Africa, Islands
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The girl in the doorway

There are some scenes that are a little uncomfortable to photograph. Sometimes even write about. For different reasons, I find the Darajani Market in Stonetown, Zanzibar one of those scenes. The writing comes more easily, but the process, the moment of capturing it all on camera not so much…

There is the dead fish problem. This is not a metaphor. It’s not that people with vegan-leanings shouldn’t go to fish markets; it’s just that photographing the departed is never easy. Whatever they are. There is also the matter of people. Photographing people who haven’t offered themselves up for photographing feels sneaky. Wrong. I can feel it in my blood and bones. This probably is a metaphor.

The point is to take some kind of “natural” photo, not posed, but the minute permission is requested, the subject stiffens or smiles or shows off.

There’s also the problem of why.

Why am I taking this person’s image? What am I saying in the image? What am I saying about the person I’ve photographed to the person who will see the image? My perceptions will likely show up in the shot. What are those perceptions and are they right? Can the image be incorrectly judged and perceived by the viewer to distort my perception? These are the spanners in the works of art.

Still, as a photojournalist, the mission is to capture the scene. The on-the-ground moments. The stories unravelling, the life, the lives. The mission is to photograph the dead fish. The mission is to capture the people. Excluding them both omits them from the retelling of reality. Mission failed.

So I lift my camera to the pearl white octopus curled up sweetly with its tentacles, as though night and not death has arrived. I lift it up over the counter of fish bigger than those I’ve ever seen in the great oceans and click, taking home a glimpse of those blue spots on red flesh and black dots on yellow edgings.

You feel too much, I can hear my parents, an ocean away, saying.

This is how people make their living, feed their families, eat, survive. This is the circle of life. The beautiful, natural, circle of life.

I capture an image of a fisherman passed out, sitting on the cold table top, his knife laid down beside him. I can feel his fatigue. I am grateful his eyes are closed. I capture a fruit seller cross-legged on the counter beside his carrots and aubergines, as though with friends at a gathering. I have brought you all here today…. I catch the glances of men, women and children walking past, a look head on, a glance to the side. Women exchanging shillings. A man chopping and tying bunches of danya.

Sometimes I divorce the hands from the people, zoom in on the fingers, the fruit and vegetables, the herbs, the coffee beans and tea leaves. But the bigger picture is what’s important.

I am not the first photographer here. I remember that. Tourists come for sightseeing. They don’t think about the process. Or about what their images mean. I remember that, but our mission is different.

The meat market I move through faster, but to be honest, it fascinates me the most. There is something that looks like a tail, the hair removed, the body removed, just a bare, naked tail. I have never seen this before. Nor have I seen the next sight: a bull head. Just the head. The hair still intact, along with the ears, but a cross-section of the neck is revealed. The man behind the counter thinks I want to purchase it. I’m getting too close, I realise. I step back. I lift my camera to the air and make some kind of face that I imagine asks, May I? The sellers always nod, sometimes I get a smile. But a nod is all I need. I zoom in. Click. I’m unlikely to ever share these images, but I keep clicking. Because now, I am fascinated.

There are furry cloths hanging from a hook. The man sees my puzzlement and says, stomach.

I move on, into the spice market. The alleyways are thick with people. Behind the camera here, I suddenly feel invisible. Obscured. Lost. I photograph a man sitting high up between bags of wheat flour and grain, a scale in front of him. A mix of patterns and colours and shapes fills the scene. I’m not sure what any of the items on the shelves behind him are. I don’t recognise the packaging. I am not at my grocery store back home. I am in Zanzibar and the writing… is it Arabic?

Beautiful bunches of brimming-with-life green herbs lie together atop stacked boxes. I photograph them when really I want to run the top my hand across their silky bodies. Nutty brown coconuts pass between hands. Brightness everywhere. Red and green chillies. Thick branches of ripe and unripe bananas. An old man sitting between them, his hands together, fingers crossed, in his lap, looking down. And then beside him, I see it in the image only later, back home, a man on the phone with his hand over his face. I want to apologise to him.

The next images are all herbs and spices: star anise, saffron, turmeric, ylang ylang, cinnamon, ginger powder, lemongrass. Willing subjects. And then I hit a section of the market, where the light starts to peep in from where the canopied stalls end: men smiling. I lift the camera, more smiles. Oh, bless you, I think. I imagine myself in their shoes and I know a smile wouldn’t come as easily.

But I get it all: a taste of real life in Stonetown, Zanzibar. A man with his feet up, reading a soccer newspaper. A man extracting peas from their pods in a basket on the seat of a scooter.

We are on the street now, exiting the market and making our way through the winding road that leads, eventually, to the waterfront. We pass women and men in the traditional Muslim hijabs and jilbabs, a cat with plastic wrapped around its neck as a collar, bicycles, scooters, every pattern of sarong and fez, and then the shot that gets me: the girl. The girl in the doorway.

Standing there, with her white and red dress and her little eyes peering out of the shadows. And the dark wood, fine carvings and gold bolts of the Arabic doors. I don’t ask for permission. I take the shot. She runs inside. She runs back out. Looks left, looks right. Runs back inside. Eight shots. She is all I want to photograph, her and that door. The most exquisite of all the doors I see that morning in Stonetown. The most exquisite girl. Soft face, curious eyes.

And in her eyes and the older woman in the background, in the bottles and jars of preserved fruits on the doorstep, in the doorway and the dark room behind it… I see the bigger picture.

The girl re-emerges and I wave, trying to take the next step. In the hopes of getting the whole picture.

Jambo, habari gani? Hello, how are you?

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