you (or your colleagues) are working on.  People – especially children – literally fall over each other to get photographed when you’re not some weirdo from a foreign land who just shows up and starts shooting!
  • Weather permitting?! Not many desert or tropical travel destinations can offer endless dust AND mold-breeding humidity.  Cameroon can!  Depending on which part of the country you’re in, the weather in this Africa in Miniature promises either scratched lenses or moldy camera mechanisms.  So, gallon-size Ziploc bags and sachets of moisture-sucking silicon crystal are essential storage equipment.  Ignore this and you’ll definitely need get a job after volunteering – to get money to buy a new camera!

Photography can really be a big pain the ass in Cameroon, but I don’t regret bringing my camera for a second!

 

 

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~ by Greg Spira on December 19, 2010.

2 Responses to “a photographer’s lament”

  1. The balloon has just burst ! But I’m glad you shared the realities of photo taking in Cameroon.

  2. Hey Greg! I just shared this post with another photographer friend who is thinking of heading your way with VSO. As for me, reading your posts has rekindled my curiosity too. Thanks for keeping up the blog – great work.

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