There is a particular part of the city of Cotonou called Akpakpa (pronounced Ah-papa) that sits right along the sea and is home to some of the poorest in the city. Their houses range from humble concrete structures to little more than tin roofed shacks, most built directly on the sand. Wells are spotted throughout the dense quarter, providing relatively fresh (though questionabley clean) water just a foot below the sand. The narrow streets accomodate both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and are often flooded if not littered with major puddles. Lining these sand packed streets are homes, store fronts, and stalls selling a range of fried goods, rice and pate with fish and a red sauce, and of course pinneapples and mangos.
It is the people that live in this place that are the focus of the documentary that I am working on. Some are fishermen, some are mothers who carry their goods on their head and walk the streets all day, some sit perched over a fire and sell food, some buy used cloth and sew new clothes from it, some drive moto taxis around the city, and yet others are still in school or have hopes to continue their education.
I have spent some time with several different families learning about their particular situations. While some speak French, many are illiterate and because they did not attend school they do not speak French. Leontine (the wife of the pastor who initially helped situated us) has been helping me with translation from their native language of Fon. This leads me into the various challenges that Ive been facing as I try to apply what I learned about the documentary process at the SALT institute (salt.edu) this past spring to this situation.
In brief (and maybe of more interest to my classmates)
-how do you photograph a "natural" situation with a translator, this is especially problematic when their is very little space inside any of the homes. And how do you keep the translator from boredom when you want to spend a really long time there.
-how to effectively explain what the goal of photo documentary is when a) people assume you are taking their photo to sell it, b) they pose for photos, c) you want to spend alot more time with them than they would ever expect
-you are the only "yovo" (white person) in the area, and so always draw the attention of a gaggle of kids who want to be photographed as a group, not exactly the kind of photo Im going for
-you are photographing people who have an extensive and complicated social, religious, and political network that you need to navigate
I spent the morning with a particular family, and was able to move past the posing stage, a bit of the show and tell stage, and the initial discomfort with the constant presence of my large camera. I plan to focus on a sevral families, in hopes of capturing a bit of the larger picture.