Ghana, 2002

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve self-rule from colonial powers, in 1957. A professor I traveled with, who grew up in a small village in Burkina Faso, said he recalled from his youth the word “Ghana” being synonymous with the height of technology. Such was not the case in 2002, though it is far more developed than many other African nations. I did find it richer in generosity than anywhere I have traveled.

A student on our trip grew up in Zimbabwe, and many others kept turning to her before our arrival for questions on what we would experience in Ghana. She knew no more about this land than the average American would know about the daily life of Guatemalans. Beyond a simple textbook understanding, it dawned on me for the first time in my life that Africa is a continent, not a nation. To tell someone that I am “going to Africa” is a generalization in itself. There are many more details to be learned about specific geography, culture, history. I learned a handful of these specifics in breakfasts of mangoes, listening to the Ewe language, Club Beer, the friendly spirit of bartering, and an unforgettable walk through Elmina Castle.

As a photographer, I learned much about responsibility and intention. The willingness of people to be photographed enabled me to shoot over 2000 negatives in four weeks’ time. But before long, a feeling of unease set in. It is easy to photograph another culture and pat yourself on the back because it looks like something you’ve seen in National Geographic. I found that a month was not long enough to hone down a message. Really a photographer needs a month alone to meet people and gain trust – without even a camera in sight. To begin to shoot as soon as your foot steps off the bus is an invasive act. I aimed to work between these two methods as much as time would allow – attempting to communicate first, always asking permission, but simply documenting and seeking dynamic composition or expression. I found that if I am to be judged exploitative, I am done so even in light of telling you my story. So I plead nothing but sincerity, and hope these images provide something of value.